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Belarus: Sixteen Years Later, Chornobyl Legacy Lives On

Sixteen years have passed since the Chornobyl nuclear-power-plant disaster -- considered history's worst nuclear accident -- but the event is still affecting the lives of millions of people in Belarus. It is Belarus, not Ukraine, that received the majority of the nuclear fallout and continues to bear the greatest burden in recovering from the accident. How do Belarusian scientists and politicians view the present situation? And how does Belarus's increasing isolation from the Western world affect its ability to cope with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster?

Prague, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly 25 percent of Belarus is contaminated by radioactivity -- the grim legacy of the Chornobyl nuclear-power-plant disaster in April 1986. To this day, a 1,700-square-kilometer zone remains completely evacuated, surrounded by barbed wire and under police guard. But the contamination spreads far beyond the containment zone. In a country of 10 million, one out of every five residents has been affected by the accident. Belarusian scientists say the country received 70 percent of the fallout from the Chornobyl accident.

Vincuk Viacorka heads the Belarusian Popular Front opposition group, which for the past several years has organized protest rallies to mark the 26 April anniversary of the Chornobyl accident. He says that nearly 140,000 Belarusians continue to live in territories where radiation levels top 15 curies of cesium per square kilometer. (In Europe, the average radiation level is less than 1 curie per square kilometer.) Russia and Ukraine have both evacuated residents from such areas long ago. As many as 12,000 people are projected to develop thyroid cancer over the coming years, the majority of whom will be Belarusians.

The result is a continuing humanitarian crisis that is set to grow even more dire as Belarus further isolates itself from the West and international sources of aid.

Some critics within Belarus say the West, in focusing on the country's poor democracy-building record, have allowed badly needed aid and other forms of support to dwindle. But Viacorka argues that the Belarusian government itself hinders help coming from abroad. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka passed legislation requiring the registration of all humanitarian organizations operating in Belarus.

Two years ago, Jurij Bandazheuski, the rector of the medical institute in Gomel -- a city located several kilometers from the radioactive zone -- was accused of bribery and jailed. Human-rights groups say no evidence was presented during the trial of the prominent scientist, who at the time of his arrest was investigating the incidence of cancer in contaminated areas. They continue to demand his release.

Viacorka said that since Lukashenka consolidated his power in 1996 -- launching a constitutional referendum to expand his powers and extend his term in office without an election -- the authorities have softened control of high-contamination regions. People are not prohibited from settling in radioactive zones, and in some regions the state has even encouraged agricultural activity.

"The production of food continues. It means that grain and meat are produced in the contaminated areas. The products are used by the entire Belarusian population," Viacorka said.

Ruza Goncharova, a professor with the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, has been investigating the country's radioactive regions since 1986. She said radioactivity levels in many food products violate Belarusian safety standards, which are already lower than safety standards in Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, she says, food produced in contaminated areas is given no special packaging or labels to warn consumers of its origin.

Goncharova said she is opposed to any food being produced in the contaminated areas. But she said there must be ways for people living in such regions to earn a living, and that it is the government's responsibility to stimulate economic activity without putting the health of the entire country at risk -- a sentiment echoed recently by United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kenzo Oshima, who appealed to the international community to move from simply supplying humanitarian aid to supporting what he called "social development."

Goncharova told RFE/RL: "We must create good living conditions for people who live in the contaminated regions such as those created in Japan [after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. But it doesn't happen. I think there should be no active agricultural activity here. The entire economy needs a new profile. It's a pity no one is working in this direction. What is even more strange is that they started cultivating rape [a plant used for fodder and for the production of rapeseed oil] here."

Goncharova said Belarusian authorities apply a double standard in dealing with the country's contaminated regions -- appealing to the West for help while assuring residents the situation is under control and that many of the radioactive zones are now safe to live in.

Viktor Kornijenko, a Chornobyl activist living in Gomel, says many of Belarus's contaminated zones are becoming newly populated by refugees from the former Soviet republics. Many of these immigrants enter the country illegally, but the Belarusian authorities often turn a blind eye as long as they are living in the radioactive zones. He said, "For those people, the problem of radiation doesn't seem as serious as war, and they think they have practically found a paradise on earth here." Some refugees, he adds, have even settled within the 1,700-square-kilometer containment zone.

Stanislau Shuskevich, the former chairman of the Belarus parliament and now the leader of the Social Democratic Party, says new settlers in the contaminated areas -- the majority of whom are from Russia's North Caucasus region or the Central Asian states -- are adding up to a very serious problem.

"There are buildings still standing in the Chornobyl radioactive zone. Some people from troubled areas in the former Soviet Union do not want to put themselves and their children at deadly risk [at home] anymore. So they prefer staying in the radioactive zone to dying from the bullets of some bandits or gunmen or dying in the process of introducing so-called constitutional order at home," Shuskevich said.

But Slavomir Antonovic, the spokesman for the Belarusian State Committee for Chornobyl, said such newcomers are not the government's main concern. He said, "Belarus first must help its own population living in the contaminated regions, and only later on start thinking about those who arrive from other countries."

Antonovic also blamed the West's preoccupation with Belarus's political situation for calling attention away from the plight of Chornobyl victims. He says there has been a sharp decrease in Western humanitarian aid in recent years, and that many state programs in affected regions are in danger of being canceled.

Shuskevich, however, put it a slightly different way, saying, "Belarus is considered to be an undemocratic state that violates human rights, and that is the main reason why the country is not able to get more funds."