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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 21, 2006

21 April 2006, Volume 8, Number 15
CHORNOBYL 20 YEARS LATER: WHAT LESSONS HAVE BEEN LEARNED? Twenty years ago in the early morning of April 26, while most of Europe lay oblivious and asleep, a chain of events had begun in Soviet Ukraine that was to unleash a catastrophe of unprecedented scale. At 1:23 a.m., a massive surge of power in the fourth reactor at the huge Chornobyl (Chernobyl) power station triggered an explosion that lifted the 1,000-ton lid off the reactor's core. Within hours a column of radioactive material some 1 kilometer high was drifting northwest across Europe. As panic gripped the continent, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them volunteers, fought with astonishing courage to control the accident. Twenty years on, what are the lessons of Chornobyl and what are its consequences?

Snow still lay on the ground in Slavutych in defiance of the early March sunshine. Even at midday, the town had an unnatural stillness, underlined -- not broken -- by the occasional shopper or group of schoolchildren.

The town's strangeness has a cause. Slavutych is the child of the Chornobyl disaster, a small city constructed from nothing to take in the evacuated staff of the nuclear plant and their families.

Just 50 kilometers from Chornobyl, it was built as a showcase and a demonstration of the indomitable human spirit but in its own way it too has become a testimony to tragedy.

Its energetic mayor, Volodymyr Udovychenko, who is himself a former employee of the nuclear power station, is a tireless advocate of the Slavutych cause. He argues that the Ukrainian government undertook to guarantee jobs for the workers laid off by the closure of Chornobyl.

"The main problem today is the budget problem of Slavutych -- and that's not even addressing the issues of medical care," Udovychenko says. "It's not right to apply the same standards for the workforce of the Chornobyl atomic station as we have in the rest of Ukraine. Here in Slavutych there are 8,000 people who took part, one way or another, in the containment of the explosion and the cleanup. We can say that the government of Ukraine is not fulfilling its commitments made when closing the Chornobyl nuclear power station."

Udovychenko is talking about unemployment. Built as a model town, the continued dependence of Slavutych on the station threatens it with ruin.

"In 1999 we still had 10,000 jobs here at the power station," he says. "Today, we're down to 3,620. In other words, we've been through a huge transformation. But if we lose those jobs as well, it will be a catastrophe for Slavutych."

In September 2005, the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum presented the conclusions of its digest report on Chornobyl's legacy, a massive 600-page analysis incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists and experts. It is the most thorough examination yet made of the health, sociological, environmental, and economic consequences of the accident.

It argues that so far fewer than 50 people have died of causes directly attributable to radiation from the disaster but that, ultimately, several thousand could die from fatal cancers, in addition to the 100,000 cancer deaths expected in the region from other causes.

This is a far cry from the early predictions of a worldwide radiation-induced health disaster in which thousands would die from radiation sickness.

But, it says, less is understood about the dramatic increase in psychological problems caused by insufficient communication about radiation affects, the social disruption of evacuation, and economic depression.

Volodymyr Berkovsky of the International Atomic Energy Agency�s Research Center for Radiation Medicine shares the report's view that the mental-health impact of Chornobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.

"Unfortunately, we cannot discuss mental problems in terms of numbers like we discuss morbidity or mortality," he says. "It's rather subjective. It could be the consequence of accident. It could be something like simultaneous action of total problem in country plus Chornobyl. It is mostly superposition of different factors -- of economic problem, of economic stagnation, contamination, and so on."

Perhaps it is the subjective nature of the problem that has caused it to be somewhat neglected. The report notes that the psychological distress arising from the accident has been particularly acute among the 330,000 people evacuated and then relocated from the region most affected by the accident.

As the example of Slavutych shows, unemployment is one of the biggest consequences of the disaster. The station has shut down and the local economy all but collapsed. But, relatively speaking, the people of Slavutych have been privileged.

Most of the evacuees, the report says, have had huge difficulties adjusting to the disruption in their lives. They feel rootless and unwanted and share a fatalistic belief that their life expectancy has been reduced by exposure to radiation.

At the heart of the problem, the report argues, lies the failure of first the Soviet authorities and then subsequently the Ukrainian authorities to provide full information. Chornobyl has left a legacy of mistrust.

Yes Anders Knape, a vice president of the Bureau of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, thinks lessons should and can be learned. Knape was attending a conference organized in March by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe in Slavutych to share his experiences as deputy mayor of the Swedish city of Karlstadt, another town heavily dependent on nuclear energy.

