Belarus-Russia-EU triangle, Belarusian Yearbook 2016, Population 50+, corruption survey – digest of Belarusian analytics

Eugene Rumor, Carnegie Endowment, argues that post-2014 Belarus is a less reliable satellite for Russia and the West should calibrate its policy accordingly. Grigory Ioffe breaks down recent harsh statements by Dalia Grybauskaitė and Svetlana Aleksievich.

OSW: energy dispute between Minsk and Moscow is not completely resolved. Yauheni Preiherman believes that Belarus’ foreign policy cannot be grasped by the classic bandwagoning-balancing dichotomy.

IPM fresh survey: one third of Belarusian private businesses consider corruption widespread. CET presents an analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs.

This and more in the new edition of the digest of Belarusian analytics

EU-Belarus relations

Words matter: Belarus and its Western neighbors – Grigory Ioffe analyses recent harsh public statements made by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich. The author concludes that the government in Minsk has a better understanding than some of its Western neighbours that ongoing frustrations and regional grievances are perpetual nuisances in the overall European tug of war between the major global centres of power.

EU should put pressure on Belarus nuclear project – EUobserver argues that the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant, built and financed by Russia, disregards international safety standards as it is so close to the population centre. Moreover, poor safety has already led to at least six incidents and several deaths at the construction site.

Toward a new European Union strategy for Belarus – Complications have tensed the relationship between the EU and Belarus, with some arguing for continued engagement with the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenka, and others calling for a return to isolation and excluding Belarus from the Eastern Partnership. E-International Relations argue that clarity about the end goal is critical for framing EU strategy towards the country.

Belarus-Russia

Belarus’s asymmetric relations with Russia: the case of strategic hedging? – In his paper, Yauheni Preiherman argues that Belarus’ foreign policy cannot be grasped by the classic bandwagoning-balancing dichotomy. Under the conditions of deeply embedded geostrategic asymmetries and with a view to bypassing structural restrictions of its foreign policy, Belarus pursues strategic hedging, in particular in its relations with Russia.

Case of Amriev: Minsk has discredited itself in eyes of international community – Belarus in Focus experts, following the Murad Amriev extradition, note that Belarusian authorities are attempting to demonstrate to the Kremlin their reliability as a partner in sensitive issues. However, what seems quite reasonable in Minsk, may negatively affect the country’s reputation in the outer world.

Belarus: with friends like these… – Carnegie Endowment notes that since the breakdown of the post-Cold War security order and the rise in tensions between NATO and Russia, Belarus has occupied a prominent place as the critical territory between Russia and NATO. Although Russia has a strong influence in the region, its grip is less certain than often assumed.

The story that never ends. New stages in the energy dispute between Russia and Belarus – According to OSW experts, over the past few years, the situation in the area of energy cooperation of Russia and Belarus has become strained; Russia desires to optimise on their support for Belarus and the escalating recession in Belarus has forced them to apply for even more subsidies.

Domestic politics

Belarusian Yearbook 2016 – This is an annual comprehensive analysis of the key developments and current status of the main sectors of the state and society in 2016. Three processes determined the political agenda last year – the presidential election, normalisation of Belarus’s relations with the West, and the economic recession. The presentation of the Yearbook was held in Minsk, on 23 June.

Population 50+ in Belarus: the experience of using the instruments of social harmonisation in the EU The working paper analyses the demographic situation in Belarus and assesses the risks for the 50+ group to fall into the poverty line, become unemployed and the influence of age on alcohol consumption

Belarus’s quest for self-identity aided by outside actors – Grigory Ioffe discusses the events that prove that a clear identity for Belarus as a nation is on its way to realisation. The Tell the Truth campaign was officially registered after 7 attempts. A debate over the Belarusian language has resumed. Lastly, Belarus came under renewed attacks by voices in both Russia and the West, but Belarus was able to perceive themselves as a unique and confident nation.

Lukashenka reformed the political system so that nothing changes. Journalist Paŭliuk Bykoŭski argues that modernisation of the Belarusian political system is not present, although some micro-movements may be seen. There is a debate over whether or not any new political systems will arise.

