In 2014 an administrative reform, which focused on the decentralization of power, transferring it to the local level, started in Ukraine. But due to neoliberal politics, dictated by the International Monetary Fund, a large number of hospitals, polyclinics, schools and others institutions, which had previously been financed by the state budget, were transferred under the financial administration of local authorities, resulting in their reduction. The reorganization of the adult polyclinic in the city of Romny (in Sumy Oblast – a province in the northeastern part of Ukraine) led to a confrontation between its staff and the local authorities which lasted 5 months and included a workers’ hunger strike and an attempt at a raider attack. It culminated in a seven-day journey on foot by medical workers from Romny to Kyiv. This report by Political Critique Ukraine journalist Sergey Movchan covers the four days that he spent with the medical workers.
The square in front of the city council of Romny is almost deserted in the evening. While going home, officials are trying to avoid the area, actively using the back entrance, so as not to be caught by the eyes of the protesters, who have set up camp in the square. The city is small, everyone knows everyone, although only a few dare to look into the eyes of the protesters. It is said that during the previous protest action, the mayor of the city, Sergey Salatun, was caught near the back entrance trying to leave the building without being noticed and was then brought to the protesters. However, this time there is no such occurence. He has gone on a trip to Slovakia to represent his city at the Mayor’s Football Cup, whilst failing to acknowledge the hunger strike declared by the workers of the polyclinic in Romny.
The hunger strike is the second to last step taken by the medics. They had been pushed to such extreme measures of protest during the 4-month fight to save their polyclinic, the reorganization of which was announced on 27 November 2015, without any consultations with the staff. According to the decision of the City Council, the facilities and equipment of the polyclinic areto be transferred under the management of the Central district hospital (CDH), yet not a single position has been made available to any of the 50 members of staff from the polyclinic in this new institution. The staff were encouraged to resign on their own accord, without any redundancy payments or guarantees of further employment – a proposal they chose to reject. Since the 1st of January, the polyclinic no longer falls under the governmental budget, but it has not been closed down, and instead has continued to provide healthcare to patients through medical personnel who are not recieving other financial help. These medical workers are yet to receive their salaries. It has now been four and a half months. If their demands are not met, they are prepared to walk 280 km to Kyiv, which would be the first journey on foot of medical workers in the history of Ukraine.
The majority of the protesters are women. They are sitting on stools bought from home at a market stand hung with banners, and they discuss plans for the next day and repeatedly recount the story of their misadventures to people like myself.
“At first, we thought that the authorites would agree to have a dialogue, we tried to write them letters!” – says a masseur from the polyclinic, Vyacheslav Prokopenko. “But then at the end of January the attempt at a raider seizure took place. We were warned about it in advance, so we came to work at 6 o’clock in the morning. Suddenly, at 7 o’clock the police came in, 12 officers, followed by “Griffin” , a special unit from Sumy. There were so many of them against us: we only had 30 women and 4 men. This time we succeeded in defending the polyclinic, but we realized that we would not be able to achieve our legitimate rights peacefully. We needed to protest to be heard.”
“One could write a book about us, not just a report!” – the medical workers say as they tell me about the funding for the reorganization of the polyclinic, provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Healthcare, which had not been used for its designated purpose. They tell me about the children’s (pediatric) polyclinic, the creation of which was the reason for their polyclinic being taken out of the Ministry of Infrastructure’s remit. The whole city was collecting signatures for the establishment of this children’s polyclinic, but the authorities soon forgot about the whole thing (“And who told you that there will be this children’s polyclinic?”). They speak of the plans of the head doctor of the Central District Hospital (CDH) to expand it at the expense of their institution, thereby eliminating competition. According to the protesters the majority of the members of the appointed “reorganization commission”, including its head, are members of staff at the CDH.
The main question of the evening is what they need to take on the road. They are all determined to start the hiking protest tomorrow after the rally.
