Chernobyl, 20 years after, Sigorski in Cuba despite Canada, Milinkevich & Lebedko, Andrey Dynko Gazprom, Missiles
From the Top
A New Stage in the Country’s Development Requires New Approaches to Governance
From:The office of the president
This issue had already been the subject of discussion at the level of the Head of State. This time, the discussion was held at an enlarged meeting which was attended by the country’s top officials, senior officials of the key government institutions, the mayor of Minsk and the chairman of the Minsk regional executive committee who were representing their colleagues from other regions of the republic.
Alexander Lukashenko said that “we are not talking about a radical break of the state machinery, there will be no great changes.”
The Head of State specially accentuated the need to decide who personally would be eligible for membership in the Belarusian Government. The President noted however that most of the ministers and chairpersons of the state committees would be reappointed to their former posts. In his words, there is no necessity to make considerable changes: the Government staff and the leadership of the central bodies of administration have been largely formed. Alexander Lukashenko also stated that there would be some changes in the work style of the Head of State. “From now on, the President will not be “running” ahead of the Government or officials, ” he stressed.
The President elucidated that he by no means would withdraw himself from tackling problems and questions. “I will be working and observing more from aside, thinking to what extent this or that member of the Government or any other official subordinate to the President conforms to this or that post. Enough of that hiding behind the back of the Head of State!” the Belarusian leader said.
In keeping with the results of the meeting, the President gave specific directions for finalizing the structure of the republican bodies of state administration and asked to report on this issue to him within the next week.
Belarus has done everything to support and protect people after Chernobyl disaster
The worst man-made accident 20 years ago brought about numerous causalities having changed for good the life of hundreds of thousands of people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, Alexander Kosinets said.
The Chernobyl impact is enormous and long-term requiring complex efforts to cushion it, Alexander Kosinets said.
According to him, the Belarusian people appreciate the attention of the international community to the Chernobyl-related problems.
“Today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, we have gathered to sum up what we have done, to map out a strategy of long-term socio-economic rehabilitation of the affected regions and to set out the areas of international Chernobyl cooperation”, the chief of the organizational committee said.
Attending the conference are representative delegations of Russia and Ukraine, about 500 foreign guests including officials of the international, humanitarian and public organizations.
Prime minister of Belarus Sergei Sidorskiy heads for Cuba
From:Belta and ain.CUBA web
The program of the visit includes a meeting with Fidel Castro, negotiations with speaker of the National Assembly of Cuba Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, visit to the center of gene engineering and biotechnologies.
Serguei Sidorski, said in Minsk, Tuesday, that Cuba is an important and reliable partner in political and economic matters in the Western Hemisphere, as the two nations have kept relations for a long time.
"I don't think I am mistaken if I say that Belarus is a strategic ally for the island," said Sidorski.
Sidorski highlighted the longstanding relations between Cuba and Belarus --dating back to the time of the Soviet Union, which has always been characterized by openness, sincerity, and a spirit of solidarity and mutual assistance.
Belarus and Cuba have shared positions on key international matters and have mutually supported in the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement and other international forums, he noted.
The strategic alliance between the two countries emerged in 2000 during the visit of President Lukashenko to Havana, shortly after he began his second term in office.
According to the ministry of statistics and analysis, the trade turnover between Belarus and Cuba in January-February 2006 totaled USD 1,864,000, some 82.4 per cent more than on the same time last year. It is noteworthy that the Belarusian export to Cuba has soared by more than 80 per cent and reached USD 1,848,000.
In 2005 the trade turnover between the two countries plunged to USD 20,254,000. The reduction was caused by a fell in Cuban import from USD 29,8 million in 2004 to USD 7 million in 2005. The Belarusian export on the contrary, grew to almost USD 13,2 million.
Last year Belarus exported to Cuba 177 trucks to the total sum of more than USD 9,5million.
Canada refuses refueling stop for Belarus PM
Ottawa, which last month froze most ties with Belarus to protest against the controversial March 19 presidential vote, said it had strong concerns about the country's commitment to democratization and human rights.
"In light of these concerns, we were not prepared to facilitate the entry of senior-level representatives of the Belarussian regime onto Canadian soil," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Pamela Greenwell.