Andrej Vardamacki: media situation may change within a month – In mid-May, the Belarusian Analytical Workshop presented the results of the latest national poll. Andrej Vardamacki tells Thinktanks.by what is behind a sensational surge of confidence to non-state media (from 19.4% in February to 30.4% in April), explains what topics journalists should cover and what geopolitical infantilism is.

How to reform Belarus' regions. IdeaBy expert community has launched a landing to cover a topic dedicated to the situation in the Belarus' regions. The website collects actual data and analytics on the topic.

A third of the businessmen surveyed consider corruption widespread in Belarus. The IPM Research Center commissioned a survey devoted to the state of the business climate in the country. Among over 400 enterprises interviewed, 22.6% of the respondents indicated widespread corruption in the country and 8.1% – pervasive corruption.

Belarus Policy

Belarus’ civil society: current status and conditions of development An analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs 

Belarus’ civil society: current status and conditions of development – Centre for European Transformation (CET) presents an analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs. The study covers such issues as statistics of CSOs, areas of activity, geographical distribution, public participation, as well as certain political, legal and financial conditions.

Population 50+ in Belarus: the experience of using the instruments of social harmonisation in the EU – The first part of the working paper describes the demographic changes and challenges in the world, sets basic indicators reflecting ageing of the population, as well as it reviews relevant literature available for Belarus. The second part analyses the demographic situation in Belarus and assesses the risks for the 50+ group to fall into the poverty line, become unemployed and the influence of age on alcohol consumption.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Cooperation with China, attracting tourists, involving the church – state press digest

Belarus and China sign contracts totaling $20 million. The authorities build a large solar power station on land contaminated by the Chernobyl catastrophe. Aliaksandr Lukashenka participates in the CIS Summit for the first time since 2011.

A delegation of the European Commission visit the Belarusian NPP. The Belarusian President hopes that the Belarusian Orthodox Church will play a more active role in society.

This and more in the new edition of the state press digest.

Politics

A delegation of the European Commission visit the Belarusian nuclear power plant. Experts from the European Commission and Belarus met last week. The two sides exchanged plans and proposals to improve the situation at the Belarusian nuclear power plant. The Belarusian side confirmed that stress tests can held in December of next year. Deputy Director-General of the European Commission Gerassimos Thomas said that the European Union is looking for new opportunities to establish relations with Belarus in various spheres. The Astraviec NPP can become not only a competitive and profitable energy resource but also "an important geopolitical element", writes Belarus Segodnya.

Lukashenka attends the 25th Summit of the CIS in Bishkek. Representatives of various former Soviet Union countries gathered in the capital of Kyrgyzstan in order to discuss the future of the CIS.The President of Belarus attended the CIS Summit for the first time since 2011, writes Narodnaya Gazeta.

Despite having similar views on the importance of the CIS as a geopolitical platform, many heads of state, including the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan, emphasised the low efficiency of the CIS in several areas. Nevertheless, all parties agreed that the CIS has a future. Almazbek Atambayev expressed his hope that the CIS will remain a project that unites friendly nations.

Ministers of Foreign Affairs conducted a panel session during the summit. Uladzimir Makiej expressed his opinion that the CIS is still the most important platform for the discussion of new challenges in the post-Soviet space. The Foreign Ministers of Belarus and Russia weighed in on issues of counter-terrorism and humanitarian cooperation. In addition, parties came to the decision that 2017 will be declared the Year of the Family in the CIS.

Economy

Belarus and China sign contracts worth $20 million. The Fifth China-Eurasia Expo took place in Xinjiang from 20 to 25 September, where 40 organisations and enterprises represented Belarus. According to the director of the unitary enterprise "Belinterexpo", Jauhien Uviadzienski, the Belarusian exhibition was highly popular from the very beginning, reports Zviazda. Mikalaj Snapkoŭ, Deputy Chief of The Presidential Administration, presented Belarus at a meeting entitled "China and Belarus – strategic partnership and trust".

