BELARUS – Even in the time of an economic slump, Belarusian authorities keep pushing for the construction of a new nuclear power plant and aren’t shy to use any means necessary to intimidate opponents. Bellona’s regular contributor visited the former Soviet republic and talked to several activists who are now suffering consequences for voicing their protest. These are his impressions.
Belarus – the country that has borne the brunt of the Chernobyl fallout – is yet to make a final decision to build a new nuclear power plant (NPP). It is also for now hard pressed to come up with adequate financing for the project. More importantly, the very idea finds little support among the population. Opposition against building another potentially hazardous site is on the rise and authorities are doing their best to try to scare protesters into silence.
Ivan Kruk: Slapped with a fine for spreading information
Ivan Kruk, a resident of Ostrovets – a town in Grodno Region which may end up in close proximity to the site favoured as the possible location of the future NPP – has been ordered to pay a fine of 700,000 Belarusian roubles (just around $250, though still conceivably a cumbersome amount in a country with one of the lowest standards of living in Europe, by some ratings) for dissemination of publications hostile to the construction project.
Kruk, a retired police investigator, is a law enforcement veteran who has become a staunch supporter of the Belarusian anti-nuclear movement. Last winter he helped create the steering committee of an initiative called “Ostrovets NPP is a Crime” and collected residents’ signatures for an official statement protesting the NPP project.
The charge against Kruk was that he gave neighbours in his building a few issues of samizdat papers Ostrovetsky Vestnik (Ostrovets News) and Mirny Atom (Peaceful Atom). The two publications were critical of the prospect of having a new nuclear station near Ostrovets. As Belarusian legislation dictates, papers like these are not required to be registered officially – in other words, they will not be officially considered mass media – if their circulation does not exceed 299 copies and if they are printed using home equipment.
Yet, the Belarusian Ministry of Information accused Kruk of distributing copies of a periodical media publication without the latter having a masthead or the publisher’s imprint – fineprint found in regular printed media that details publishing company data and the date and time of printing, complete with information saying that the publication is free, if it is.
Photo: Source: Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus
Earlier, authorities were banning any public information campaigning such as pickets – now it has come to distribution of printed information. At the same time, official statements are made that public hearings will soon be organised in Ostrovets, where everyone with the need to say their piece will be welcome to do so… Somehow, one finds it hard to believe.
The anti-nuclear leaflets that have become the point of contention with the information ministry do look like Soviet-time samizdat. Both Ostrovetsky Vestnik and Mirny Atom are four-page circulars made out in regular printer-paper size. The publisher’s imprint that the ministry claimed was absent is there alright, fully detailed: “Наклад 299 асобнiкав, Надрукавана на дамашнiм абсталяваннi…” specifies specifies both the size of circulation and that the papers are printed with home office equipment.
Photo: Source: Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus
Ostrovetsky Vestnik is a true grassroots initiative. Its publisher and editor-in-chief, Nikolai Ulasevich, lives in the village of Vornyany, which is located only six kilometres away from the prospective NPP site. His is a serious-toned, apolitical newspaper published in two languages. The first issue highlights the problems that, in Ulasevich’s words, “we are not going to hear about,” and features Ulasevich’s open letter to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I just don’t believe those fairy tales that atomic energy is harmless, that it is environmentally clean, that it is the cheapest, because facts – and facts are stubborn things – unfortunately, they speak of the opposite,” Ulasevich writes in his address to Lukashenko. “Why do we, people who live here, have to take off and leave our homes? The place where our ancestors lived and where they now rest in peace?”
Ulasevich requests that Lukashenko receive him and a group of Ostrovets residents for a meeting “to discuss the problem that we are concerned about with the aim of rejecting the prospect of building a nuclear power plant in our region, and better yet, in Belarus in general.” That Lukashenko is yet to answer Ulasevich’s plea is little surprise. What is more surprising is why authorities have decided to fine the distributor of a publication whose publisher has never attempted to hide from public view and is ready to argue openly his right to an anti-nuclear stance.
“We are not allowed to distribute Ostrovetsky Vestnik, in which we want to tell the truth about the NPP and the unacceptability of building it in our region,” Ulasevich said in an interview for Bellona Web. “And this is not the first time they have tried to shut us up.”
Peaceful Atom as a weapon of anti-nuclear satire
The other publication, ***Mirny Atom (in Russian and Belarusian), bets on the humour angle, as if saying “How can you take this blunt non-stop media-wide pro-nuclear brainwashing seriously? – Why, with a smile, of course!”
Photo: Source: http://mirnyatom.net
The satirists’ arsenal of deadpan anti-nuclear lampooning includes, for instance, fake commercials featuring gauze respirators or proclamations calling on Belarusians living in the areas most impacted by Chernobyl to volunteer radionuclides they have collected in their bodies in years of exposure so that the new nuclear power plant could “run on local resources.” A section called “the New Protected Species Book” runs sensational pieces on the new freakish animals that will appear in Belarusian forests from all the radiation after the plant goes online, such as a new relative of the bison, Belarus’ mascot – Bison bonasus timidus bengalensis – complete with a “photo” of a bison with a rabbit’s head. In short, it is lively, it is funny – and it is equipped with all the necessary data on the publisher: “Заснавальнiк – Беларуская Партыя «Зялёныя»” (Founder: The Belarusian Green Party), newsdesk physical address, address online etc….
