Opposition stages Chernobyl anniversary march in Minsk

More than a thousand people took part in the opposition’s march staged on the occasion of the 22nd Chernobyl accident anniversary...

More than a thousand people took part in the opposition’s march staged on the occasion of the 22nd Chernobyl accident anniversary in Minsk on April 26.

The crowd started gathering at the square in front of the National Academy of Sciences at 2 p.m. and a short rally followed.

While opening the rally, Viktar Karnyayenka, an associate of former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, said that the crowd would have been addressed by Alyaksandr Valchanin, leader of an association of Belarusian Chernobyl cleanup workers, but he had been barred from traveling to Minsk from Zhodzina by police.

Speaking at the rally, Mr. Milinkevich announced that the Movement for Freedom, an organization that he leads, was starting a campaign to collect signatures to a petition urging the Belarusian government to drop its plans to build a nuclear power plant in the country. He also called for the reinstatement of benefits for Chernobyl cleanup workers.

Prominent opposition politician Mikalay Statkevich slammed the Soviet authorities for failure to promptly inform the public about the 1986 accident. “But on this day we must think about the future, think that this situation would have never been possible in a European and democratic Belarus,” he said.

Lyavon Barshchewski, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, attacked the Belarusian authorities for jailing opponents, flouting laws and ignoring widespread opposition to the nuclear power project. “We must solve the energy problem but not through such methods,” he said.

The crowd also heard speeches by opposition politician Lyudmila Hraznova, Anton Koypish, a youth who was convicted over a January demonstration earlier this week, and Ivan Nikitchanka, a member of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences. The latter sounded an alarm over the Chernobyl aftermath’s impact on the health of Belarusians.

The crowd then walked some two miles on sidewalks from the square to a church built to commemorate Chernobyl victims at the intersection between Arlowskaya and Karastayanavay Streets.

As the demonstrators were crossing Yakub Kolas Street, some 100 youths separated from the crowd and entered the roadway but some of the organizers intervened and managed to talk them into returning to the sidewalks.

After reaching the church, the crowd observed a minute of silence for those who died of illnesses caused by the Chernobyl fallout and laid flowers at a monument commemorating the victims. The demonstrators started dispersing shortly afterward.

In an interview with BelaPAN, Ihar Rynkevich, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party “Hramada” who co-organized the event, described the march as fairly successful. He stressed that the public had been intimidated ahead of the march and this could be the main reason for the pretty low attendance.

“There may be not many of us, but we have showed that we are together and we are a single force. This is the most important result,” Mr. Rynkevich said.

Police did not interfere and no arrests were reported. Busloads of riot police were present around the square in front of the National Academy of Sciences at the beginning of the demonstration as authorities feared that the crowd could take a different route and attempt to walk down Independence Avenue toward the city’s center as the organizers had originally planned.