Sunday, April 30, 2006

CIS: Press Freedom In Former Soviet Union Under Assault

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Independent media in the countries of the former Soviet Union, already operating under extreme duress, came under further assault over the course of the last year.


The political, legal, and economic environments in most of the non-Baltic former Soviet countries remain distinctly inhospitable to independent journalism.

This reality is reflected in "Freedom Of The Press 2006," the latest edition of Freedom House's annual global survey of media independence. Ten of the 12 Soviet countries are ranked "Not Free" in the new edition of the survey. Of the 10 Not Free countries, five saw a further erosion in their performance over the course of last year.

Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states only Georgia and Ukraine, which are categorized as "Partly Free," escape the Not Free designation. No country in the region achieves the designation of "Free." The degree to which each country permits the free flow of information determines the classification of its media as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free."

The downward trend was particularly evident in countries with regimes that place a premium on controlling the airwaves. Among the Not Free states, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan experienced declines. Uzbekistan and Russia suffered the most dramatic backslide.

Self-Censorship, Obstruction In Russia

Russia slipped due to the Kremlin's ongoing obstruction of journalists from reporting on sensitive topics and its tightening of control over news sources. According to this year's report, the Russian "authorities continued to exert direct influence on media outlets and determine news content, as the state owns or controls the country's three main national television networks -- Channel One, RTR, and NTV."

In 2005, Russian journalists continued to be subjected to detention or physical attack, ostensibly from coverage of sensitive topics such as corruption. The Russian government's posture toward the media has also led to increased self-censorship. Critical coverage of the Kremlin on national broadcast media is virtually nonexistent today.

Andijon Fallout In Uzbekistan

The government in Uzbekistan, which has crushed independent voices throughout society, paid particular attention to the elimination of independent media. The Uzbek press freedom rating for the last year dropped accordingly.

The Andijon massacre, which occurred one year ago, was the trigger for the further crackdown on the media in Uzbekistan. In the immediate aftermath of the events in Andijon, the regime of President Islam Karimov instituted a news blackout, preventing virtually any information about the violence in the eastern Uzbek city from reaching wider audiences.

Western-funded media in Uzbekistan drew particularly intense attention from the government. The Karimov regime refused to renew the agreement that allowed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to operate a bureau in Tashkent. It likewise forced other international news and media support organizations, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and Internews, to close their operations in the country.

Manipulation of television news content in Uzbekistan, as in a number of neighboring repressive countries, reached new heights over the last year. The television medium was a favored tool in regime security efforts. The report on Uzbekistan in this year's press-freedom survey cites the September trial of 15 men accused of involvement in the Andijon unrest, where "prosecutors charged that the BBC, IWPR, and RFE/RL had advance knowledge that violence would break out in the city. State-controlled media gave prominent coverage to these unsubstantiated charges."

Regulatory Tricks In Belarus

In Belarus, the autocratic government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka intensified its control over the country's media, at least in part due to elections taking place this spring. Last year, among the measures taken by the Belarusian authorities was passage of broadly defined legislation that makes it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to "discredit Belarus" in the eyes of international organizations and foreign governments. The same prison terms apply to those convicted of distributing "false information" about Belarus' political, economic, social, or international situation.

Among the regulatory tricks relied upon by media-unfriendly regimes, the Belarus press-freedom report relates a May 2005 decree issued by Lukashenka that banned all privately owned, but not state, media from using the words "national" or "Belarus" in their names, forcing a number of publications to reregister.

Good News A Rarity

In a region where good news on the news media is hard to come by, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were the only countries to register improvement. In Kyrgyzstan, given the larger questions concerning the country's overall political direction, the durability of the positive press-freedom change was far from certain, however. Kyrgyzstan remains in the Not Free category.

Ukraine enjoys a wide range of state and private television and radio stations, as well as print and electronic news outlets. While Ukraine's media ownership is diverse, it still confronts the challenges that accompany oligarchic ownership structures. Nevertheless, since the end of 2004 the media in Ukraine, while today still designated Partly Free, have achieved a degree of pluralism and independence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-Orange Revolution era.

