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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 7, 2005

7 September 2005, Volume 7, Number 32
UN REPORT SAYS CHORNOBYL'S FINAL DEATH TOLL TO REACH 4,000. Although exact figures have been elusive, some experts have long estimated that the death toll stemming from the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine could reach the tens or even hundreds of thousands. But according to a new report, the number of total eventual victims may be far lower than those grim estimates -- that is, around 4,000.

Nearly two decades after the world's worst nuclear accident, the report by the Chernobyl Forum group that includes experts from eight United Nations agencies concludes that its consequences were not as dire as predicted.

The Chernobyl Forum report says that so far, some 50 people have been killed as a result of the explosion at Ukraine's Chornobyl power plant. Most were rescue workers who died within months of the accident because of exposure to high doses of radiation.

"Early on, the people who worked in the reactor and so on, there were about 30 deaths acutely from the accident and about another 20 have died over the next two years," World Health Organization expert Dr. Fred Mettler, one of the authors of the report, said.

Chornobyl's Reactor 4 exploded on 26 April 1986, sending a cloud of radiation over Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and much of Europe. The report finds that more than 600,000 people received high levels of exposure, including reactor staff, emergency and recovery personnel, and residents of the nearby areas. But it says that claims that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the accident are exaggerated.

Mettler told RFE/RL that the final death toll from the accident could reach up to 4,000 people. "There are about 4,000 children who got thyroid cancer and to date between about nine to 15 of those have died. That's a slow-growing disease so there may be some more that may in fact die from that," he said. "Then there's the issue of cancers and how many have died is mostly a projection based on dose and risk and the number for the people living in the highly contaminated areas and the people who were highly exposed is projected to be about 4,000 cases."

Alongside deaths and diseases attributed to radiation, the report says that "the mental-health effect" of the accident on the local population is "the largest health problem" created by the explosion in the Ukrainian power plant. The authors say people in the affected areas lack the information they need to lead a healthy life. Many of them report a negative self-health assessment, expect their lives will be shorter and lack initiative.

Mettler said that one lesson that could be learned from the accident is that providing accurate information could lessen the psychological consequences of such disasters. "I think the other one is accurate and timely information from the governments to the media and the media to the people would avoid a huge amount of the subsequent psychological issues," Mettler said.

The report also concluded that, apart from a 30-kilometer area surrounding the Chornobyl site, radiation levels in the area have returned to acceptable levels. But it raised concerns about the condition of the sarcophagus surrounding the plant, and the disposal of radioactive waste from the accident.

The 600-page report, titled "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," includes recommendations to the government of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It is set to be discussed today and tomorrow at a conference in Vienna under the aegis of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

But environmental groups are already taking issue. "We think that the report is trying to minimize the impact and this is not only a lack of respect towards the victims but it also leads to dangerous recommendations, such as relocating people in contaminated zones, which would lead to even more victims in the future," Jan Van de Putte, a radiation expert with Greenpeace International, told RFE/RL.

He added that the report does not take into account other parts of Europe's population also exposed to Chornobyl's fallout, or noncancerous diseases that could be linked to radiation.

So far, the governments of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine -- the countries most affected by the disaster -- have yet to officially react to the report. But Rafael Arutyunian, deputy head of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the UN's figures are exaggerated. AP quoted him as saying that the number of eventual Chornobyl-related deaths in Russia is expected to reach 100, adding that the situation in Belarus and Ukraine is likely to be similar. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

ACTIVISTS, EXPERTS DISPUTE UN REPORT ON CHORNOBYL. Environmental activists and researchers in some of the countries most affected by the Chornobyl disaster have rejected a new United Nations report that says the consequences of the 1986 explosion in the Ukrainian nuclear plant were not as dire as predicted (see story above).

Nataliya Preobrazhenska heads the Save The Ukrainian Children from the Chornobyl Catastrophe foundation and is a consultant to the Committee on Radiation Security of the parliament of Ukraine.

She told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the 1986 explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant continues to cause serious health and environmental problems for people living in the affected areas. "We must all know that we are not living after [the Chornobyl catastrophe], but [still] during the Chornobyl catastrophe," she said.

Preobrazhenska was reacting to the new report released by the Chernobyl Forum, a group involving experts from eight UN agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The report found that besides thousands of workers who were exposed to high doses of radiation in the early days of the accident and thousands stricken with thyroid cancer, the impact on the rest of the population was not as severe as feared.

