How to Benefit from Being Encircled by Soviet-Type Nuclear Plants
On 26 April 1986, a human error and the Soviet equipment caused the Chernobyl disaster – the largest technological catastrophe ever. For many days Soviet authorities attempted to conceal the scale of the disaster. The Soviet Union admitted that an accident had occurred only after radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden. Instead of immediate evacuation, people were taken to the streets on the the May Day to celebrate the communist party with red banners and portraits of Lenin.
Because of the wind direction, the bulk of contamination ended up in Belarus which suffered more than any other country from the disaster. Chernobyl-type nuclear plants are more than just history. The territory of Belarus is literally encircled by Soviet-type nuclear plants. Just across the border are Smolensk and Kursk nuclear plants in Russia, Ignalina plant in Lithuania, and nuclear plants in Ukrainian Rivne and Chernobyl. The European Union authorities considered Ignalina unsafe and Lithuania had to close it down last year.
The Russian authorities do not think that their Soviet-type plants are too dangerous and Ukraine perhaps lacks funds to replace its own. The closure of Ignalina decreased energy dependence of Lithuania, which plans to build another nuclear plant on the border with Belarus. Russia also depended on Ignalina and plans to build a nuclear reactor in its Kalinigrad enclave. Vladimir Putin already signed a decree to begin construction. This will increase to seven the number of active and recently closed (but still dangerous) nuclear plants close to the Belarusian border. Belarus has none on its own territory.
Belarus authorities has long dream of building its own nuclear plant and it is is likely to appear on the Lithuanian border. Although Russia's assertiveness in using its natural gas and oil as strategic weapons may justify the rush to build more nuclear plants, it should not blind the decision-makers. The costs of building a nuclear plant are enormous and require heavy external borrowing. Purchasing and recycling radioactive fuel is also very expensive and Belarus will have to rely on Russia for that. And at some point, the nuclear plant will need to be dismantled which takes decades.
For instance, it will take 20-30 years to complete dismantlement of the Ignalina plant. If you all these maintenance costs are put together, the nuclear energy is far from cheap. Chernobyl showed the world that nuclear energy is particularly dangerous in undemocratic and nontransparent societies. Belarus learned the lesson the hard way with human suffering of hundreds of thousands and hundreds of billions dollars in economic losses. Still many tend to forget that in the absence of full transparency and independent control mechanisms, nuclear energy is a too dangerous toy to play with. It is true that Belarus cannot control nuclear stations across its border and is exposed to any potential accidents.
The fact that it cannot do anything about it should be accepted and building its own station will not change it. Belarus is not exactly the ideal of democracy and good governance and the risks of a human error similar to that which caused Chernobyl are too high. If the Belarus nuclear plant sponsored, built, fueled and maintained by Russia it will make the country even more dependent upon its Eastern neighbor. Instead of exposing itself to more foreign debt and dependence upon Russia, Belarus should bargain with Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine and buy cheap nuclear energy from them. They will always have a surplus of energy to sell. And given the competition between these countries, the price will be reasonable. Ripping the benefits of cheap nuclear energy without bearing the costs of maintaining nuclear plants would be a wise policy for a country which suffered so much from Chernobyl.
Bakiev’s Stay in Minsk May Further Isolate Belarus
The world has recently witnessed the overthrown Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev descend from the ominous volcanic clouds in Mink, ending the rumors over his whereabouts and further damaging Belarus’ international image. Ousted in an April 7 uprising, Bakiev first fled to Kazakhstan and on April 19 was safely delivered to the Belarusian capital by Alyaksandr Lukashenka's personal security services. While Bakiev’s flight to Belarus was hardly the bold stunt Lukashenka described, Kyrgyz president indeed had good reasons be fleeing as in his home country. In Kyrgyzstan, he faces trial for allegedly ordering police to open fire on protesters and causing 85 deaths.
It is more difficult to see any good reasons why Minsk will may have had for sheltering Bakiev. This may further alienate it both from Russia and the West. On the one hand, alternating clashes with Russia and with the West against each other could one day turn out to a smart move on Lukashenka’s part. After all, Belarus was able to get cheap gas and oil from Russia, enjoyed generous IMF loans as well as some money from Moscow, and was invited it to join the Eastern Partnership.
On the other hand, from the usual “annoying either/or” Minsk’s game is turning into “annoying both,” as both the West and Russia are no longer on Bakiev’s side. And the consequence of annoying both is further increasing Belarus’ isolation and risking to one day wind up between Scylla and Charybdis. So why is Minsk sheltering the Kyrgyz leader? Perhaps because Lukashenka and his “dearest guest” have a lot in common. To start with, both have been playing the West and Russia against each other to achieve their foreign policy goals. Just last year, Bakiev has skillfully manipulated the issue of the US military base in Manas.
Of course, there is much more the two leaders share. Like Lukashenka 11 years earlier, Bakiev came to power promising to wipe out corruption and improve the economy. Initially elected democratically, Bakiev and Lukashenka have grown authoritarian with time starting to crack down on the media, suppress the opposition, and rig elections. Both presidents used referendum results to amend the constitutions of their countries gaining more power as a result. Having retracted his letter of resignation, Bakiev insists that he is a legitimate president of Kyrgyzstan just as Lukashenka has for the past decade insisted that he is a legitimate president of Belarus despite the discontent of some.
But if “legitimate president” is the one approved generally by those who are subject to his authorities, then Bakiev clearly does not qualify. He has failed to acquire legitimacy by being fairly elected, or by operating under democratic principles, or at least by fostering high living standards and ensuring economic growth. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev, who currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He had hinted that Bakiev’s departure from Kyrgyzstan would help ease tension. Busy earning international acceptance, Kazakh president is now smiling from many Washington D.C. billboards as the champion of the nuclear weapon-free world.
Nursultan Nazarbayev would not want to tarnish his reputation by hosting someone who may one day searched for by the Interpol (which may be Bakiev's fate, as Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otumbayeva had warned). Minsk could clearly care less about tensions as those do not exist in Belarus. However, tensions with the outside world cannot be ignored and Belarus is already experiencing enough international isolation.