Incident at Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Raises Safety Concerns

On 10 July 2016 there was an incident at the construction site of the new Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant.

According to local whistle-blower Mikalai Ulasevich, a crane dropped the 330-tonne reactor from a height of 2-4 metres during a test lift. Until 26 July the officials either actively denied the incident or simply kept silent.

For Belarusians, this is painfully reminiscent of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in April 1986, the Soviet government chose to conceal information from the people for as long as it could. This decision exacerbated the situation for the general population, who did not know to take precautions against radiation fallout.

The location of the construction site for the future nuclear plant has also caused tensions with neighbouring Lithuania. Astraviec NPP – just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius – poses an immediate threat to residents of Lithuania in the case of an accident. However, despite the significant social and political controversy and safety concerns the Belarusian government has chosen to continue with the project.

The official line vs rumours

The Ministry of Energy, the government entity responsible for the plant, released an official statement only on 26 July. It confirmed that rumours of the incident, now circulating for more than two weeks, were true. The wording of the official press release described "an emergency at the site", which occurred during "the horizontal movement of the frame". On 1 August the general contractor confirmed the safety of the reactor, but suggested that it should be up to the Belarusian authorities to decide whether to use this particular item.

Belarus, the country that suffered the most severe consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, has now decided to build its own nuclear power plant. The project for the NPP, conceptualised in 2007 and first initiated in 2009, lacks both transparency and public support and controversy surrounding it is plentiful.

First, the Belarusian government could not find enough funding for it, so the money had to come from Moscow with strings attached. Russia agreed to provide $9bn out of $11bn required for the NPP, as a result of which Rosatom, or Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, won the bid as the major partner in construction and supply.

Secondly, the Lithuanian government protested against the choice of the NPP construction site due to its location just 12 Image from tut.bymiles from the Lithuanian border. They also accused Belarusian authorities of violating the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). The recent incident has only added to rising tensions between the two governments.

According to Delfi news agency, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday, 26 July:

Incidents at the Astravyets power plant, a nuclear facility that Belarus is building close to its border with Lithuania, show that Vilnius has reason to be concerned about the project's safety.

Lithuania has sent at least three notes to the Belarusian government voicing their concerns for safety.

When nuclear becomes political

As Mikalai Ulasevich, the whistle-blower and member of the Belarusian oppositional United Civil Party stated on Wednesday, 27 July: “The only way to ensure the safety of the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant is by shutting it down.” This seems to be a common sentiment among many opposition leaders. According to Yury Tsarik, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies on 28 July:

This situation (the construction of the NPP) has provided some real grounds for oppositional action, and allowed them to play on the widespread phobia in Belarus of nuclear energy. Andrey Dzmitryeu (opposition leader of “Tell the Truth” Initiative) has already announced his intention to do so.

Belarusian authorities defend their right to build the nuclear power plant. The project will address the demand for power in Belarus, which has scarce domestic fuel resources. Belarus aims to diversify its energy resources, including renewable resources, replace the import of natural fossil fuels (five million tonnes of fuel-equivalent a year), reduce electric power production costs, and increase the country's capacity to export electric power. Ideally it will also decrease the country's energy dependence on Russia.

Furthermore, the project will generate approximately 8,000 jobs during the peak construction period and 1,000 new permanent jobs when it starts operations, according to the Ministry of Energy. In an attempt to bring down costs and boost the popularity of the project, Belarusian authorities have handpicked 400 students to send to the construction site. According to news portal Tut.by, the young people had to go through rigorous competitive selection to qualify for a summer job there.

Moving forward despite controversy

Ironically, this week experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced their intention to visit Belarus to examine the construction site of the NPP.

The Site and External Events Design Mission (SEED) was supposed to be carried out before the construction site was approved. This constituted one of the Lithuanian government's requirements for Belarusian authorities regarding the plant’s safety.

Lithuania has already announced that it would not purchase any energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. They have also promised to bring the issue to the attention of neighbouring countries and urge them to join the boycott, according to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.

This is not an empty threat. According to expert estimates the Astraviec NPP will produce enough energy for export. Vladimir Nistyuk, from the Belarusian association “Renewable Energy”, commented in Deutsche Welle that: "There is no one around Astraviec willing to buy energy from the plant, yet it could produce a net surplus of energy as early as 2018”.

Undeterred by the rising controversy, Belarusian authorities have chosen to move forward with their plans. According to official information, the first energy unit should be completed by 2018, the second one – by 2020.

Belarus has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. Going forward with the construction may mean deteriorating relations with Lithuania and possibly the European Union, while freezing the project may antagonise Russia.




Cooperation with Podlasie, Union of Poles, IT Startups, Chernobyl Myths – State Press Digest

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster government officials are trying to dispel some common Chernobyl myths circulating in Belarusian society.

The authorities are preparing for the All-Belarusian Assembly in June – an event that aims to add legitimacy to various political initiatives.

Belarus is working on the abolition of energy subsidies and is calculating the possibility of popular discontent resulting from rising tariffs. Belarusian IT genii are winning global startup contests but do not want to set up companies at home. All of this and more in the latest edition of the State Press Digest.

Politics

All-Belarusian People's Congress will unite power and people. Zviazda newspaper talked to Marat Žylinski, rector of the Public Administration Academy and MP, about the significance of the All-Belarusian People's Congress scheduled for June. The assembly is a forum in which the government talks to the representatives of people, tells them frankly what has been achieved, what has failed, and why.

The delegates should understand clearly where the country is heading, and then transmit this vision to their constituencies. According to Žylinski, although Belarus has low wages and a deficient public administration, the preservation of peace and unity should come before everything. The All-Belarusian congress has become one form of legitimisation of President Alexander Lukashenka's rule. It allows the authorities to appoint delegates who “represent” the grassroots and who will approve government strategy for another five years.

Hrodna region intensifies cooperation with Podlasie Voivodeship (region) of Poland. Hrodzienskaja Praŭda highlighted a visit of the delegation of Hrodna region leaders to Podlasie Woivodeship of Poland at the beginning of May. The Poles called the visit “a historic event”, since the last visit of Hrodna officials to their Polish neighbours took place 10 years ago. The visit included a joint cycle, a tour of Bielavieža forest, the Augustow channel and some other spots, as well as informal negotiations.

According to the head of Podlasie region Erzy Leszczynski, the sides have a particular opportunity to cooperate in walking and cycling tourism, the more active joint use of the Augustow channel, opening of new border crossing points, expanding the areas of visa-free visits, and cultural exchange. Hrodna region head Uladzimir Kraŭcoŭ announced that the Hrodna authorities plan to apply for EU funding for around 50 projects in the area of cross-border cooperation.

Tax inspectorate ffines the leader of the unofficial Union of Poles. The tax inspectorate of Hrodna city ordered that Anžalika Borys, head of the unofficial Union of Poles in Belarus, pay a fine of $6,000, wrote Belarus Segodnya. Borys owned a private company called Polonica that specialised in cultural and educational events financed by the Polish government. The newspaper claims that the company often organised fake events and engaged in other forms of deception to secure funding from Poland.

The Belarusian authorities qualified it as a misuse of funds and issued a fine. The company subsequently went bankrupt and now its head has to pay the fine herself. Borys heads the unrecognised group of Poles' Union, which emerged after the breakup of the organisation in 2005 as a result of conflict with the authorities. Since that time the unofficial organisation has been facing pressure in a number of ways.

