Today marks the 20th anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl; Lukashenka in Gomel, Sidorski in Cuba, Milinkevich in Europe, Chleb still at Arsenal
From the top
Alexander Lukashenko Takes a Working Tour of Gomel Region
The attention of the President will be focused on the issues of respecializing the agricultural production in the areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster, organizing clean agricultural production, developing consumer services, providing specialized medical assistance, recruiting medical professionals, strengthening the financial and technical basis of rural schools. The Head of State is expected to visit a number of facilities of the social and economic sphere.
The Belarusian leader will also survey the spring sowing work going on in the republic.
Belarus has an open economy and cannot resort to additional customs duties on imports in an effort to protect home producers, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said today visiting the Kalinkovichi region.
“We consume about 20 per cent of the Belarusian produce and we sell the rest 80 per cent. Once we raise customs duties on imported goods the same will be done immediately against Belarus. Thus we cannot introduce such measures without bearing in mind that the same kind of measures might be imposed against us”, the president said.
The head of state added that “a country needs to have an open economy if it wants to access the WTO”. Belarus cannot introduce such measures in regard to Russia because Russia would immediately do the same in regard to Belarus in other fields, Alexander Lukashenko said.
As an example here the Belarusian leader cited the issue around the supplies of Belarusian sugar to Russia.
The price for the Belarusian agricultural produce has reached its top-line, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said while on a working trip to Gomel oblast.
“If only we push up prices for meat, milk and other goods, the Russians will “throw in” cheaper products”, the president is convinced.
Alexander Lukashenko believes that Belarus cannot let Russian, Ukrainian or other goods fill its market. “Once we “close up” they will “close up” against us”, the president stressed.
Today in a conversation with residents of the village Syrod, the Kalinkovichi region, Gomel oblast, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko said he had signed a decree to increase pensions.
The Belarusian leader shrugged off rumors on possible rise in the pension age for the Belarusians. “Yet our social security system is coping well with the increase in pensions”, he added.
At the same time Alexander Lukashenko did not rule out that in case the government reported to him that the social security system failed to manage its tasks, “then a decision might be made on the increase in the pension age”.
The goal of all the undertakings in villages is to set up agricultural production of the world level and modern agro towns, Alexander Lukashenko declared today during a meeting with dwellers of Syrod village of the Kalinkovichi region.
The president emphasized that the village revival program will cost about USD 30 billion. The state is ready to spend such a sum to improve living and working conditions in rural areas. “This is not an easy thing to do especially since the situation is aggravated by the constantly increasing gas and oil prices. Yet we have to do that,” the president said.
According to Alexander Lukashenko, when he visited the place some 10 years ago he saw gloom and worried faces. “Today I see both hope and confidence in people’s faces,” the head of state emphasized. According to him, agro towns will make the life of villagers better and nicer. Agro towns will also be a reason for the young to stay in villages. The president admired the newly restored village Syrod which was transformed into an agro town.
The head of state said that the local residents should appreciate and take care of the newly-built houses and continue improving the place.
Alexander Lukashenko is convinced that in developing the agro-towns there is a need to use latest technologies both in production and in construction. Talking today to the residents of the Syrod village, Kalinkovichi region, the president emphasized that the state is not going to invest into the reconstruction of the outdated facilities but will create new, the most up-to-date ones. “Everything that has worn out will be destroyed while new facilities meeting the toughest requirements will be built”, Alexander Lukashenko said.
According to him, the country will build new dairy farms, social facilities, machine yards, and will develop villages.
“Rural dwellers have deserved better living conditions”, the president said. Alexander Lukashenko stressed that the reforms aim to encourage young people to live in rural regions, because the future of the Belarusian village depends on them.
The restoration of the Chernobyl-affected regions will demand more funds than construction of agro towns. “Yet this is the Belarusian fate and the most important thing is to met the targets,”
Alexander Lukashenko declared today during a meeting with dwellers of Syrod village of the Kalinkovichi region.
“I realize very well that a lot of mistakes had been done in the post-Chernobyl years and not one decade will be needed to improve the situation. It turned out that it is not so easy to resettle people to other places. Many of them failed to adopt and want to go back,” the president emphasized.
Alexander Lukashenko declared that “we cannot allow people to settle where it is prohibited to live. Yet we do our utmost to revive some territories and the program is quite extended,” he added.
A Brief interview with Sergei Sidorskiy, prime minister of Belarus
From:Granma International (Cuba)
With all the ferocious pressure from the United States and the European Union, how was Lukashenko’s reelection achieved?
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, each one of the states in that space chose their own form of development. The Republic of Belarus, which has no oil or gas, experienced a notable drop in its economy, something similar to the situation in Cuba at that time.
