Chernobyl and Belarus: from Gorbachev to Lukashenka
While Belarus has suffered more than any other country from the Chernobyl disaster, it receives little foreign aid because of its political isolation. In addition, all the Soviet-type bureaucracy and red tape limit development of community initiatives and civil society projects in Belarus, particularly those which involve foreign aid.
When on 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, the winds were blowing in the direction of Belarus. As a result, more than 70% of the radioactive fallout landed in the south-east of Belarus. One-fifth of Belarus’ farming land was severely contaminated.
In 1986, the Soviet Politburo led by Mikhail Gorbachev was concerned more about its reputation than about lives and health of Soviet citizens, who were primarily living in the territory of Belarus. There was nearly no publicly available information about the blast and people marched in traditional 1 May parades with red flags, praising the Communist Party and exposing themselves to high doses of radiation.
Only after radiation levels set off alarms in Sweden, over one thousand kilometers from Chernobyl, did the Soviet Union officially admit that an accident had occurred and began to share more information with the public. Many illnesses and deaths could have been prevented had the authorities in a timely manner taken the most basic precautions, such as distributing iodine, a treatment which prevents the effects of radiation. As a result, Chernobyl resulted in thousands of deaths, and a much higher number of cases of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses.
25 years later, Belarusian authorities led by Alyaksandr Lukashanka seem to have a two-fold approach. At home, they often argue that the effects of Chernobyl are exaggerated and much of the polluted territories are safe to use for agricultural and other purposes. Dealing with the Chernobyl consequences is costly and clearly undermines the Belarusian authorities’ decision to build a nuclear plant station close to the border with Lithuania.
Because of the Chernobyl legacy, the idea of building a nuclear plant station is unpopular in Belarus. However, the Belarusian parliament is not independent and the civil society is too underdeveloped to influence this decision. Just yesterday, the authorities detained a group of people who were going to protest against building a nuclear plant in Belarus. They also banned Charnobylski Shliakh – an annual rally to commemorate the nuclear disaster – but allowed a meeting outside of Minsk city center.
Abroad Belarus authorities often take a different approach. They use the Chernobyl problem to distract foreigners from the political situation in the country. For instance, in 2007 the Belarus embassy in Washington, DC organized a reception for a local chapter of Harvard Club. The stories told by the embassy representatives to Americans about birth defects and other Chernobyl-related consequences were so shocking that following that event they looked at Belarusians as though they were emitting radiation themselves.
However, the ongoing political repressions in Belarus and the personality of Lukashenka hinder authorities’ attempts to raise more funds and get political backing to deal with Chernobyl-related problems. Lukashenka was not invited to a major Chernobyl donor conference in Kyiv last week, because the European Commission’s President Barroso wanted to avoid embarrassment of meeting him. Only a few lower-level Belarusian representatives were there. Today, President Medvedev of Russia and President Yanukovich of Ukraine are visiting Chernobyl, but Lukashenka will not be there.
It is understandable that many world leaders want to avoid meeting Lukashenka. But perhaps the organizers of those events should have invited other high-ranking Belarusian officials not directly implicated in political repressions. It is just not right that the country which suffered the most is nearly excluded from participating in major Chernobyl-related international events.