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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 28, 2006

28 April 2006, Volume 8, Number 16
THE WEST VERSUS GAZPROM. In April, a series of events took place, which once again showed how energy security is playing a greater role in the increasingly uneasy relationship between the West and Russia.

On April 18, a week prior to the opening of the ninth annual Russian Economic Forum in London, Aleksei Miller, the CEO of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, spoke to a gathering of 25 ambassadors from EU countries in Moscow. After Miller's speech, Gazprom distributed a statement that not only underscored ongoing tensions between the European Union and Russia, but exacerbated them.

"It is necessary to note," the statement read, "that attempts to limit Gazprom's activities in the European market and politicize questions of gas supply, which in fact are of an entirely economic nature, will not lead to good results.

The statement went on to explain that: "It should not be forgotten that we are actively familiarizing ourselves with new markets, such as North America and China. Gas producers in Central Asia are also paying attention to the Chinese market. This is not by chance: competition for energy resources is growing."

The statement appeared to be an attempt to play off potential U.S. buyers of Gazprom's liquefied natural gas (LNG) against European clients, while at the same time threatening to make cash-rich but energy- poor China Russia's exclusive and limitless market for gas and oil if the Europeans refuse to play according to Russian rules.

Sergei Kupriyanov, a Gazprom spokesman, was explicit in his interpretation of the statement. He told the U.K.-based "Financial Times" on April 20: "We just want European countries to understand that we have other alternatives in terms of gas sales. We have a fast-growing Chinese market, and a market for liquefied natural gas in the US. If the European Union wants our gas, it has to consider our interests as well."

The concept outlined in the Gazprom statement is not a new one. According to "The Moscow Times," Gazprom's management presented a strategy paper to its state-controlled board of directors in March. On March 30, the newspaper described the paper as a plan to boost Gazprom's share of the European gas market to 30 percent from 25 percent "by buying into gas storage, gas marketing, and power firms."

Media reports have also linked the Gazprom statement to the EU to rumors of attempts by the Russian gas monopoly to buy into the largest British utility company, Centrica. British countermeasures to prevent this by changing the laws on foreign ownership of strategically important British companies apparently angered the Kremlin and it responded with the warning statement.

The United Kingdom is not the only country Gazprom is setting its sights on. During a meeting in Sochi on August 29, 2005, Putin asked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to allow Gazprom to invest more heavily in his country, saying: "It is in our interest that our companies, including Gazprom, be allowed to invest extra money in Italy's energy sector, including in gas-distribution networks," RIA Novosti reported.

There was more controversy on April 21 when "The Wall Street Journal Europe" reported that the U.S. Department of Justice's organized-crime unit had begun an investigation into the activities of the Swiss- and Austrian-based gas-trading company RosUkrEnergo.

RosUkrEnergo was created in July 2004 during a meeting in Yalta between Putin and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. It took over the function of being the middleman for gas deliveries from Turkmenistan to Ukraine from Eural Trans Gas, a company formed in Hungary in December 2002.

When the new Ukrainian government of Yuliya Tymoshenko took power in early 2005, one of the first investigations begun by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was the case of RosUkrEnergo. The investigation looked into the hidden beneficiaries of the company, who were protected by Austrian law from disclosure. RosUkrEnergo officials refused to name its beneficiaries, while Gazprom officials claimed that they had no information about them.

After the Tymoshenko government was fired by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in late summer 2005, the SBU investigation of RosUkrEnergo was reportedly dropped.

In January this year, RosUkrEnergo, allegedly at the insistence of the Russian government, was designated as the middleman for the new gas agreement between Ukraine's Naftohaz Ukrayina and Gazprom.

The company stood to make over $2 billion from the deal and this further incensed Tymoshenko's followers, who insisted that Yushchenko renew the investigation and renegotiate the deal with Gazprom in such a way as to keep RosUkrEnergo out of the picture.

Soon after news of the U.S. investigation of RosUkrEnergo broke, Global Witness, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization that works to expose the link between natural-resource exploitation and human-rights abuses, released a major report on the activities of Eural Trans Gas and RosUkrEnergo.