The meeting was scheduled for 11am, but its participants met already at 7am. They hung banners demanding to stop the liquidation of the polyclinic and to pay them their salaries. There was also an improvised medical station, where everyone could measure their blood pressure and consult a therapist. Despite the forthcoming journey, the majority of the protesters had not ceased their hunger strike.
By 9am the city hall comes to life: officials and MPs start to flock to it for an operative meeting. “I do not care about them!” – answers the deputy of the Radical Party, Oleg Stogniy, in a fit of anger. In fact this expresses the general attitude of the deputies towards the issue of the polyclinic. The head doctor at the District Dental Clinic, Nina Boryak, says that she feels sorry for the dentists, but at the same time, she accused the participants of the protest of “raising a scandal in the whole of Ukraine”. Although Valentina Gun’kova, head doctor of the Central District Hospital, whose name had become well-known to the staff of the polyclinic, proved to be even more controversial. According to her, the decision to transfer the property of the polyclinic to the management of the CDH, as well as the decision to create in its place a children’s polyclinic was adopted by the City Council. Equally she states that 12 positions were proposed to the staff of the polyclinic, to which they were to be automatically transferred, if they so desired. She considered the only reason for the conflict the actions of the administration of the polyclinic and an unwillingness to work.
“Syeroja, yes? Look, I can offer you the position of deputy director. But it’s a spoken agreement. In reality, in written form, no one proposed anything to us” – said masseur Vyacheslav in response to Gun’kova words.
“If you move us to your clinic, than you must include us on the staff list. So, this means admitting us to these positions automatically. But they told us instead: “Quit on your own accord girls, and come apply for the job” – adds personnel manager Natalya Protsenko.
“You could even go right now to the district hospital (Central district hospital — Ed.) and ask the people, how long does it take to wait in a queue?” – proposes Vyacheslav. So I decided to use the time before the beginning of the rally to go to the Central District Hospital. Here, there were loads of people, though not many more than in most polyclinics in Ukraine. “Who was the last in consulting room №14? Tell me, does the queue move quickly?” – I asked.
At the X-ray room a man boasts about his own life hack: “I came here on Saturday, when there was no one, and everything was done in 5 minutes.”
It starts to rain. At 11am – the official start time of the event – about a hundred people who supported the demands of the demonstrators, are gathering in the square, and after a few speeches people start to block the road. Cutting off the sidewalks on both sides of the central square, the protesters are blocking it completely: local policeman who are unaccostumed to such forms of protest seem to be totally astonished.
“They have blocked the roads; I can do nothing about it!” – they say through their transceivers. The appearance of the head of the Romny Police hardly changes the situation: the area remains locked as long as the medical workers are not told that the Deputy Governor is coming to meet them.
Before the beginning of the rally an overweight man in an expensive suit appears in the square; he demands “to talk to the chief”. So with only a four month delay, the city prosecutor’s office represented by the acting city attorney of Romny – Anatoly Grytsenko – finally remembered the problems of the medical workers. In a conversation with the head physician of the polyclinic, he admits that mistakes were made in the course of the reorganization, and promises to figure everything out and to punish those who are culpable.
Two more “suits” come out of a car – it is the head of the Department of Health in Sumy Oblast, Sergey Butenko, and the Deputy Governor, Ivan Semenovich Borosh. In every way possible the officials try to show their confidence and focus on gaining results to help all the underprivileged as of today. They even offer the protesters to go with them into the building of the City Council for negotiations. “You own this building, as a community, so, come in!” – states Borosh. But although people come up to the second floor of the City Hall, a meeting in the office of the Deputy Mayor takes place without them.