Economy

Belarusians win global startup contests, but do not set up companies at home. Narodnaja Hazieta described a number of successful IT startups created by Belarusians in 2015. Arciom Stavienka and Kiryl Čykiejuk found success at the Pitch to Rich contest with their screen that makes holographic 3D projections. Their company Kino-mo won a £150,000 prize for advertising and marketing, and received partnership requests from 40 countries. Their device also featured on all top lists of the famous CES exhibition in Las Vegas, along with LG, Samsung, and Toshiba gadgets.

Jury Birčanka won $220,000 at prestigious British competition The BIG Awards. He presented a wireless networking platform that enables low-cost and low-power communication between devices and clouds. Siarhiej Churs and Dzmitry Marozaŭ won a Grand Prix and a prize of $100,000 at the innovative startups contest, the Wolves Summit in Warsaw. They presented a portable scanner to detect dental problems at early stages. However, the newspaper noted that all these IT-breakthroughs are registered in the EU and the US, and tried to explain why startups cannot effectively develop in Belarus.

Removal of energy subsidies will cause 2.5 fold price rise for households. Respublika called attention to an overview of the Belarusian energy sector prepared by the OECD with the support of the EU and the UN. The report states that energy subsidies for the population and industry grew from $1bn in 2010 to $1.7bn, or about 2.2 per cent of GDP, in 2014. However, due to the fact that gas, heat and electricity tariffs are exempt from VAT, in 2014 the national budget lost $199m from subsidy policies.

A full cessation of subsidies in the energy sector would imply that Belarusians have to pay 2.5 times more than the current price. In terms of money this will mean an increase from about $60 to $150 per person annually. The average monthly fee for a family will reach $38 and increase to $58 during the cold season.

Society

Belarus will gradually be freed from radiation. Belarus Segodnia interviewed Head of Contaminated Areas Department of Emergency Ministry Dzmitry Paŭlaŭ, who dispelled a number of myths about Chernobyl that are still widespread among the Belarusian population.

The radiation in Belarusian lands will not last forever, as the 30-year half-life of cesium and strontium has now passed. In 2046, affected areas in Minsk and Hrodna regions will become clean.

However, the area in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl, which was also contaminated with plutonium, will remain dangerous for hundreds to thousands of years. The government is not in a hurry to return contaminated areas to cultivation, despite what many think. Out of 250,000 hectares of contaminated land only 17,500 have been returned to agricultural use in the past three decades.

Homiel region continues to suffer from a high rate of alcohol-related deaths. Homielskaja Praŭda presented data from the State Committee of Court Expertise on deaths caused by drinking alcohol. Within the first three month of 2016 in Homiel region 75 people fatally poisoned themselves with alcohol. In 2015 the death toll from alcohol poisoning reached 254 people, 15 fewer than in 2014. The victims usually consume excessively large quantities of legal alcohol, and many drink highly toxic technical spirits which easily cause death or serious health damage.

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.




Charnobyl 30 Years Later – Belarus Photo Digest

On 26 April 1986, an explosion at Charnobyl Nuclear Power Plant released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere contaminating large territories of Europe. Belarus ended up the most badly affected taking 70% of the fallout from the power plant.

The Soviet Union sought to cover up the accident. The news about the explosion came out only two days later, after Sweden registered an increase in radiation levels on its territory. The evacuation of the population in the immediate vicinity of the plant began only several days later.

Among the health effects of Charnobyl was a spike in thyroid cancer, especially among children. Among the political effects was growing distrust of the Soviet authorities. In 2006, Mikhail Gorbachev went as far as to call the accident “the real cause” of the Soviet collapse.

Although the power plant was located in the Ukrainian town of Prypyac, two thirds of the fallout landed on Belarusian territory. Photographer Siarhei Leskiec documents life in the contaminated parts of Belarus today, thirty years after what is considered the worst nuclear plant accident in history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




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.




Thawing Relations with the West, Market Traders Protest New Imports Rules – Western Press Digest

Western media focuses on the lifting of sanctions on Belarus by the West, Belarus’s rejection of plans for a Russian air base and heralds the thawing of relations with the West.

Observers seem to agree that the temporary sanctions suspension for Belarus is due to “strategic concerns” overcoming “humanitarian ones”

In other news: Belarusian journalist convicted for the “illegal dissemination of media products" and market traders protest controversial new imports rules.

All this and more in the newest edition of the Western Press Digest.

International Relations

Belarus is struggling to normalise relations with the West with weak resistance against Russian dependency, despite economic and political gridlock – Valiery Kavaleŭski, writing for Forbes, suggests that now, in Lukashenka’s fifth consecutive term, “Belarus is trying to normalise relations with the West without angering Russia” and points to three events in particular which demonstrate this stance taken by the government.

First, the “foreign policy impasse” which means that Belarus’s foreign policy dependence on Russia has “left Lukashenka standing alone in an environment that demands reliable partners and alliances”. Second, resistance against a planned Russian airbase in Belarus. Finally, “a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty” and the current economic gridlock as “it remains unclear what pillars Lukashenka plans to employ to sustain the Belarusian economy.”

He concludes by saying, however, that the aforementioned factors enable “the West to help the country turn toward more democratic and sensible governance, structural economic reforms, and more respect for human rights and freedoms.”

The "new chilliness" in relations between Moscow and Minsk which is causing a "relative thaw" between "Belarus and the West" – Brian Whitmore, writing for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty, comments on the similarities between how “Kazan and Minsk have been defying the Kremlin with stunning regularity — and getting away with it.” Whitmore points at Lukashenka’s refusal to recognise Crimea as part of Russia and his “neutral stance” on the conflict in the Donbas and Moscow's conflict with Turkey as evidence of this.

Jury Drakachrust of RFE/RL's Belarus Service commented on Putin’s talk of the "closeness" of Minsk's and Moscow's positions on Ukraine and Syria by saying that, "in the language of diplomacy, phrases like 'the closeness of our positions' is common for countries Russia is friendly with, but not for its closest allies." However, Whitmore stresses, this does not mean that Belarus, “which receives significant subsidies from Moscow”, is “going to burn its bridges with Russia” entirely.

Western sanctions on Belarus lifted due to "strategic concerns" – Edward Wrong, writing for Global Risk Insights, claims that the temporary sanctions suspension for Belarus is due to “strategic concerns” overcoming “humanitarian ones” in spite of the OSCE’s concerns over the October presidential election.

The article claims that the easing of sanctions is due to Belarus being crucial to current NATO-Russia tensions over the “Suwalki Gap” as it “is the only thing separating Belarus from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea” and Belarus’s recent apparent rejection of the proposed Russian air base in southern Belarus.

Economy

Shops shut down by market traders in protest against controversial new protectionism rules – The BBC reports on the shutting down of shops by market traders in Belarus in response to new rules stipulating that ”traders who want to sell the imported goods – which mainly come from Russia – must present proof of origin” under threat of fines.

The article claims that the trade ministry acknowledged that at “least 68% of outlets” were shut down due to this attempt “to help the struggling state sector” despite market trader complaints that local goods are of poor quality and prices charged by state-run wholesalers too high.

Civil Society

Conviction and fining of Belarusian journalist for "illegal" reportingThe Huffington Post reports on the fining of Belarusian journalist Larysa Ščhyrakova “for freelancing for an exiled television channel under a new restrictive media law.” She was found guilty of the "illegal dissemination of media products" by a Belarusian court and was fined $250.

The court said Ščhyrakova​ "illegally interviewed" residents of a Belarusian village for Belsat, a channel that broadcasts from Poland and which has been denied media accreditation in Belarus for nine years.

