April 26 has traditionally been the date of the biggest opposition protest march in Minsk. In 1996, on the tenth anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, more than 50,000 people took part in an event besmirched by violence and the arrest of more than 200 participants. In 2006 10,000 people took to the streets, some five weeks after the controversial presidential elections that brought a third term in office to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Last year the figure dropped to 3,000. There are signs, however, that this year’s commemoration could bring new confrontations as the occasion follows the violent attacks on the March 25 demonstration marking the 90th anniversary of independent Belarus and perplexing official statements about plans to construct a nuclear power station.
The “Chernobyl Way” march is being organized by the For Freedom movement, headed by former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich. According to deputy chairman of the organizational committee, Viktar Karnyanenka, the route this year will mirror that of the first such march in 1989. The plan is to assemble at the Academy of Sciences and rather than march to Yakub Kolas Square, as the authorities would probably prefer, to continue into Independence Square, which houses the Parliamentary buildings and constitutes the city center (Belorusy i rynok, April 7-14). That route alone will be enough to place the authorities on the alert. Karnyanenka says, however, that there will be “no excesses” and if the authorities are interested, the demonstrators are prepared to open a dialogue with them.
Karnyanenka also said that according to information at hand, the health situation in the country had worsened over the past 22 years. One could contrast the relatively positive health situation in uncontaminated areas, such as Vitsebsk Oblast, with those, such as Homel’ region, that received the brunt of the radioactive fallout. A second issue is the loss of social support for the victims, particularly cleanup workers who decontaminated the Chernobyl zone. Finally, the marchers plan to protest the construction of a nuclear power station in Belarus that is to be built without the necessary expertise and public input. The diversity of targets has been criticized in some quarters. One observer notes that several opposition leaders support the notion of a nuclear power station but are critical of the fact that it will lead to more, not less, energy dependency on Russia, which will supply much of the expertise and possibly the reactors as well (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, April 14).
Official pronouncements about the station in recent months have led to confusion. Lukashenka said last October 11 that work on the station would begin in 2008 and that it would take four to eight years before the first 1,000-megawatt reactor came into service (BBC, October 11, 2007). Reports at this time suggested that the final site location had also been selected: the village of Kukshynava in Mahileu region (see EDM, January 10). On April 1 the official government portal quoted the director of the geological department of the Belarusian Ministry of Nature, Uladzimir Karpuk, as saying that a final decision would be made “by April 2008” and that 60 organizations were examining four construction sites.
An interview in mid-April with Mikhail Myasnikovich, president of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, however, gave contradictory information. According to Myasnikovich, Belarus was still consulting with specialists from Russia and Ukraine about the station’s location, and experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be invited to take part in future discussions. On April 14 in Minsk, Minister of Energy Alyaksandr Azertsa headed the first meeting of the State Commission for selecting the location of the Belarusian nuclear power plant. The committee’s task is to assess the results of the work carried out by experts, geologists, and other specialists. A final decision on the site will not be made until the end of the year, but four sites are still in contention: Kukshynava, Krasnaya Palyana (earlier declared to be too contaminated for consideration), both in Mahileu region, Astravets (Hrodna region), and Verkhnyadzvinsk (Vitsebsk) (Belorusskoe telegrafnoe agenstvo, April 14).
This evident delay only highlights the infeasibility of Lukashenka’s suggested timetable. Poland is also considering the possibility of constructing a domestic nuclear power plant, having abandoned its earlier construction at Zarnowiec after the Chernobyl disaster. Construction there is estimated to take 12-15 years, and the station is not expected to be in service until between 2021 and 2025 (Warsaw Business Journal, April 14). Belarus, however, has always indicated that its own schedule will be frenetic, partly because of the need to reduce reliance on energy imports from Russia and also because of Lithuania’s announcement that the Ignalina nuclear plant, which supplies Belarus as well as the Baltic States, will be shut down in 2009 (Kommersant, April 2). The diversity and contradictory nature of official pronouncements from Minsk suggests that despite the president’s demand for early completion and operation of the new plant, very little has been decided, including the fundamental question of who will supply the necessary equipment.
The authorities are hardly inspiring confidence in their competency to supervise the construction of the new station. The timetable is unrealistic and the location evidently still undecided. Thus, the opposition has chosen a very relevant issue on which to focus the Chernobyl March on April 26.