Half an hour later, the officials come out of the offices, bringing good news: all the problems are solved! The Deputy Governor has promised that on Thursday, all councillors would convene for an extraordinary session and would take a decision in favour of the staff: the polyclinic would be returned to the financing network, wage debts would be covered by a lump sum, positions would be saved, and those who didn’t want to continue working would be made redundant in accordance with the correct procedure or would be transferred to a new workplace. The prosecutor’s office would investigate who is to blame for what has happened. The Deputy Governor as well as the head of the Department of Health in Sumy Oblast decisively discarded the skepticism of medical workers about the willingness of deputies, who were openly mocking them up to this point, to make a decision. They both evaluted the chances of a positive solution at 99%. During these communications, Ivan Semenovich tries, in every way, to align himself with the audience, talking about the difficult years of work in the North, where he earned his money to be able to buy his suit and car. But he still manages to offend occasionally by questioning someone’s lack of money or showing ignorance towards real wages (the salary of a nurse in the polyclinic is 1300 UAH, which is 46 euros).
It becomes clear that today no one is going to start a journey on foot to Kyiv, but people are more and more suspicious that the authorities are trying to “buy out” the staff who were protesting. The fear is that despite all the assurances of the regional authorities, MPs were not going to vote for this decision. What is especially unclear is the fate of the institution itself. At the evening meeting within the walls of the polyclinicm there is a noisy atmosphere. The women are talking over each other. However a difficult decision is made: to start the journey to Kyiv in the morning, without waiting for the councillors’ session.
“Today we witnessed a historic moment with the refusal to reduce the conflict to purely monetary issues and a readiness to defend the human collective and professional dignity, which is yet an atypical phenomenon for modern Ukraine” – says Fyodor Ustinov, activist of “Social Movement”, who has been with the medics since the beginning of the protests and expressed the hope that their story will serve as an example for other employees.
The third day of my trip and the first day of the journey on foot was to my surprise warm and sunny. With backpacks and bags full of supplies, we gather near the walls of the clinic. All are adamant that the authorities would back down; all we need is to increase the pressure. “Let them bring us the decision of the session, then we’ll go back!”- is a popular opinion. Despite the determination, the medical staff are still hoping to resolve the issue by the next day. Kyiv, after all, is far away, and some have children at home, whilst others are elderly.
In the morning, Sergey Butenko arrives, trying to persuade the doctors not to go anywhere, which only fuels the desire of the medics to move forward. For a long time, no one here has believed the officials and they are suspicious of their sudden interest which has appeared after four months of indifference. Calls from the councillors voicing full support for the protesters only confirm this. By this time – to go to Kyiv or not to go – is no longer a question.
We pass through the city with the slogan “Jobs! Salary! Officials go to jail!” which catches the suprised glances of passersby. Much of what is happening these days is going on here for the first time. We make two stops: at the City Council, where, according to the rumors, the newly appointed Governor of Sumy Oblast is staying and at the court, where we bring libel action against the head physician of the polyclinic, Vladimir Zinkov. Then we move out onto the highway to Pyriatyn and leave Romny.
Each settlement which we pass is a frontier! A collective picture taken near the road sign indicating the end of each village becomes an obligatory ritual. And at the entrances to villages, we shout again and again – “Hungry doctors, ill country”. We are trying to engage in dialogue with local residents, for which we find support. In Bobryk we are accompanied by two nurses from the local outpatient clinic. Pensioner and former worker of the Belovody railway station, “Aunt Natasha”, touchingly remembers that she had repeatedly visited the polyclinic. Residents of the village Perekopovka ask us if when we arrive in Kyiv, we can tell them that the only pharmacy in the village has been closed and now the whole village is cursing the authorities.
The journey on foot doesn’t come easily to everyone. Some of its participants are already of retirement age, and our column is stretching out. The few cars accompanying us sometimes drive up to those who dropped behind to help them catch up again with the group. Even a policeman in a white “Niva”  appointed to us, who at first was trying to keep out of sight, makes friends with everyone and assists the slower walkers. In the evening one of the participants of the journey falls ill due to fatigue. But having walked almost 30 kilometers during the first day, we all reach the place of our overnight stay – the house of the mother of Oksana, a radiologist and laboratory assistant, where there were are hot meals waiting for us.