The article also mentions that in 2015, 28 journalists in Belarus were “hit with hefty fines” for similar crimes.

Chernobyl child victims spend Christmas and New Year with their "Irish families" – Elaine Edwards, writing for The Irish Times reports on the arrival of 31 young children with special needs from their Irish-run orphanage in the remote village of Viasnova, 175km from Chernobyl, to spend Christmas and New Year 2015 with their “Irish families”, part of an annual programme where Belarusian children come to Ireland for rest and recuperation holidays.

The orphanage was discovered by Irish volunteers from the Adi Roche Chernobyl Children International charity in the early 1990s and, since then, “€2.5 million of funding from Irish donations had been put into the orphanage, transforming it into a “world class” childcare centre,” according to the charity’s voluntary chief executive Ms Roche.

Belarus Free Theatre's stand "against censorship and dictatorship" in London part of major theatre news highlights of 2015 – Nick Adwe, in his international 2015 “year in review” for The Stage, refers to the work of the Belarus Free Theatre as taking a “stand against censorship and dictatorship” at their base in London at the Young Vic and chooses it as one of the theatre highlights of 2015.

The article quotes co-artistic director Natalia Kaliada as she explains that, “what we are banned from performing in Belarus is Sarah Kane, Harold Pinter, even Shakespeare, from talking about our personal lives and stories.”

Culture

Unveiling of a Polish photojournalist's project focusing on the victims of Chernobyl in Belarus – The BBC reports on the Invisible People of Belarus project of Polish photojournalist Jadwiga Brontē.

The article quotes Ms Brontē as saying she hopes to change the way Belarusians see their “disabled children of Chernobyl” through the series after Belarus suffered “about 70% of the nuclear fallout.”

Marta Kochetkova

Marta is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre




Belarus refuses to support Russia over Crimea issue at the UN

Efforts of the Belarusian diplomacy at the main part of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly at the end of 2015 brought mixed results. Alexander Lukashenka’s statements during the high-level segments of the session went largely unnoticed.

Belarusian diplomats did rather well on the issues of human trafficking and international cooperation in recovery of the areas affected by Chernobyl. Anxious to maintain good working relations with the IAEA, Belarus even refused to support Russia's protest over the status of Crimea.

But Belarus’ desperate fight against international human rights criticism had no immediate effect. The country's efforts to secure an observer status for the Eurasian Economic Union at the UN failed so far.

Fighting UN human rights procedures

At this session, Belarus came close to declaring an all-out war to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). It has been using all means available to force it into abandoning the practice of special procedures and country-specific resolutions.

Belarus became a target of a country-specific procedure in 2012. Then, the HRC established the mandate of a special rapporteur on Belarus and appointed Miklós Haraszti to this position. Ever since, Belarusian authorities have refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to establish communication with the Belarusian government.

Minsk is no longer eager to cooperate with the HRC's thematic procedures. Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, named Belarus among the states, which failed to respond to his repeated requests for a country visit.

Belarus: a UN body is used for settling political scores

At this session, Belarus strongly defended its “fellows in misery” and voted against the UN resolutions on human rights situation in North Korea, Iran and Syria. The Belarusian delegation maintained that the country-specific mechanisms enabled the “states with the resources to do so” to legitimise their own unilateral measures.

The Belarusian delegation insisted on several occasions that the Human Rights Council was becoming a platform for “settling political scores” and the setting of standards not agreed upon internationally.

This conviction led Belarus to requesting a vote on a resolution on the report of the Human Rights Council. In its vote against the resolution, Belarus was seconded only by Israel, which disagrees with the HRC’s treatment of the issue of Palestinians' rights.

Capitalising on the fight against human trafficking

Belarus successfully introduced a resolution on improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons. The resolution adopted by consensus has decided to convene a high-level meeting on this topic at the 72nd session of the General Assembly in 2017, immediately after the general debate.

Alexander Lukashenka will most likely go to New York on this occasion to score points on his diplomats’ most successful international initiative.

Indeed, this Belarusian undertaking enjoys strong support even from the countries, which criticise Belarus on other issues, such as the United States. The representative of Luxembourg, who spoke on behalf of the EU, welcomed the introduction of the resolution by Belarus, as well as its readiness to take views into account during the negotiation process.

Belarus also succeeded in getting itself re-elected to the UN Commission on International Trade Law for another six-year term beginning 27 June 2016.

Rekindling the topic of Chernobyl

After the Belarusian authorities took a political decision in 2006 to build a nuclear power plant in the country, the Chernobyl disaster moved down on Belarus’ foreign policy agenda.

Nevertheless, Belarus is determined to use the 30th anniversary of this nuclear accident in 2016 to secure further international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.

On 7 – 10 December, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov visited the UN headquarters. There he met a number of high UN officials to discuss two priority Chernobyl-related events.

On 26 April 2016, the General Assembly will held a special commemorative meeting, initiated in 2013 jointly by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, in observance of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

More importantly, in April 2016, Belarus will host a high-level international conference dedicated to the forthcoming anniversary. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other high officials may come to Minsk to attend this event.

The Belarusian authorities expect the conference to help shaping the new strategic plan on Chernobyl issues for the period after 2016, when the current policy framework will expire.

Belarus fails to support Russia in its fight on Crimea issue

Anxious to maintain good relations with the UN agency involved in the post-Chernobyl assistance, Belarus even refused to support Russia in its demarche against the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by the General Assembly. Russia requested a vote on the resolution, which was always adopted by consensus, because the report of the IAEA spoke of Crimea as “occupied territory”.

Russia and nine other countries abstained during the voting. However, Belarus refused to join them. A representative of Russia’s closest ally stated after the vote that his country had endorsed the resolution since it supported the IAEA’s activities and its annual report.

Seeking international recognition of the Eurasian Integration

The Belarusian diplomacy tried hard to play the card of the country’s presidency in the newly-born Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2015 to strengthen Belarus’ international status. The foreign ministry regarded the acquisition by the EAEU of the observer status in the UN General Assembly as a major point in this strategy. Getting the status was also one of Belarus' declared priorities for the 70th session.

This initiative, which Belarus’ delegation tabled at the UN on 19 October, went astray from the start, when Georgia and Azerbaijan opposed it. The two countries used this opportunity to remind the fellow UN member states about their grievances in the bilateral relations with Russia and Armenia respectively.

EAEU's observer status falls a prey to bilateral grievances of ex-USSR countries

The consultations on the EAEU observer status, which went on an almost daily basis, failed to forge a consensus. On 20 November, Azerbaijan reiterated its opposition to this decision noting that its objection was in regards to the presence of Armenia as member. Two countries are at odds over the status of Nagorno-Karabach.

The delegation of Turkey backed up Azerbaijan’s position saying that, as the EAEU’s founding document was long and had many addenda and protocols, Turkey required more time to examine it.

As the delegation of Belarus was loath to initiate a vote on the draft resolution, the Legal Committee agreed to defer a decision on the request for the observer status to the next UNGA session. Belarus thus failed to secure this status for the EAEU during its presidency in the organisation.

The 70th UNGA session clearly demonstrated that, in order to succeed in multilateral diplomacy, Belarus needs to move further away from the Russian world and embrace constructive cooperation with Western democracies.




Building Ties with Europe, Setting Priorities in the UN – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Belarus has been pursuing its strategy of normalising relations with Europe. In Minsk and European capitals, diplomats focused on strengthening trade and investment cooperation. In New York, foreign minister Vladimir Makei sought to foster further political normalisation, which many expect will take place after the presidential election to be held later this week.