In Havana, Belarussian embassy councilor Victor Kozintsey said the reason Canada gave was that Sidorsky's delegation included officials banned from entering the European Union for their role in the presidential election.
The plane refueled in Boston instead, delaying Sidorsky's arrival in Havana, Kozintsey said.
"This is so childish. Does Canada belong to the European Union?" Kozintsey said. "The United States is more friendly than Canada," he commented.
The EU imposed a visa ban on top Belarussian officials considered responsible for the elections, which the United States, Canada and the EU condemned as unfair.
Communist Cuba was among the first countries to recognize the re-election of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko for a third term.
Sidorsky, who was reappointed on Monday, was expected to meet President Fidel Castro on Friday afternoon.
Havana established diplomatic relations with the former Soviet republic in 1992. Cuba's ruling Communist Party daily Granma said Cuba and Belarus had "excellent political ties."
U.S. Wants Belarus on G8 Agenda
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said it would be the first time that the G8 had discussed "these ... conflicts very close to Russia's borders" -- underlining the stark political differences between Russia and the other G8 members.
He said that most G8 members agreed that Belarus' recent election, which returned President Alexander Lukashenko to a third term, was "anti-democratic," and that the G8 should help the governments of Georgia and Moldova resolve conflicts with their separatist provinces -- all of which enjoy support from Russia.
Russia and the United States are working together under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a resolution to the 18-year-old conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-inhabited enclave in Azerbaijan. They have both expressed optimism that progress could be made this year.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said he will raise concerns about Russian democracy during the summit.
Belarus wants dialogue with Poland despite rows - ambassador
Pavel Latushko said Belarus had proposed easing visa regulations and signing bilateral border and customs agreements with Poland, which has been one of the most vociferous critics of President Alexander Lukashenk's regime.
But he added: "Belarus will not bend under pressure of any external factors and conditions, wherever they come from".
Relations between the two countries worsened after Lukashenko's victory in the March 19 presidential elections.
Mariusz Maszkiewicz, a former Polish ambassador to Belarus, was detained in Minsk on March 28. He was among more than 150 detained opposition protesters who regarded election results as fraudulent. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail, but was later taken to hospital with heart problems and released April 7.
Earlier this month, foreign ministers of the 25 European Union member states included Lukashenko along with 30 other Belarusian officials on a blacklist that bans them from entering the union.
New Home for Belarus Jewish Community of Brest
In addition to being fully renovated, the new space is also enclosed by a fence and a security system, which is very important for the safety and security of Jewish institutions and community members nowadays. This new space will allow the community to hold its activities in a way that is more vivid than ever before.
Until now, the community had run its activities out of the building of the local ‘Chesed’ organization, premises that also hosted programs operated by other agencies of the Brest Jewish Union. The lack of availability of the space became held back growth and advancement of the Jewish community, especially during Jewish holidays.
The first gathering to be held in the new Jewish Community Center is scheduled for April 12th, as Jews of Brest will unite in celebrating the first Passover Seder.
Belarus opposition leader to travel Norway this week
Lindeman said Milinkevich was scheduled to meet Stoltenberg and the Norwegian Parliament's foreign affairs committee, and also planned to join a seminar. On Friday, he was set to meet Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. The Helsinki Committee said the high levels of the meetings were a strong indication of Norway 's support for the Belarus opposition. Before entering politics, Milinkevich, 58, was a frequent visitor to Norway as guest of the Helsinki Committee, which backed his human rights efforts
Belarus opposition wants international public trial of Lukashenko
Anatoly Lebedko said the first session of such court could be possibly held in September this year in Warsaw, Vilnius, Kiev, Moscow, or Minsk.
"We need to dispel illusions and myths about Belarusian authorities," Lebedko said. "We need to show the [real] nature of the Belarusian regime."
Lebedko said the trial judges should be 10-15 people well known in Europe and the world. He said the prosecution would present hundreds of cases involving violation of Belarusian laws and the constitution.
Lebedko said the main issues in the trial would be the events of 1996, when Lukashenko dismissed a parliament that intended to impeach him, and the 2006 presidential election. He added the issue of the court should be also raised at the Council of Europe.
Belarus is the only European nation not to be a member of the Council of Europe.