Again, the publishers have nothing to hide – which evidently makes it more difficult for the authorities to try to put the squeeze on an officially registered political entity, so they exert what pressure they can exert on distributors and any Ostrovets residents who dare say something against the NPP project.
Alexei Zhingerovsky: Housing officials guarding nuclear interests
Alexei lives in Baranovichi, some 200 kilometres from the future NPP site. He did in fact commit a misdemeanour – last April 25th, on the eve of Chernobyl’s anniversary, he painted “No to NPP!” on the side of a residential building.
“That’s nearly the only single way to express protest,” Alexei said in a telephone interview for Bellona Web. “The media only run pro-NPP propaganda. But I, as a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, have a right to an opinion of my own, I have a right to protest.”
Alexei was detained at the scene. A conversation with a local beat policeman followed and a 24-hour detention.
“Most likely, the detention was off the books. I thought this was the actual punishment, without the fine,” Alexei continued.
But the fine did come later, a citation in the amount of 350,000 Belarusian roubles ($124) for an administrative misdemeanour described officially as “disorderly conduct.” That, by reasonable expectations, should have concluded the matter.
In July, however, Alexei was again summoned to the police station. A charge had been filed against him by the local housing officials to cover damages inflicted by another 18 pieces of graffiti found in the neighbourhood. Alexei argues that he could not have painted those since that night, he had been detained by the police and spent the night at the precinct. However, as Alexei adds, the police told him “the mayor himself has taken a personal interest in the case” and will see to it that a proper punishment be doled out. One would have been too naïve and too trusting to expect any leniency or, at the very least, an objective trial once the higher ranks have been involved.
At a preliminary hearing that took place on August 4th, the housing and public utilities company Residential Property Management Company of the city of Baranovichi asked the court that the defendant pay damages in the amount of 3,353,256 Belarusian roubles ($1,188). The plaintiffs claimed that Alexei had painted eighteen pieces of graffiti in several city streets, but they failed to produce any evidence to support the claim. With such convoluted logic in place, Alexei is probably lucky he has not been accused of painting all of the anti-nuclear graffiti that had sprung up across Belarus on the eve of the annual Chernobyl commemorative march – which this year proceeded under the slogan “No to NPP!”
Authorities in this case must have meant the huge lawsuit as a means of intimidation against their anti-nuclear opponents. Their scare tactics failed to yield the desired effect: “We will continue our fight,” Alexei said on the telephone. “That fine, it’s nothing. Unpleasant, sure, but still, the environment is what matters!”
Igor Pastukhov: Nature reserve director forced to quit
Until recently, Igor Pastukhov was the director of a protected scenic reserve called Sorochanskiye Ozyora – a national park owing its name maybe to a small river, Sorochanka, that flows from one of its lakes, or maybe the lake Sorochye. Located near the Lithuanian border, the reserve is a unique complex of twelve picturesque lakes and several rivers. It is a quiet, serene place in a mostly agricultural region, where many Belarusians who live in industrial cities have their summer houses and visit frequently to fish, swim, and spend time in the open country. There aren’t too many clean and beautiful places like this in Belarus.
Photo: Source: Anti-Nuclear Campaign of Belarus
When Pastukhov found out a nuclear power plant was going to be built only eight kilometres from a national park that he, as director, was entrusted to cherish and protect, he set out doing what he was supposed to do – protect it.
First, he made headlines with an interview given to the popular Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, where he spoke of the sheer incompatibility of a nuclear power plant and a nature reserve. His bosses gave him a proper dressing-down: Even though the park is a national entity, it is still within the jurisdiction of Ostrovets regional administration. The local administration – called, after the Soviet tradition, raiispolkom – or regional executive committee – is one of the most zealous members of the pro-nuclear lobby: Either they have hopes for the vigorous tax money flow from the new site or they simply follow orders from the higher-ups.
Pastukhov, however, did not heed the reprimand and proceeded to write letters to the Belarusian Ministry of Energy and the country’s government, the Council of Ministers, as well as to a range of public organisations.
“I consider the construction of any large technological sites, especially atomic energy sites, that would adjoin the few remaining places of nature to be short-sighted and of poor judgment,” Pastukhov wrote. “I would like to make this an issue of broad publicity and debate, with the ultimate goal of preventing the construction of a nuclear power plant from taking place here.”
Naturally, neither broad publicity nor public debate would be something that Ostrovets administration would take lightly to. Pastukhov started to feel pressure at work, threats were issued to fire him. He preferred to leave on his own terms.
Having been made to understand that an official, by-the-book dismissal would soon follow once he had received three such reprimands, said Pastukhov, he consulted a lawyer and tended in his resignation, which was accepted. Pastukhov was relieved of his duties as agreed by both parties on July 17th.
What is the common thread tying these different stories together? It gives food for thought that even in today’s Belarus – a country much criticised for what is widely seen as blatant undemocratic practices and, by many accounts, a dismal human rights record – citizens do find ways to express their protest to projects they consider threatening to the health of their fellow residents and the environment. A student, a pensioner, and a public servant overcome their fear and consciously make sacrifices, adamant in their attempts to speak their minds and save their country.
Tatiana Plaksina, a Minsk-based journalist, contributed to this article.