The report, titled "It's a Gas -- Funny Business in the Turkmen-Ukraine Gas Trade" and available on the Global Witness website (, claims that offshore companies hide the real beneficiaries of Eural Trans Gas and says there are inconsistencies in statements by Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayina officials about RosUkrEnergo and its role in the gas business. The report also claims that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has allegedly used a German bank to hide billions of dollars earned from the gas trade.

As tension increases between Western countries and Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly's shares traded on Western exchanges in ADRs (American Depositary Receipts) continue to climb in price. Whatever happens, Western investors are likely to still be attracted to Gazprom and other Russian energy stocks as global oil prices soar over $70 a barrel. (Roman Kupchinsky)

CHORNOBYL 20 YEARS AFTER: LIQUIDATORS RECALL DISASTER, SPEAK ABOUT LIFE AFTER. Among those worst affected by the 1986 Chornobyl (Chernobyl) accident were the "liquidators" -- military personnel, workers, and scientists from around the Soviet Union who were sent to clean up the aftermath of the disaster. They went without proper safety equipment, many of them not knowing where they were going. Thousands have since died. Many of those still alive battle against poor health and little state support.

When Talgat Suyunbai and 44 other Soviet Army officers arrived in the Belarusian village of Navasyolki, some 40 kilometers from Chornobyl, they had no idea an accident had even taken place.

That was in January 1987, nine months after the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant.

"We heard some rumors but didn't know anything about it," said Suyunbai, a 52-year-old member of Kazakhstan's Union of Chornobyl Veterans. "When I first arrived in Chornobyl, what struck me and stuck in my memory was the landscape. It looked like a beautiful painting. When approaching, you could see a city far away, a forest and a path, a river, and the church's [dome] was shining. It was like a painting. It remains a memory of my life."

As the military motorcade approached the site of the disaster, the picture changed dramatically.

"But when we were approaching Chornobyl, [the view] was very different. We called it 'a rusty forest.' It was all burnt. It was staggering. We couldn't comprehend it. It was horrible. But then we had to get used to it slowly," Suyunbai said.

For what turned out to be seven months of work, Suyunbai and his fellow officers had one night of training in Kazakhstan. They were not told that a nuclear explosion had taken place. Even as a former officer in a chemical unit, Suyunbai did not know how high the radiation levels were.

"[We had] no special clothing, just a regular military uniform, because [we were told that] there was already no high radiation," he said. "The radiation level was suitable to work for two hours a day. So we wore a regular uniform. Then we'd [take it off and] shake it, shower, and change only our underwear. The next day was the same."

Suyunbai is one of some 32,000 people from Kazakhstan who went to Chornobyl to clean up after the disaster. Russian liquidator groups estimate that in total around 600,000 people took part in the clean-up operation. They say the number could be even higher.

Kadyrbek Sasykulov, the president of the Union of Chornobyl, a Kyrgyz veterans' association, participated in the liquidation work in 1988.

By that time, he says, people knew about the scale of the disaster. But, despite their protests or even outright refusal, Sasykulov and many others were forced to go to Chornobyl.

"They said we were going to construct a power plant," Sasykulov said. "We didn't know what kind of plant it was. They said: 'You'll go to the Samara region' and we left the next day. Only in Samara did we learn that Chornobyl was our destination. Some 80 percent of us protested. But our commanders said we would be punished as deserters if we left. They threatened us."

Sasykulov worked in Chornobyl for four months.

"On the third day, many of us felt a sour taste in our mouths and our bodies felt weak. In 1989, after I returned, I had pain all over my body and my joints were weak. In 1991, I retired as a disabled veteran, as did my fellow officers who served at Chornobyl," Sasykulov said.

Sasykulov's story is sadly familiar. Many liquidators have since faced severe health problems. Of the 32,000 liquidators from Kazakhstan, there are now just 6,000 left. According to the Almaty-based Union of Chornobyl, some 4,000 former liquidators die every year in post-Soviet countries.