During the briefing, participants discussed the potential for investment and tourism in the framework of Belarus-China cooperation. Both countries signed contracts on the development of cooperation and new supplies, totaling $20 million, in the fields of engineering, petrochemistry and food industries. As such, the confectionery factory Spartak settled a three year agreement with a Chinese sailing company. During the Expo representatives of Minsk Automobile Plant discussed co-production of electrobuses with JI WINWAY INVESTMENT CORP. OF CHINA and HARRY GAO Chairman enterprises.

Belarus builds its biggest solar power station near Brahin. The solar power station, with a 18.48MW capacity, is capable of saving up to 7,000 cubic metres of natural gas per hour. The total cost of the solar battery comes to €24 million. Velcom, the mobile operator responsible for its construction, announced that the plant is ready four months earlier than planned, writes The Minsk Times.

Located near Brahin, the station presents an example of an effective use of the lands contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster. Currently, the solar power station is the largest solar battery in Belarus with a total area of sixty football fields.

LLK-Naftan begins to cooperate more closely with Iran. The Navapolack based oil company has sent the first batch of lubricating oil additives to Iran, writes Vitebskie Vesti. Until the beginning of 2016, economic sanctions were a significant obstacle for Iranian enterprises. However, following the sanctions' removal, Iran organised an oil conference in Tehran, in which LLK-Naftan participated.

As a result, the two sides have signed a contract of cooperation, according to which the Belarusian enterprise will supply 50 tonnes of lubricating oil additives to Tehran. Currently LLK-Naftan is the largest producer of lubricating oil additives in the Post-Soviet space and has more than 25 international partners. Meanwhile, General Director of LLK-Naftan Michail Babuškin maintains that cooperation with Iran is taking place in an environment of strong competition.

Hrodna region attracts more and more foreign tourists. From January to July 2016 the region brought in $4.2 million, accounting for 128.8% of last year's income from tourism. The introduction of a visa-free regime in the region explains the increasing amount of tourists, writes Hrodzenskaya Prauda. The most popular reason to visit the region remains health services. Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Michail Partnoj says that Belarus has recently been ranked among the top 10 countries for expected level of investment in the tourism sector.

Society

Alexander Lukashenka expects more active participation of the Church in society. The President of Belarus believes that the Orthodox Church should help citizens in forming their cultural, civilizational and geopolitical orientation, writes Narodnaja Hazieta.

During a conversation with the Metropolitan of Minsk, Lukashenka noted that the Church can help not only in the socialisation and formation of moral values but also in other spheres. For example, the president proposed that the Belarusian Orthodox Church participate in the revival of historical and cultural monuments.

The Metropolitan of Minsk opined that the Belarusian Orthodox Church should serve as a partner and supporter of the state. At the end of the meeting, Lukashenka also noted that priests working in churches ought to be native Belarusians.

The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Parliamentary elections, refugee crisis, oil price dispute – Western press digest

This month, the attention of the international media on Belarus largely focused on whether there would be any credible improvements in Belarusian electoral policy during the parliamentary elections.

Despite scepticism regarding how long the thaw between Belarus and the West could really last, Belarusian economic relations with Russia have been strained and confrontational. Meanwhile, the Belarusian nuclear power plant under construction in Astraviec has become a concern not merely to the Lithuanian government but also to the European Commission.

Belarus has appeared in the news this month in the escalating conflict in Syria, the growing migration crisis, and the Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Its unwillingness to gradually adjust to liberal and market economy rhythms, and thereby obtain much-expected loans and credits from foreign investors, has also captured the attention of the international media.

International relations

Scepticism towards Belarusian parliamentary elections. Aljazeera and Reuters questioned whether the recent parliamentary elections in Belarus were really fair and free. The election results yet again confirmed that the slight improvements in the election process and campaigns and the ‘appointment’ of two representatives of the political opposition in parliament are nothing but a gesture from the ruling regime signalling its willingness to proceed with the motions of nominally improving cooperation with the West. This cooperation, having little if any effect on the Belarusian political landscape, is therefore of a pragmatic and interest-based nature.