"We were obliged to take on a new economic policy to stand up to the loss of the production volumes that we had within the Soviet framework. When the disintegration happened, almost all the enterprises dedicated to manufacturing machines with complex technology – for example, the car industry – agriculture, transport, descended to almost zero. Even companies well known internationally, such as that of potassic fertilizer were literally at the point of bankruptcy in the 90s."
The drop was 11%-plus. The GDP fell to 15% and inflation went up to 25%. Moreover, it at should be recalled that in January 1994 the Soviet Union dismissed those in power because corruption had escalated, while there was a severe drop in the living conditions of the population. Power was assumed by the conservative Mechislav Hirb, who did not achieve the urgently needed balances. The presidential elections in the summer of 1994 were convincingly won by Alexander Lukashenko who, after various years of work, reconfirmed his popular acceptance in the 2000 elections, with which he acquired a broad parliamentary support. He was reelected in the presidential elections of 2001.
That political sequence illustrates what Sidorskiy told us in Havana, a few minutes after signing various trade protocols with Cuba. He continued explaining:
"In early 1994 with his electoral victory, President Lukashenko proposed a very precise economic development action program, clearly accepted by the majority of citizens without whose participation no goal would be possible.
"We selected the route of an economy oriented toward social development. The state took it upon itself to help every enterprise and, step by step, production levels began to be restored. The plan was successful because by 2000 they were supplying the open market with their products. Those enterprises already have a place in the national budget because in that year many of them attained the production levels they had before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
"That could be considered as the initial jump. Since then and up to 2005 that program originally proposed 12 years ago by President Lukashenko has had great success, as we have doubled the gross domestic product with an annual increase of no less than 10%, industrial growth has stabilized and, most importantly, we can guarantee our own self-sufficiency in food."
When the reforms were initiated, the average wage was 70 rubels and now it is 250. As a regulation, when wages are increased, pensions grow. We have preserved free medical attention and education and social programs related to different sectors of the economy – particularly agriculture – support for youth, and scientific development are being progressively reinforced.
In other words, virtually every sector of the economy in Belarus is running at the expense of the execution of those formulated development projects that are continuing to advance as each proposition is won.
The country is maintaining its stability. We can virtually affirm that there is no organized crime on our streets, thus our children and citizens feel safe. These are the bases of the 83% obtained in democratic elections that gave the Belarusian people their state and their president."
Over the next five years our president proposes to emphasize works aimed at fortifying the construction of a state directed to the wellbeing of our citizens. The necessary regulations are in place and the people are aware of them, and support the internal political policy previously carried out and the improvements proposed by Luckashenko.
In 1996 an economic union was created between Minsk and Moscow that includes political aspects and is open to other states. Currently, there is an attempt to fortify that idea which has the full and signed support of Belarus and Kazakhstan. The group should be joined by Ukraine, albeit with some doubts over certain sections of the integrationist agreement. The rest have decided to initiate this activity.
Based on that antecedent we would like to know how that experience is going?
We have been working on the structure of a federal state with Russia for 10 years. The heads of state of the two nations have signed the required commitments and each one of the governments has its own detailed program in relation to the development of that alliance directed at economic development.
There is a very clear idea on the joint annual budget and cooperation between enterprises in Russia and Belarus, linked in terms of the most important sectors of machine building. Up to 80% of exports made are cooperative ones; hence our successes depend on those of the Russian Federation and vice versa. The overall project benefits from unrestricted customs agreements. To date, everything is going forward as planned.
On your visit to Cuba?
We have once again confirmed that for us Cuba is a significant and solid ally, as has been seen in various international forums where we have likewise defended sovereign independence as a right.
Sidorskiy said that he was highly satisfied and impressed at the warm reception that Fidel gave him in the six hours during which he and his delegation discussed various issues, including mutually beneficial bilateral trade, with the Cuban president.
Wednesday, 26 April is the 20th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster
A glimpse into Reactor Number Four
The destroyed reactor is still extremely radioactive, covered by the so-called sarcophagus, built to protect the environment from radiation, but it was only designed to last 15 years and now scientists and environmentalist say it is falling apart. Anya Ardayeva produced this report in Chernobyl. It is narrated by Ernest Leong.
This was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.
A massive explosion blew off the lid of the Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. One hundred and ten tons of uranium and nine hundred tons of radioactive graphite blasted into the atmosphere. For about ten days, the reactor kept releasing radioactive materials into the air , as the Soviets did not know how to put out the deadly fire.
The cleanup operation involved some 350,000 people, many of whom received extremely high doses of radiation: The Soviet Union's one proven resource for that kind of job was human labor.