Ukraine, now with the strongest press-freedom rating among the former Soviet states, therefore remains a critical media case study. Just 1 1/2 years ago, the country suffered from many of the same pathologies that continue to confront most of the media in the region today. In the run-up to Ukraine's pivotal 2004 elections, for example, "temnyky" -- editorial theme directives from the president's office -- were standard operating procedure. This practice was purged from the Ukrainian media landscape but remains a blight on many other former Soviet states' media systems.

The significant yet incomplete progress in Ukraine should serve as a reminder that overcoming deeply entrenched Soviet-era habits and practices will be a trying, long-term effort for reform of the media, as well as for other key institutions that form the building blocks of democratic societies.

Source: Radio Free Europe

World Fails On Chernobyl Aid Pledges: Putin

TOMSK, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has charged that the world had failed to keep promises made over the past two decades to help Ukraine cope with the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which linger today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

"The international community, in spite of its promises, is doing almost nothing to help Ukraine," Putin told reporters here during a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Russian president said he had spoken to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko by telephone on Wednesday, the day marking the 20th anniversary of the catastrophe at a Soviet-era nuclear power station outside the town of Chernobyl in Ukraine.

"We discussed steps to take," Putin said without elaborating.

Yushchenko, who led somber commemorative ceremonies in Ukraine marking the anniversary of the tragedy, called for more international help to deal with its consequences.

"We call on all signatories of the Ottawa memorandum to compensate Ukraine for costs incurred in closing the Chernobyl station," Yushchenko said, referring to a 1995 pact in which Western nations pledged three billion dollars (2.4 billion euros) in aid to Ukraine provided it closed the defunct plant by 2000.

Yushchenko said Ukraine had spent 15 billion dollars over the past 20 years in dealing with Chernobyl after-effects and projected it would spend another 170 billion dollars by 2015.

Source: AFP

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Party Time For Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- World Cup debutants Ukraine embark into uncharted waters after securing their first successful qualifying campaign from a difficult group that included European champions Greece, 2002 World Cup semi-finals Turkey and experienced Denmark.

Ukraine’s coach Oleg Blokhin

Only affiliated to FIFA in 1992 following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country is fairly new to the footballing stage but their progress has been sharp and they are coached by 1975 European Footballer of the Year Oleg Blokhin.

Another Ballon d'Or winner Andrei Shevchenko is the jewel in the crown and the AC Milan marksman gives his side both individual talent and deadly goal-scoring skills.

Blokhin likes to use a three-man attack led by Shevchenko but the team also possess a stingy defence having only conceded seven goals in 12 qualifying matches.

The key results that led to Germany were a 3-0 battering of Turkey in Istanbul, a narrow 1-0 win over the Danes and finally the cornerstone 1-0 win over Greece in Athens that effectively sealed their passage.

Ironically during qualifying for Euro 2004, they finished behind group winners Greece while Spain were seven points ahead.

Until 2006, the closest the team that came to reaching a major tournament was the Euro 2000 squad that finished second behind France and then fell in the play-offs in the cruellest of manners against Slovenia.

Ukraine were the first team from Europe to book their ticket to Germany which displayed the efficiency of their campaign and now maintain a golden chance to reach the knockout phase having been drawn in one of the weaker groups.

With no disrespect to Spain, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, the opportunity for Blokhin and his players to go through is gaping despite their lack of experience.

Source: AFP

Ukraine's FM Says NATO Membership 'Irreversible' Foreign Policy Goal

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Describing NATO membership as an "irreversible" foreign policy goal, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk said Friday that reforms underway in the country's Soviet-style defense sector should ease concerns over its ability to comply with NATO standards.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk (L), shares a word with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer during a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Friday, April 28

"The aspiration to NATO membership is natural (and) Ukraine's course is irreversible," Tarasiuk told a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

The push for membership by former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia has raised concerns in Moscow that the United States and NATO were seeking to encircle Russia. Russia's foreign ministry has warned such an expansion would force Moscow to reorganize its armed forces in response.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Ukraine must meet a set of stringent criteria before it can be considered for membership.

Tarasiuk said that Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko "had tasked various security bodies to initiate defense sector reforms ... mindful of the fact that the defense industry preserved the Soviet approach and working style."

According to general NATO requirements, Ukraine's bloated post-Soviet military will have to be brought in line with alliance standards and the country will have to strengthen civilian control over the armed forces.