On the multilateral track, Belarus' priorities remain unchanged. The promotion of the traditional family, which Belarusian diplomats mostly reduce to opposition to same-sex marriage, will likely get increased attention. Minsk also intends to play the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster card to get international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.

Reconfirming Multilateral Priorities, Strengthening Bilateral Ties at the UN

Belarus is actively seizing the opportunities presented by the UN General Assembly session and especially its high-level segments to highlight its multilateral initiatives and intensify bilateral contacts.

While President Lukashenka’s bilateral agenda in New York were oddly modest, his foreign minister Vladimir Makei met with counterparts from a dozen of countries including Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden. He also met with senior EU officials, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn. Valentin Rybakov, Makei’s deputy, met with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Vladimir Makei and Federica Mogherini

The choice of the Belarusian senior diplomats’ negotiating partners in New York, mostly European countries and Eastern Partnership members, strikingly contrasts with the usual list dictated by the need to open new markets for Belarusian exports. It clearly reflects the pressing priority of normalisation of relations with the West. In the same vein, Vladimir Makei met in New York with “senior representatives” of the US State Department who remained unnamed, probably, because of their low rank.

As to the multilateral dimension of Belarus’ participation in the UNGA session, one should not expect many novelties. In fact, the Belarusian foreign ministry chose to copy and paste fifteen out of sixteen items from last year’s priorities list, with a minor rephrasing of some of them.

Opposition to same-sex marriages becomes top priority for Belarus

Belarus will pursue its key foreign policy initiatives, such as the fight against human trafficking and protection of traditional families. The war against the universal acceptance of same-sex marriages is set to become the top priority after Lukashenka emphasised his rejection of “perverted whims” in his UN speech.

Belarus intends to maintain its strong opposition to country-specific resolutions on human rights, being a traditional target of them. However, the politicised formula about the “international human rights law, which some countries have repeatedly violated through their unilateral activities” that Belarus Digest criticised last year, has been dropped from the priorities document.

Exploring the Latin American Track

September remains the preferred time for deputy foreign minister Alexander Guryanov’s Latin American tour. This year, he returned to Buenos Aires accompanied by businessmen and government officials.

On 21 September, Belarus and Argentina held their first-ever meeting of a joint commission on trade and economic cooperation. Their agricultural ministries signed a memorandum of understanding. Cooperation in this field looks promising as Argentina remains one of the world’s leading agricultural nations.

Belarusian diplomats and officials can now travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua visa-free

Several days earlier, the same delegation visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. Belarus first exported goods to El Salvador, the smallest Central American country in 2010, when the El Salvadoran economy was near total collapse. This year, the two countries held political consultations. Two weeks later, in New York, their foreign ministers signed an agreement on visa exemption for holders of diplomatic and official passports.

Alexander Lukashenka and Raul Castro Ruz

In Managua, Belarus and Nicaragua held a second meeting of the joint trade commission and signed agreements on cooperation in agriculture and on visa exemptions for holders of diplomatic and official passports. Last year, when Vladimir Makei visited Nicaragua, Belarus highly publicised its willingness to participate in the construction of an inter-oceanic waterway in the country. There was no mention of the project this year as construction has stalled due to a lack of financing.

In New York, Alexander Lukashenka met with the leaders of Cuba and Ecuador. Both countries are among Belarus’ strongest allies in the region. Belarus and Cuba actively support each other against Western attacks on human rights issues.

Expanding the Web of Ties with Europe

During the last three weeks, Belarus held meetings of intergovernmental commissions on trade and economic cooperation with five European countries. In most cases, business forums took place on each meetings' sidelines.

On 17–18 September, Belarus and Hungary discussed their cooperation in this format in Budapest. On 24-25 September, while the Belarusian – Bulgarian trade commission met in Minsk, Belarus and Austria held a commission’s meeting in Vienna. On 28–29 September, a Slovenian delegation came to Belarus, and finally, on 1–2 October, Minsk hosted a trade commission meeting with Slovakia.

Outside of this format, Belarus held consultations with Serbia in Minsk and with Latvia in Braslau, where the Latvian foreign ministry brought 35 ambassadors accredited in Riga for a tour.

In most cases, relations with European governments are maintained at the deputy minister level, with Alena Kupchyna and Alexander Guryanov on the Belarusian side. However, Vladimir Makei met in person a large business delegation from Denmark, which visited Minsk on 22 September.

Belarus catches Europe in a cobweb of trade

For the situation of the visa ban against senior Belarusian officials, the country’s diplomacy has chosen to engage its European partners in working-level cooperation on trade, investment, culture, science and other non-confrontational areas.

This format factors out, whenever possible, political and human rights issues where the disagreements are still substantial. In fact, the foreign ministry acts like a spider weaving a web of diverse ties with Europe. This web at some point may entangle Belarus’ European partners to a degree when the confrontation becomes costly and undesirable.




Hunting Tourism and Corruption in Belarus

Since the end of the 2000s, Belarus has become a destination for many hunt lovers from abroad. 40% of Belarus is covered with woods, which remain a natural habitat for many species of animals. Today, booking a hunting expedition in Belarus can be made online with a couple of clicks.

Many Belarusians still prefer poaching, unwilling to stick to strict rules of legal hunting, even despite constantly growing penalties and fines. An extraordinary case of poaching occurred this past December, when the Belarusian KGB arrested a group of ten hunters in the Chernobyl zone of the Homel region. Strikingly, the officials of wildlife protection agency and police were among them. The group illegally killed four elk.

Corruption among low-level forestry employees remains widespread, as they try to supplement their low wages with additional cash. To protect its rich wildlife heritage, Belarus needs to improve its state system of nature management.

Hunting Tourism on the Rise in Belarus

Unlike most of Europe, Belarus has retained much of its ancient forests, which occupy almost 40% of Belarus' territory. Up to the present day they remain a natural habitat for many species of animals and birds, most of them free to hunt during specific seasons. However, in the 1990s and 2000s Belarus as a hunting destination was little known abroad.

Today, it seems, Belarus is becoming a favourite hunting spot for many individuals. As one online advertisement says, “the most luring feature is the complete authenticity of the wild animals, inhabiting the forests, swamps and fields of Belarus”.

One can book of a few days’ hunt in Belarus through numerous web sites. They provide information on prices, animal species and the various hunting seasons, as well as a list of necessary documents and procedures for foreigners. They also display photos of previous successful hunting trips to attract new customers.

Hunting companies typically offer 3 days of hunting for around €1,000. The price usually includes permission to bring one's own firearm, accommodation and meals, a hunting licence and transport from the airport to the hunting spot, an interpreter and accompanying hunters. Some firms include additional services like alcohol, sauna and trophy preparation.

As for animals, visiting hunters can choose between big game like European bison (prices starting from €10,000), wild boar (€100-600), elk (€700-4,500) or red deer (€700-3,500). The prices depend on the animal’s size, horns and other specific factors. Alternatively, one can go for small game ranging from €10 for partridge, waterfowl or woodcock, to capercaillie for €500.

But not all citizens are ready to pay these kinds of prices for a traditional male occupation. Poaching remains a widespread activity for many Belarusians, especially in rural areas. Corruption thrives, as both local people and local power holders often make deals with forestry workers.

Poaching Bisons in Belarus

In 2013 Lukashenka said he was surprised with the amount of hunting tackle seized from poachers – one thousand rifles, 300 kilometres of fishing net, dozens of tonnes of meat and fish. In 2014 the authorities raised fines for poaching, but so far it is unclear whether this move will lead to a decline in illegal hunting.

