The 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine is the backdrop for new demonstrations against the government. Kim Murphy, April 27, 2006
MINSK, Belarus — In a country still deeply ravaged by the worst nuclear accident in history, opposition leaders rallied thousands in the streets of this capital on Wednesday, calling for the impeachment of President Alexander G. Lukashenko and accusing his government of failing to protect citizens from lingering radiation 20 years after the Chernobyl power plant disaster.
In a day marked by somber observances all over the former Soviet republic that suffered greatly from the radioactive fallout in 1986, opposition leaders who are contesting the legitimacy of the March 19 presidential election seized on the Chernobyl anniversary to mobilize about 10,000 demonstrators.
The protesters defied police orders to avoid the city center and marched for more than three hours across Minsk before dispersing at a church dedicated to victims of Chernobyl. The power plant is about 200 miles southeast of here in neighboring Ukraine.
The rally was an important test of the opposition’s strength, in light of violent police crackdowns on two earlier postelection demonstrations that left several protesters injured and resulted in the arrest of an estimated 1,200 protesters and opposition leaders over the last month. Former presidential contender Alexander Kozulin, arrested in March while leading a march toward a jail where his supporters were being detained, remains behind bars and faces up to six years in prison on a charge of hooliganism.
Democratic forces leader Alexander Milinkevich, who officially garnered only 6% of the vote in an election international observers said was carried out in a way that heavily skewed the vote toward Lukashenko, claims the president should have been prevented under the constitution from standing for a third term and said Belarus citizens would not wait until the next elections to displace him.
“We are not going to wait until 2011. Maybe we will succeed in a year, or two years, everything depends on us,” Milinkevich told supporters at a rally sanctioned by the authorities outside the Academy of Sciences. “We will depose this regime by peaceful actions. We will initiate the procedure of impeachment.”
The Chernobyl anniversary provided fertile ground for political opponents in a country that lay directly in the path of some of the Ukrainian power plant’s worst fallout. About a quarter of the country was contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium, and smaller amounts of plutonium, yet large numbers of Belarusians either never left the contaminated zones or have slowly returned to them.
Lukashenko’s government has encouraged the resumption of agricultural production in some of the contaminated areas, arguing that the food produced is badly needed and meets international standards.
“New [contaminated] territories are being plowed, and people are being fed the idea that radiation is just something made up by the opposition,” Milinkevich’s organization said in a message to supporters. “They are growing wheat on lands polluted with cesium and strontium; these lands have become pastures for cattle, and from them, meat and dairy products are made which are sold as so-called ‘pure’ agricultural products.”
Milinkevich was summoned to the prosecutor’s office Wednesday afternoon and warned not to proceed with his plan to appear at Oktyabrskaya Square. The opposition had distributed 300,000 leaflets this week directing supporters to go to the square, but authorities banned any rally there and authorized gatherings only on the outskirts of downtown.
But Milinkevich nonetheless appeared on the edge of the square and proceeded to lead thousands of supporters down Independence Avenue toward the site of the authorized rally, even as police followed the crowd with loudspeakers, warning that they were violating the law.
“The police are with the people, and the people are with the police,” one middle-aged woman wryly told a female companion as the spectacle passed by.
“Locked in a fight,” her friend replied.
Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, was detained four hours before the rally and released only after its conclusion. Vintsuk Vyachorka, head of the Belarusian Popular Front, was arrested shortly after the event.
Outside the church dedicated to Chernobyl victims, the ending point of the march, many protesters waved flags and shouted slogans such as “Freedom” and “One Road — Belarus to Europe.” Others quietly placed wreaths and lighted candles.
“The state policy is that Chernobyl does not exist. It’s as if it never happened,” said Vera Tityenkova, a 49-year-old design engineer, whose father died of cancer five years ago after living all of his life along the border near Chernobyl. “We don’t have dose meters, products are not being tested — milk, potatoes, or other vegetables, how can they test all of it? They want people to forget it and how dangerous it is still.”
Svetlana Prokhorenko, a 51-year-old computer programmer, had to have her thyroid removed last year and now recalls the “strange rain” that fell on Minsk in the days after the Chernobyl disaster.
“They told us there was some kind of accident,” she said. “But nobody told us it was dangerous to be outside.”