Tarasiuk said his government was already working to comply with alliance standards through a joint NATO-Ukraine committee, describing this as "a major step forward to substantial practical cooperation and enhancing of our relations."

But he noted that there was still "a lot of homework" to be done to increase public support for the move. Ukraine hopes it could be invited to join by 2008, Tarasiuk said.

"We hope that this year the strengthening of NATO-Ukraine relations will have its logical continuation in the framework of the main preparations program - the membership action plan and ... the invitation to accession talks."

Ukraine hopes it could be invited to join by 2008, Tarasiuk said.

At a joint news conference with Tarasiuk, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Ukraine was increasingly pulling its weight in being a security provider in regions such as Kosovo, Dharfur and Afghanistan.

"NATO's door remains open and Ukraine's aspirations are ultimately achievable," he said.

Source: AP

Friday, April 28, 2006

Kiev To Challenge Moves To Elevate Russian Language

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yushchenko has asked Ukraine's Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the legality of recent local-government decisions granting Russian the status of a regional language.

Viktor Yushchenko opposes making Russian a second language in Ukraine

So far, two local administrations -- the eastern region of Luhansk and the city of Sevastopol, in the Crimea -- have tried to elevate the status of Russian.

Both regions have a predominantly Russian-speaking population.

Yushchenko's deputy chief-of-staff, Anatoliy Matviyenko, said on April 28 that the moves breach Ukraine's constitution, which states that Ukrainian is the sole state language.

The status of the Russian language has become one of the most politically divisive issues in Ukraine.

The pro-Moscow Party of Regions, which won the most votes in last month's parliamentary election, campaigned on a promise to make Russian a second state language.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Troubled Ukraine Eyes NATO Green Light

BONN, Germany -- Ukraine reiterated Friday its desire to join NATO despite Russian qualms, after the Western alliance hinted heavily that the politically troubled ex-Soviet state could soon win approval for membership.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: a red or green light for Ukraine?

During the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said: "Ukraine's strategy towards joining NATO is irreversible."

The Sofia talks were the first such contact with NATO since parliamentary elections on March 26 which were widely praised as free and fair, although they have left Kiev in political limbo.

NATO officials at the Sofia talks say there is widespread support for Ukraine's bid, despite its political problems. Speaking on Thursday, NATO head Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hinted there could be an opening to aspiring members at a summit in the Latvian capital in November.

"I have no doubt that in Riga, countries aspiring to NATO membership will want a signal. There will be a signal at Riga," de Hoop Scheffer said.

"When they are ready, NATO is ready," he said in comments that referred also to Georgia, another ex-Soviet republic bidding to join NATO.

Ukraine struggles with a turbulent past

Addressing the political dispute that has dragged on in Ukraine since March 26 parliamentary elections, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the country faced an uphill struggle to join NATO.

"The Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people will have to decide whether or not this is something that they wish to pursue," Rice told reporters on the sidelines of the Sofia meeting on Thursday. "And they will also have to work very hard, I think, to meet the criteria," she added.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has set out an ambitious pro-West agenda since coming to power in 2005 after a wave of popular protests known as the "orange revolution" that brought down a Moscow-backed regime.

But his party performed badly in March and has been forced into coalition talks that could bring to power either a government favoring links with Europe and NATO or one preferring a strong bond with Russia.

New dividing lines in Europe?

Moscow, which held sway over Kiev in Soviet times and maintains a strong influence over its Western neighbor, meanwhile reasserted its opposition to Ukraine's NATO hopes.

"We are against the creation of new dividing lines in Europe," Mikhail Kamynin, Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying in an interview with RIA-Novosti news agency on Thursday.

"Today there are algorithms of cooperation with NATO that allow states to cooperate in the widest security spectrum without formal accession to the alliance," Kamynin said.

NATO sending Ukraine mixed signals

But NATO on Thursday appeared to play down reports that Ukraine could be offered the alliance's "membership action plan", the key step before being invited to join.

"Ukraine's aspirations to join the Alliance are welcomed by all allies," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Sofia. "What I cannot predict is timelines for membership action plans," he added.

Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are currently in the membership action plan with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Ten countries that were once allied with Russia -- Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- have joined NATO since 1999.

Also on Friday, during a sideline meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a bilateral agreement with Bulgarian officials to establish three military bases in the country as the U.S. shifts troops from old Cold War positions to smaller units closer to the Middle East and Africa.