Sasykulov is one of 4,500 Kyrgyz citizens who cleaned up the disaster in 1986-89. There are some 1,750 left in Kyrgyzstan at present.

He says the children of the liquidators are also suffering from the consequences of the disaster.

"Over 85 percent of [those remaining] are disabled," Sasykulov said. "There are 1,650 children born from the liquidators. Of them, 15 percent are badly sick and disabled. Our task is to address their social needs and also provide medical assistance. Lack of medicine is a big problem. Many Chornobyl liquidators die, many of them and their children are sick."

Along with their ailing health, the former liquidators have fought another battle -- receiving adequate financial compensation for their suffering.

Over the past few years, Chornobyl veterans have steadily been stripped of their benefits and privileges in all Central Asian countries. In Soviet times, liquidators were given free medicine, health care, and holidays in health resorts and sanatoriums.

The amount of financial compensation depends on the salaries liquidators received before being sent to Chornobyl. But these monthly sums are usually too small to cover even medical expenses.

In a country with an average monthly wage of around $60, Kyrgyzstan's Chornobyl liquidators get some $15-$20 a month. In wealthier Kazakhstan, where the average wage is around $150, Suyunbai gets $110 dollars a month. But he says it covers only utilities.

Russian liquidators are not much better off. Aleksandr Velikin, a 53-year-old liquidator from St. Petersburg, received as little as $36 a month until he sued the authorities last year. Thanks to his court victory, his monthly payment was raised to the ruble equivalent of $130.

Velikin has run the Leningrad Oblast's Chornobyl Union for the past 15 years. He has helped thousands of other liquidators in his region increase their monetary compensation from the state.

The union -- which comprises only himself, a fellow liquidator, and a secretary -- is currently assisting more than 1,700 liquidators in seeking damages in court.

Velikin says the government is violating Russian law by paying Chornobyl clean-up workers such paltry compensation.

"If my employer has caused me damage, he is obligated to pay me compensation in the form of lost salaries, pay for all my medical services, for sanatorium treatment, and medicine," Velikan says. "The government has totally distorted the law and now they are trying to present these payments and privileges as 'benefits.' And 'benefit' means: 'I respect you, I have money today, I will give some to you. [But] sorry, tomorrow I won't have money so I won't give you anything."

Velikin spent three months in the fall of 1986 cleaning up Chornobyl's nuclear reactors and helping erect the concrete sarcophagus that seals off the collapsed reactor. But he says that was the easy part.

Twenty years on, his eyes well with tears as he recalls his worst Chornobyl memory -- clearing the belongings from the houses of the nearby ghost town, Prypyat, evacuated after the accident.

I enter a two-room flat," he said. "Just try to imagine that you are in a rush for work, you run out quickly. The bed is unmade, you ate something on the run -- there is a half-eaten sandwich and a cup of tea on the table. The flat had been left in such a state. All this was endurable, apart from one thing -- I walked into the second room, a child's bed stood there, the bedspread was thrown off, and there was the imprint of a child's head on the pillow. My daughter was 4 years old at the time."

Velikin says the tragedy of Chornobyl has not yet ended for him.

What he is lobbying for, he insists, is not compassion or fame, but simply official recognition of the damage wrought by Chornobyl to the health and the lives of the liquidators.

"I'm not a hero," he says. "But I did my job honestly." (Gulnoza Saidazimova and Claire Bigg)

CHORNOBYL 20 YEARS AFTER: BUILDING A NEW SARCOPHAGUS. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl (Chernobyl) nuclear disaster, top U.S. and Ukrainian officials focused on present and future threats that the plant still poses. Speaking at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on April 25, U.S. and Ukrainian officials drew attention to the deteriorating condition of the sarcophagus, the steel-and-concrete shell built after the accident to contain the radiation from the ill-fated Reactor No. 4.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oleh Shamshur told the commission that the legacy of Chornobyl consists not only in the health problems of the survivors, but also in the form of "200 tons of highly radioactive and melting substances."

According to Shamshur, only the rapidly constructed sarcophagus separates these "substances" from the rest of the world. He called for the quick replacement of a more solid and safer construction.

