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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 26, 2005

26 April 2005, Volume 7, Number 16
COMMEMORATING THE CHORNOBYL DISASTER. People in Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries on 26 April commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. In the early hours of 26 April 1986, a massive chemical explosion blew the 1,000-ton cover off the top of Chornobyl's Unit Four reactor, spewing radiation over Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Europe. Millions of people were affected by the disaster north of Kyiv.

Ukraine and Belarus, the most affected countries, still wrangle with dire consequences of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.

Though the world's worst civil nuclear accident happened in Ukraine, its biggest victim was arguably neighboring Belarus.

Given the prevailing winds, some 70 percent of Chornobyl's radioactive fallout landed on Belarus, contaminating one-third of its territory. One and a half million people -- including 420,000 children -- were located in the polluted area.

Valery Karbalevich of Strategy, a political-analysis center in Minsk, says the anniversary of the disaster is becoming routine: President Alyaksandr Lukashenka visits the affected regions, while the opposition remembers the disaster and uses the occasion to criticize the government.

"Today [26 April], the opposition invited people to go to the building of the presidential administration and leave petitions with proposals and demands there. After that, people are invited to gather in another location on the outskirts of the town where a mourning celebration is due to take place," Karbalevich says.

The Chornobyl anniversary has taken on great political significance in Belarus. Because the disaster was covered up for days after it happened, it came to be seen as a symbol of Soviet mendacity, and later became a traditional day for rallies by the opposition.

On 26 April, however, the Belarusian opposition will not demonstrate -- a fact Karbalevich says indicates that the memory of the public disaster is slowly fading.

However, Karbalevich says the tragedy remains a huge economic, social, political, and ethic problem for Belarus.

"The problem is not gone, it remains," Karbalevich says. "All negative consequences have not disappeared. It is possible to say that the problems are growing but the public is paying less attention to it. The state also is paying less attention."

Karbalevich says that recently, the government floated the idea of building a nuclear plant to become more independent from Russian gas supplies. This kind of discussion was impossible several years ago.

Early on 26 April 1986, a fire broke out in Chornobyl's Unit Four reactor, and huge quantities of radioactive debris were released. The blast itself killed 31 people.

Concerned about the public-relations fallout, authorities initially covered up the news and neglected the surrounding population, which for four days had little if any information about the catastrophe.

After the government finally acknowledged the scale of the disaster, close to 150,000 inhabitants from nearby cities and villages were evacuated. People in Prypyat, the largest Ukrainian city in the region, believed they would return shortly. They never did.

Igor Losev, a professor at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy, says the disaster is being commemorated in Ukraine with meetings, rallies, and other public events.

"It is business as usual, with the usual array of events -- conferences, rallies, meetings to commemorate this tragic anniversary," Losev says. "Everything goes on as usual. There is nothing principally new."

Losev says that though the celebrations are formal, the problem is real: "It [the disaster] concerns everybody and the consequences will be felt for a long time. Even today there are problems there. There are hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel there and nobody knows what to do with it. And nobody can tell for sure what process is going on there in the building of the former Chornobyl power station, where this notorious reactor was based, the one that exploded."

Losev and others have questioned the reliability of the so-called sarcophagus that was placed over the damaged reactor. He says this problem is more than a Ukrainian concern because if something happens the whole region would again be affected.

The World Health Organization says there has been a large increase in radiation-related thyroid cancer among children in the affected areas. It estimates that 5 million people were exposed to radiation in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

But the exact number of resulting deaths has been hard to pin down, also because cancer can take years to develop in people exposed to radiation.

And today, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said a program to detect thyroid cancer in contaminated areas is at risk due to dwindling donor funds -- just as cancer rates are rising.

Experts forecast the thyroid cancer rate will peak between 2006 and 2020. Valentinas Mite)

YUSHCHENKO'S FIRST 100 DAYS. Despite lingering hopes by some Russian politicians to see him fail and the ever-increasing shrillness of a badly decimated opposition, the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is surviving and going about the business of governing. The Yushchenko-Yuliya Tymoshenko team will celebrate its first 100 days in office on 3 May and by tradition deserves a report card.

The new government of Ukraine came to power on the momentum generated by the Orange Revolution, which, in turn, was powered by Yushchenko's repeated pledges to clean up corruption in Ukraine. This long-overdue housecleaning has been the overriding feature of the first 100 days in office of Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who has personally taken the lead in this respect.

