Opposition stages Chernobyl anniversary demonstration in Minsk

A crowd estimated by reporters at up to 1000 people participated in an opposition-organized demonstration in Minsk on Sunday afternoon to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster...

A crowd estimated by reporters at up to 1000 people participated in an opposition-organized demonstration in Minsk on Sunday afternoon to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Three leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, Lyavon Barshchewski, Vintsuk Vyachorka and Viktar Ivashkevich, as well as Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists, were the official organizers of the traditional demonstration, called Charnobylski Shlyakh (The Path of Chernobyl).

The demonstration began with a rally in the square in front of the National Academy of Sciences, the government-authorized assembly place for the event.

The Belarusian authorities hide the truth about the severity of the Chernobyl accident’s impact on the population of the country, Ivan Nikitchanka, a corresponding member of the National Academy of Science, said in his opening address. According to him, a survey recently conducted by him and other experts found that there was not a single area in Belarus where there were no people without radionuclides in their bodies.

Dr. Nikitchanka said that it should the task of the entire nation, not only opposition groups or the government, to minimize the consequences of the accident.

Heorhiy Lepin, a member of the founding committee for an organization called Scientists for a Nuclear Free Belarus, said that no proper exploration has been done at the site in the Astravets district near the Lithuanian border that the government has selected for the construction of Belarus` first-ever nuclear power plant. There is a tectonic fault line in the area and the hazardous seismological environment there may lead to the collapse of the plant, Dr. Lepin warned.

After the speeches were over, Mr. Ivashkevich suggested that participants form a line along the opposite side of Independence Avenue, Minsk’s main thoroughfare, so that their flags, banners and signs could be seen by people in passing-by vehicles.

Dozens of black-helmeted, black-uniformed and black-booted riot policemen promptly formed a human wall to keep demonstrators from marching to the city center.

A deputy chief of the Minsk city police department officially warned Mr. Barshchewski against marching along a route other than the authorized one. The police official expressed particular concern about a group of some 100 young people who were banging drums, displaying red and black anarchy flags, and chanting “No to Nuclear Power Plant!”

After a 30-minute peaceful standoff with the riot police, the crowd turned back and set off along the authorized route to a so-called Chernobyl chapel near Bangalore Square some two miles away from the National Academy of Sciences. Members of an opposition youth group called Maladaya Belarus refused to join the marchers, furled their flags and dispersed. “It does not make sense to go to Bangalore Square and march along backyards,” explained Maladaya Belarus leader Artur Finkevich.

The demonstration ended with a commemorative ceremony in front of the Chernobyl chapel at about 3 p.m., with some 400 people in attendance.

Pavel Sevyarynets, a leader of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party, said in his speech that the Chernobyl disaster was a portent of the collapse of the Soviet regime. “But before that, the regime did one of its last black deeds by ordering that the radioactive clouds moving towards Moscow be seeded in the Homyel and Mahilyow regions in Belarus,” Mr. Sevyarynets said. “The names of the people who made that decision have been erased from memory. They have been forgotten by people but not by God. And their deed will be properly assessed by the justice of Heaven.”

Mr. Sevyarynets called on those present to pray for all victims of the Chernobyl accident and those who reside in radioactively contaminated areas. The ceremony ended with the singing of “Mahutny Bozha” (Oh, Lord Almighty), a Belarusian-language religious anthem.

Police officers watched the ceremony from a distance and plainclothesmen recorded it on video.

Owing to the initial northward thrust of the radioactive cloud, Belarus received 70 percent of the fallout released by the explosion of one of the four reactors at Ukraine`s Chernobyl nuclear power plant at 0:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986.

The accident resulted in the long-term contamination of nearly 23 percent of Belarus’ territory including 3,678 populated localities where 20 percent of the Belarusian population resided at the time. More than 130,000 Belarusians were evacuated from contaminated areas to clean locations. The government estimates the total damage to the country as a result of the accident at $235 billion.

According to 2000 data, the proportion of healthy children living in contaminated areas dropped from 60 to 21 percent in the period following the accident. The proportion of children with chronic pathologies rose from 10 to 22 percent. Only 13 percent of the children resettled from the evacuation zone are absolutely healthy.

High radiation led to an outbreak of diseases of the nervous, blood, digestive, endocrine and urogenital systems both among adults and children, independent researchers say. Those who participated in the clean-up operation following the accident, popularly called "liquidators," and those evacuated from the so-called evacuation zone were the most affected. The incidence of cancer, leukemia, thyroid and blood diseases is four times higher among them than the average in the country.

In the first 15 years since the accident, Chernobyl claimed the lives of 30,000 of the 150,000 Belarusian liquidators.

Liquidators, most of them now aged between 45 and 55, suffer from thyroid cancer, neurological disorders, head and gastrointestinal diseases.

In Belarus under Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule, Chernobyl anniversary marches have become one of the largest annual protests staged in the Belarusian capital by opponents of the government.

Some 1,500 people took part in last year`s Charnobylski Shlyakh, 3,000 in 2007 and 10,000 in 2006, when the 20th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was observed. A crowd of up to 50,000 took part in the march on the 10th anniversary, during which demonstrators overturned cars and clashed with riot police. Dozens were injured and more than 200 were arrested.

While visiting the Chernobyl-affected Homyel region on April 25, Mr. Lukashenka called the forthcoming demonstration a “fascist march.” “Tomorrow they want to walk around streets in a fascist march to demonstrate something,” the Belarusian leader said. He suggested that oppositionists should better demonstrate in radioactively contaminated areas.