The report concludes that the death toll caused by radiation could reach a total of 4,000, which is much lower than previous estimates. Such a conclusion could affect national and international programs dedicated to helping people in the most affected areas of the disaster in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

Preobrazhenska believes that the report does not tell the whole story. "It's horrible, the IAEA statement is criminal!" she said. "I think it�s time for The Hague court to look at our figures and at what the IAEA says."

Preobrazhenska said that the cancer rate in the region remains high as a result of radiation exposure caused by the accident. She said that only in 2003, more than 150,000 new cases of cancer were registered in Ukraine.

Yury Bandazheuski, a prominent Belarusian researcher on the effects of radiation exposure, also does not agree with some of the findings of the UN report. Bandazheuski was conditionally released from prison in early August after having served four years of what had originally been an eight-year sentence. He was convicted of taking bribes in exchange for admitting students while serving as rector of a medical institute in Homel. Bandazheuski denies the charges, saying the Belarusian authorities were taking revenge on him for highlighting the disastrous effects of the Chornobyl accident.

In an interview with RFE/RL�s Belarusian Service. Bandazheuski questioned the methods used by the UN scientists and researchers who prepared the report: "Has any of those scientists spent an extended period of time in the Homel region studying the condition of children? Only after that can one say whether or not the small radiation factor has any impact on people's condition. Or did they just make two- or three-day trips, wave their hands and leave? This is why they made such conclusions."

Ivan Nikitchanka, a member of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and long-time researcher into Chornobyl-related issues, also criticized the report. He told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that UN agencies and the Belarusian government are ignoring the impact of the nuclear disaster.

"People are continuing to die as they did before; they are getting sick as they did before. There is no movement -- and no IAEA, no World Health Organization will help us...doesn't even have the intention of helping us," Nikitchanka said. "For them, it's important to stifle our problems so people don't know about them, because this would affect their business. They didn't protect the population from the disaster. And there will be no results from this forum. Why? Because comrade [Belarusian President Alyakandr] Lukashenka said, 'Starting from 2001, there is no longer any Chernobyl problem.' That's it."

The UN report has been also criticized by some environmental groups in Norway and Russia, another affected country.

Vladimir Chuprov, coordinator of Greenpeace Russia, was quoted by AP as saying that the report did not take into account premature deaths caused by the accident.

At the opening of the Chernobyl Forum meeting in Vienna on 6 September, which is being held under the aegis of the IAEA, Russia's representative Nadezda Gerasimova reportedly said that Chornobyl's main fallout was "social" rather than "radiological." She added that the time had come to cut some benefits to people in the affected areas.

Greenpeace International said yesterday that the UN report "whitewashes" the impact of the world�s worst nuclear accident. Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group, said the report reflecs only "a small fraction" of the disaster's real impact. (RFE/RL)

GEORGIAN YOUTH ACTIVIST DESCRIBES JAILING IN MINSK. Giorgi Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze -- two activists of Georgia's Kmara, an organization that was instrumental in deposing the Georgian government during the bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003 -- were arrested in Minsk on 24 August, reportedly because the authenticity of their passports raised official "doubts." The following day a KGB official announced on Belarusian Television that they would be deported from Belarus for meddling in the country's internal affairs (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 1 September 2005). But the authorities subsequently changed their mind once again, and a district court in Minsk on 29 August sentenced the two Georgians to 15 days in jail each for "petty hooliganism," finding them guilty of a fight that they had allegedly started in a prison cell. Amnesty International declared them prisoners of conscience. On 2 September, the Minsk City Court released them, finding the district court's verdict "ungrounded."

Kandelaki gave an interview to Natalya Radzina from Belarus's Charter-97 human rights group, which was posted at its website ( on 5 September under the title "Paranoia is a sign of the regime's death throes." Below is a translation of this interview.

Charter-97: Giorgi, why did you come to Belarus?

Giorgi Kandelaki:We came with a very simple aim -- to support the democracy-oriented youth of Belarus. It is funny that the Belarusian authorities believe that we are experts in the theory of nonviolent resistance. On the eve of the Rose Revolution in our country, we used a handbook written by the Belarusian movement Zubr. Our aim was to give emotional support to Belarusians. Our friends from Zubr have sufficient knowledge.

Charter-97: Tell us about your arrest.

Kandelaki: On coming to Minsk we knew that checking in at a hotel is tantamount to [undergoing the required] registration [for foreigners]. The hotel sends registration data to the police. After that we noticed that the police began to shadow us and that our telephones began to be tapped. On the eve of our arrest, our registration term expired, but we decided to remain in Belarus for some more time and prolonged our registration. Apparently, there was no time to report that to the police, and they found a formal reason to detain us.

