During the annual April 26 commemoration of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Belarusian authorities detained several foreign nationals, including citizens of Russia and Ukraine. The arrests that occurred at one of the commemorations in Minsk have caused serious tensions with Kyiv, after the Belarusian authorities initially refused to release five Ukrainian citizens taken into custody near the residence of President Alexander Lukashenka.
April 26 traditionally sees a large march in the center of Minsk led by the political opposition. However, for the 19th anniversary two applications were sent to the Minsk city council. The first, from Maryna Bahdanovich, a member of the executive of the United Civic Party and Uladzimir Labkovich of the Belarusian Popular Front, requested a meeting near Bangalore Square on behalf of the “Ten” allied parties and groups. At the same time the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (CCP BPF) appealed for a meeting in Yakub Kolas Square. The city authorities agreed to the “Ten” group, but rejected the latter request (Narodnaya volya, April 23). Instead, the CCP BPF held its meeting in Kurapaty, a northern suburb of Minsk.
However, while some of the opposition met legally at a church built to commemorate Chernobyl victims, about 150 people assembled near the presidential residence to submit a petition on Chernobyl-related problems to the head of state. The group included Bahdanovich, in addition to members of the Youth Front, and leaders of youth movements from Russia and Ukraine. The militia quickly intervened and 33 people were arrested, including Bahdanovich, Zmitser Dashkevich of the Youth Front, eight Russians, including correspondents of the Russian Newsweek and Moskovsky komsomolets, and five Ukrainians from the organization “National Alliance” (Narodnaya volya, April 28). The majority of those detained were taken to the Lenin militia department in Minsk.
Most of the arrested foreign nationals received sentences of 9-15 days in prison, causing immediate consternation in Russia and Ukraine. In Moscow on April 29, leaders of the Oborona youth organization, Yabloko, and the Union of Right Forces held a meeting to demand the immediate release of their colleagues. In St. Petersburg, a picket began outside the Belarusian Consulate (NTV, April 29). The Belarusian Foreign Ministry maintained that the two journalists detained had no accreditation to work in Minsk. At the request of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the arrested Russians were released on April 30 (Charter 97, May 3).
The Ukrainians, however, were forced to serve out the terms of their detention, despite angry protests from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, maintained that Belarus was applying double standards, ignoring requests for the release of its citizens from Ukraine, while acquiescing to similar demands from Russia. Tarasyuk recalled that at a recent session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Ukraine had voted for a resolution criticizing Belarus for violations in this sphere (Narodnaya volya, May 5). The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry sent a note of protest to the Belarusian authorities, pointing out that requests from representatives from the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk to see the arrested citizens were rejected, which violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Ukrainian diplomats were not even allowed to know the names of the detained protesters (Narodnaya volya, April 28).
The Ukrainians in question, including a deputy of the Lutsk city council, Ihor Guz, who had been shouting “Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Belarus!” went on hunger strike to protest their treatment, while the Belarusian authorities postponed a court hearing scheduled for May 2 to hear an appeal from the detained Ukrainians (Charter 97, May 3). In Kyiv, the National Alliance set up at least ten tents near the Belarusian Embassy and also created symbolic anti-tank barricades with barbed wire (Narodnaya volya, May 6).
The contentious dispute realistically was a minor tempest. The detained protesters are now banned from returning to Belarus for five years. The president of Belarus, meanwhile, was not even in Minsk on April 26, as he had begun his usual “working visit” to the contaminated regions of Homel and Vetka (Minskiy kuryer, April 28). Belarus is reportedly spending over $13 million in 2005 to rehabilitate farmland in contaminated areas, a program that began in 2002, with some of the locally produced foodstuffs exported to Russia (butter, cheese, milk, and others) (Belarus segodnya, April 26-May 2).
However, this controversial campaign is less relevant to the April 26 protests than the political situation in Belarus, which led to the arrival in Belarus of activists from Russia and Ukraine. Plainly, also, the so-called Orange Revolution in Kyiv has caused consternation among the Belarusian authorities, exacerbated by the recent pronouncement of U.S. President George W. Bush that Belarus is the “last remaining dictatorship in Europe” and that the United States will work with countries in the region to ensure that the next presidential elections are “free” (Associated Press, May 5).
The harsh overreaction of official Minsk to protesters from its neighbors is a reflection of its fear of what has happened in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past five months. With an open border, there is little to prevent youth activists in Russia and Ukraine from visiting Belarus with impunity. They could provide a new impetus for the hard-pressed Belarusian opposition and antagonize a regime that is now subject to unprecedented international attention.