Five months later, a 150-meter steel-and-concrete sarcophagus was built to contain the ruins of the Reactor Number Four.
Twenty years on, radiation levels are still extreme, says Yulia Marusich, Chernobyl's information officer. She says the sarcophagus does not completely seal off the radiation and it is not structurally sound. "The existing shelter is not stable, it is not reliable. It [sarcophagus] was constructed remotely. On one hand, it reduced the personnel exposure. On the other hand, it didn't provide the accuracy of a shelter structures installation.”
Outside experts confirm the sarcophagus is falling apart and could collapse.
Francis O'Donnell, head of the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine, says there is also a problem with what's inside. “They still haven't figured the way to deal with 180 tons of nuclear fuel-containing mass which is at the core of the reactor, there's no nuclear waste disposal strategy, and 20 years on we can do better than this.”
The sarcophagus -- and the tons of nuclear fuel inside of it -- are not the only problem.
There are three other reactors, which were put back on line shortly after the sarcophagus was built. The reactor was not turned off until 2000 and only following international pressure.
And Chernobyl has not been decommissioned completely: Ukraine does not have the facilities for the long-term storage of the plants' nuclear fuel.
Oleg Ryazanov is an engineer at the Chernobyl Plants reactor Number One, who monitors the condition of the disabled reactor. He says money is the real issue.
"We have the technology, the people, the knowledge, the desire but we don't have the money.
If the sarcophagus covering the Fourth Reactor collapses, another explosion, though less powerful, is likely to occur. To prevent that, some 28 countries pledged to chip in more than $800 million for the construction of a new steel coffin.
The project is scheduled to be finished by the year 2010.
But even with the new shelter in place, it is estimated it will take from 30 to 100 years to safely get rid of the fuel and debris inside the plant.
20th Anniversary of Chernobyl Disaster Reminds Locals of Lost Homes
From:VOICE OF AMERICA
But what is certain is that the area around the reactor, which was home to hundreds of thousands of people, will never be the same. Anya Ardayeva visited the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl … and spoke to some of those affected by the tragedy.
Driving into the town of Pripyat, two kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, is just like driving into any other town in Ukraine. Asphalt road, poplar trees, and apartment buildings.
But once you are there, you discover that something is missing: the people.
Pripyat was abandoned exactly 20 years ago, days after the explosion at the nuclear plant's Reactor Number Four sent tons of highly radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Time has been frozen ever since.
Anatoli Zakharov and his family were among those who used to live in Pripyat. A firefighting brigade commander, he was on shift on the night of the accident, and arrived at the plant minutes after the explosion. He says his colleagues were unaware of the scale of the catastrophe -- all they knew was that fire needed to be put out.
“I could feel high radiation. Metal taste in my mouth, my skin was aching as if it was burned by the sun, I was sweating, feeling dizzy,” he recalls. “That night, we were waiting. Waiting to see what happens to us later -- tomorrow, the day after -- what news was to come. And it was in May we learned that the first two fire fighters died and then the other four.”
Only 16 of that night's shift of 28 men are still alive. Anatoli was lucky -- he received less radiation than his colleagues and survived. He ran away from the hospital to tell his wife and children about the accident at the plant. They were evacuated two days later, after officials acknowledged the catastrophe had occurred.
“They later said that they didn't tell the truth because they wanted to avoid panic,” says Anatoli. “But I think it would have been better if they told the truth, people would have left earlier and they would have been exposed to (less) radiation. Kids, everyone, they were there for two to three days, exposed to it. My family too.”
Over 336,000 people have been relocated from the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl Plant to cleaner areas.
Some villages were so contaminated they had to be flattened and buried. A move also designed to ensure that no one could ever occupy them again.
But there are people still living in the Zone for whom the walls of their home matter more than any nuclear accident. Eighty two-year-old Mikhailo Radkevich was evacuated from his village a week after the accident and moved into a new home a few months later. But he didn't like the new house and decided to go back.
“If I was 20, I would have probably gone away from here. But I am 81, where can I go? Where? I have two sons and a daughter in Kiev, and they are asking me to come live with them, but I don't want to. My home is here,” says Mikhailo.
He and his wife eat home-grown vegetables and meat and seem to worry little about radioactive contamination.
“When the explosion happened, everyone started talking about radiation. But it was here before. The wind blew it all to Belarus. Here, its clean,” he says.
And strangely enough, 20 years after the accident, wildlife is booming in the Zone. Some scientists say this is further proof that the biggest danger to nature is not radiation but the activities of human beings.