We were detained when we were walking jointly with Zubr coordinator Uladzimir Kobets in downtown Minsk. When we showed our registration documents to the plainclothes policemen who stopped us, they looked like fools. But they arrested us all the same. Later, I learned that a prosecutor's authorization of the prolongation of our arrests mentioned that something was allegedly wrong with our documents. The most absurd thing was that the authorization also mentioned that we were not occupied with "publicly useful work," which implied that we were vagrants in Minsk. I told them I am a Georgian journalist. Luka said he is a theater director and works for Georgian Public Television. But that made no impression on them, they simply did not listen to us. Then they took us to a pre-trial detention prison. We thought that they would release us after a day. But it happened otherwise.

Charter-97: What were the conditions like in your cell?

Kandelaki: I had the impression that the very format of that institution creates a legal vacuum there. In our cell we met people who were kept there for two or three months without trial or investigation. The conditions contradicted human dignity. The prison bed was an ordinary wooden board, on which eight to 10 people had to sleep. A cover was not allowed. When we were evicted from the hotel, we wanted to take at least towels out of our things but they did not allow us. Of course, they did not allow us to take any warm clothes either. We only managed to take toothbrushes with us. It was awfully cold at night. Only after five days, thanks to the publicity raised by Belarusian human rights activists and Georgian diplomats, we were able to take some of our things to the cell.

Charter-97: How did the Belarusian police behave toward you?

Kandelaki: After the night I spent in the pre-trial detention, an interrogator asked me mockingly: "Well, Mr. Kandelaki, how do you like being in the Republic of Belarus?" I told him that some day he would be ashamed of what he does. He answered that "this will never happen."

The behavior of the police was arrogant and impudent. We were isolated from any information, we were not told why we had been arrested. Even though Georgian consul in Kyiv Zurab Kvachadze and Georgian consul in Moscow Zurab Pataradze visited the pre-trial detention facility, they were not allowed to meet with us. And we were not told that they had come and were trying to see us. On the contrary, we were persuaded that nobody was interested in our lot, that there was only one telephone call from somewhere, and that was all. The Vienna Convention [on Consular Relations] was violated all the time.

On Sunday [28 August] in the evening, a man named Bondarchik was placed in our cell. He began talking about music. The most interesting thing was that he talked about those groups whose compact discs we had in our suitcases. We realized that he was a provocateur, and we refused to speak with him. After half an hour he requested that he be transferred to a different cell. They took him away and, I think, simply released him. But the following day we were taken to court and accused of insulting and threatening that man Bondarchik, who spent just half an hour in our cell. We were being persuaded to give up on a lawyer but after we insisted on having one, they found some random man. He told me: "Son, I understand everything, but the judge will not put his head under the hammer." As a result, we got 15 days in jail each.

I know one thing -- we will manage to make accountable all those responsible for our illegal arrest. Those people will surely be punished after democracy is established in Belarus.

Charter-97: How did you leave Belarus?

Kandelaki: The Belarusian authorities did not acknowledge that their actions were unlawful; they simply found excuses to release us after they became afraid of the consequences of the scandal [connected with our arrest]. The reason for the release of Luka Tsuladze was that his name was allegedly written down incorrectly in the police report. I was released allegedly because my knowledge of Russian is poor and it was difficult to conduct an investigation and court proceedings against me. However, as you see, my command of Russian is quite good. The most absurd thing is that we have to pay for our stay in that pre-trial detention center.

Charter-97: Did you feel the solidarity of [other] Belarusians during your arrest? Do you know that three activists of the [Belarusian youth organization] Zubr are now under arrest for acting in solidarity with you?

Kandelaki: We met with one of the arrested Zubr members in the cell and he told us what happened. These people are real heroes. They are educated, cultured young people, the real patriots of their country. I have no doubt that they will very soon secure freedom and democracy in this country.

Charter-97: What, in your opinion, is the real motive behind your arrest in Belarus?

Kandelaki: The entire system of power in Belarus is based on total paranoia. Even our cellmates doubted that the Belarusian authorities have enough wit not to put themselves in a stupid situation. This is an empirical feature of such regimes. As soon as the authorities -- either in Serbia or Georgia or Ukraine -- espoused such paranoia, their death throes began.

Apart from this, according to our information, Moscow intervened in this affair. A signal to arrest us came from there. Paranoia in this regard exists in Russia, too. If a democratic wave sweeps across Belarus, Russia's plans to reanimate the empire will completely collapse. The recent deportation from Moscow of Marko Markovic, an active participant in the Orange Revolution and producer of the [Ukrainian rock music] group Okean Elzy, shows whom we are dealing with.