Hunting bison, one of the symbols of Belarus, usually receives the most attention in the media. According to Belarusian legislation, bison are divided into two categories – the main gene pool and the reserve gene pool. The animals from the latter pool – usually old or ill – are not considered as listed in the Red Book (list of endangered species), and can be hunted according to a certain procedure.

Environmentalists oppose such norms, saying rare species should be protected regardless of their health or age. But Belarus officials have another rationale – the population of bison is growing and it needs to be regulated.

Belarusians cannot afford bison hunting, as it costs several thousand euro, so the main clients usually come from abroad.

In recent years bison hunting involved many illegal cases. Usually, illegal schemes come from forestry officials, who make money by providing their hunting services for foreign tourists. In winter 2012, a Russian citizen killed a bison and wounded another one in the Valožyn district, while citizens of Lithuania killed three in the Chojniki district.

The guilty forester received only minor punishment for their transgressions. Earlier in 2009 an Italian killed a female bison at the Belaviežskaja Pušča national reserve, where hunting is forbidden. As it turned out, a local forester assisted him in getting to the protected area.

In 2011, the Presidential Property Management Department put a bison's life up for an Internet auction, which caused a public uproar and an online campaign to save his life and forbid this practise from continuining. Plenty of people made fake bids in an attempt to prolong the life of the animal while the owners of the lot checked the identity of the bidder. In the end ,the campaign wrecked the lot and these kinds of bids have not again appeared in public.

While poaching on the side of citizens is still widespread, some cases of government officials involved in this illegal activity have also become public. One of the most striking instances occurred recently, when a nature protection servicemen worked in contradiction of their official duties.

Wildlife Protectors Killing Wildlife

At the beginning of December the Belarusian authorities informed the public of a quite a paradoxical corruption case. Officials from the nation's wildlife protection agency were engaged in illegal hunting together with several police companions as additional cover. The group was poaching in the Vetka district of the Chernobyl area. Two of them were officials from the Homiel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife and the other five were officers from the Homiel Regional Police Department.

The group was supposed to eliminate wild boars as a part of programme to combat African swine flue. Instead, the group killed four elk. The poachers moved in a car with gangster-style registration plate with the word “Serega”, the name of the owner, instead of the officially required numbers.

The car owner’s son turned out to be the deputy head of Homel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife. During their detention of the poachers, KGB officers even had to resort to pulling out weapons to stop the car.

The locals say that the poachers organised a hunting business in the area together with a Russia citizen who lives in a bordering town. The men hunted animals illegally and then sold the meat to local people. Now they have been fired from service and face up to four years in prison.

By strange coincidence, the same month on 29 December a senor Belarusian official himself became a victim of hunting. The judge of the Supreme Court of Belarus Victar Rakicki received fatal wounds from some of his hunting colleagues, "residents of the Minsk region", as the Investigatory Committee reports.

Belarus retains its rich flora and fauna, and preserving it should be one of the government’s strategic goals. The authorities should control the local level of wildlife management more thoroughly, as most corruption cases occur there. Besides this, environmental groups from civil society should gain access to policymaking and oversight to help strengthen the public's engagement with this important issue.




Homel Region: Epicentre of Troubles that Bore Celebrities

In the beginning of July, an unpleasant incident occurred in Homiel city, the centre of Homiel region. A 23 year old boxer beat up seven people on the street, including three women.

The aggressor stated that he did this out of disrespect for alcoholics – some of the people he beat were drinking alcohol in the street. However, it turned out that he was himself drunk since the morning time.

Such cases are not uncommon for the Homiel region. It always had a reputation of highly criminal area of Belarus. Homiel region is also known for high drug use and related to it number of HIV-infected people.

The region has another long-term problem – it suffered most from radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Along with the Mahiliou region, it serves as the main base of support of the Lukashenka electorate.

Yet Homiel has produced many positive figures, such as Kirk Douglas and Maria Sharapova, whose families descend from here. 

The Epicentre of Chernobyl Disaster

The Homiel region has the second largest population after the Minsk region and ethnically is 88% percent Belarusian, an average number for Belarus. Along with another region of East Belarus, Mahiliou, it serves as the main electoral base of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Its current governor, Uladzimir Dvornik presents a case of divergence from usual personnel policy of Lukashenka. If previously he tended to appoint residents of other regions to the post of governor to prevent the formation of regional clans, now it appears this rule does not always work and he has changed tactics.

Dvornik comes from the Homiel region and earlier occupied a post in the Mozyr District Executive Committee and also served as senator to the Council of the Republic, a representative body in the pocket of the regime. However, Dvornik presents a typical case of a governor regarding his profession – he has dealt with agriculture most of his life.

Economically, the region has a well-developed industrial base with around 300 industrial plants. Among them stand such giants as the Mazyr refinery and Belarusian metallurgical plant in Zlobin. Uncommon for Belarus, however, the region posesses mineral deposits and even has some oilfields.

Homiel region received the largest amount of radiation of all Belarusian region after the Chernobyl disaster. The region’s name became synonymous with contaminated lands in Belarus. The southeast of the region remains a so-called alienation zone, where a special regime exists and the movement of people is highly restricted.

Anti-Alcohol Activism

As is true in other regions of Belarus, civil activity in Homiel remains scarce and is concentrated in its regional center, Homiel city. The oldest local civil association, Talaka, has been in existance since 1986. It became the center of the rennaisance of Belarusian culture after the USSR’s collapse. Today, its activists continue to study local history and culture and defend its architectural heritage.

Despite the difficulty of work of NGOs in Belarus, some initiatives still appear from time to time. The civil initiative “Stop Drinking – Start Living” is a recent case of youth engagement in civil action. It arrived on the scene in 2011, when Homiel resident Zmicier Karaskou decided to raise the problem of alcoholism among Belarusians.

The activists of this initiative try to draw attention of the local population and authorities to the problem by creating informational materials, advocating anti-alcohol policies and by organising amateur sports competitions. As Zmicier says, local authorities tend to ignore their activities. The authorities cannot comprehend that citizens can organise themselves without a state order to resolve societial problems and, in the end, they perceive this civil society project as opposition activity.

The Homeland of World Celebrities and Losers

A number of world-famous personalities descend from Homiel region. Among them is Herschel and Bryna Danielovitch, the parents of american actor Kirk Douglas (originally called Issur Danielovitch). The jewish family fled to the United States in 1908 to escape the persecution of jews. Subsequently, their son Issur became one of the most famous actors of Hollywood’s “golden age” and is now ranked 17th in the list of the greatest male screen legends by the American Film Institute. Kirk, for his part, also became the father of Michael Douglas, another great actor of the 20th century.

One more celebrity, currently world No. 2 in tennis, Maria Sharapova also has roots in Homiel. Her parents lived here until 1986, when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. They decided to move to Siberia in Russia to escape the contamination that took root in the region. Afterwards, her farther did his best to develop his daughter’s athletic talents. She entered a tennis academy in Florida and eventually became the world’s no. 1 female singles tennis player in 2005.

A more unsuccessful story of Homiel-born celebrity is Andrei Gromyko, in 1957-1985 a foreign minister of the USSR and in 1985-1988 Head of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Gromyko is best known for his position in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the moment when the Cold War was on the verge of a global nuclear war. He refused to compromise during the crisis and the Soviet leadership, with the help of its intelligence services, had to use other channels to contact the US administration. The sides finally resolved the conflict for the good of all living beings on earth, but the actions of Gromyko are considered one of the greatest diplomacy failures in human history.