Earlier this month, foreign ministers of the 25 European Union member states included Lukashenko along with 30 other Belarusian officials on a blacklist that bans them from entering the union.
Rosenallis man Larry observes how elections are run in Belarus
Note: The following article was written by Majells O'Sullivan and paints a rather pro-Belarusian picture from the point of view of an election observer. The BHTimes would like to add that “Larry’s” accounting of the poling station situation was quite similar to the one in Pinsk.
From:Laois Nationalist (Ireland)
EU foreign ministers reached that decision in response to the elections in March, which they believe were rigged.
A team of 440 international observers from 38 different countries observed the voting and counting at polling stations all over Belarus on behalf of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Among them was Rosenallis man, Larry O’Loughlin.
Although the report by the OSCE, to which Larry was a contributor, was fairly damning, he still maintains that there were many positive aspects to the Belarusian system he observed while on duty in the city of Lida.
“When you’re out observing an election you’re not allowed operate with someone from the same country and all the observers are paired into groups of two. I was paired with a German,” Larry explained.
The observers had a briefing session for two days in Minsk, which went through the rights of observers and what was expected of them. Then they were dispatched to the polling stations all over the country where they observed what was going on over the five days of the elections.
In Belarus there is a Central Election Commission, which is established by the Government. At regional level there are Territorial Election Commissions (similar to constituencies), which are again broken down to Precinct Electoral Commissions at local level, which organises the polling stations.
“Our job was to be present at all the polling stations, which are dotted around the precinct and to observe, ask questions and ensure that the election process is taking place in a proper manner but we had to do that very discretely,” he said.
Interestingly, the ballot paper contained five boxes; one for each of the four presidential candidates and a fifth box that gave people the option of not voting for any of them, a kind of controlled spoiled vote system. Each ballot paper is signed by the Precinct Electoral Commission, which is picked from the local community.
“It was extremely well organised and unlike Ireland, there was far more community spirit involved in the whole process and there is very much a local involvement in each polling station,” Larry said.
Another dissimilarity to Ireland is the mobile voting system, which Larry explained is a bit like a mobile polling box that is brought around to people that are sick or don’t have transportation to the polling station. There is also a sample ballot paper on display in the polling booth and some information on each candidate.
“On the morning of the poll we had to be there at 7.30am to observe the process right through until the poll closed that night. That goes right through to the last day and the sealing of the boxes and the opening of the boxes for the count,” he continued.
The votes are counted on the spot but are then transferred to the regional stations where they are correlated. The polling stations are similar to what might be used here such as schools, community halls, universities or cultural centres.
“After some time we discovered that there was a list of names on the wall with dates and we later realised that this was a list of first time voters. Every new voter received a presentation from the local electoral committee and this was a good idea in terms of fostering a positive experience,” he said.
“They put a huge emphasis on the process and the Sunday, which was the final day of polling, is very much a family occasion. They had music, concerts, food and it was like a community occasion, which was very conducive to people turning out to vote.”
At the end of each day all the observers had to file a report to Minsk of their experiences that day and it was from these that the overall OSCE report was compiled.
Larry said that a lot of the problems the OSCE had with the elections took place before the polling began, when there were allegations of intimidation. He pointed out that President Alexander Lukashenko had to change the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term in office.
Of his own experience at the polling station in Lida he said they were treated extremely well and were very well received by the local committee whom they found to be very co-operative. He pointed out that there were also a number of domestic observers from trade unions, NGOs, youth groups or women’s groups within Belarus.
There was also a facility for people to lodge a complaint with them but this never arose where he was stationed in Lida.
Belarus opposition undid revolution
Belarus’ opposition missed a golden opportunity after last month’s presidential elections, if not to force the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to its knees, then at least to force a second round of voting. Civil society and youth groups there had had months, even years, to plan for this moment, as well as playbooks handed to them by their pals in Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia.
But the opposition was too disorganized and too focused on what Milinkevich calls “romantic sentiments” and symbolic gestures, like lighting candles and wearing blue denim, instead of mobilizing more people, particularly adults, to take to the streets in protest. In the end, numbers matter more than gestures.