"Let me remind you that only 3 percent of the reactor fuel was released into [the] atmosphere 20 years ago," he said. "The rest of it still represents the most horrible explosive device undermining the safety of the whole of Europe."

Warren Stern, senior coordinator for nuclear safety at the U.S. State Department, echoed Shamshur's anxiety.

"The greatest concern over the years has been and will continue to be that the structure could collapse," Stern said. "It was built very hastily and many components weren't actually formally attached together."

Stern's boss, acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker, said the United States and the Group of Seven remain engaged in increasing safety at the Chornobyl site and pledged that a new sturdier shelter will be in place before the end of the decade.

"Key elements of the SIP [Chornobyl Shelter Implementation Plan], including construction of auxiliary systems and preparatory works and stabilization of the sarcophagus, are complete or nearing completion," Rademaker said. "The SIP has entered its final and most important stage -- construction of the shelter itself. Review of bids for executing this complex task is in the final stages. Construction of the new safe confinement or shelter is expected to be complete by 2009."

In the meantime, the existing structure will be reinforced, according to Stern.

"Over the past several years and in the coming years, we have been and will be implementing structural upgrades at the existing shelter to help prevent any possibility or any significant possibility of collapse, that at the same time, as we are building the new shelter," he said.

U.S. Representative Christopher Smith (Republican, New Jersey), the co-chairman of the commission, and Ambassador Shamshur emphasized that the full extent of the damage caused by the Chornobyl accident will only be revealed in the future.

"While numerous studies have furthered our knowledge of Chornobyl`s consequences, there is still much we don't know including its long-term impact on human health and on the environment," Smith said. "There is a need for further study and action."

But Shamshur said that full knowledge of the damage caused by Chornobyl will not come for another 70 years.

"I'd like also to stress the fact that is sometimes neglected and we should be aware that the period of the so-called half-life of radioactive strontium, for example, released in [the] atmosphere in 1986 is 90 years," he said. "Therefore, however scary it might sound, the full story has not been told yet. The gravest implications of the catastrophe might be still ahead for Ukraine and other nations." (Julie A. Corwin)

AUTHORITIES ARREST MILINKEVICH, OTHER LEADERS. A Minsk court today sentenced Milinkevich to 15 days in jail on charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest rally.

The same court today gave another two opposition figures -- Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka and Labour Party chairman Alyaksandr Buchvostau -- similar jail sentences for taking part in the unsanctioned April 26 "Chornobyl Way" rally. A fourth opposition leader, Syarhey Kalyakin of the Communist Party, is still awaiting judgment.

The "Chornobyl Way" march, ostensibly to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the disaster, was prevented from entering Minsk's October Square.

As the crowd tried to reach the square, police ordered them to move about 2 kilometers away to the Academy of Sciences, where the authorities had authorized the rally to take place.

October Square was the scene of violent clashes with police after the disputed March 19 presidential election.

Viktor Ivashkevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, and one of the main organizers of the rally, says that the majority of protestors were young.

Ivashkevich tells RFE/RL that the opposition is counting on economic problems, which might bring the regime down. If Russia raises gas prices for Belarus, he says, the country's economy will collapse and young people, workers, and pensioners will take to the streets.

Speaking at the rally near the Academy of Sciences, Milinkevich said the opposition would remove Lukashenka from power in two years: "We know how to do this. There is no need to wait for five years for us, we will eliminate the regime and will oust [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka from power. This is our goal. We will overcome!"

The march comes a month after Belarus held a presidential election on March 19. According to official results, Lukashenka gained 83 percent and Milinkevich received 6 percent. The result was criticized as flawed by independent observers, Western governments, and the opposition. Shortly after the poll, the European Union imposed a visa ban on the president and 30 top officials.

In the weeks spanning the election, Milinkevich visited a number of European countries seeking the support of Western leaders. Speaking on April 26, he said that things are rapidly changing in Belarus and the people would not be silent any longer.

"We are not rabble, we are the people! Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus!" Milinkevich said.

Milinkevich announced that another rally would be held on May 1, a national holiday in Belarus.