The key, he says, is information. The local people need to be properly informed of the risks of living in the vicinity of a nuclear power station and trained to know what to do when things go wrong. Like many, he believes the scale of the evacuation was greater than it should have been:

"The reaction [at the time] was that the catastrophe was bigger than we can see [it was] today," he says. "Today we know we haven't had the extreme dimensions of people killed or of areas you can't live in and things like that. So that's very important to give back to people their hopes for the future, give back their land, give back their opportunities for work and living also in areas close to Chornobyl."

But it's not just more information that's needed. Knape argues that you need greater popular involvement in government as well. "When you have a catastrophe like this, in the beginning you have a lot of resources and a lot of focus coming from national government and from all over the world," he says.

"But when it comes back to ordinary days, it's the local authorities who have to meet the needs of the local population," he continues. "Of course, if you have an open and democratic local society, you also have a better chance to handle these types of situation."

Controversially, perhaps, the UN-sponsored Chernobyl Forum report argues that most of the contaminated territories are now safe for settlement and economic activity. Radiation levels, it maintains, have fallen several hundred times because of natural processes and countermeasures. Only in this way, it suggests, will it be possible for the evacuees of Chornobyl to begin the long process of reclaiming their lives. (Robert Parsons)

CHORNOBYL 20 YEARS LATER: GREENPEACE, OTHERS CHALLENGE IAEA REPORT ON DISASTER CONSEQUENCES. Greenpeace has sharply criticized a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the United Nations' nuclear watchdog -- claiming the 1986 nuclear catastrophe at Chornobyl (Chernobyl) will cause no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. Like a number of environmental organizations, Greenpeace accuses the report of "whitewashing" Chornobyl's impact and claims that some 200,000 people in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus could already have died as a result of the accident.

Parishev, 20 kilometers east of Chornobyl, was once a bustling village of several hundred people. Now, only a dozen people remain.

Speaking to RFE/RL one year ago, Halyna Yavchenko said the number of villagers in Parishev is shrinking and that people are dying one after the other. She herself complained of strong headaches and high blood pressure.

But she said she's not afraid to live in an abandoned village in the middle of a radioactive zone. If only the wild animals would leave her garden alone: "We are used to living here. But we are like wolves here. Last year, boars ate everything they could find."

Yavchenko is one of the many affected by the 1986 disaster, where a power surge triggered an explosion that emitted radiation across Europe. But experts disagree how severe the consequences of the disaster have been -- and how bad they still could be in the future.

A report released in September 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum,which comprises the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program, said fewer than 50 deaths so far could be directly attributed to Chornobyl. The report claimed the disaster will cause no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. It also found no profound negative health consequences to the rest of the population in surrounding areas.

These figures take into account only the people most exposed: those sent to "liquidate" the consequence of the explosion, and those who lived in nearby towns at the time of the accident.

The IAEA says its findings regarding the environmental impact of the blast are also "reassuring," with radiation levels mostly returning to normal.

The report claims that poverty, disease, and mental-health problems in the former Soviet Union actually pose a far greater health threat than radiation exposure.

But this verdict has been challenged by a number of organizations, including Greenpeace and associations of Chornobyl "liquidators."

Speaking at a press conference on April 18 in Kyiv, Bruno Rebelle, a program director for Greenpeace International, said the number of Chornobyl-related deaths is much higher: "The most recent published figures indicates that in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine alone, the accident resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths between 1994 and 2000."

A recent Greenpeace report, which is partly based on research from the Russian and Belarusian Academies of Sciences, says that the incidence of cancer in Belarus jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. And, according to the report, children born after 1986 have shown a 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.

Speaking at a Greenpeace news conference in Moscow earlier this month, Lyudmilla Komogortseva, a deputy from the Bryansk Oblast -- Russia's region most affected by the accident -- said the incidence of cancer in her region is 10 to 15 percent higher than the national average.

"Today one can say with certainty that the Chornobyl catastrophe, even what is called low radiation doses, has a negative effect on the health of people living in the regions exposed to radioactive pollution," Komogortseva said.

Komogortseva lashed out at the Russian government for failing to pay compensation to the Bransk population for health damage and slashing ecological and health programs set up in the region after the disaster.

Some experts and local residents are also concerned about the dangers of contaminated food.

Komogortseva said more than 50 percent of food products in the Bryansk region are contaminated, according to official figures from Russian veterinary sources. In addition, she said, local residents widely consume mushrooms, berries, and game from the forests, where most of the radiation is concentrated.