‘Invisible' Belarusian soft power in the Syria humanitarian crisis. The Syrian Arab News Agency reports that 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid were delivered to Aleppo from Belarus. For very good reasons, Belarusian assistance in coping with crises in regions of escalated armed conflicts should be met with appreciation. However, Belarusian generosity seems to have been overshadowed by Russia's military role in the conflict for the international community.

Belarus’s solidarity with Russia at the Paralympic Games in Rio. The Guardian grasps the ambiguous nature of the Belarusian paralympic team's decision to express solidarity with the disqualified Russian team in the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Many actors, including the International Paralympic Committee, considered the gesture nothing but a way to reiterate the undeviating political loyalty of Belarus towards Russia. However, the Belarusian paralympic team renounced any political motives, asserting that their sole motivation was to protest the unjustified restriction against Russian athletes.

Economy and business

Strengthening the outlook of Belarus as a stable and gradually reforming state promises to attract more foreign investments. Global Risk Insights discusses three reasons why Belarus should still be deemed a trustworthy country for foreign investment.

These include: a moderate level of corruption, a promising landscape for starting a business, and a low risk of destabilising socio-political conditions due to possible external or internal turbulence. What still gives rise to concern is the dependence of core large industrial enterprises on government subsidies and the sensitivity of the Belarusian economy to external economies.

Consistent adherence to IMF recommendations will ensure the growth of the Belarusian economy up to 4.5 percent during the 2020-2021 period. Reuters reports on the major conclusions of the IMF’s recent assessment of Belarusian economic development. The IMF recommends that before obtaining a $3 billion loan, Belarusian banks should reduce the number of loans they give to loss-making industries and the government should cut down on subsidies for heavy industry. The IMF assures that steady implementation of market-based reforms will allow the economy to grow more than 2 percent in 2017 succeeded by further gradual growth.

Will another dispute on oil prices hamper Belarus-Russian integration cooperation? The lasting oil price dispute between Belarus and Russia becomes even tenser as Russia decreased its oil supply to Belarus by 22 percent for the third and fourth quarter of the year, reports UAWire. This move follows Russia's refusal to agree on the price proposed by Belarus and is intended to ensure Belarus repays its gas debt to Russia. This has forced Alexander Lukashenka to warn the Kremlin about the potential "optimisation" of Belarus’s participation in integration projects.

Moving closer to a Belarus-China economic partnership? The Xinhua News Agency reports on the readiness of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, to guarantee more favourable conditions for Chinese companies as they proceed in starting new businesses and investing in local enterprises. Shortly after, Belarus announced an official visit to China at the end of September 2016 to agree on certain investment and trade cooperation projects between the two countries.

Security and defence

Unseen refugee emergency on the Belarus-Polish border. Deutsche Welle draws attention to an escalating local emergency on the border between Poland and Belarus, where a growing number of refugees are trying to flee to the EU in an attempt to escape the atrocities and violence inflicted by the authorities in their home countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

So far, the Belarusian government has not come up with any clear plan to manage the growing flow or provide necessary aid for the refugees stuck in Brest. All the while, Poland continues to hold off considering asylum requests for people entering Poland from Brest, thereby violating international human rights law.

Reliance on the mission of the IAEA in the Astraviec nuclear power plant. The Baltic Times reports on the Lithuanian government's continued anxiety regarding Belarus's capacity to ensure the safe construction and further expansion of its nuclear power plant in Astraviec.

The Lithuanian government insisted that the European Commission give closer scrutiny to the construction process and demand that the Belarusian government provides the exact dates of stress tests. It also suggests that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) send a mission to the plant.

Katsiaryna Borsuk

Katsiaryna is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre. She holds MA in International Relations from Dublin City University and was a Research Fellow of a CAHR Protective Fellowship at the University of York over 2014-2015.




Fighting for the Traditional Family: Values over Pragmatism – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In May, Belarus fought another battle for the traditional family at the UN, even if its stance on the issue antagonises the West and finds little international support outside of the Islamic world.