Trees and bushes are slowly taking over the once-flourishing Pripyat. Built from scratch in 1970, this was a model town housing the staff of the nuclear plant. It was regarded as one of the finest places to live in the Soviet Union -- filled with roses and children, the average age of the town's population was 26.
On the day of the deadly explosion, 16 weddings took place in Pripyat. The town was fully evacuated only four days later. Some 50,000 people were told that there was a fire at the plant and that they would be back in a few days.
None of them will ever return.
Living in the dead zone: Chernobyl + 20: This Is Our Land — We Still Live Here
“Chernobyl + 20: This Is Our Land — We Still Live Here,” which opened on March 12, includes 175 color photographs of the disaster, as well as short films, text panels, maps and charts. The exhibit chronicles the area’s population shifts over the last 20 years and explains what effects the high levels of radiation had on a once fertile land and its people.
On April 26, 1986, an experiment at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station just outside the city of Prypyat in Ukraine went dreadfully awry. The botched experiment resulted in a partial meltdown of the reactor’s core, spewing radioactive material into the air for days. Over the next decade, more than 160 villages were evacuated, about 160,000 residents were permanently resettled and thousands of other families, many with young children, voluntarily left the irradiated regions. Since the ’86 disaster, thousands of cases of thyroid cancer have been reported in children from the area, though most of the cases have been treated successfully.
Despite the risk of disease, however, many elderly people continue to live in contaminated areas of Ukraine, says Professor Myron Stachiw, co-curator of “Chernobyl + 20.”
“They have returned to their homes to live out their remaining days in familiar surroundings,” Stachiw said, “sometimes alone in their villages, often under conditions closer to the 18th century, largely forsaken by the 21st.”
Interactive audiovisual clips at the museum chronicle the lives of the people presently making their homes within the “dead,” or forcibly evacuated, villages within the 19-mile Exclusion Zone, as well as those who still reside in the villages a bit farther out that authorities deem “safe” enough to inhabit.
For more on the city of Pripyat, please see www.pripyat.com
A symbol of Soviet incompetence
By Paul Abelsky
(Click "HERE" to enlarge photo)
The weather bespoke of vernal replenishment just as a whole region would wither for generations to come. No warnings sounded, children basked in the sunlight, and the masses were herded to the routine Soviet parades on May Day.
Growing up in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, the republic that bore the brunt of the radioactive cloud, we drowned in the informational void, hastily resorting to inept folk cures after nebulous rumours began to spread.
Relatives abroad were unable to phone for weeks; the introverted Soviet system short-circuited, reflexively filtering, denying and obscuring news reports, deploying doublespeak to hush up the scale of what had taken place.
Radiation seemed the embodiment of fear itself: elusive and unseen, all-embracing and unyielding, sudden and inescapable. Seemingly nothing could be mobilized to defend against it.
The coercive social order could easily shift to war footing to battle external enemies, imagined and real, but it was powerless to safeguard its people against so cunning an adversary from within.
Twenty-three minutes and 58 seconds after 1 a.m. on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station incised a dividing line in a generation of individuals and their children, uprooting populations and instilling dismay at people's capacity to oversee the technological power at their disposal.
The decisive role of the human factor in the accident, the ineptitude of Soviet authorities in handling the aftermath, the mixture of mass hysteria and heroism that accompanied the response mark this as a uniquely human tragedy.
The changing regional borders and political alliances have done little to diminish the totality of this singular experience, whose agonizing consequences still bring people together in solidarity and grief.
Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, competing scientific assessments, the resurgent atomic power industry, and even resourceful tour operators — they offer the practitioners of extreme travel a chance to glimpse the ghost towns and the riotous natural scenery in the Exclusion Zone — have tended to understate the human dimension of the event.
The immediate radioactive fallout was only the first component of the tragedy that unfolded 20 years ago. The other major contributing factor was the indefensible secrecy imposed by authorities in the aftermath.
Critical hours passed before qualified rescue crews were deployed; days and weeks passed before inhabitants were made even vaguely aware of the scope of the disaster; months, years and decades passed before any far-reaching moves were made to redress the consequences.
Indeed, even today, the Belorussian government's policy of "reclaiming" the irradiated areas has alarmed many observers.
After two decades, amid the barrage of conflicting data and reports, it is still a challenge to identify all the hazards facing the region. Veterans of the cleanup campaign continue to struggle for proper compensation and social benefits.
Chernobyl remains a political plaything for all sides of the debate. Advocates of atomic power, industry and environmental activists, regional leaders and survivors continue to voice disjointed accounts, instead of aspiring toward a conclusive assessment and shared responsibility for the outcome.