Sure, the opposition was up against a number of hurdles, including a lack of access to state-run airwaves, imminent threats of arrest, and a populace anemic after 12 years of dictatorship. Not to mention that many of its leaders were either behind bars or hiding abroad. And unlike Ukraine, these groups could not rely on domestic oligarchs for their funding, and most Western civil society groups had been booted out years ago, making financing tricky to navigate. But the opposition, particularly on the night of the March 19 elections, made a number of avoidable mistakes.
Around 8 p.m., responding to fliers and text messages posted by activists, thousands flocked to October Square— declared a no-go zone by the authorities—to hear opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich address the masses. The trouble was that though he said all the right things, no one could hear him. The opposition did not think to bring an adequate sound system or generator to power it, just an inaudible bullhorn.
Also absent from the square were tents, which emerged as a poignant symbol of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, when tent cities sprouted along Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, symbolizing the protesters’ willingness to camp out for weeks. Subzero temperatures and a biting wind in Minsk, more so than the threat posed by riot police, sent demonstrators home early. No plan was in place to keep protesters cozy or to supply blankets, thermoses of hot tea, or, most importantly, the tents themselves until the next day. By then it was too late.
Then, as the night wore on and the crowd thinned, a decision was hastily made to march a few blocks to Victory Square to lay carnations at a monument. This was a nice gesture symbolically, but not exactly tantamount to storming the Bastille or standing in front of a tank on Tiananmen Square. Only a few hundred bothered to march.
Next, came the opposition’s most disastrous decision: to postpone the protests until the following night. This killed any chance of reaching critical mass. Momentum was lost, as the next night’s crowd dwindled to only half of what it had been the previous night. By midweek, most of the foreign media had skipped town. Motorists passing by no longer honked in support. Even protesters’ chants of “Long live Belarus!” had lost their oomph.
Then there was the opposition’s odd rallying symbol: blue denim. Opposition leaders, trying to replicate recent revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, were groping for a symbol, a color, a flower—anything to attract foreign media attention to their cause. They found such a symbol last year after a young Belarusian protester, his flags confiscated by police, held up a swatch of denim. Also, denim during Soviet times was evocative of the West. So, whenever Milinkevich appeared in public, he draped himself in a blue scarf to promote the spirit of what he hoped would become the “denim revolution.”
But the symbol failed and always felt a bit forced, like a marketing gimmick conjured up by Western NGOs. Not to mention, it was generic, the equivalent of Russian protesters donning fur hats or French rioters – berets. And while throngs of Ukrainians bedecked in bright orange might make for nice media coverage, protesters clad in blue jeans resemble just that: protesters clad in blue jeans.
Looking back, the opposition may have squandered its brief chance to bring reform to Belarus. They had the world’s undivided attention, but in the end, they were disorganized, improvising as they went along, instead of having a strategic plan in place. In the end, greater numbers were needed, not just pithy slogans, colorful flags, or gimmicky symbols to rally around, like denim.
Perhaps a repeat of a velvet revolution was never in the cards. But without an organized opposition, Belarus will never find out.
CPJ condemns attempts to close independent weekly
Note: Click "HERE" to read a 2003 RFE/RL interview with Andrey Dynko concerning Dynko’s oppositionist views about the Russification and re-Sovietization policies pursued by the regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
From:The Committee to Protect Journalists
Antigovernment protests broke out after Lukashenko’s re-election on March 19 in polls that foreign monitors called deeply flawed.
“President Lukashenko’s harassment of the media continues to undermine his political legitimacy,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on President Lukashenko and the authorities in Minsk to stop their harassment of Nasha Niva and all other independent newspapers.”
Media reported that the Ideological Department of the Minsk City Executive Committee informed Nasha Niva in an April 10 letter that it had withdrawn permission for the paper to have a legally registered address in the capital. The letter said the Committee did not “consider it expedient to have the newspaper based in Minsk” because of Dynko’s arrest and imprisonment.
Dynko told journalists today that the Executive Committee’s ruling was a politically-motivated “legal absurdity,” the independent news agency Belapan reported. The Belarusian Association of Journalists called the decision “illegal” and said it feared that authorities would use the ruling to close down the weekly.
At the beginning of the year, authorities prohibited state-run newsstands from selling Nasha Niva and the post office refused to deliver the newspaper to subscribers.