The country maintained an active dialogue with Europe but mostly at a working level. Unlike in previous months, not a single European foreign minister visited Belarus.

Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei met high-level EU officials only in the framework of multilateral events. Government-run media tried to present President Alexander Lukashenka’s audience with Pope Francis as a breakthrough visit to Italy.

Minsk continued to use means of questionable efficiency, such as obtaining observer status in exotic organisations, to develop its relations with developing countries.

Relations with Europe stuck at working level

On 4 May, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Prague to participate in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Visegrád Group and the Eastern Partnership countries. On 23 May, he visited Brussels to attend the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting.

There, Belarus fostered the ongoing reformatting of the Eastern Partnership leading to a greater emphasis on trade, investment and development projects.

In addition to his encounters on the sidelines of the events, in Prague Makei held formal meetings with his Czech counterpart Lubomir Zaorálek and European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. In Brussels, he talked to Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union.

The meeting was warranted by the current crisis in relations between Belarus and Lithuania caused by their disagreements over the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant near their shared border. Belarus is seeking to counter Lithuania’s efforts to secure greater involvement of the EU in this issue.

At working level, Belarus held meetings of the bilateral commissions on economic cooperation with Romania and the Czech Republic in Minsk and with France in Paris. On 17 May, mid-level diplomats from the Benelux countries met Makei and his deputy Alena Kupchyna in Minsk. Three days later, Kupchyna travelled to Riga for political consultations with Latvia’s foreign ministry.

On 24 May in the Austrian capital, the Belarusian government organised the Vienna Forum: Promoting EU Investments to Belarus. Ninety business executives from ten EU countries, thirty Belarusian entrepreneurs and several Belarusian and EU officials attended the event.

First deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky, who led the Belarusian delegation in Vienna, stressed that Belarus and the EU were “hearing each other” and highlighted the “mood of openness and mutual understanding” in their relations. Matyushevsky promised to reveal at a later point “numerous deals” reached in Vienna. However, no specific results of the forum have been made known so far.

Stopover in Italy on way to see the Pope

Belarusian state-run media tried hard to sell Lukashenka’s trip to Rome on 20 and 21 May as a resumption of top-level contacts with Europe after the removal of the sanctions.

In fact, this trip should not be perceived in this context. Rather, it was a long-sought audience with the Pope complemented by a perfunctory meeting with an Italian ceremonial official. Tellingly, even the official communiqués about the “visit to Italy” failed to define its status – state, official or working. So, it had none.

Seven years ago on 27 April 2009, on a similar trip to Rome, Lukashenka talked to Silvio Berlusconi, the powerful then-Prime Minister, for more than three hours over a late-night dinner. This time, he was entitled only to a 50-minute encounter with President Sergio Mattarella, whose role in Italy’s political sphere is strictly ceremonial.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Italy’s de facto number one, failed to meet the Belarusian leader. Lukashenka’s meeting with Mattarella was a face-saving solution, accommodating his visit to the Vatican to see Pope Francis.

Exotic and traditional ways to befriend the developing world

Belarus uses means of questionable efficiency when seeking to increase its exports to the “Remote Arc” counties. One of them is the quest for observer status in various organisations that regroup predominantly developing countries.

On 17 May, Belarus obtained such status at the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation, through which it hopes to “expand its ties and the international treaty framework with Asian and African countries”.

Earlier, Belarus was granted observer status at the Association of Caribbean States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that greater involvement in the work of such specialised and often exotic organisations has helped to increase Belarusian exports to developing countries.

Fortunately, the traditional forms of developing cooperation with the “Remote Arc” countries are still on the agenda. On 3–4 May, Belarus and Iran held a meeting of their joint economic commission in Minsk. On 17– 19 May, Belarusian government agencies welcomed a representative Saudi delegation for a similar event in Minsk.

On 25 May, Belarusian and South Korean officials met under the format of the economic cooperation commission in Minsk. Contact with developing countries also included a visit by a deputy minister for industry from Syria and political consultations with Mozambique.