For the Soviet order of governance, Chernobyl delivered the ultimate blow; it struck at all the weakest links in the system. Technological backwardness, evidenced by the reactor's design flaws, was compounded by judgment errors made by technicians on the site, even though the personnel's poor training, low morale and insufficient pay were already publicized at the time.
The inflexible centralized system could not cope with the challenge. A lack of self-critical regard for the technical shortcomings and the strict hierarchy of the managerial caste left the system vulnerable to real threats.
Chernobyl's casualty figures — past, present and future — stand as one of the harshest indictments of Soviet rule. Whether Soviet communism succumbed in a global struggle for power or just exhausted itself, the flames consuming Chernobyl's fourth reactor signalled the limits of the system's viability.
The shroud of secrecy enforced after the disaster, however, was met with public protests that represented the most consolidated civic movement to emerge in the Soviet Union.
Nothing propelled Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or public openness, as much as the indignant reaction to the cover-up of Chernobyl.
Buoyant scientific assessments, the tenacity of returning inhabitants and the renewed flourishing of wildlife in the abandoned areas convey an outward sense that the past two decades have mended some of the worst damage, while the most glum predictions have failed to materialize.
Perhaps Chernobyl's most lasting, albeit inadvertent, legacy was the movement toward informed public awareness and accountability it spurned in the aftermath.
No other dimension of that past experience is more needed today.
Belarus, Russia in bilateral talks
Aleksander Surikov, Russia's ambassador to Belarus, met with Uladzimir Kanaplyow, chairman of the Belarusian National Assembly's House of Representatives (the lower house of parliament) for energy-related talks.
Surikov warned that Beltranshaz, Belarus' state-controlled gas supply and transit company, may face difficulties in its gas transport capabilities to Europe once Russia implements its new gas transportation systems.
So, he said, Russia and Belarus need to "sit at the negotiating table and discuss this matter in a calm manner."
According to Surikov, deliveries of Russian natural gas to Belarus are "a strategic but not the main subject" of bilateral relations between the two countries. In order to boost trade, he said, the two countries must first strengthen their cooperation in the fields of industry, science and education.
His country -- and more specifically his embassy -- "would push for closer economic integration" in a range of fields, with a particular focus on agricultural engineering, electronics, petrochemicals and light industry.
Following the meeting Kanaplyow said that "objective and subjective preconditions" exist between Russia and Belarus that will boost bilateral trade by "up to $20 billion, and should not cease to strive for further achievements."
He too emphasized the need for stronger ties between the two countries, and said that Belarusian parliamentarians would endeavor to build a legal framework designed to strengthen bilateral relations.
CIS air defense conducts command-and-staff exercises
Chief of Staff of the Russian Air Force, Colonel General Boris Cheltsov said air force and air defense units from eight CIS-member states - Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan - were participating in the exercises.
"The exercises will focus on coordinating the joint efforts to intercept enemy aircraft that have violated national airspace," he said.
More than 80 aircraft, as well as a variety of air defense systems, will be involved.
He also said the Russian-made S-300 Almaz (SA-10 Grumble) would be the main air defense system tested during the exercises.
NATO reconnaissance aircraft are monitoring the exercises, the general said.
The integrated air defense network was set up by 10 member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States on February 10, 1995. Georgia recently pulled out of the CIS Defense Ministers Council, but is still formally part of the air-defense system.
Belarus ratifies motor-service agreement to let haulers transit Kazakhstan on their way to China
The Council of the Republic ratified the Belarusian-Kazakh intergovernmental motor-service agreement which lets Belarusian haulers transit Kazakhstan on their way to China.
Signed in Astana in 2004, the agreement aimed to streamline the international passenger and freight transportation and transit between the two states, chairman of the permanent commission of the Council of the Republic for international affairs and national security issues Nikolay Cherginets said.
The agreement is coined to intensify the Belarusian-Kazakh economic, political and cultural contacts and invigorate the fruitful mutual trade.
CIS Interior chiefs to meet in Kazakhstan this fall
From:www.today.az (Azerbaijan )
CIS Interior ministers will meet in Kazakhstan this fall, the Head of Russian Ministry, Rashid Nurgaliyev told to the Russian President in his report on the last meeting of interior chiefs.
Positive decisions have been taken on all matters, he said. Plan on terrorism struggle, creation of the data base have been among the matters.
As Trend reports, Nurgaliyev remained satisfied with the anti-terrorism trainings conducted by the special forces from Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Tajikistan.
"They showed the ability to crack down the terrorism with the joint efforts," he said, ITAR TASS reports.