Authorities cracked down on the independent media in the months ahead of the March election and jailed more than two dozen journalists during anti-government demonstrations after the vote.
Belarus starts bargaining with Gazprom
A high-ranking source in the Belarusian government said Gazprom was invited to take part in the construction of the second leg of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, an underground gas storage facility, the second line at the Grodno mineral fertilizers production plant, and a gas pipeline to Poland, as well as in the reconstruction of the Berezovskaya hydro power plant (HPP) in the Brest Region.
Experts say energy and gas storage proposals would be most interesting to the monopoly. Valery Nesterov of Troika Dialog brokerage said Gazprom was lacking in underground storage facilities. The proposal referred to the Berezovskaya HPP, Belarus' third largest power plant with a design capacity of 995 MW, and is also attractive because of its energy export opportunities.
Gazprom is unlikely to take part in the construction of gas pipelines and in mineral business, Nesterov said.
"With construction of the North-European gas pipeline underway, it is unnecessary to build a second leg of the Yamal-Europe pipeline," Nesterov said. "Gazprom will have to make efforts to distribute the total amount of gas to the North-European pipeline. Fifty-five billion cubic meters is not a trifle."
Nor would the Russian holding wish to stretch a leg to Poland due to complicated bilateral relations, he said, adding that Gazprom, which has a lot of marginal assets in Russia, would not join in construction of a mineral factory either.
These proposals may be revised, Nesterov said, but one thing is clear: Minsk is paying heed to the Russian monopoly's intentions and is set to reach an agreement before the current contract expires.
Critics in Belarus say Gazprom's move is aimed at forcing a speedy sale of Beltranshaz, the Belarusian state company that owns and operates the nation's gas-pipeline network, in which Russia is hoping to win a controlling share.
Russia denies Belarus-Iran missile transfer
The Russian Defense Ministry on Monday said four battalions of S-300 PMU2 Favorite missile systems would be supplied to Belarus this year in accordance with an agreement to merge the two countries' air defenses, but denied that the missile systems could be transferred to Iran, Russia's RIA Novosti reported.
"Under the current [Joint Air Defense Group of the Union State] agreement, missile systems cannot be supplied to third countries," the news agency quoted the defense ministry as saying.
"The information published in certain US media alleging that the S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems which Russia supplies to Belarus will be re-exported to Iran in the future does not correspond to reality," news agencies quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying in a statement on Monday.
Earlier this month, Russia began supplying the anti-aircraft missile systems to Belarus in accordance with that agreement.
The S-300 system can hit targets at a range of 20 meters to 45 kilometers. It can engage six targets simultaneously and is expected to be deployed in June.
Aging Chernobyl Survivors Share Memories on 20th Anniversary on Nuclear Accident
From:Voice of America
It is a long and lonely three-hour drive from the bustling capital of Kiev, Ukraine, to the tiny village of Gornostipol. There, less than 100 people struggle to eke out a life forever changed on April 26, 1986.
That is the day a routine shutdown of Chernobyl's operating system resulted in a surge that sparked a chemical explosion. The force of the blast ripped open the power plant and hurled into the air nearly nine tons of radioactive material, reportedly hundreds of times more than the amount released by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. The radioactive fallout spread across large parts of the former Soviet Union, including the worst affected countries of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
In the tiny village of Gornostipol, just 30 kilometers from the power plant, the resulting panic and chaos was immediately apparent, even if, as surviving villagers say, the hard, cold facts were not.
Scientific research has since shown that eight to 16 days after such an explosion, during Alexei's service, radioactive toxins are at their highest and most dangerous levels.
Alexei reveals to VOA that he has had to receive treatment for thyroid cancer ever since. But he says it is not the cancer that haunts him these days, but the memories. They are still raw and fresh.
He laughs bitterly when he recalls being handed wine and iodine pills before going further into the zone to serve as a so-called liquidator. He was one of nearly 600,000 men eventually called to help in the cleanup and aftermath at Chernobyl.
Many of the liquidators died immediately, or in the first years that followed the disaster. Others, like Alexei, live haunted lives.
"Of course I still live with this stress," he says. "I re-live it every day. All the men lost. All the relatives lost."