On 23 May, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez Mario, the second person in the official Cuban hierarchy, paid a working visit to Minsk where he met Lukashenka and Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou. Belarus is seeking to maintain and develop its strong relationship with Cuba in the changing context of the island’s international relations.

All these meetings focused heavily on developing trade with the “Remote Arc” countries, with the traditional emphasis made on promoting sales of Belarusian heavy machinery but also on cooperation in education, research and high technologies.

Protecting conservative values at the UN

At the United Nations, Belarusian diplomats have continued to fight for the traditional (or, as Belarus’ MFA puts it, “natural”) family.

On 16 May, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov presented the programme statement of the Group of Friends of the Family at a special high-level event at the UN headquarters in New York.

Belarus, together with Egypt and Qatar, founded the Group in early 2015. Currently, it counts twenty-five UN members, almost exclusively Muslim countries. Belarus is its only European member.

Despite the Group’s strong rejection of same-sex unions, the joint statement initiated by Belarus avoids using confrontational language. However, it invites the UN agencies and officials “to refrain from any inherent controversial actions that depart from the widely accepted family concept”.

Belarus is well aware that liberal democracies are bound to strongly oppose the concept of the traditional family promoted by the Group. These UN stakeholders are working to withdraw the theme of the family from the UN agenda.

Speaking at an NGO-sponsored dinner on 18 May in New York, Rybakov confided Belarus’ desire to convene a Family Summit in September in New York. One wonders who will fund this event given its absence from the UN agenda.

Belarus wants the summit to adopt a non-consensual declaration on the family, by which the Group and like-minded countries will oppose the “moral relativity, permissiveness and unashamedly homocentric perspective on [the] world”.

It seems that the Belarusian authorities are unwilling to abandon the advocacy of the conservative values shared by most Belarusians even if this would help to further improve relations with the West.




Chernobyl: Fact and Legacy

April 26 this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, when tests at the power plant there went calamitously wrong.

Then in the Soviet Union and now in Ukraine, the consequences for Belarus have been disastrous. The accident occurred a generation ago, yet it continues to blight lives today. Future generations will find little respite.

The facts: a night of horrors

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, safety tests to the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant adjacent to the city of Pripyat​ (population 43,000) caused a power surge. A steam explosion ensued leading to a fire, a further series of explosions and then nuclear meltdown. The core of the reactor was totally destroyed and the roof blown into the sky.

Chillingly, survivors who watched from apartment balconies in Pripyat itself, just two kilometres away, reported that the deadly pall billowing from the roofless reactor actively glowed. Yet none of the onlookers had any idea of the mortal danger they were in from this spectacular pyrotechnical display.

The state’s response: ‘What explosion?’

In the immediate aftermath the State responded by saying and doing very little. The concerns of the international community were met with silence and denial.

Other than the commencement of evacuation from the immediate area, little was done in terms of measures to address the effects of radiation on the general public, who received no information about what had happened.

The authorities had little idea of what they were dealing with. A massive clean-up campaign subsequently began, largely involving the sluicing-down of buildings and other structures. But the major consequence of this was to wash the radiation down into the ground, increasing the level of contamination.

The impact: questions without answers

Land covering approximately 20% of the territory of Belarus (most of it in the south-east) continues to be affected by radioactive fallout. Thirty years on, accessing reliable information as to the impact of this in terms of hard statistics continues to offer something of a challenge.

Statistics can always be selectively presented to ‘prove’ a particular point, and perhaps it comes as no surprise that conclusions in high profile reports published by the energy and green lobbies differ extravagantly.

One side of the debate claims that only 28 people died from acute radiation exposure. The opposite side attributes thousands of deaths to the explosion, with many thousands more apparently identified as suffering from carcinoma and related conditions.

Visits to ‘hot spot’ areas where rain dumped larger doses of radioactivity are only permitted with the prior approval of the authorities, and then only when accompanied by officials. Here, signage displaying the international warning logo is everywhere to be seen, though the extent to which the authorities continue to control access is subject to question.