The newly appointed heads of the "power ministries" -- the Security Service (SBU), the Interior Ministry, and the Prosecutor General�s Office -- have all been working overtime investigating hundreds of officials of the former regime of President Leonid Kuchma. Criminal charges have been filed against a small number of them thus far. The most visible case being that of Borys Kolesnykov, head of the Donetsk Oblast Council, who is in prison awaiting trial on charges of extortion. And despite the opposition's claims that Kolesnykov is the victim of political revenge for his support of Viktor Yanukovych during last years elections, few view this defense seriously and agree with the government that he was involved in a criminal act.

The Kolesnykov case, along with a court decision that the privatization of the giant Kryvorizhstal enterprise in 2004 was illegal, has created the impression that the Yushchenko government has taken on the Donetsk Clan as its first target in the anticorruption struggle. The fact that the two men who most benefited from the Kryvorizhstal privatization -- Viktor Pinchuk (Kuchma's son-in-law) and Renat Akhmetov (the generally acknowledged leader of the Donetsk Clan) -- are being targeted is proof for many that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have set their priorities on reforming and cleaning up the Donbas while punishing the Kuchma clan for past crimes.

The Yushchenko government is widely expected by its supporters to arrest and try former President Kuchma on charges relating to the slaying of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. In its first 100 days in office, the new government has arrested two suspects, both high-level Interior Ministry officers, who have confessed to killing Gongadze. A third suspect, Interior Ministry General Oleksiy Pukach, has an arrest warrant out for him and is believed by some to be hiding in Israel. The only remaining hang-up in the case seems to be a controversy over recordings made by Mykola Melnychenko, whose erratic behavior and refusal to hand over the original recordings he purportedly secretly made in Kuchma's office are holding up the prosecution, according to an interview with Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun in "Ukrayinska Pravda" on 24 April.

Kuchma is also believed to be closely linked to large-scale fraud and embezzlement allegedly conducted by his property office chief Ihor Bakay. Bakay, who is in hiding in Russia, is being sought by Ukrainian law-enforcement officials who want to question him about a number of suspect deals he authorized in 2004 involving tens of millions of dollars.

The first 100 days have also demonstrated that the government led by Tymoshenko is plagued by personal conflicts and squabbles. The most visible conflict is between Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. It has long been known that Poroshenko wanted to become prime minister and that Yushchenko's choice of Tymoshenko was influenced by pressure from those who saw her as an uncompromising figure who would combat corruption while Poroshenko, a rich businessman, was seen as being less dedicated to fighting corruption. The conflict also involves unclear lines of responsibility between the Cabinet and the National Security and Defense Council and has the makings of a turf fight.

One scandal reported by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that has generated bad publicity concerns Justice Minister Roman Zvarych. Zvarych, who renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1993 to become a Ukrainian subject, threatened to resign if the cabinet passed a regulation forbidding the resale of oil from Ukraine. Soon it became known that Zvarych's wife was employed by an oil company that was exporting oil. The cabinet did not pass the regulation and Zvarych remained in the government. Soon afterward, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website conducted an investigation which it claimed showed that Zvarych had lied about graduating from Columbia University. Zvarych maintained that he did graduate from Columbia. "Ukrayinska pravda" then published a letter from the registrars office of the university stating that he did not.

Tymoshenko took a sanguine view of the matter and in an interview for the newspaper "Zerkalo tyzhnya" stated that Zvarych rarely attends cabinet meetings and that his presence is rarely missed.

Yushchenko himself has concentrated on foreign affairs during his first 100 days in office. His visit to the United States was considered a glowing success considering that while he was addressing Congress, Ukrainian troops were being pulled out of Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Kyiv in March, although not regarded as a major step in Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation after Putin's blatant support for Viktor Yanukovych during the election campaign, nonetheless helped to ease tensions. Yushchenko's trip to Ashgabat in March to discuss natural-gas deliveries and his reported success in convincing Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to sign a long-term gas supply agreement with Ukraine can also be viewed as a positive achievement.

Yushchenko's goal of NATO membership for Ukraine advanced during the alliance's meeting in Lithuania in April, where the door was opened for Ukraine's eventual membership.

When taking into consideration that in Ukraine there is no transition period for a new government to familiarize itself with the workload of its predecessor, an oversight that can lead to a chaotic beginning for any government, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko team has not fared poorly.

The first 100 days saw a certain amount of hurried and contradictory statements by new ministers and one, Deputy Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Mykola Tomenko in particular, has been criticized in the press for being too vocal about matters that do not concern his portfolio. Despite this, the overall performance of the new government has to be seen as more than satisfactory and earns at least a "B" if not higher.

Viktor Yushchenko earns an "A-" which could have been an "A+" were it not for his old habit of promising more than he is prepared to deliver at times. (Roman Kupchinsky)