Commerce minister wraps up visit to Belarus
In addition to visiting Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko, the Iranian minister and the accompanying delegation met with the East European nation’s first deputy prime minister as well as the ministers of industries, commerce, health and a number of other officials. They discussed ways to improve and further expand the economic relations of the two countries.
During the visit, the officials from Iran and Belarus signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the exchange of technical and engineering services and products as well as the cultural and customs cooperation between the two friendly countries.
Following his tour of the assembly line of Belarus’ major tractor manufacturing plant, the Iranian minister negotiated and agreed with the company’s officials on the establishment of a tractor production plant in Iran. The line is slated to produce in Iran the tractors with horse powers in excess of 130, a report said here on Monday.
The official visit was made within the framework of the 7th Iran and Belarus Joint Economic Commission.
Belarus Opposition Warned About Planned March
The authorities have sanctioned a march on April 25, but changed its route away from the city center, the site of unprecedented protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's reelection last month.
Lukashenka himself today traveled to a region of Belarus close to the Ukrainian border contaminated by radiation released during the disaster.
Belarusian opposition leader's lawyer charged with hooliganism
Igor Rynkevich said the trial is politically motivated and is an attempt to exert pressure on the defense team for Alexander Kozulin, one of three defeated candidates in the March 19 presidential elections that saw incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko gain a third term in office.
"If lawyers are being summoned to court on minor infractions, what does this say about Belarus' judicial system as a whole?" Igor Rynkevich said, adding that he would ask the court to postpone hearings.
Social Democratic Party leader Kozuli faces five years in prison if convicted of serious public order offenses and hooliganism following his arrest March 25 in a rally in the country's capital.
Lukashenko, who Washington has dubbed "Europe's last dictator", was reelected to a third term with a massive 83% of the vote. Although he has support in his homeland for maintaining relative stability in comparison with some other former Soviet republics, his human rights record has been fiercely criticized by international organizations.
The March elections were denounced by the opposition and international monitors as fraudulent, and opposition activists staged a five-day sit-in in Minsk's central Oktyabrskaya Square. A demonstration March 25 was broken up by police, and opposition representatives say at least one person died as a result.
Belarus: A Dangerous Place for Politics
An interview with oposition leader Alexander Milinkevich
On the eve of the "Chernobyl March", TCS contributor Evgeny Morozov talks to Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich about the effectiveness of EU's policies in the country, the next steps of the Belarusian opposition, and the future of the country's relations with Russia.
* * *
TCS: Are you satisfied with Europe's reaction to the presidential elections of March 19th?
Alexander Milinkevich: Yes, I am fully satisfied. The EU has delivered on all of the declarations it has made. These declarations are finally decisive and firm, unlike the ones in the past that were soft, diplomatic, and consensus-seeking. I think that this is right, because the dictatorship understands only the language of force. The moment you start talking diplomacy to them, they interpret it as a weakness, and start abusing their partners. These people never value compromise as an option. So, I am quite satisfied that the reaction from the European institutions -- the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council of Europe -- has been quite strict and homogeneous.
However, the Commission should urgently develop a strategy on how to deal with the civil society in Belarus. This is not a typical country. Unlike Lithuania, Poland, or Slovakia, here one cannot work openly and transparently. The EU efforts should address this shortfall.
TCS: During one of your visits to the EU, you suggested that it should create a special fund for promoting democracy. At the same time, last week many in the EU got shocked to find out that 5 out of 7 billion Euros spent in the CIS have been wasted. How will this new fund you are talking about be more effective?
AM: Fortunately, when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of development aid, Belarus has a very good reputation. It has never been shaken by scandals akin to those in Russia or Ukraine. And I hope this will continue to be the case. Secondly, even when compared to Ukraine, Belarus has received relatively little development funds from other democratic nations. In my opinion, Belarus has a solid track-record, and quite a bright future when it comes to aid.
The fund we are advocating will be under public control. Civil society and NGOs will be more effective than any bureaucrat from Brussels at monitoring how this aid is being spent.
TCS: Could you comment on the relatively weak reaction from the Old Europe (as opposed to that of the New Europe) to the post-election situation in Belarus? What about very little or no willingness from the Old Europe to provide free places at their universities for Belarusian students who were expelled after the protests?
AM: I had meetings both with the French minister of foreign affairs and the chancellor of Germany about this. I would not say that these countries are more passive today. True, this passivity was very common in the past, however, today things changed. Countries of the Old Europe are trying to follow everything that's happening in Belarus and volunteer to join all possible initiatives.
Secondly, after Poland decided to finance studies of 300 Belarusian students, there is not much demand for scholarships in other countries. It is much easier for Belarusians to master Polish, and the majority of people actually want to go there.