Drug and the HIV Epidemic

Svetlahorsk, a city in the Homiel region, today looks pretty much like other Belarusian towns. But in 1990s it experienced the largest outbreak of drug use, and a corresponding HIV epidemic, in Belarusian history. The 40-year old city, created around several industrial plants, faced these problems right after USSR collapse. It lay on the route of a prominent drug trafficking route and getting drugs was not a problem here.

Until the outbreak, little was known about HIV in Belarus, as authorities officially registered only a hundred carriers of the disease in the whole nation. When they started to check the rate of HIV-infection in Svetlahorsk, a thousand carriers were identified, which indeed was a shock for the whole country.

As Jauheni Spevakou, a former addict and HIV carrier, now an activist of several anti-drug campaigns, says “The problem has not disappeared although visually there is no sign of the former disasters. The drugs and the ways of their production have changed, but the use itself persists.”

As for statistics, the Homiel region holds first place in the number of HIV-infected people, with a total of 6,548 people since 1987. This number is three times higher than in Minsk, who has two million inhabitants. In Svetlahorsk alone, this number has reached 3,070. After drug consumption numbers dropped in the last decade, sexual contact has served as the primary reason for spread of the disease.

Compared to other Belarusian regions, Homiel has suffered a great deal more, from the Chernobyl disaster to its criminal ridden history and disorder, not to mention its HIV epidemic. The region remains under the watchful eye of the authorities, as it requires a large amount of financial and human resources to tackle its problems.

In the future, it could benefit from European Union membership and use of its structural funds which could help to develop resources and infrastructure in these problematic regions, as well as receive vast technical assistance. So far, the Belarusian regime has chosen to fight its problems with the money lured in from Russia. But the effectiveness and sustainability of this approach looks rather doubtful.   




The Echo of Chernobyl

26 April is a very sad day in Belarusian history. On 26 April 1986 a disastrous accident took place at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, just across the border in Ukraine. It became one of the most horrible man-made disasters ever. Belarus suffered from the radioactive fallout more than any other country. 

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union Belarus has had to handle the whole array of social, economic and demographic repercussions of the disaster. The lack of financial resources makes it a difficult task. As a result, the Belarusian authorities try to minimise the scale of the problem.  

As Germany is moving away from the use of nuclear power, Belarus started building its own nuclear power plant and considers adding one more in the future. 

Belarus Suffered the Most

Over 50 million curies of radioactive material were released as a result of the accident. Its fallout encompassed a population of 17 million people, including 2,5 million children under the age of five. Even though the nuclear power plant was in Ukraine, the winds brought most of the radioactive fallout to Belarus. It quickly contaminated 23% of the country’s territory.

Thousands of inhabitants of the polluted area had to leave. Thousands of rescuers who worked at the disaster’s site suffered from immediate radiation sickness. Hundreds of thousands of people still suffer from the aftereffects of the accident.

Smaller areas in southern and south-eastern parts of the country became completely unsuitable for any human activity and still pose a threat of radiation spread. To monitor and research the situation there the authorities created Polesie State Radiation and Ecological Reserve.

According to international scientists, the increased cancer and infant mortality rates in Belarus suggest that the deadly effects of the Chernobyl disaster are still lingering.

Struggle with the Repercussions

After Belarus gained independence in 1991 it immediately faced the burden of financing numerous rehabilitation programmes. Some estimates said that every fourth rouble of the state budget had to be spent on those programmes. It became a real challenge for the newly independent republic and its weak economy.

One of the core questions that the Belarusians face is what to do with the contaminated territories. According to independent researchers, the polluted lands will remain highly radioactive for hundreds of years. Therefore, they cannot be turned back into agricultural and industrial use.

However, according to the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, the polluted territory has decreased 1,6-fold since 1986. In their opinion, now 14,5% of the Belarusian land remains contaminated and about 1,2 million inhabitants reside there. They think that the level of contamination is not critical and, therefore, recommend to intensify economic activities on these lands.

The government follows the recommendation of the Academy of Sciences. More and more products from contaminated areas appear in shops across the country. Moreover, Belarusian universities send their graduates to contaminated regions for post-graduation mandatory work.

Helping the victims of Chernobyl

Those who took part in the rescuing operations in Chernobyl and the inhabitants of the contaminated areas became entitled to a number of social benefits. For example, the rescuers became entitled to a 25% bonus to their pensions. Those who became physically disabled as a result of the accident got the right for free or discounted medicine and a free medical rehabilitation course every two years.

In 2007 the government announced its plans to trim the benefits package for those who suffered from radiation. It provoked an outburst of resentment and protests among various Chernobyl organisations. But the authorities ignored the demands of the NGOs and victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe and limited the benefits.

In the aftermath of the tragedy numerous international donors started to initiate rehabilitation programmes in Belarus. They included provision of medication and medical equipment, technical assistance in the restoration of the contaminated territories and summer programmes for children from polluted areas. Foreign aid has been crucial in assisting the Belarusian government and society in their struggle with the repercussions of Chernobyl disaster.

However, due to political reasons the authorities have been very selective in their cooperation with foreign donors on Chernobyl-related projects. In many cases foreign funds and NGOs have been suspected of connections with the opposition. On such grounds the authorities restricted their possibilities of working in the country. As a result, people in the contaminated territories have lost considerable amounts of funding.

Plans for New Nuclear Power Plants Despite Lingering Fears

Public opinion surveys clearly show that the Belarusians still have a lingering fear of atomic energy. This is no surprise given the human and financial losses that the Chernobyl tragedy incurred on the nation.

However, in 2008 the political leadership started talking about the prospects of constructing a nuclear power plant in the country. Alexander Lukashenka then declared that atomic energy is very cheap compared to the prices of Russian oil and gas. In his opinion, a nuclear power plant will ensure Belarus's energy independence.

After numerous NGOs started to publicly protest against the government's plans the authorities launched a PR campaign to popularise the idea of a power plant. But, as is usually the case in present-day Belarus, the government's campaign was very formal and did not really listen to the public opinion.

Later the authorities asked for a Russian loan to construct the plant. In November 2011 the loan agreement was signed. Moreover, at the beginning of April in his talk with the Director General of the IAEA Lukashenka announced that Belarus could consider constructing a second nuclear power plant.

Thus, Belarus is about to enter another nuclear era even though the wounds from the Chernobyl disaster are still bleeding.




Germany and Belarus: Why People’s Diplomacy Doesn’t Work

The argument for loosening the visa regime for Belarusian citizen is that people to people contacts must improve. At a time when the official diplomatic relations are at an all-time low, it seems that the exchange between ordinary people offers a glimpse of hope. It might prevent the Belarusian citizen from total isolation. However, looking at the German-Belarusian informal relations, it gets clear that it may not work. Here is why.

The EU and many support programmes aim at bringing together civil society actors. In their opinion, young people, politically interested actors and activist of non-governmental organisations should meet. Belarusians would consequently understand how democracy works and the Westerners would see themselves that Belarus is a country worth visiting. But this is a somehow naïve vision of things.

