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East: Analysis From Washington -- Chornobyl's Continuing Political Fallout

Washington, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Fourteen years ago today, an explosion and fire at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine spread a cloud of radioactive fallout over a large part of Eastern Europe and triggered a series of political developments which continue today.

On that day, the explosion of the no. 4 reactor sent radioactive dust over the Western portions of what was then the Soviet Union as well as over its East European satellites.

Initially, Soviet officials reacted as they always did before, first with silence and then with denial. But because the radioactivity also spread to Western Europe and because Soviet authorities were unable to prevent people in its empire from learning the facts about the accident, Moscow changed its approach and began to release some information about the tragedy.

That marked the real beginning of "glasnost," the policy of openness that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used to defeat his conservative opponents but also one that made a major contribution to the destruction of the country over which he and the Communist Party ruled.

At the time, that political fallout of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster attracted almost as much attention as the radioactive kind. But since then, its medical impact--the increased incidence of cancers among those exposed, the mounting number of deaths, and the continuing environmental degradation--has attracted most of the attention. Given the scope of these medical consequences, that is entirely appropriate. But just as was the case 14 years ago, the Chornobyl disaster continues to have three kinds of political fallout which still affect both the people and the governments of this region.

First of all, the Chornobyl accident remains in the minds of many as a symbol of Moscow's insensitivity to the dangers of nuclear power and its willingness to put Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others at particular risk. Only a few weeks before the accident, Soviet authorities gave a cash award to an engineer in Belarus who said that Soviet reactors were so safe that there was no need to build containment walls around them. And at the time of the accident, Moscow had concentrated nuclear power plants in Ukraine, Belarus, and western portions of the Russian Federation.

Ostensibly, Moscow did so to position itself to sell electricity to its East European satellites, but many in Ukraine and Belarus have said that they believed Moscow chose to do so to put Ukrainians and Belarusians at risk should something go wrong.

Both Moscow's handling of the accident at the time and its unwillingness to help out significantly with the consequences of the accident have only further deepened the anger of many Ukrainians at what they see as the latest example of a Russian policy directed at them. Second, Western Europe's insistence that Ukraine close down Chornobyl and its unwillingness to provide the assistance Kyiv believes necessary to create an alternative source of power have infuriated many in Ukraine and in Belarus who expected that the West would help them to recover from this most dramatic of Soviet-era disasters on their territory.

No Ukrainian politician suffered as much from this combination of Western insistence and failure to pay as did former Belarusian President Stanislau Shushkevich, a nuclear physicist who exposed Soviet duplicity on Chornobyl in his republic and who campaigned on the expectation that the West would help him clean up this disaster.

But the doubts many Ukrainian leaders already had about the willingness of the West to help were only exacerbated by this series of events, and these doubts in turn have affected the attitudes these Ukrainian leaders have adopted on other issues as well.

And third, the Ukrainian authorities themselves have suffered a loss of popular support because of their failure to find the funds to help overcome the Chornobyl disaster. Ukrainian officials say that they need to spend approximately $830 million a year just to help the victims of Chornobyl but that they have only $290 million in this year's budget to do so.

As a result--and unless something is done soon--ever more Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others are likely to be angry not only at Moscow and at the West but at Kyiv as well, a pattern of political fallout that does not bode well for either the Ukrainian government or the Ukrainian people in the future.