NATO boosts Darfur aid

Moving from the European to the African continent during talks in Sofia, NATO has said it is ready to boost assistance in Sudan's violence-scarred Darfur region. The alliance has said it will increase logistical support, but said any presence should be limited and only in support of African or U.N. efforts.

In NATO's first operation on the African continent, the alliance has provided training and transportation to African Union troops trying to stem the violence there. Some nations, such as the United States, would like to see a stronger NATO presence on the continent.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Our Ukraine, Party Of Region, Agree On Would-Be Premier

KIEV, Ukraine -- The pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc and the opposition Party of Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovich, have agreed on the formation of a coalition in the parliament of Ukraine.

Multimillionaire Serhey Taruta

This sensational report was circulated on Friday by a number of electronic mass media organs of Ukraine with reference to reliable sources.

According to their information, the parties reached agreement on Thursday night that Serhey Taruta, chairman of the board of directors of the Industrial Union of Donbass Corporation and one of the three Ukrainian multimillionaires, would be nominated to the post of prime minister.

President Viktor Yushchenko, who is in Latvia on a visit, sent a message from there on Thursday giving his consent to the formation of a coalition by Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions, the sources report.

The political council of the Party of Regions adopted a resolution at its meeting on Thursday, which said that the party would hold talks on the formation of a parliamentary coalition with all the political forces, qualified for the new Supreme Rada, without exception. Yanukovich expressed confidence that the coalition formed by Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions could be the most effective.

Previously the observers forecast that Taruta could well be regarded as a candidate to the post of prime minister. In their opinion, he will be a “technical premier,” because he does not have “clear political orientation.”

This is exactly the thing that could suit both Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions. On the one hand, Taruta comes from Donetsk. On the other hand, he supported the “orange revolution.”

The Party of Regions got 32.14 per cent of votes (186 seats in parliament) at the March 26 parliamentary elections. The Yulia Timoshenko bloc got 22.29 per cent of votes (129 seats).

The pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc, with Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov on the top of the electoral list, got 13.95 per cent of votes (81 seats). The Socialist Party led by Alexander Moroz got 5.69 per cent of votes (33 seats), and the Communist Party led by Peter Simonenko got 3.66 per cent of votes (21 seats).

There are 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament. A minimum of 226 MPs is needed for forming a parliamentary majority. If Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions form a coalition, it will have a total of 267 seats.

Source: ITAR-Tass

Ukraine Hopes To Get NATO Membership Invitation In 2008: FM

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Ukraine hoped to be formally invited into NATO membership in 2008, said Ukraine's Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk on Friday.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (R) talks to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk before the informal meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission in Sofia April 28, 2006

"Our strategic objective is to get an invitation to join NATO, hopefully in 2008," he told reporters at a joint press conference with NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Tarasyuk said he had told NATO foreign ministers in an informal NATO-Ukraine meeting that his country hoped to be invited to join the NATO membership action plan this year.

The membership action plan is an indispensable stage for NATO membership before a formal invitation.

At present, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are part of the membership action plan, while Ukraine and Georgia are still waiting for a nod from NATO.

Tarasyuk said Ukraine was in the process of creating "a new coalition of democratic forces," which would eventually form a new government.

"Ukraine's strategic foreign policy objective, that is to join NATO, is irreversible," he said.

He admitted, however, that a lot of homework needed to be done, including increasing public awareness of NATO and public support for NATO membership.

He said Ukraine would continue its support for NATO operations in Kosovo, in the Mediterranean and that it was in consultation with NATO for Ukraine's possible role in Afghanistan, where NATO is leading a 9,000-strong International Security Assistance Force.

NATO is trying to increase the multi-national force to 16,000 this summer and expand its service to the south of Afghanistan, where the security situation is volatile.

De Hoop Scheffer said the accession process for aspirant countries was strictly performance-based, and he refused to set up specific timelines for those countries.

"When Ukraine is ready, NATO is ready," he said, adding that this rule applied in a broad sense to all aspiring countries.

He reiterated that NATO operated an open door policy for all European democracies and said NATO was looking forward to working with the new Ukrainian government.