If you look at those who are actually travelling to and fro Belarus and Germany, you can dress the following list:

  • Women tourists: men who think “Belarus” is the name of a high gloss catalogue with beautiful women. Choose any you like. A German private television network is now broadcasting a series showing a middle-aged man who comes to Minsk to meet girls he met through an agency in the search of the love of his life. TV shows like this strengthen the image of Belarus as a country where beautiful women are waiting for allegedly rich men coming to marry them and offer a better life in Germany.
  • Businessmen. They take direct flights from Frankfurt or Berlin and stay in top class hotels. Neither has any of them as ever been to the sleeping districts where Belarusians actually live nor are they sincerely interested in going there or experiencing the “real” Belarus.
  • Members of partnership and aid committees. Those people are working in German- Belarusian friendship associations. They bring clothes and food to Belarus. If you tell them that people in Minsk are neither starving nor walking around in rags, they will be very astonished to hear that. In their opinion, every child living in Belarus is a “child of Chernobyl”. It is very common to read in German newspapers that “20 children have arrived to Germany to recover from the Chernobyl catastrophe”.

Belarusians who want to go to Germany have to show an official invitation letter. As a consequence, the groups of people travelling West are the following:

  • Chernobyl children. Those children invited by the friendship associations.
  • Students with a grant from one of the many organisations offering scholarships to Belarusian students.
  • Women who are going to get married to Germans.
  • Men who want to buy a car. This was an especially big group last year before the customs tariff for the import of cars rose. There were many thousands of men going to Germany in order to by second-hand cars.

No Contacts at Grassroots Level

The problem is that those groups of people have totally different expectations when they meet. Consequently, there are no eye-to-eye meetings between the German and the Belarusian civil society.

The meetings of friendship associations and partnership committees are based on the assumption that Belarus is an underdeveloped country that needs material support. People collect old clothes and tinned food in Germany in order to send it to Belarusian towns. Most of them have not been to Belarus for several years, otherwise they would know by now that nowadays it is difficult to distinguish a German teenager from a Belarusian one by their appearance. Smartphones, flat screens and modern public transport is a part of the everyday life in the Belarusian cities.

The partnership committee members think they are doing the Belarusians a favour by sending them their old clothes. However, none of them is looking at the meetings with people from Belarus the other way round: That Belarus is a great country and Belarusians are on a par with them. Of course the living standards here is not as high as it is in Germany, but there are still things that Germans can learn from their Belarusian friends.

On the other hand, Belarusians often look down at their German acquaintances. They go to Germany with a feeling of “Germany is a great country, only that there are too many Germans living there”. They think the country is well-organised and approve of the efficiency of their German friends. Then, however, they deplore that things are different than in Belarus: people are coldhearted and they generally lack solidarity with each other.

How to Stop Supporting Stereotypes

If those partnership committees concentrated on working against stereotypes on both sides, this would be a big step forward in German- Belarusian relations. As it is now, the old scheme of donor and recipient is maintained. No evolution of the work of those committees has happened since the Chernobyl disaster. Only if meetings take place at an equal level, there will benefit Belarus' transformation.

It is true that some German and Belarusian NGOs do try to cooperate. Those NGOs that are really doing efficient work in Belarus are not registered here. Unfortunately, German donors shy away from cooperating with non-registered NGOs and try to work with those few that are officially accepted by the Belarusian government. If the international and German donors changed their opinion on this point and took the (manageable) risk to cooperate with an organisation regardless of its formal status, money and energy could finally go to those projects where people meet as equals.

Belarus is a great country. It is time to stop seeing it as an exporter of beautiful but will-less women who are happy to get donations from Germany. Belarusian children should go to Germany and take part in exchanges without being labelled "children of Chernobyl". They are not pale impoverished children but smart young people who know mathematics ten times better than the German children they meet.

And: Germany is a great country, too. Germans are not as bad as their reputation.




New Nuclear Ambitions of Belarus

Last Thursday, director of the Nuclear Energy Department Mikalaj Hrusha unexpectedly began to talk about the need to enlarge Belarus' atomic energy program. According to the Belarusian authorities, the first Belarusian nuclear power plant may have four rather than two reactors.

Until recently, the government was planning to install two Russian-designed and built reactors with a capacity of 1,200 megawatt each. The current plan is to increase the entire Belarusian energy system capacity to 8,000 megawatt.  However, it appears that the authorities will fail to achieve one of the main objectives of the project: energy independence. On the contrary, the nuclear plant may make Belarus even more dependent upon Russia. 

Scramble For German Energy Market?

Belarus plans to build its nuclear plant 18 km from the town Astraviec on the border with Lithuania. The first reactor is expected to be put on line in 2017 and the second not later than 2018. Russian corporation «Atomstroieksport» will construct the Belarusian plant. Officially, it is the “leading engineering company of the 'Rosatom' state corporation which builds nuclear energy sites”.

The project is, however, controversial for the Russian side because Minsk opposes the establishment of a joint enterprise to sell the produced energy. In addition, Russia is also planning to construct by 2016 a nuclear power plant in its Kaliningrad enclave. This may lead to competition on the regional energy market between Kaliningrad and Belarusian nuclear installations. Lithuania and Poland are also going to build their own nuclear power plants, and no wonder, they are not eager to see Belarus as a rival in selling energy. All these nations also hope to sell energy from their nuclear facilities to a new large German energy market which will emerge as Berlin closes down all its nuclear power plants.

The issue of financing the Belarusian nuclear power plant, however, needs final settlement. The costs of its construction are estimated at USD 9bn, including 6bn to construct reactors and 3bn to build infrastructure. Since the very beginning Belarus has had no money with which to pay the costs. It planned to get a special loan from Russia, first for USD 6bn and then for USD 9bn. Moscow hesitated because the loan could actually be spent not on the nuclear power plant but rather on supporting the bankupt Belarusian economy.

When the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin visited Minsk in March 2011 the countries signed two cooperation agreements to build the new power plant. One related to the “parallel work of energy systems” of both countries, the other dealt with construction of the nuclear power plant.  Russia committed to provide USD 9bn as a loan for construction. The Belarusian parliament ratified the agreements on 20 October “in a closed session”, as the government knew about nuclear sensitivities of ordinary Belarusians who directly suffered from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Belarusian regime is suppressing even the slightest protests against the new nuclear project, persecuting activists and banning any rallies and mass events about the problem*.

A Completely Russian Power Plant?

On 11 October, the «Atomstroieksport» signed an agreement to construct the first and second reactors in Astraviec in North Western Belarus. It is unclear how all these documents can be amended because clearly Belarus needs more money to double the capacity of its nuclear industry. Belarusian officials emphasized that to add two more reactors would presumably be cheaper than to construct the initial two, as basic infrastructure will already be in place. Nevertheless, today the government does not even have the money to cover the current needs of the country and cannot afford additional spending on a nuclear project from its own funds.

Media and NGOs raised environmental concerns about the Astraviec power plant, although some of them might be linked to economic and political interests of the neighboring nations, particularly Lithuania. The river Vilia flowing through the Lithuanian capital has been chosen as a water source for the new nuclear site. That could potentially threaten regional environmental security. Yet at the same time, the Lithuanian government itself is going to build a new nuclear power plant on the Belarusian border in Visaginas which undermines the sincerity of its concerns for the environment in the region. Meanwhile, on 20 October the Belarusian deputy minister of energy said that the IAEA and European Commission had no objections to Minsk concerning the location of the nuclear facility.

According to the recent reports of the Belapan news agency, some work has already begun on the Astraviec site. Yet the actual launch of full-scale construction still depends on a final agreement with Russia on its financing. It means that construction initially planned to begin this autumn may only start in spring 2012.

Announcing the project of nuclear power plant construction, the Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka talked about energy independence – meaning, of course, independence from Russian gas and oil. Since 2007 the Belarusian government even toyed with the idea of giving the nuclear power plant contract to non-Russian corporations – US, Japanese, French or German. Yet it had no money to pay for it, and the result was both sad and ironic. The Belarusian regime managed to get money only from Moscow.  