But what does he remember most? He remembers the traffic. Alexei says the traffic leaving the zone in the first days after the explosion was unprecedented, jammed with dazed villagers fleeing the scene on one side, while hundreds of huge, concrete trucks, ambulances and fire trucks rumbled toward the disaster. Alongside the road, he adds, animals were seen fleeing. He suddenly stops to compose himself, saying simply, it is difficult to speak about it even now.
Amid the silence, I note to myself that he is the only man I have seen moving about the village in two hours.
But every villager who spoke to VOA admitted to growing their own food out of necessity, villagers like Irina Ivanovo. She is 72 now and says she has long since given up on the hope of being rescued, or offered a way out of the zone.
"Besides, I have lost my husband and my health, where would I go now?" she asks.
Irina says she suffers from a severe nervous disorder and psychological depression. She says she needs hospital treatment every half year. For a time, she says, she will feel better. Then six months later, she explains that she will need treatment again.
A lady standing nearby tries to comfort Irina. She too became a widow in the first year after the accident. But her tale of trouble is quickly drowned out by another old woman who cries out, nobody ever comes here. We have been forgotten.
The other woman then asks a question of her own.
"Why do we even need nuclear energy after such a huge tragedy as this?" she asks, looking over her shoulder toward the ruin of a plant. So many people dead, so many lives lost, so many questions ... it is not possible to forget.
Then she visibly brightens and says, please ask the world to remember us, and help us if they can.
FACTBOX-Key facts about the Chernobyl nuclear accident
Following are some key facts about the Chernobyl disaster:
* Reactor number four at the Soviet-designed Chernobyl nuclear power plant 130 km (80 miles) north of Ukraine's capital Kiev exploded at 1.24 a.m. on April 26 following a test on capacity when the safety system was temporarily cut off.
* A series of powerful blasts caused by overheated steam created a fireball which blew off the reactor's heavy steel and concrete lid.
* The accident sent a huge cloud of radioactive strontium, caesium and plutonium across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and much of Europe.
* The Chernobyl Forum, a group of eight U.N. agencies, and governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, has estimated an eventual death toll of only a few thousand as a result of the explosion. U.N. agencies have said some 4,000 people would die in total because of radiation exposure.
* Environmental group Greenpeace said this month that the eventual death toll could be far higher than official estimates, with up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths worldwide.
* A unique cover above the reactor, the so-called "Sarcophagus", was built in November 1986 to protect the environment from radiation for at least 30 years.
* Chernobyl engineers shut down the last functioning reactor, Number Three, in December 2000. The actual process of making the plant safe will take many years. Officials have said the last fuel rods will not be taken away until 2008 and it will be between 30 and 100 years before the station is completely decommissioned.
In Throats of Йmigrйs, Doctors Find a Legacy of Chernobyl
From:New York Times
Cancer of the thyroid gland is rising in the United States, to about 30,000 new cases a year, according to the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, and it is climbing more sharply in New York State. While there are no data on the rates among different ethnic groups, doctors who work with йmigrйs from the former Soviet Union say that that population accounts for a significant part of the rise, because of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986.
There is much dispute over the death toll and some of the health effects from Chernobyl. But the link between nuclear fallout exposure and thyroid cancer is well documented, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in areas of the United States and other countries that were affected by aboveground nuclear tests. Since Chernobyl, studies have found rates of thyroid cancer in Belarus and Ukraine that are several times higher than before the accident.
Thyroid cancer is usually curable when it is caught early, but it kills about 1,500 people a year in the United States, in part because it can go undetected for years. Doctors who treat immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia say that they see a disturbing number of advanced cases because patients do not know that they should be tested, and they often see American doctors who do not immediately think in terms of radiation exposure.
Now, a group of doctors in New York are trying to warn immigrants and their own doctors of the danger, and they have helped to organize a conference of scientists to be held at the United Nations today — a few days short of the 20th anniversary — on the link between Chernobyl and thyroid cancer. They say a systematic effort is needed to screen people who might have been exposed, as in Belarus, where nearly all thyroid cancers are caught early enough to be cured. Until then, it is impossible even to know the scope of the problem.
"The diagnosis comes when they've already had symptoms like sore throat and it's already spread to lymph nodes, which is much more serious," said Dr. Daniel I. Branovan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, in the East Village, and an organizer of the conference.