However, for us it is also very important that at least 5-10 students are studying in other countries. There is a language barrier though, which eliminates most of the competition at the very beginning. So, whenever I meet representatives of those countries, I always make it clear that they should, of course, help our students as much as they can, but I also remind them that there are other opportunities to help the country.
TCS: The oldest Belarusian newspaper, Nasha Niva, might soon disappear due to the state pressure. Do you think that the EU could offer any help in terms of supporting media projects? Could you also comment on the accusations of bias in the reporting of the Russian-language version of Euronews?
AM: As for Euronews, we are, indeed, very sad about the stark differences between the comments in the English/French and the Russian versions of the same broadcast. For us, it is extremely important that truth reaches our people, and Euronews offers the only window through which Belarusian can peep at unbiased information. I think that the performance of the Russian language Euronews has marginally improved though.
As for newspapers, it is true that there are practically none left. If four years ago we had about 60 independent newspapers that covered politics and social affairs, right now we have three -- and one more faces extinction. These newspapers are already printed abroad and transported into the country. We hope that Nasha Niva will be able to register in Vilnius (where it was already published once), and then be brought into Belarus and distributed through our network of activists. In this case, we, of course, need better sponsors, since the newspapers will be given away for free, not sold. So we would be looking for sponsors to cover the printing and distribution costs for printing newspapers.
I believe that newspapers -- national or local -- should be the main media vehicle for our informational campaigns. If we have money left from the newspaper projects, then of course, we should invest that into other media projects.
TCS: How strong is the involvement of the United States into the political processes that are currently happening in Belarus? Are you planning to pay a visit there anytime soon?
AM: No, I am not planning to go there soon. Nevertheless, we are enjoying very close cooperation with many American organizations. What I find particularly good about working with Americans is that they have much more flexible, less formalized, ways and means of support than many Europeans. Their help has always been swift and effective. I hope that EU's aid programs will also move in that direction.
On the other hand, all American NGOs and foundations that are active in Belarus have been removed from the country. So they have to work without an office in the country, based in Ukraine or Russia. This is a great impediment.
TCS: What do you think of recent proposals by your colleagues in the Belarusian opposition to hold public trials over Lukashenko? And how this can be realized in practice?
AM: Arranging Lukashenko 's trials does not top my Belarusian agenda at the moment. By the way, neither do the visa sanctions imposed by the EU. What tops my agenda is delivering information to the people, who are lacking it badly. So, beyond punishing Lukashenko's regime for its crimes, this trial process might be extremely important to us as a means to inform the masses.
If we don't do anything, the regime's propaganda will hit back saying that all of this is part of a great conspiracy of the capitalist West. So, if we don't reply with our own wave of information, most of our other activities will be undermined through Lukashenko 's media.
TCS: What do you expect from the Chernobyl March? How is your strategy going to change after it?
AM: First of all, this is going to be a traditional rally. We have been holding political and social actions on this day ever since the first anniversary. So, it is not directly connected to the elections. Nevertheless, we will surely talk about the elections there.
Our main objective is to show that our Chernobyl is not only radioactive; it is also political, cultural, and social. It is equally important that people again pour out in the streets to prove that they are not afraid of the authorities, that they are able to say "No", that they are able to protest.
As for street protests in general, for us it is definitely not an end in itself. We do recognize that street action is very important for us as a mode of change and this dictatorship can fall only as a result of street protests. However, we would continue organizing them only if more and more people show up at each of them. So while I do see that the street actions give us a certain voice, I am in favor of putting the main emphasis on creating better communication and public education campaigns throughout the country.
We simply have to go and talk to people. This is what we have been doing for two years; we have already achieved a result that few have expected. But we have to go beyond and win new supporters. So far we have won the support of only one-third of the population.
TCS: As for Chernobyl, how are you going to protest against Lukashenko's plans to repopulate it? Especially given that in the report published last year, some of the UN agencies expressed views that gave Lukashenko's moves certain legitimacy. Do you enjoy full support of the EU and the US on this issue?
AM: Unfortunately, there is no unity in the West regarding Chernobyl. The democratic opposition of Belarus, on the other hand, are strongly against Lukashenko's plans.
Yes, we strongly believe that one cannot give birth and rear children in those areas. Nor can one grow any fruit or vegetables. Nor can one force university graduates to work there. We are quite intransigent on this issue. We understand that there is very little we can change in the country until we come to power. But we should always be talking about it, appealing to the facts and the truth.
A united Western position on this issue is of particular importance to us. Unfortunately, International Atomic Energy Agency is, of course, often supporting Lukashenko, closing eyes to the obvious facts. Even the UN sometimes has a dubious position on the subject. So what we want is for the West to have a very unified and homogeneous position on the subject like the solid position that the European Union has right now on many of the Belarusian policy issues.