Speaking at the same press conference, Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace's Moscow chapter, said these food products continue to pose a serious health threat: "These food products -- mushrooms, berries, meat, dairy products -- reach the Moscow market, the St. Petersburg market, the central European part of Russia. Specialized organizations are known to withdraw hundreds of kilograms of these products from Moscow markets every year. The problem here is general, this radiation is spreading, and one should in no circumstances close one's eyes to this problem, like the IAEA and our opponents from Rosatom are trying to do."

The IAEA, however, dismisses such warnings.

Didier Louvat, the head of the IAEA's waste safety section that helped coordinate the UN report on Chornobyl, told RFE/RL there was no evidence showing low radiation doses increased the risk of cancer.

"The Bryansk region was the Russian region most affected by the [radioactive] fallout. So the Bryansk region forests are certainly the most contaminated. If this can be related to any increase of cancer in the region, among the population, even the population consuming forest products? The WHO report clearly said no," Louvat said. "Twenty percent of the population -- the Russian population, the world population -- are going to die of cancer. There is no way to attribute this cancer to one specific cause."

Greenpeace believes the authors of the Chernobyl Forum report have an agenda.

Chuprov said the report is part of a campaign to present nuclear energy as a reliable and safe source of energy: "The question is politicized. There is a powerful lobby, and public opinion on Chornobyl is the last barrier against the construction of new [nuclear] reactors in Russia and in the world. This is part of a PR campaign aimed at eliminating social disapproval, because according to social polls, 78 percent of Russians are against the construction of nuclear plants in their region."

Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, has announced plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors in the country by 2030. (Luke Allnutt and Claire Bigg report) (RFE/RL's Valentinas Mite contributed to this report)

CHORNOBYL 20 YEARS LATER: POLITICAL LEGACY. Since 1986, learning the truth about the world's worst nuclear disaster has been more than a humanitarian and a health issue; it has also been a political challenge. The Chornobyl explosion is often linked to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It also had dramatic political consequences in the republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Does Chornobyl still pose a political problem in these republics 20 years after the disaster?

The Chornobyl blast proved to be a crucial test for the Soviet government's new policy of openness -- one that it failed in horrific fashion.

Citizens were denied accurate information on the danger and scale of what happened not only in the crucial first days and weeks after the accident, but also in subsequent years.

For example, it emerged only in 1989 that nearly one-fourth of Belarus, which absorbed some 60 percent of the Chornobyl fallout, was significantly contaminated.

Former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Shcherbak wrote a documentary book on the Chornobyl accident as early as 1987, in an attempt to provide readers with more insight than they could get from the government. Shcherbak told RFE/RL in a recent interview that the suppression of accurate information about Chornobyl by the Gorbachev-era Soviet government helped increase the divide between the state and Soviet society: "The mendacious propaganda, the lack of reliable information [about Chornobyl] had affected millions of people, particularly in Ukraine, to such an extent that those people lost the rest of their faith in what Gorbachev was saying about perestroika, glasnost, and so on."

On the Ukrainian political scene, the catastrophe also launched a new type of realpolitik. Shcherbak asserts that the Chornobyl catastrophe was largely responsible for the readiness with which the Ukrainian parliament signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty after gaining independence. The decision effectively obliged the fledgling state to destroy or return to Russia all nuclear weapons on its territory.

Shcherbak believes that since the closure of the plant's last reactor in 2000, Chornobyl has ceased to be a major political issue in Ukraine, but he does believe it will continue to impact government decisions in the nuclear-energy sphere. He says Ukraine should never forget the potential hazards of operating its 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants.

"We should proceed from the premise that we will have to live side by side with risk. We are taking a risk. And we should be taking a reasonable risk, not the one that might lead, God forbid, to a new Chornobyl-type catastrophe. We should enhance the safety of reactors," Shcherbak said.

Belarus does not have any nuclear power plants and is not planning to build any in the near future. The Chornobyl aftermath seems to persist in the country not only as a grave environmental issue but also a political one.

Viktor Ivashkevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, argues that the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka treats Chornobyl-related issues in pretty much the same way the Soviet-era government did 20 years ago: "Belarus is facing the same political problem as 20 years ago. The authorities show no consideration whatsoever for people, hide all problems, and broadcast mendacious propaganda, while the population is shrinking."

Belarus adopted a long-term program for dealing with the Chornobyl consequences in 1990. Ivashkevich says the Lukashenka-government has backed down on some important measures envisioned by that program.