Source: Xinhua

Long-Lost Soldier, 83, Returns To Ukraine

MORIOKA, Japan -- A former Imperial Japanese Army soldier who had a dramatic family reunion in his hometown in Iwate Prefecture for the first time since he went off to Sakhalin Island during World War II left Thursday to return to his home in Ukraine.

Ishinosuke Uwano

Ishinosuke Uwano, 83, who was recently confirmed to be alive in Ukraine, arrived in the town of Hirono, Iwate Prefecture, earlier in April and met with his younger brother and two younger sisters. During his one-week stay, he also visited his parents' grave.

Just before he left, about 50 residents saw him off with one of them saying, "Please bring your family next time you come back."

Uwano visited the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in the capital later Thursday to re-establish his family registry, which was changed after he was declared dead in 2000.

He described his years after he disappeared as "fate," and did not talk much about them even to his relatives, according to people who met him.

Uwano, accompanied by his son, arrived in Japan on April 19 and went to his hometown the following day. He stayed at the house of his nephew, Yukio, 59, where he was born.

He is scheduled to leave Japan on Friday, arriving in Ukraine later in the day.

Uwano was serving on Sakhalin at the end of the war but his whereabouts became unknown and he was later declared dead.

Uwano, who has been living in Ukraine since around 1965, married a local woman and has a son and two daughters. He currently lives in Zhytomyr, west of Kiev, according to the officials.

Source: The Japan Times

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ukraine's Yushchenko Sees Quick Progress To Join NATO

RIGA, Latvia -- Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko predicted on Thursday a diplomatic breakthrough would soon create the conditions for his ex-Soviet state to join the NATO alliance.

Viktor Yushchenko is eager to have his state join the NATO alliance

NATO has given no commitments to a timetable for Ukrainian membership. Alliance ministers were meeting to discuss those prospects in Bulgaria and were clearly focusing on political uncertainty in Ukraine after a March parliamentary election.

Yushchenko said he believed Ukraine could secure a 'Membership Action Plan' (MAP) at a NATO summit in Riga in November, expected to be attended by U.S. President George W Bush among others.

A membership action plan is one step short of an invitation to join NATO, although it does not make membership automatic.

'I do not rule out that we will be invited to join an action plan leading to NATO membership before the summit this autumn,' Yushchenko told journalists during a visit to Latvia.

'NATO membership will depend on internal developments in Ukraine. Ukrainian politicians should work hard on this.'

In Sofia, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said ministers would examine political developments in Ukraine.

'We shall look forward to discussing political developments in Ukraine following the recent parliamentary elections, particularly of course, their possible impact on Ukraine's aspirations for NATO membership,' he told a news briefing.

Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk is expected to tell the meeting on Friday how Kiev will step up its campaigning to bolster public support for membership and counter anti-NATO sentiment, particularly in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

'It's an important meeting. Tarasyuk will need to perform well,' said one alliance source.

SUSPICIOUS OF NATO

Yushchenko has promised any move to join NATO or the European Union will be put to a referendum. Public opinion is suspicious of NATO, depicted as an enemy in Soviet times.

Talks have been under way on forming a government since the election, with divided pro-Western 'orange' liberal parties saying they hoped to set aside differences and form a coalition in a parliament newly empowered to name the prime minister.

But speculation has swirled that Yushchenko's allies in the Our Ukraine party might opt for a coalition with the Our Regions Party, more sympathetic to Moscow and opposed to NATO.

Regions Party leader Viktor Yanukovich, the main loser in the 2004 'Orange Revolution' proposed such a coalition again on Wednesday on condition he take over as prime minister.

Despite U.S. support for Ukrainian membership, there has been resistance from among European members such as Germany.

NATO has urged Ukraine to stop talking about joining the alliance and the European Union and get on with measures to consolidate democracy, rule of law and transparency.

After the euphoria of the Orange Revolution that overturned a rigged election and swept Yushchenko to power, there is unease at slow progress in pushing ahead with reform.

But Ukraine's backers in NATO include Poland and the United States, keen to reward Kiev for its move towards democracy and for sending troops to help fight the insurgency in Iraq.

Source: Reuters

Kuchma Thinks Yushchenko Will Loose Under Tymoshenko’s Premiership

KIEV, Ukraine -- Former president Kuchma disagrees the coalition of Our Ukraine bloc and the Party of Regions may undermine Yushchenko’s chances to be reelected president for the second time.