TCS: Now that you mentioned unity, are you still in touch with the other anti-Lukashenko presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin, who is in jail now? Do you have a joint strategy and how do you coordinate your actions?
AM: We are in dialogue with his party. For us, the most important thing is not uniting the two leaders, but uniting the two party structures. Our current coalition has a very broad assortment of parties and social groups, and we would, of course, only welcome Kozulin's party among us.
However, sometimes it just happens that full cooperation is impossible. I think that such flawless cooperation is possible only if the two parties share the same aims and goals. If they are different, then full cooperation is not possible, but limited cooperation is, in fact, possible and even required.
TCS: Is the other opposition leader -- Michail Marinich, who just has been released from jail -- involved in the opposition campaigns?
AM: Marinich said he would like to take some time off to recover his ill health. He's made a public statement that he is not going to enter public politics, but would rather become very active in the field of human rights.
TCS: What concrete steps can the Western countries make to pressure Russia, especially on the eve of the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg?
AM: I know that Putin's attitude towards Lukashenko is not a very good one. One can talk to him about it, and he senses the problem (he himself has big problems with Lukashenko). Of course, if the West manages to come up with a unified position on the subject and starts buzzing about it every time they meet with Russia, it would be much easier to foment a regime change in Belarus. Naturally, this regime sustains itself only through Russia's assistance. As soon as even economic assistance disappears, the regime will be gone quickly.
The West should give a clear indication to Russia that without a real change in Belarus, it will be extremely hard for Russia to cooperate with other democratic countries. I think that this is extremely important that this question is raised at the G8 meeting; we fully endorse this initiative.
But let me underline once again: our coalition is not anti-Russian. Our coalition is able to build better relations with Russia that Lukashenko. However, we would never trade in our sovereignty.
TCS: How exactly you are going to build your relations with Russia, primarily in the energy field, in the current environment of rising energy prices?
AM: I believe that the prices we pay for oil and gas will increase up to the market levels, regardless of who will be the president, Lukashenko or Milinkevich. It is no longer about giving presents to friends within a coalition. Today Russia is entering WTO, and it just has to do increase prices. So we have no illusions -- we will be paying as much as all other countries in the world.
Lukashenko has not prepared the country for these changes. We have prepared a plan on how to gradually get out of this predicament. We want to publish this strategy of ours soon, so that people can read it and the government can follow it. There are many ways for us to avoid big problems. Energy conservation is one; here we need more investment support. And of course we need alternative means of energy generation -- and we have a program for that.
The Belarusian economy will be in a deep crisis soon, and we fully understand that.
TCS: Could you comment on the recent statements by the Russian television about an assassination attempt on yourself, planned by politicians from Georgia and Lithuania?
AM: I know the people that were mentioned in that TV program. I had met them, and we know each other. I do not consider myself an enemy of those people. I fully exclude the possibility of terrorist acts. Of course, I am already used to this, since before every significant protest of the Belarusian opposition, there always appear some beneficiaries who tell me that I am about to get shot. It happened on the eve of March 19, it happened on the eve of March 25, and the same thing happens all over again now. Doing politics in Belarus is a dangerous activity.
TCS: How strong is the human resources potential of your team? Especially considering that many of them had already worked for Lukashenko in his early years, who do you think will be the new people that you will bring into power?
AM: Our team consists of people with rather diverse backgrounds, from science to very practical experiences. However, one should not think that once Milinkevich gets to power, all of the previous managers will be gone. Of course, we are going to get rid of all "ideologists", we do not need any ideology in the workplace or public life. Those who work in the economy, the social sector, medicine are likely to retain their posts. Some of the key people will need to be changed for the reforms to be effective. Perhaps, even some of the current ministers might be able to stay.
However, I don't think that we are likely to run into a big HR problem. I assure you that there is a very strong restive mood all through Lukashenko 's nomenclature. Many of them have excellent schooling and potential. It is just that due to today's situation -- where everything is decided by one man -- they cannot really express themselves in politics or economics. There are many talented people in Belarus, capable of carrying the reforms.
Stuttgart says Hleb will return to Germany
Hleb, who can play anywhere across the midfield, has impressed Gunners fans with his quick adaption to the English game, but it is in Europe where his game has truly flourished.
The Belarus midfielder has helped Arsenal towards their first Champions League semi-final, and Hleb has said that he is happy to remain at Arsenal.
Heldt said: "He wants to remain at Arsenal.
"But sometime he will arrive back at Stuttgart."