In particular, Ivashkevich says the government abolished checks for radioactivity of food products at most shops and markets, except for some major food retailers. But he doesn't believe the checks stopped because there was nothing to find.

"Food products are grown in areas where radioactivity exceeds 15 curie per square kilometer. Then these contaminated products are mixed with pure ones to obtain products of medium purity, and subsequently they are shipped to all of Belarus," Ivashkevich said.

Since 1989, the Belarusian opposition has managed to organize a "Chornobyl Way" march almost every year. Participants march to commemorate the Chornobyl anniversary and raise public awareness about unresolved problems related to the disaster. Although many of these marches have been dispersed or otherwise thwarted by police, another Chornobyl Way march is expected in Minsk this year (26 April).

Vladimir Chuprov, a chief nuclear-energy expert at Greenpeace Russia, believes the lasting consequences of Chornobyl in Russia are evident mainly in the environmental and social spheres. (Jan Maksymiuk)

ELECTION SEASON ENDS, BUT PRESS CRACKDOWN CONTINUES. The period leading up to the Belarusian presidential election in March saw a full-scale crackdown on the country's independent press. Newspapers were stripped of their publication and distribution rights; journalists and editors were harassed. For Belarusians looking for news about the political opposition, the result was an information blackout. But even incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka's colossal win -- with more than 80 percent of the vote -- was not enough to relax the government's assault on the press. "Nasha Niva," Belarus's oldest nonstate newspaper, is now facing closure.

"Nasha Niva," which first appeared 100 years ago in Lithuania, began its anniversary year with trouble on the horizon.

First, the weekly paper was dropped from state subscription catalogues. It's a common tactic by the Belarusian authorities -- one which effectively blocks a paper's access to distribution.

Now authorities are threatening to close the paper's offices in Minsk.

Andrey Dynko, the editor in chief of "Nasha Niva," tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service he has appealed to the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk to help secure United Nations protection for the historic Belarusian-language newspaper as a part of Belarus's cultural heritage.

"We said that we're preparing an appeal to the Lithuanian president and prime minister with a request that they apply to the [UN cultural agency] UNESCO to include 'Nasha Niva' on its Representative List of the Nonmaterial Cultural Heritage of Humanity," Dynko says. "We were met with understanding on the part of the Lithuanian diplomats, and they will help us with this request."

"Nasha Niva" last week received a letter from city officials saying the paper's presence in the Belarusian capital was no longer "appropriate."

The reason -- Dynko's 10-day "administrative arrest." The "Nasha Niva" editor was charged with using foul language after being detained near the street protests that followed Lukashenka's reelection to a third term in office.

The Minsk government has refused to explain why Dynko's arrest necessitates the paper's expulsion from the city.

One group watching the situation carefully is the French-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

RSF has accused the Belarusian government of "very serious" attacks on press freedom during the presidential election campaign and the days following the vote.

RSF's news editor, Jean-Francois Julliard, criticized the move against "Nasha Niva" as just the latest in a series of bully tactics aimed at shutting down the nonstate press: "We condemn this decision, because it's a new way to threaten a newspaper, to stop its activities. It's a new way to shut down an independent voice. We are always concerned by the situation of press freedom in Belarus."

Many observers said the press crackdown ahead of the March presidential vote was aimed at ensuring an easy reelection for Lukashenka.

But even with his third term in office secure, Lukashenka still appears determined to silence his few remaining public critics -- including "Nasha Niva," which may have irked the government with its independent and pro-nationalist stance.

Julliard says Lukashenka's reelection will make the situation even more difficult for independent journalists in Belarus: "The situation was very, very bad during and before the election. But the situation now means that President Lukashenka is completely intolerant to any criticism -- and not only during electoral campaign. I think he does not want to read any criticism in his newspapers in his country."

"Nasha Niva," which was established in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in November 1906, has always published in the Belarusian language. This is a deeply political distinction in a country where Russian is the language of the ruling elite.

It was originally typeset in both Latin and Cyrillic lettering, to accommodate Belarusian Catholic and Orthodox communities, which used different scripts.

The paper's description as a 100-year-old publication is somewhat misleading. "Nasha Niva" has been published for a total of just 24 years -- from 1906-1915 and from 1991-present.

Still, its history as the country's first Belarusian newspaper has given it special status -- particularly among those hoping to preserve a distinct cultural identity in Belarus.

Journalist and political analyst Alyaksandr Fyaduta writes for "Nasha Niva." He tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the paper is representative of the social changes beginning to appear in Belarus.