Whole villages stand abandoned to the elements. Once a year the bereaved are permitted to visit cemeteries to honour the dead, on the occasion of Radaunica (Ancestors Remembrance Day), a public holiday that falls on the ninth day after Orthodox Easter.

Over time, a number of people (particularly the elderly) have returned to homes that are still capable of habitation. No reliable studies exist as to numbers or the extent to which risk to health remains.

The impact: indisputable fact

Some issues are beyond ambiguity, not least the stark reality of fallout 400 times greater than generated by the bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945, and 16 million times greater than the accidental release at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1978.

Around 135,000 people were forcibly moved from the immediate area. The town of Pripyat itself stands as an abandoned wasteland, crumbling, frozen in time and left to the mercies of the elements. Wildlife rules events here.

As the scale of the catastrophe began to emerge, the circle of evacuation widened. The State moved many hundreds of thousands more from their homes in towns and villages further afield (including my own adoptive family living 236 kilometres away in Vetka).

Between 300,000 and 600,000 people were engaged in the decontamination of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant (known as ‘liquidators’).

In the years that followed the explosion, instances of thyroid cancer rose dramatically amongst those living in the area or under the path of the radiation cloud, particularly children and teenagers.

Over 500,000 people in Belarus alone present thyroid problems to this day resulting from absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid gland. In my own circle of acquaintance in Belarus, I personally know more than a dozen people so affected. Yet swiftly administered doses of non-radioactive iodine on the part of the authorities would have significantly reduced the absorption of this radioactive isotope.

Today, almost two million people continue to inhabit areas within Belarus that remain subject to radioactive contamination, largely from caesium-137. When this and other noxious elements fell on the ground and into the watercourses they entered the food chain, perpetuated still by the circle of life.

Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years. So on this thirtieth anniversary of the disaster, the concentration of contamination from this isotope has reduced by just 50%. It will be another 30 years and another generation before it halves again.

Remembering Chernobyl

Outside the Church of St Simeon and St Helena in Minsk (the iconic ‘Red Church’) stands the poignant Nagasaki Memorial Bell erected in September 2000, a powerful symbol uniting two communities ravaged by the elemental power of nuclear energy gone wrong.

On the day of the anniversary itself I shall be in Vetka for the annual service at the memorial stone and adjacent church bell, deliberately and symbolically cracked when cast, fatally flawed forever.

The pain remains visceral, though acts of remembrance extend beyond commemoration of loss into areas of practicality.

In the whole of Belarus, Homiel region suffered the worst contamination of all. To assist with the mitigation of the explosion’s consequences, the State established the Paliessie Radiation and Ecology Reserve in the region to study the effects of exposure to radioactive material and to develop long-term contingency planning.

As for the stricken reactor itself, the concrete sarcophagus erected in 1986 has exhibited cracks for many years, in all probability causing more radioactive material to leach into the surrounding ground and the waters of the River Prypiać, one of the largest expanses of free-flowing water in this part of Europe.

The international community has come together to design a more sophisticated tomb on a massive scale, this time made of steel. Still under construction adjacent to the reactor, the new arch will be painstakingly wheeled into place some time in 2017 and the ends sealed.

The legacy: never again?

Until Japan’s own nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, the environment affected by Chernobyl was like no other on earth, affording a unique opportunity to study one of the most significant issues facing the future of the planet.

The fact that Fukushima happened at all suggests that by 2011, the lessons of Chernobyl had still not been heeded. Even today, questions about nuclear safety continue to arise.

The government of Belarus has commissioned a new power plant close to the border with the European Union, just 50 kilometres from Vilnius. ‘Unsafe,’ cries Lithuania. Belarusian submissions of observance of the strictest international standards are met with counter-allegations that international requirements are not being met.

While the debate rages, Chernobyl radioactive isotopes with half-lives of tens of years remain present in the land and waters of Belarus, and symbolically within the national psyche of its people.

Thirty years have now passed and the insidious consequences of the calamity show little sign of abating. In 2016, there remains significant ‘fallout’ still.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.