Now, the whole enterprise will be run by the Russians. The Russians will design and construct the plant for Russian money. The future Belarusian nuclear industry most probably will have to work under the guidance of Russian technical specialists. In addition, Russia will supply fuel and take back used nuclear material. The plant is likely to become part of an enterprise selling energy in the region and returning profits to Russia to pay the loan. Whether Belarus will gain any real benefits from the project, aside from the illusion of technical advancement and one more dangerous site, is likely a question without a positive answer.

SB

 




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.

YK




Lukashenka Insults Barroso Protesting Against His Isolation

Recent personal insults addressed to the EU Commission’s top official José Manuel Barroso and Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich demonstrate that the policy of personal isolation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka already has an effect on him, at least psychological. However, to make this policy truly effective, it is important to be consistent in isolating Lukashenka personally while maintaining contacts with high-rank Belarusian bureaucrats not directly implicated in human rights abuses.

Earlier this week commenting on the fact that he was absent at the official commemoration ceremony of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Alyaksandr Lukashenka burst out with a word assault on Barroso. He literally said as follows:

On the subject of bastards like Barroso and others – who is Barroso anyway? There was a Barroso in Portugal. But they kicked him out and put him to work in the European Commission. The last thing I want to know about European officials is who said this or that. There are thousands of them. They’re all crooks. So I don’t want to talk about any Barrosos or other bastards.

The European Commission’s reaction to these insulting comments was polite but quite sarcastic. According to an unnamed source in the European Commission, they do not recognize Lukashenka as a democratically elected president of Belarus, and the European Commission does not comment on statements by ordinary individuals.

This situation needs to be put in context. On 19 April the Ukrainian capital hosted the Nuclear Safety Summit and Chernobyl Pledging Conference. Both Lukashenka and Barroso were initially on the organizers’ list of the invitees. But Barroso put out a condition for his participation: Lukashenka should not be there. And as a result, Lukashenka was absent at the summit.

sort of oral warfare has become a usual thing in the Belarusian politics. However, this time it is of interest not only for media. It also gives us certain ‘food for thought’ in the context of the EU’s Belarus policy.

It has been suggested before to personally isolate Lukashenka fallowing the 2010 falsified presidential elections and rapid deterioration of situation with human rights in Belarus. Barroso’s unwillingness to sit at the same table with the ‘last European dictator’ looks like a move in that direction. And it immediately produced an expected effect – causing Lukashenka considerable psychological discomfort demonstrated by his insults. But this is only a tiny element of the isolation strategy.

This isolation should be consistent and comprehensive if the EU policy makers want not just another media occasion and yet another battle of words. As proposed, one of the mechanisms of Lukashenka’s personal isolation should be lowering the level of diplomatic presence in Minsk from ambassadorial to charge de’affaires. This way, the EU diplomats will not have to present credentials to the president they see as illegitimate and shake hands with him. But the EU Member States have so far seemed not to share this logic.

Just a few weeks ago the new Polish Ambassador Leszek Szerepka officially presented his credentials to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. All the state TV channels showed the ceremony at prime time. That ceremony seriously undermined all discussions about Lukashenka’s external illegitimacy in the eyes of Belarusian people and bureaucrats. It does not really make sense to send an extraordinary and plenipotentiary representative of the President of Poland to the President of Belarus if Poland does not recognize that particular person as president. The Belarusians also saw Lukashenka reprimanding and mentoring the new ambassador about Poland’s policy towards Belarus, which in the eyes of common people is proof of the former’s ideological victory over all Western enemies.

Summing it up, even fragmented isolation of Lukashenka’s personality does have an effect. But this effect will remain insignificant for the Belarusian society and bureaucrats and limited to Lukashenka’s psychological discomfort without a consistent and fully-fledged strategy of his personal isolation.

Yauheni Preiherman

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk




Swedish Foreign Minister: Lukashenka Decided to Fall Down

Last week at a conference at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt made a remarkable statement. He said that Lukashenka was near his end and Moscow was not going to save the Belarusian leader. His statements on Belarus were unequivocal.

Discussing with the EU initiative of Eastern Partnership, Carl Bildt said:

It is essential that we should hold on to the principle “more for more” and “less for less” in the Eastern Partnership, I mean, when someone goes for reforms, he should have more support and opportunities, and vice versa. Speaking about “less for less”, we have an obvious example – Belarus. A person who takes decisions in Minsk chose another direction, he decided to go down, even fall down. This naturally reflected in our ability to help Belarus with reforms and to integrate it into the European community. This is a European country which has an authoritarian regime – and this cannot be combined. I think this will change – and our proposal lies on the table in Minsk. At the same time we clearly state that political prisoners and political harassment which we see at the moment are unacceptable for us.

Mr Bildt assured that the EU was not going to forget Belarus because of North African developments:

What happens in the South in a sense dominates in the sphere of European foreign policy – and it will be so for a while. Yet does it mean that our partners from the East will loose their priority status? I do not think so. Vice versa. It seems, that the European politicians will realize – how we pursue the Neighborhood policy will have a key role in our security.

According to him, the European nations will now consider applying economic sanctions against the regime in Minsk:

Targeted economic sanctions — yes. However, the main problem which Belarus is facing is a very, very big economic chaos. It wouldn’t be so bad if Belarus had investors, foreign partners, if it had been a reliable country for credits and could get money with a reasonable interest rate.

I have not to explain why the latter shall be forgotten, since who is willing to invest in Lukashenka? No one! Belarusian leadership hopes that Moscow will now rescue them. But it seems to me that Moscow is not going to do it. Probably in more distant future as well. Because no one, I would emphasize, no one wants to put his money into a ‘black hole’ which is Belarus. Neither from West, nor from the East. Soon Lukashenka will have no options – he will have to turn for help to international institutions. The US cannot help Belarus because of documents adopted there. Only the Europe will remain. And we will establish very strict conditions and will carefully watch to the government’s behavior. Belarus is in a very, very desperate economic situation. In addition, I am sure that adopting general economic sanctions first of all would affect ordinary people.

While answering further questions, Mr Bildt sounded, however, not so certain:

Some things are absolutely clear: until now everybody was mortal. And I do not believe that Lukashenka will be the first one to live eternally. Therefore, of course, the time will come when Belarus will be post-Lukashenka. I am not ready to say whether it happens tomorrow or in ten years. Yet I do know one thing, we shall be ready for that in order to help in the transit period with economic and political system reforms, and shifting to another system of values.

This statement of Swedish minister is a logical move in the context of last developments in Belarus-European relations. Belarusian government have chosen confrontational line towards the EU after December elections in Belarus, accusing some European countries of meddling in Belarusian internal affairs. On 1 April, Belarusian Foreign Ministry declared that the Eastern Partnership was loosing its attraction for the country.

The last turning point came when Lukashenka received no invitation to the summit on Chernobyl in the Ukraine attended by some high-level EU representatives. Enraged, he publicly abused the EU and Ukrainian leaderships. Until then Ukraine made its best to retain Belarus in the Eastern Partnership, for among the Ukrainian political establishment prevailed the opinion that the Partnership will have much less sense for Ukraine if Belarus goes out. After Lukashenka’s derogative remarks, the Ukraine had no reasons to save the Belarusian government anymore.

Then, on 29 April, the Polish Foreign Ministry declared that the Belarusian delegation would not take part in the Warsaw summit of the Eastern Partnership in late September. One of the pillars of Lukashenka’s strength – a policy of equilibrium between East and West – seems to be crumbling.

SB