|The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)|
|7 The Chernobyl disasters Its effect on Belarus and Ukraine|
|Regeneration and recovery|
The appearance of victim action groups in the USSR was a much slower process than it would have been in the West, because there was no established tradition of citizen organizations unrelated to either the government or the Communist Party. By and large, such groups were more successful in the Ukraine than in Belarus because nascent opposition movements already existed in Ukraine. Ukrainian opposition began with the Writers' Union, members of which were largely responsible for the establishment of the Popular Movement for Perestroika (Rukh) early in 1989. One facet of the Rukh, which eventually operated as an independent force, was the Green World ecological association (Zelenyi Svit), founded by Chernobyl activists under the leadership of Yurii Nikolaevich Shcherbak, a writer and doctor. Shcherbak had visited Chernobyl shortly after the accident and interviewed many of the leading figures involved in the aftermath. The Green World began as a non-political association committed to the cessation of Ukraine's nuclear power programme, especially the Chernobyl station.
Chernobyl was featured at the First Congress of the Rukh in 1989. Indeed, the founders of Rukh were the most eloquent in drawing attention to the secrecy surrounding the event and the reported failure of central authorities to take effective action. The leadership of the organization in this period was dominated by former Communists Ivan Drach, its Chairman; Volodymyr Yavorivsky, another student of the Chernobyl event and renowned writer; and Dmytro Pavlychko, a poet and Chairman of the Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society. Disaffected Communists were effective because they were acquainted with the old power structure from the first, and maintained contacts within the Communist Party of Ukraine and with the more radical sections of Rukh. Shcherbak, a non-Communist, maintained close ties with the Rukh leaders.
Political events in Ukraine since 1989 cannot be dealt with in detail here.33 Suffice it to say that the victim action programme in Ukraine was effective in drawing attention to the plight of Ukrainians who suffered from Chernobyl. In 1989-1991, many of its leaders visited the West and stimulated the creation of new organizations that channelled aid to Chernobyl victims in Ukraine. By 1990, the existing ruling structure in Ukraine was being eroded. Shcherbytsky, the old party leader, was retired with honour in September 1989, and died the following January. His successor, Volodymyr Ivashko, remained in office for only a few months before accepting an offer to become a deputy vicepresident to Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, an action that was regarded as a betrayal in Ukrainian political circles. Ivashko's replacement, Stanislav Hurenko, was a hard-line Communist leader in the Shcherbytsky mould. Consequently, the effective leadership of Ukrainian Communists devolved on the parliamentary group, led by Leonid Kravchuk, a politician who was ultrasensitive to the vacillations of public opinion.
For our purposes, the significance of these events is that, once the country's leadership and impetus had devolved on the parliament, the voice of the opposition was always heard and became influential. Long discussions on Chernobyl occurred in sessions; laws were enacted; demonstrations were held outside the parliament; and the opposition deputies - albeit a small group of 87 out of 400 - were very vocal. Yet the main impact of the Rukh and Green World was to curtail the Ukrainian nuclear power programme and to focus on questions of environmental degradation rather than to resolve questions relating to Chernobyl. The Rukh had a strong voice but was not a political party and did not attempt to take power for itself. In 1992, the Green World and the newly created Green Party was "beheaded" when Shcherbak (Ukraine's Minister of the Environment) took on ambassadorial duties in Israel.
In Belarus, the Popular Front (BPF) had placed Chernobyl at the very top of its agenda, but found it much more difficult to make progress because the government and parliament in 1992-1993 were dominated by Communists. After BPF was founded in the fall of 1988, the authorities tried to suppress its activities with a combination of force and harassment. They were incensed with BPF's campaign to boycott spring elections to the Congress of People's Deputies (Vechernii Minsk, 22 March 1989). They also resorted to the crudest of propaganda to brand the members of the Front Nazi as collaborators.34 In June 1989, the BPF held its founding congress outside the republic, in Vilnius, Lithuania, and advocated a multi-party system in the republic as well as full sovereignty (Zvyazda, 14 July 1989). However, the organization did not match the progress of the Sajudis in Lithuania or the Popular Front of Estonia. It remained relatively small and, in 1993, possessed only 32 deputies in the Belarusian parliament under the leadership of archaeologist Zenon Poznyak.
Late in 1992, Poznyak, an outspoken nationalist, declared that the BPF has been the only impediment to complete domination by the old "nomenklatura" in the republic. In his view, this latter group has "appropriated" private property. Prime Minister Kebich has, he states, relied on the former-ruling elite in a close alliance with Russia. In fact, in the fall of 1992, all strategic forces on Belarusian territory had been transferred to the jurisdiction of Russia, but without compensation for the use of Belarus as a testing ground and for its airfields. The picture provided is a bleak one, of a centralized and very authoritarian regime and one, moreover, without any national leaders of the stature of Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk (Moscow News No. 48, 29 November-6 December 1992: 8). The BPF has remained an isolated voice in support of democracy. The importance of such intransigence in the republic that faces the most acute consequences of Chernobyl cannot be underestimated.35
Some of the BPF members have been active in the Belarusian Charitable Fund for the Children of Chernobyl, which is led by Deputy Gennadii Grushevoi. The Fund was the most effective of the various non-government organizations in Ukraine that sought to aid young victims. It has cooperated particularly closely with German organizations (see, for example, Znamya yunosti, 27 July 1991). By late 1992, the scope of the Fund went well beyond its initial role, which was to send children from the contaminated regions for periods of recuperation abroad. Instead, it had taken on the role of disseminator of information about Belarus and Belarusian culture, and published two journals - a magazine called Demos, which appeared in Germany and Russia, and an independent women's newspaper, Milo. It had also created an International Humanitarian Association, oriented to resolving problems associated with Chernobyl.36
The Fund and Association, while only at the beginning of their operations, represent singular examples of how victim action groups responded to a disaster, not merely without government aid but in the face of constant government harassment.37 They have continued to highlight inadequacies of the official programme for dealing with Chernobyl and they have focused on individuals within the government - rather than ministries - who might offer aid on a personal basis. At the same time, their leadership is realistic enough to recognize the limitations of operating within Belarus, and they have developed particularly close relations with charitable groups in Germany. Herein lies a general lesson for victim action groups. In a totalitarian or authoritarian state, such groups can develop a wide network of contacts and pursue goals that go beyond those of simply aiding the victims: they can become foci for quasi-opposition movements. In Minsk during 1992-1993, the Children of Chernobyl Fund was a unique example of an operation that was both effective and thriving and, through its actions, supplementing official aid.