Ex-President Leonid Kuchma

“Next elections will take place in three years but Yushchenko may loose if he fails to overcome today’s crisis”, Kuchma said in the interview to Profile edition.

Kuchma added that the president should unite the country instead of thinking about elections.

In his opinion nobody has doubts in orange coalition and Yuliya Tymoshenko’s premiership.

According to Kuchma the Party of Regions as the winner of the parliamentary elections might have formed a coalition and the other configurations may exist only in case of its failure.

Among the problems of the future “orange coalition” the former president called “the ideological incompatibility of its members”.

Yushchenko and Yekhanurov should understand that to achieve success in economics they have to carry out unpopular reforms which were suspended early in 2005.

Kuchma pointed out that the political views of “orange” forces differ cardinally so they can hardly work efficiently. For instance Our Ukraine, having liberal views, comes forward for land privatization unlike opposing SPU and BYuT.

Kuchma reminded that the former government had already raised the problem of land privatization but the Left headed by Moroz hampered its realization.

Kuchma welcomes Yushchenko’s demand to approve the program before sharing posts in the government.

But being asked whether there is any danger the prime-minister does not fulfill the president’s program, he assured that the coalition will bear responsibility for the premier’s activity.

Source: Ukrayinska Pravda

Ukraine Mystery Solved

MOSCOW, Russia -- Two influential Ukrainian businessmen were named Wednesday as the owners of a one-half stake in RosUkrEnergo, a mysterious company that controls Ukraine's gas imports.


Citing audit documents, the newspaper Izvestia said Dmitry Firtash - who has in the past played a role in importing gas from Turkmenistan to Ukraine and owns a Kiev basketball club - and Ivan Fursin, a banker, were the beneficial owners of the 50-percent stake.

Raiffeisen Zentralbank in Austria confirmed the names, saying it was holding the stake on their behalf.

In an e-mailed statement, the bank said Centragas Holding, a company based in Vienna, "is a joint owner of RosUkrEnergo." Firtash owns 90 percent of Centragas and Fursin holds the other 10 percent, the statement said.

Raiffeisen said in the past that it held the stake as trustee but declined to disclose the names of the owners.

Firtash, who reportedly spends most of his time in Hungary, could not be reached immediately for comment. Fursin also was not reached.

RosUkrEnergo bounced into the public eye when it was named as the go-between in a deal to resolve a gas pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine which interrupted supplies to Europe over the New Year.

Russia's state-controlled monopoly Gazprom owns the other 50 percent of Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo.

The U.S. Justice Department's organized crime section reportedly opened a probe into RosUkrEnergo, with diplomatic and financial sources saying that Raiffeisen had cooperated by providing information on the company.

Izvestia, which is owned by Gazprom, published extracts from an audit report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers that named the two men as owners of Centragas.

Ukraine's energy minister, Ivan Plachkov, was quoted by Interfax- Ukraine news agency as saying that Kiev may review the January gas deal because of the revelation.

RosUkrEnergo's sales in 2005 were around $3.5 billion and it made profits of $500 million from the sale of about 40 billion cubic metres of gas, Raiffeisen has said. That makes it one of Europe's largest gas marketers.

The disclosures come as concern grew that Ukraine, which is the transit route for 80 percent of Russia's gas exports to Europe, was tolerating opaque gas deals, even after the "Orange Revolution" of 2004, that jeopardize regional energy security.

Ukraine's state energy company, Naftogaz, is struggling to pay for gas imports following the January gas deal, under which the import price Ukraine must pay nearly doubled to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Naftogaz has been unable to pass on the gas price increase to consumers and, according to local media reports, ran up losses of at least $500 million in the first quarter of 2006.

Firtash also figures prominently in a recent report by Global Witness, a non- governmental organization that campaigns against corruption involving natural resources, on the structures through which Turkmen gas has been sold to Ukraine.

Global Witness warned that Europe's energy security was threatened by the opaque nature of gas supply deals in the former Soviet states.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Yushchenko's Team Rejects Tymoshenko's Prime Minesterial Ambition

KIEV, Ukraine -- Yulia Tymoshenko's desire to return to the prime minister's chair has become the main obstacle to restoring the Orange Revolution coalition in order to form a majority in Ukraine's newly elected parliament.