Charter-97: What would you like to say to young Belarusians?

Kandelaki: I admire them. I believe in them. And they must believe in themselves and pursue their goal without turning back. The Belarusian people are very wise and they will say "no" to the dictatorial regime. The time has come. (Translated by Jan Maksymiuk)

APPLES AFTER ORANGES. A survey by the Razumkov Center polling agency from 5-12 August confirmed what was signaled earlier by other Ukrainian pollsters -- namely, that the new government of President Viktor Yushchenko is gradually losing its popularity, following its installation in February on a nationwide wave of enthusiasm incited by the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution. In an April poll, the Razumkov Center found that 52 percent of Ukrainians thought that the new authorities were better than the old ones; in August this indicator fell to 37 percent.

It appears that apart from any other consequences, such a public mood primarily indicates that the probability of any radical socioeconomic reforms being launched by President Yushchenko prior to the parliamentary elections due at the end of March 2006 is virtually nil. The government will almost certainly focus on short-term measures, both economic and propagandistic, to keep the electorate from turning against the new authorities completely, rather than make any reformist steps that would require everyday austerities.

As reported by the "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly in its 24 August-2 September issue, the Razumkov Center found in August that for the first time since the Orange Revolution more Ukrainians think that things in the country are going in the wrong direction rather than the right one -- 43 percent versus 33 percent. In April the analogous indicators in a similar poll were fairly upbeat -- 23 percent versus 54 percent.

Moreover, the number of respondents who think that the country's economic situation under the Yushchenko government has deteriorated is more than double the number who think that it has improved -- 41.5 percent versus 20.5 percent (19 percent versus 27 percent in April). Ukrainians' confidence in the future has also shrunk considerably -- a mere 12 percent of respondents now think that prospects for the future improved versus 48 percent of those who believe that they have worsened (in April the proportion was 32 percent to 26 percent).

On the positive side, Ukrainians in August still tended to believe that the level of democracy and media freedom under Yushchenko's rule increased rather than decreased -- 38 percent versus 20 percent and 46.5 percent versus 14.5 percent, respectively.

The Razumkov Center confirmed that the popularity of the ruling parties is also sliding. In August six political parties were potentially able to overcome the 3 percent vote threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation. The Our Ukraine People's Union was supported by 20 percent of those polled, the Party of Regions by 14.2 percent, the Fatherland party by 10.5 percent, the Communist Party by 5.5 percent, the Socialist Party by 4.2 percent, and the People's Party by 4.1 percent. In a similar poll conducted in May, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine People's Union and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland were backed by notably larger electorates -- 31.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.

The results of the survey are rather surprising, given the government's reports on the allegedly improving financial situation of Ukrainians. According to the government, real incomes rose in January-June by some 27 percent. And the average monthly wage in Ukraine by the end of June officially stood at some 820 hryvnyas ($160), exceeding by 80 percent the country's subsistence minimum. Hence, why should people be dissatisfied?

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych criticized the Yushchenko government as early as April, saying that it was sacrificing the country's economic development for temporary social benefits. Ukraine's economic growth in 2005 slowed to some 5 percent from the 12-percent growth reported in 2004 by Yanukovych's cabinet. According to Yanukovych, the pension and wage increases that the new government "thoughtlessly" introduced to reinforce the postrevolutionary enthusiasm in the country were actually devoured by a subsequent inflation jump. And Yanukovych argued that in April Ukrainians already had to pay three times more for food and other necessities than a year before.

Tymoshenko's cabinet has officially admitted that inflation in Ukraine in the first half of 2005 was 6.7 percent. However, International Monetary Fund experts estimate it to be 15 percent. The latter figure may explain why Ukrainians now tend to believe that their economic situation has worsened rather than improved, particularly if we take into account that most of them spend their incomes almost completely on food and other essentials.

"Zerkalo nedeli" also points to another potentially hazardous misstep that the Yushchenko government has made in bestowing its postrevolutionary generosity on the populace. The weekly argues that Yushchenko's pension and wage hikes embraced generally pensioners and the poorest segment of Ukraine's workforce, that is, the people who categorize themselves as the "lower class" (approximately 30 percent of Ukrainians). However, this largesse -- the weekly adds -- did not produce any lasting shifts in this group's political sympathies. In April Yushchenko was backed by 45 percent of lower-class voters and opposed by 25 percent of them, but in August support for the president in this social group fell to 32 percent, while opposition rose to 35 percent.