Pavel Zhukov knew the risks of radiation exposure when he lived in Mtsensk, in western Russia. The government gave people small stipends to compensate for the nuclear danger, he said, but "people called it burial money."
Mr. Zhukov, a 50-year-old construction worker, said he was told years ago in Russia that his thyroid showed signs of abnormality, but he did not know what to do about it. He went seven or eight years without an ultrasound scan of his thyroid, he said, before moving to Brooklyn from Mtsensk five months ago and having a scan there.
He had cancer, in a fairly advanced form. On April 7, his thyroid was surgically removed, and he faces follow-up treatment with radiation. But Mr. Zhukov was lucky; doctors found no cancer in his lymph nodes.
Diagnoses of thyroid cancer in the United States are about twice as common as they were in the early 1980's, rising most sharply since the mid-1990's, and there is some debate about how much of that is because of improved detection. But most of the increase has been in the form of thyroid cancer most closely associated with radiation exposure. And it has risen faster in New York, home to the nation's largest concentration of Eastern European immigrants, where it doubled in a decade.
There are about 700,000 people living in the United States who were born in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia, including close to 200,000 in New York City, and significantly smaller populations in the suburbs in both New York and New Jersey, according to the Census Bureau and the City Planning Department.
A great majority of those people immigrated after Chernobyl, and they probably account for hundreds of thyroid cancer cases a year, Dr. Branovan said. It is another lesson in how hard it is to isolate health problems in an era when people travel the world with ease and bring diseases — think West Nile encephalitis or SARS — with them.
Diana Akerman remembers seeing other children in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, suddenly lose their hair. "All hair," she said. "Eyelashes, eyebrows."
But her family moved to Brooklyn four years after the accident, and she assumed that the risk to her had passed long ago. Miss Akerman, now a 27-year-old computer programmer living in the borough's Mill Basin section, was unusual in that she had annual screenings. Early this year, a sonogram showed a tiny spot that turned out to be cancerous; it was caught much earlier than most cases.
The heaviest fallout from the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant hit Belarus, immediately north of the plant, northern Ukraine and nearby parts of western Russia.
One of the byproducts of nuclear reactions is a radioactive form of iodine. The thyroid, a small gland at the base of the throat, collects iodine.
The first deaths and illness from Chernobyl hit people whose bodies were simply overwhelmed by massive doses of radiation. Soon after came a wave of cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma.
Thyroid cancers occurred most often in children, and those tended to appear in the first decade. But for adults exposed to radiation, thyroid cancer can take 20 years or more to develop.
The Soviet government waited days before admitting to the accident, and at first played down the seriousness. It offered little useful advice in the critical early days.
Olga Sereda lived in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, less than 80 miles south of Chernobyl. She said that five days after the accident, thousands of people were obliged to attend the annual May Day demonstration, standing outside for hours, exposed to the fallout.
Ms. Sereda, 50, who now lives in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, said she, too, assumed years ago that she was no longer in danger. But last summer, two years after she moved to the United States, her doctor diagnosed thyroid cancer, her gland was removed and she underwent radiation therapy.
Now, she says, she fears for her daughter and her mother, who are both still in the Ukraine, and wonders what staying there has done to them. "If we knew what can happen," she said, "maybe we would behave differently."
Chernobyl's myths and misconceptions
A new wave of alarmist claims about the Chernobyl nuclear accident's impact on human health and the environment needs quashing quickly
There has been real suffering, particularly among the 330,000 people who were relocated after the accident. About that there is no doubt.
But, for the five million people living in affected regions who are designated as Chernobyl victims, radiation has had no discernable impact on physical health. This is because these people were exposed to low radiation doses that in most cases were comparable to natural background levels. Two decades of natural decay and remediation measures mean that most territories originally deemed contaminated no longer merit that label. Aside from thyroid cancer, which has been successfully treated in 98.5% of cases, scientists have not been able to document any connection between radiation and any physical condition.
Where a clear impact has been found is mental health. Fear of radiation, it seems, poses a far more potent health threat than does radiation itself. Symptoms of stress are rampant, and many residents of affected areas firmly believe themselves to be condemned by radiation to ill health and early death.
