By David Marples
As the 21st anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl approaches, it is becoming a focal point of both government and opposition activity. It remains a potentially divisive issue because of cutbacks in aid to former liquidators and affected young people, as well as government programs to re-cultivate contaminated regions. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, leader of the United Democratic Forces (UDF), requested time on national television to express his viewpoint on these issues on April 25, but his request was rejected (Belorusy i rynok, April 16-23).
On April 21, Milinkevich began a tour of the regions of Belarus affected by the accident. On April 22, he took part in a conference dedicated to the problems of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident in Mazyr. The following day he was scheduled to visit three towns in the most contaminated zone of the republic, Brahin, Khoyniki, and Homel. His goal, according to an interview he provided to Belapan, is to draw the attention of Belarusians and the international community to the problems of ensuring the safety of the population and production in zones that do not confirm to radiological norms. He expressed in particular his anxiety about providing real aid for people who have lived in a radioactive zone for more than two decades and ensuring that children are permitted to travel abroad for periods of recuperation (Belorusskie novosti, April 21 and 22).
Two issues are of immediate concern. The first is the government policy of reducing funds directed to Chernobyl and reworking lands contaminated by long-living radionuclides, such as Cesium-137, Strontium-90, as well as Plutonium hotspots. The second issue is the reduction or curtailment of activities of NGOs devoted to Chernobyl issues, which in the past bore much of the costs through international assistance. For example, a two-year program put together by the IAEA and the Belarusian Institute of Radiology is underway in Homel oblast, using what is termed new "ecological technology" in products and drinking water to cultivate lands in contaminated zones (Belapan, Jan 17). Meanwhile, serious violations of existing rules for living in such areas have occurred recently in Vetka district (Homel region), particularly with regard to fishing in local rivers and the selling and consumption of local fish products (Belorusskie novosti, December 26, 2006).
In late February, several Belarusian liquidators wrote an appeal to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was about to meet with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. One of the signatories, Ivan Nikitchenka, a corresponding member of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, explained that the letter outlined how Belarusian liquidators had been deprived of benefits that they had received since 1991, as a result of a law guaranteeing their social protection. Sicknesses among their members are no longer recognized as being related to their exposure to high levels of radiation, and all attempts to rectify this situation through Belarusian courts have resulted in failure (Belorusskie novosti, February 26).
Funds to deal with Chernobyl problems currently are channeled through two sources: the republican budget and the budget of the Russia-Belarus Union. The amounts are pitifully small. Thus for the period 2006-2010 from the Union budget, RR172 million ($6.1 million) is allocated for "overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe." Among the projects to be dealt with in 2007 are the creation of a single Chernobyl register of dosimetric data, as well as formulating plans for the use of agricultural and forest areas, and an information center in Minsk (Belorusskie novosti, March 15). Of the figure of RR172 million, RR16.2 million is to be spent in 2007, and will additionally fund the recuperation of 1,100 children in special sanatoria (BELTA, January 1).
Republican expenditure for 2007, which embraces the recuperation of more than 144,000 children, is BR82 billion ($38 million). Over 258,000 children reportedly have the right to services for rest and recuperation (Belapan, April 20), though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cites a figure of 494,000 on its web page. Likewise the portion of the budget allocated to Chernobyl was 19.9% in 1992, 13.5% in 1995, and around 6% in 2005 (DHA News, September-October 1995, Louisa Vinton, United Nations Development Program, September 6, 2005).
Milinkevich, as well as the democratic forces generally in Belarus, intends to draw attention to Chernobyl-related problems as the time draws closer to the anniversary date next Thursday and the proposed "Chernobyl Path" march that will start at Yakub Kolas Square, close to the city center. Nikitchenka and others link the current demographic crisis in Belarus directly to the authorities' failure to deal adequately with Chernobyl and their decision to cut back non-government aid to victims, particularly those funds that were responsible for sending children abroad for recuperation. Such decisions, they believe, are political and they account in part for the loss of 500,000 individuals in the republic since 1993. At the present rate of population decline, this figure will double by 2020, with a further 28% reduction by 2050 (Belorusy i rynok, April 16-23).
Therefore, the organizers of the Chernobyl Path have issued an appeal to the authorities, requesting an increase in the social protection of the population, financial compensation for Chernobyl victims, a change of attitude toward humanitarian organizations working on these issues that are not linked to the government, better provision of medical goods for the affected population, and a system of "full" radiation control over the contaminated lands. All these demands appear to contradict the current policies of the Lukashenka regime, which regards Chernobyl-related problems as a potential burden on its story of alleged economic successes over the past decade.