But the most dismal indicator appears to be a drop in enthusiasm for Yushchenko among those Ukrainians who classify themselves as the "middle class" (some 60 percent of the population). According to the Razumkov Center, in April Yushchenko was backed by 51 percent of middle-class voters and opposed by 21 percent of them, whereas in August these indicators were 34 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

According to sociological surveys, more than 70 percent of Ukrainians supporting Yushchenko at rallies during the Orange Revolution belonged to the middle class. Arguably, representatives of this social group are the most likely candidates to form the backbone of a future society that could wholeheartedly accept a market economy and parliamentary democracy. For them time-serving state charity seems to be not so important as a purposeful policy to recast the current mix of Soviet-era socialism and post-Soviet oligarchic capitalism in Ukraine into a transparent and civilized market-economy system with a strong middle class as its stabilizing core. Regrettably, Yushchenko has so far failed to show or even convince the public that he intends to make any steps in this direction. (Jan Maksymiuk)

YUSHCHENKO'S TEAM HIT WITH RESIGNATIONS, ACCUSATIONS. Political temperatures are rising in Ukraine. The former chief of staff of President Viktor Yushchenko has resigned and accused several senior government officials of corruption. Separately, the head of Ukraine's National Television and Radio also stepped down. Analysts see the moves as a sign of an emerging political struggle ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Oleksandr Zinchenko once helped lead the Orange Revolution that toppled the allegedly corrupt regime of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

But after resigning last week, Viktor Yushchenko's former chief of staff accused the new president�s administration of being "even worse" than Kuchma's.

On 6 September, the political temperatures in Kyiv rose further. Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, opened its new session with speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn criticizing the government, saying it is "acting just like" Kuchma.

Zinchenko told reporters on 5 September that several high-ranking officials are corrupt and are trying to take over all branches of government. "Having organized an information blockade around the president, having taken him to a virtual, unreal world, cynically distorting reality and true accents of life, [these people] are step by step carrying out their plan to maximally use government posts in order to increase their own capital, to privatize and get into their hands everything they can," he said. "Their goal is a monopoly on key government functions."

Zinchenko identified National Defense and Security Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko as the main culprit and was applauded when he finished his statement. He also identified senior presidential adviser Oleksandr Tretyakov as another corrupt official.

Tretyakov has denied the allegations, as has Poroshenko, who attended the news conference.

"I would like to emphasize that Petro Poroshenko is an absolutely self-sufficient person and that he has never clung onto a [government] post and never will," Poroshenko said in his own defense. "He has not become one kopeck or one share richer since he became a government official, and he will leave office in the same way. I emphasize now that the Security and Defense Council secretary has no influence either on the Prosecutor-General's Office, or on the Ukrainian Security Service, or on the Interior Ministry."

Poroshenko, a well-known businessman, said Zinchenko was trying to destroy Yushchenko's team "from the inside" and challenged him to find evidence to back up his allegations. So far, no evidence has been given to back up the corruption allegations.

Nonetheless, the incident is just the latest dispute to hit Yushchenko's administration. Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit told RFE/RL that it is "bad news" for the president. "It underlines the lack of cohesion within Yushchenko's team," he said. "I think this is more bad news for Mr. Yushchenko, who's been unable to maintain the momentum that he came into office with. This is going to be another setback, it is going to lead to more accusations that things aren't as different in Ukraine as many had hoped they'd be."

Yushchenko took office in January pledging to root out official corruption and take Ukraine into the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and NATO. The current problems cast doubts on the ability of the country�s new leaders to deliver promised reforms.

Yuriy Yakymenko, the head of the political-legal office of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, told RFE/RL that he's not surprised the scandal has erupted. Yushchenko came to power supported by both socialists and liberals and never managed to create a united team. He said the rising political temperatures should be seen as a part of the prelude to parliamentary elections in March 2006.

"The elections exacerbate these disagreements, which existed long ago both inside the government and between the government and other centers of power. The elections are catalysts in all these events. The recent stormy events really indicate that the election campaign is informally kicking off and politicians are eager to participate in it openly," Yakymenko said.

But Yakymenko said that the resignation of the head of Ukraine's National Television and Radio, Taras Stetskiv, is a slightly different matter. Though Stetskiv has decided to retain his seat in parliament, his resignation indicates that he had failed to create a truly independent public broadcaster as he felt pressured by both politicians and officials.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, is closely observing events in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin told "The Times" of London on 6 September that foreign pressure for reform in former Soviet states risks turning them into chaotic "banana republics."

Putin said Western governments may have been mistaken in backing nongovernmental organizations pushing for change during last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine. He also said it was no surprise that Zinchenko quit to protest the rising corruption among top officials. (Valentinas Mite)