Yulia Tymoshenko

President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc has rejected Tymoshenko's demand that the distribution of key posts should precede the drafting of an action plan for the coalition. Tymoshenko, in return, has accused Yushchenko's team of foul play.

The junior partners in a would-be tripartite coalition, the Socialist Party (SPU) of Oleksandr Moroz, have apparently sided with Tymoshenko, who offered to them the post of speaker of parliament.

On April 13, Tymoshenko, Our Ukraine, and the SPU signed a protocol on the procedure to form a coalition of democratic forces. This was the first document signed by the three parties after weeks of difficult talks, and most local observers viewed it as a sure sign that the Orange Coalition will be revived.

Tymoshenko considered the protocol her personal victory, as its Clause 6 said that the coalition would be based on the draft coalition memorandum, which was prepared ahead of the March 26 election but never signed.

The draft memorandum reportedly provided for assigning the post of prime minister to the party that scored most votes among the participants in the accord. Tymoshenko's bloc mustered more votes than Our Ukraine and the SPU combined, so she thought it legitimate to claim the post.

Yushchenko's People's Union/Our Ukraine party, however, on April 14 rejected Clause 6, approving the rest of the protocol. The rejection of Tymoshenko's main condition was formalized by Our Ukraine on April 19.

Yushchenko approved the exclusion of Clause 6, telling journalists on April 15, "It is unadvisable to divide portfolios before we approve the general political principles." The SPU, however, approved the protocol without reservations, and criticized Our Ukraine's move, saying it jeopardized the coalition talks.

Tymoshenko went further than that. At a press conference on April 18, she said that Yushchenko's teammates, Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Petro Poroshenko, and leader of the Our Ukraine parliamentary faction Mykola Martynenko had persuaded Yushchenko to form a parliamentary coalition with the opposition Party of Regions of Viktor Yanukovych (PRU), which won the election, rather than with Tymoshenko.

She also claimed that Poroshenko and Martynenko conspired to arrest her chief aide, Oleksandr Turchynov, who was Security Service chief in her cabinet in 2005. Tymoshenko also offered a carrot to the SPU, saying that SPU leader Oleksandr Moroz should be offered the post of parliamentary speaker in line with coalition accords.

Our Ukraine issued a statement on the same day rejecting all of Tymoshenko's accusations and saying that she had torpedoed the coalition "by reducing the talks to securing the post of prime minister for herself and the post of parliamentary speaker for Moroz." The SPU, however, issued a statement backing Tymoshenko's point on the distribution of posts.

The SPU and Tymoshenko want to hurry up with distributing portfolios, afraid that Our Ukraine may opt for a coalition with the PRU. Their fears are not totally ungrounded. Yekhanurov has said on many occasions that he does not reject a "grand coalition" including the PRU as a fourth partner.

In such an alliance, the role of the SPU as the smallest party would be naturally diminished, and it would be next to impossible for Tymoshenko to become prime minister. She has already made it clear that she would not join such a coalition.

Yekhanurov is not the only member of Yushchenko's team who has considered an alliance with the PRU. Yushchenko's long-time aide Vira Ulyanchenko told 1+1 TV that the PRU might be included in the coalition, and that the PRU would share the goal of joining the European Union with Our Ukraine, as this corresponds to the big business interests that are behind the PRU.

Yushchenko's economic adviser Oleksandr Paskhaver told a briefing on April 19 that the PRU's "right-wing" economic program is closer to Our Ukraine's ideology than Tymoshenko's platform, which he described as leftist. As for the SPU, it is a leftist party; what's more, it rejects NATO membership, which is one of the main points on Our Ukraine's foreign agenda.

Officially, Our Ukraine keeps saying that the democratic ideals of the Orange Revolution, which then defeated the PRU, leave no alternative to a union with Tymoshenko and the SPU. Our Ukraine, however, insists that the coalition's principles and goals should come first, and that the distribution of posts, including that of prime minister, is of secondary importance.