In part, this is because the initial Soviet response was secretive: Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, addressed the issue on television only weeks later, on May 14, 1986. Myths and misconceptions have taken root, and these have outlasted subsequent efforts to provide reliable information. Combined with sweeping government benefit policies that classify millions of people living in Chernobyl-affected areas as invalids, such myths encouraged fatalistic and passive behavioir and created a culture of dependency among affected communities.
The United Nations Chernobyl Forum, a consortium of eight UN agencies and representatives of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, reinforced these findings. Chernobyl Forum was created to address the prevailing confusion concerning the impact of the accident, both among the public and government officials, by declaring a clear verdict on issues where a scientific consensus could be found. The Forum succeeded in this effort, and a fresh and reassuring message on the impact of radiation was made public in September. [An easily digestible summary is available at http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf]
The Chernobyl Forum findings should have brought relief, for they show that the spectre haunting the region is not invincible radiation, but conquerable poverty. What the region needs are policies aimed at generating new livelihoods rather than reinforcing dependency; public-health campaigns that address the lifestyle issues (smoking and drinking) that undermine health across the former Soviet Union; and community development initiatives that promote self-reliance and a return to normalcy.
But the reception given to the Chernobyl Forum's message has been surprisingly mixed. Some officials have reverted to alarmist language on the number of fatalities attributed to Chernobyl. Some NGOs and Chernobyl charities have responded with disbelief, citing as evidence the general population's admittedly poor health. Opponents of nuclear power have suggested that self-interest has compromised the Chernobyl Forum's integrity.
Set against the impressive body of science underpinning the Chernobyl Forum, such responses reflect the tenacity not only of myths and misconceptions, but also of vested interests. The new view on Chernobyl threatens the existence of charities such as those offering health respites abroad for children that depend for their fund-raising on graphic footage of deformed babies.
The new understanding also deprives the region's officials of a routine way to seek international sympathy, even if the repetition of such appeals after two decades yields little financial aid. By misstating the problems, these approaches threaten to divert scarce resources into the wrong remedies.
The 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident is an ideal occasion for all actors to do some honest soul-searching. Governments are right to worry about the fate of Chernobyl-affected territories, but the way forward will require fresh thinking and bold decisions, particularly a shift in priorities from paying paltry benefits to millions, to targeted spending that helps to promote jobs and economic growth. Similarly, charities are right to worry about the population's health, but they should focus on promoting healthy lifestyles in affected communities rather than whisking children abroad as if their homes were poisonous.
All parties are right to worry about the affected populations, but, more than any sophisticated diagnostic equipment, what is needed is credible information, presented in a digestible format, to counter Chernobyl's destructive legacy of fear. The children of Chernobyl are all grown up; their interests, and those of their own children, are best served not by continually evoking the nightmare of radiation, but by giving them the tools and authority they need to rebuild their own communities.
Kalman Mizsei is Assistant Administrator and Regional Director, UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and CIS. Louisa Vinton is UNDP Senior Programme Manager responsible for the Western CIS and Caucasus countries, as well as Chernobyl.
Belarus to spend $1.6 bln on elimination of Chernobyl fallout
Belarus intends to spend $1.6 billion on social and economic rehabilitation of its territories affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the country's prime minister said Wednesday.
"Belarus carries a heavy burden of problems as a result of the last century's largest nuclear disaster," Sergei Sidorsky said.
"Twenty three percent of Belarusian territory became a zone of radioactive contamination, where one fifth of the population continues to live. Twenty two percent of forests and one fifth of agricultural lands were damaged."
Some 70% of the radiation released from the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine in April 1986 fell on Belarus.
The premier said Belarus had already implemented three state programs to eliminate the consequences of the catastrophe, spending $18 billion from its budget. This year the country plans to spend $1.6 billion to implement a fourth state program aimed to restore the social and economic state of the region.
Last week the speaker of Belarusian parliament's lower house, Vladimir Konoplev, said radioactive fallout from the disaster had caused major health problems in one out of every five residents of Belarus and inflicted economic losses totaling 32 times the amount of the nation's annual budget in 1985.
On Tuesday environmental organization Greenpeace said the estimated by the UN number of victims that would die from the tragedy was greatly downsized. Greenpeace said the actual number of deaths would reach 93,000 instead of 9,000 predicted by the UN.