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Chornobyl: In Disaster's Wake, A Fading Legacy Of 'Green' Awareness

By Brian Whitmore and Claire Bigg Vacated residential area in Prypyat, near Chornobyl (AFP) In late 2002, the government of Kazakhstan was putting the finishing touches on a plan to import and store nuclear waste from other countries. Officials had hoped the plan would generate as much as $20 billion in badly needed revenues.

But then an odd thing happened. Environmental groups held public hearings, local residents were mobilized, and a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers was launched. Weeks later, the plan was dead.

It was a landmark victory for Kazakhstan's environmentalists -- a fledgling movement that traces its roots to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

It was a rare success, however. As the international community marks the 22nd anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident on April 26, vibrant Green movements that can influence environmental policy in the former Soviet Union remain few and far between.

RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukrainian services report from the contamination zone

The Chornobyl blast was caused by a massive power surge at the plant, located near Pripyat in Ukraine. It blew the 1,000-ton lid off a reactor and initially killed two people. Another 29 emergency workers died within the next three months. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that fallout from the disaster will account for no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. But Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the total is in the hundreds of thousands.

Despite such dire predictions, authorities in the regions affected by Chornobyl have typically pushed ecological concerns far down on their agendas in favor of short-term economic or political gains. Nascent grassroots Green movements have also suffered from the emergence of authoritarian regimes in countries like Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

"Green movements are more developed in countries with stable regimes, where people are for the most part confident in their future, where they are provided for, where finding a piece of bread or life-supporting medication is not a problem," says Aleksandr Velikin, the head of the Chornobyl Union in Russia's Leningrad Oblast and a former "liquidator," one of the hundreds of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union who were brought in to clean up after the nuclear explosion at Chornobyl.

Rising Green Consciousness

Such luxuries have so far eluded the post-Soviet space, where environmentalists continue to face an uphill battle.

Russian activists, for example, failed in 2001 to prevent a nuclear waste-import scheme similar to the one that Kazakhstan's Greens blocked. Moscow also plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors by 2030, over the objections of the country's environmentalists. Belarus, which to this day screens milk and other agricultural products for radioactive contamination, is likewise planning to build a new nuclear plant.

It wasn't always this way. Many analysts describe the years between the Chornobyl disaster and the 1991 Soviet breakup as the high-water mark of environmental activism in the region.

"The Chornobyl catastrophe changed people's awareness and their attitude toward the environment; toward technical progress, which doesn't always bring good; and toward the fact that atomic energy must be handled very cautiously," says Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace-Russia.

Soon after the accident, physicists and other scientists lobbied for enhanced nuclear safety. Within a few years, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika took root, even the general public began to press for more information.

Kazakh "cleaners" of the Chornobyl disaster pose for a picture in 1986, on display at an exhibition in Almaty

"For those scientists who were aware of the immediate consequences of the Chornobyl accident, there was a very immediate reaction among a number of them to address the issues that the Chornobyl accident created," says Alan Flowers, an expert in radiology at London's Kingston University who has done extensive research on the effects of the Chornobyl disaster. "And this occurred directly in the period very soon after the accident in 1986, because many scientists were very aware of the fallout and of the very dramatic consequences on the population."

Flowers, who was expelled from Belarus in 2004 for unauthorized contacts with NGOs, says the scientists' concerns mushroomed into more broad-based political activism in the general public. He says the "large-scale" reaction that ensued included campaigns for the publication of information and maps about the Chornobyl fallout.

Observers say this gave a boost to environmental groups that were already forming in the increasingly open political atmosphere.

"In the Soviet Union, you couldn't criticize the system, the party, but ecology was one of the issues to which the Soviet leadership paid no attention. The ecological movement had already begun, and Chornobyl gave it a huge boost," says Chuprov.

Political Fallout

In Ukraine, the new environmentalism dovetailed with an emerging independence movement. And in Belarus, as Flowers notes, it sparked the rise of the republic's first post-Soviet head of state, Stanislau Shushkevich, who led the republic's independence drive and served as chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1991-94.

"In particular, Stanislau Shushkevich came to prominence because as a physicist, he was very aware of the true extent of fallout and the need to publicize and open up information to the public on the locations of the fallout," Chuprov says. "He became the people's champion on publicizing information on the Chornobyl accident in Belarus."

Kazakhstan, which was not directly affected by the Chornobyl fallout, nevertheless provided many of the liquidators who cleaned up after the explosion. When they returned home, some joined -- and helped publicize -- the emerging environmental movement there.

Today, Kazakhstan has one of the stronger environmental movements in the former Soviet Union. Analysts and activists say that this is because the environmental situation there is particularly dire, even by post-Soviet standards.

According to estimates cited in the media, nearly 10 percent of Kazakh citizens are suffering the aftereffects of hundreds of Soviet-era nuclear bomb tests at the Semipalatinsk testing site, which was closed in 1991. Falling rockets and debris from the Baikonur Cosmodrome have also caused ecological damage.

"Kazakhstan is a place where many international environmental problems are concentrated," Mels Eleusizov, leader of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) movement, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Here we have Caspian problems -- a huge issue; the Aral Sea problem -- the whole world is talking about it and it has been affecting more and more aspects of life day after day; the Balkhash Sea issue -- the issue that has been getting similar to what we have in Aral region; Semey [Semipalatinsk nuclear test field] and many other test fields. Every single city in Kazakhstan has its own [ecological] challenges."

New Obstacles

But the burst of ecological activism that followed Chornobyl lost its momentum after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The Soviet successor states quickly became more concerned with economic development than ecology.

"We gave a lot of recommendations to the government. But the government has made it clear that it doesn't need them," Eleusizov says. "The government is focusing on economic issues now -- it cares mainly about oil and other mineral resources. Meanwhile, ecological issues seem to be on the second level of interest. But I can tell you, at some point it will be too late for anybody to take care of the ecology."

Many post-Soviet governments in recent years have become increasingly authoritarian, leaving little room for independent environmental movements. The most glaring example, of course, is Belarus, the country most affected by the Chornobyl disaster and where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime ruthlessly suppresses any form of public dissent, including environmental activism.

"Discussion of grassroots activism is pretty much a barren territory in Belarus, insofar as any nongovernmental activism is very closely scrutinized and has been for very nearly a decade in Belarus," Flowers says.

True to form, Belarusian authorities are widely expected to break up a march by the country's liquidators, which is scheduled for April 26 to mark the Chornobyl anniversary.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Katsyaryna Gancharova, a member of the country's Ekadom environmental group, says that despite the numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles placed in its path, the Green movement is determined to persevere.

"The registration process is complex. On the whole, civic organizations are barely surviving because the very unfavorable situation in the country doesn't allow them to function as they should," Gancharova says. "But the Green movement is nonetheless developing, people are interested in ecology. This question is becoming increasingly topical."

RFE/RL's Belarus, Kazakh, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report

Chornobyl Images

Chornobyl Images

April 26 marks the 22nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, one of the world's worst ecological accidents.

See slideshow of the Chornobyl disaster, then and now