"'Nasha Niva' is not just a newspaper of that segment of society that speaks and thinks in Belarusian. "Nasha Niva" is the central newspaper of that segment of society that not only refuses to live in the corporate state that is being built [in Belarus] but also has a chance to live in a changed country," Fyaduta says. "What is taking place is actually an attempt at gagging the voice of the Belarusian youth, of those who were staying in the tent camp [on October Square] in Minsk."

For now, "Nasha Niva" will continue to publish in Belarus, using money from its supporters to maintain its website and continue its print distribution by any means possible.

But if conditions become even more difficult, "Nasha Niva" may be forced to return to its original home, Vilnius, in order to continue printing. (Daisy Sindelar) (RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

INDEPENDENT POLLSTER QUESTIONS SIZE OF LUKASHENKA'S ELECTION VICTORY. A recent survey in Belarus has challenged the official results of the March 19 presidential election, where the incumbent, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, cruised to an easy victory. It gives more credence to the theory that the authorities may have cheated -- a suspicion that many in the international community have already voiced.

The world will probably never know the real results of the March 19 vote in Belarus. Neither domestic nor foreign monitors were allowed to check the vote counting at any polling station.

Officially, at least, it was a resounding victory for the incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

On March 20, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka won a "stunning" victory, trouncing his rivals with nearly 83 percent of the vote.

But a recent independent survey held by the Vilnius-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) among nearly 1,500 adult Belarusians from March 27 to April 6 provides a different perspective.

According to the survey, 63.6 percent of those who came to the presidential poll voted for Lukashenka. This means that the Central Election Commission may have revised the real results in Lukashenka's favor by some 20 percent, or 1.2 million votes.

That wouldn't be a surprise to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Its election-observation mission in Belarus concluded that the vote failed to meet its standards for democratic elections.

And in the wake of the poll, the EU imposed a travel ban on President Lukashenka and 30 other Belarusian officials for their alleged involvement in rigging the vote.

The pollster also found that the Central Election Commission may have deprived opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich of some 960,000 votes. The poll gave Milinkevich 20.6 percent of the vote. Officially, he received just 6 percent.

The opposition reacted to the official results with a week of protests in Minsk, which ended in a police crackdown and mass arrests.

At a news conference at the British Embassy in Minsk on April 20, NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu said that the survey contradicts the official assertion that President Lukashenka enjoys overwhelming support among his compatriots.

But Manayeu also advised caution in overestimating the influence of the opposition on Belarusian society.

"The main reason for the increasing discontent in society is not so much the opposition and external forces as the very activity of the Belarusian authorities. During the past year alone the number of those wronged by the authorities increased by one-third and now stands at 36.5 percent. A social base for change does exist. However, the readiness of Belarusian society for change must not be underestimated, which is done by the authorities, or overestimated, which is a sin of the opposition," Manayeu said.

Manayeu also said there is a discrepancy between the official data and his survey's result regarding how many people cast ballots during the early-voting period from March 14 to March 18.

However, Manayeu countered the charges often heard from the opposition that the government compelled Belarusians to participate in the early voting. The early voting was effectively outside independent monitoring.

"The official and real data on the early voting noticeably differ. [Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya] Yarmoshyna said [the early-voting turnout] was 31 percent, while we found it was 25 percent. However, the opposition's assertion that people were forced to take part in the early voting on a mass scale is not true," Manayeu said.

"This was confirmed by 17 percent of those who voted ahead of March 19, while 89 percent said they did it on their own initiative." NISEPI was forced to move to Lithuania after the Belarusian authorities closed down the polling agency in April 2005. The agency participated in conducting an independent exit poll during the October 2004 constitutional referendum. NISEPI suggested that Lukashenka actually lost the plebiscite and therefore should not be able to run for a third term in 2006.

So has this loss of status affected the pollster's activities in Belarus?

According to Manayeu, NISEPI still has its former network of some 100 interviewers in Minsk and the provinces. The most important difference, he said, is that now people working for NISEPI cannot use the organization's name and must act as private individuals.

"All the people who worked for NISEPI when it had legal status have remained in the country. We continue to work, but as a group of private citizens," Manayeu said. "Thank God, there has so far been no legislation that would regulate private activities in the country, so every citizen, including us, may conduct such polls."

Even with more surveys, it will be difficult to ascertain the truth -- especially as all of the election ballots will be destroyed later this year. (Jan Maksymiuk) (RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report)