It is much more difficult to walk after the shock of the 30 km of the first day. But what is even more difficult is to endure the waiting: at 10am, the extraordinary session of the City Council begins, which will decide the fate of the polyclinic, and most of the medical workers set great hopes on it. During the previous day it became more than obvious how difficult it was to get to Kyiv on foot and almost all seem to be reluctant to finish the route. Additionally weather forecasts predict rain for the upcoming days.
We cross the border of Sumy Oblast, triumphantly entering Poltava Oblast, but at the 40th kilometer of the journey, we are hit with disappointing news. The decision has been made. The polyclinic would be completely eliminated (previously it was only a question of reorganization) without any guarantees for the payment of wages and employment of the staff. Stamps, financial and personnel documents must be handed over to the liquidation committee within three days. There is also a separate item: a decision to apply to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service and Prosecutor’s Office in order to investigate the question of instituting proceedings over the administration of polyclinics. No one expected such a shock.
The chief accountant of the polyclinic, Lyubov’ Pyryatinets, and nurse Ludmila Vahova, who were present at the meeting, tell us on the phone that 21 deputies had voted “For” and 3 MPs abstained. The decision was accompanied by a storm of applause. According to them, the Deputy Governor Ivan Boros, who had promised a few days ago to solve all the issues in favour of the medical workers, and who also attended the meeting, had only just repeated that everything must be investigated by the prosecutor’s office. Meanwhile the acting city attorney of Romny – Anatoly Grytsenko – promised to conduct an audit of the polyclinic to “understand what they were doing there during these months”. The last hope to find a solution to this problem on the level of local or regional authorities had failed.
The news is a hard blow for everyone. No one had expected that everything would be so bad, and it certainly affected the group’s morale. For almost an hour we decide what to do next. The desire to go back and return home is stronger than ever. But, as has often happened here, amongst the hysterical voices and emotions a consensus emerges: it is clear that we can’t return to Romny. It is also evident that we should go ahead; knock at the doors of the high offices of Kyiv and seek the truth. So, after sending a video message to the President, the Speaker of the Cabinet of Ministers and People’s Deputies of the Parliament of Ukraine, Verkhovna Rada, the group of protestors starts to walk on.
I have to leave at the end of the fourth day, so my story ends here. But the story of the medical workers from a small centre in the district of Sumy Oblast, who have decided to fight to the end, continues. Right now, when you read this, they have overcome kilometer after kilometer, coming nearer and nearer to Kyiv. Their story is not over yet, but it is not unique. In every village, town, city, wherever we are, we see the same situations: the elimination of health facilities, the closure of schools, worker displacement, and the cancellation of social programmes. “Reforms”, “optimizations”, the establishment of “market relations”, which are pursued by the authorities, fall onto the shoulders of the working people in the broadest sense of the word. Although this story has happened far from you, the hero of the next story could be any of us.
On the 24 May, the seventh day of the foot journey, the group of medical workers reached Kyiv, where, together with Kyiv activists, they held a rally in front of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, demanding a conversation with the Prime Minister, Vladimir Groisman. The meeting did not take place, but the protests lasted four days, and included a few attempts to set up a tent near the building of the Cabinet which led to a confrontation with the police. As a result of the protests, the Ukrainian Ministry of Healthcare initiated the establishment of a special commission to investigate the elimination of the polyclinic; the salary debt was promised to be paid. On 7 July, at a regular session of the city council of Romny, a decision was made to allocate 1.1 million UAH to pay the overdue wages to the medical workers of the Romny outpatient clinic. Thus, the key demands of the collective of medical workers were fulfilled.
 Griffin (“Грифон”) – a special unit of the judicial police of the MIA of Ukraine, which is tasked with ensuring the security of court employees who are involved in high-profile cases at the hearing, their family members and relatives, as well as participants in the trial. After the creation of the National Police, this special unit is in a state of dissolution.
 “Niva” (Lada Niva or VAZ-2121) – is an off-road vehicle designed and produced by the Russian (former Soviet) manufacturer AvtoVAZ.
Photos by Sergey Movchan.
Translated by Nataliia Lomonosova.