"The availability of clearly stated and agreed programmatic goals and rules for a coalition should make it easy to solve personnel matters," Our Ukraine ideologists Ihor Zhdanov and Vitaly Bondzyk said in a recent article for Ukrayinska pravda. Our Ukraine makes it clear that it would hold Tymoshenko, for whom the post of prime minister is of primary importance, liable for a possible failure to re-establish the Orange Coalition.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More Tourists Visiting Ukraine Recently

KIEV, Ukraine -- Whether green or traditional, tourism in Ukraine appears to be rising steadily. In 2005, 17.6 million tourists visited Ukraine, Ukraine’s State Tourism Administration reported on its website.

Cape Fiolent, one of the most picturesque travel destinations in Crimea, is located near the port city of Sevastopol. Situated in this vicinity, called Balaklava, are the remains of the ancient monastery of St. George.

This was a 13 percent increase from 2004, or an additional 3.1 million visitors. This trend should continue, with a projected 19.6 million visitors expected to come to Ukraine in 2006, the STA reported.

According to industry experts and tourism agencies, growth in 2005 was due in part to practical considerations, such as Ukraine’s abolition of its visa regime with neighboring EU countries and its gradually improving infrastructure, as well as subjective factors like the Orange Revolution and Eurovision-2005, which most likely aroused the interest of some of Ukraine’s visitors last year.

That travelers from the EU, Canada and the United States no longer require visas to come to Ukraine has resulted in a palpable increase in tourists from these countries. This is evident not only in the statistics provided by the STA, but by increased business for Ukrainian tourism agencies in 2005.

Slovakia, Poland and Romania provided an additional 155,000, 1.7 million and 64,000 visitors to Ukraine, respectively, in 2005. This marks a 98, 95 and 65 percent year-on-year increase from these countries, in that order.

Thirty-four percent more Germans came to Ukraine in 2005 (189,546) and the number of Israeli tourists increased by 15 percent (51,186).

Overall, tourists to Ukraine are now more frequently opting to travel independently, making their own arrangements, according to STA statistics, rather than going through travel agencies on organized tours, although tourism agencies and operators providing package tours have also reported growth in the last year.

Booking season, every season

Oleksandr Malyovany, incoming tourism manager for Bytsko, a company with a staff of around 90 that primarily services clients coming to Ukraine from abroad, noted that his company saw 10 percent growth in tourists arriving in the country on package tours in 2005 and expects close to 20 percent growth in 2006.

Roughly 30 percent of Bytsko’s business comes from abroad. The remaining 70 percent is usually corporate clients based in Ukraine, for whom the company organizes conferences throughout Ukraine – from the Carpathian Mountains to Crimea.

Bytsko’s foreign clients travel primarily to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Crimea, the southern port city of Odessa and the architecturally rich western city of Lviv on organized tours and excursions, and stay in four- and five-star accommodations, which are still insufficient in number, especially given that there are only two five-star hotels in Ukraine – Premier Palace in Kyiv and Donbass Palace in the southeastern industrial city of Donetsk.

There is an adequate number of three- and four-star hotels in Odessa, Malyovany said, adding that the city’s tourism infrastructure is developing effectively. However, there are far too few good hotels in Crimea, and as a result, prices for rooms and the quality of the service rarely coincide.

Malyovany said his company books rooms for tour groups well in advance, most frequently in the winter months. Booking tour groups one to two months before the peak summer season, not to mention individual clients, is quite problematic, he added.

Green and clean

Although traditional tourism still predominates in Ukraine, other forms of tourism have begun taking off.

While traditional tourism requires significant investments in hotels, roads and transportation infrastructure, such as rail lines, green, eco and extreme tourism require much less capital to flourish. Moreover, for budget travelers and international students coming to Ukraine, a network of less expensive hostels is also being developed.

Rural green tourism is aimed at promoting relaxation in Ukraine’s diverse countryside, where tourists can rent rooms in private village homes and try their hand at everything, from gardening to picking mushrooms in the woods.

The development of green tourism in Ukraine is also part of a concerted effort by the Ukrainian government to economically revive Ukraine’s rural areas, which with their aging population, can no longer effectively sustain agricultural production.

The Union to Promote Rural Tourism in Ukraine, a public non-profit organization founded in 1996, lists on its website private homes available to rent in most of Ukraine’s regions. Interested parties state the prices they are willing to pay per night with a meal, when they order.

STA Deputy Director Serhiy Syomkin said that developing rural green tourism does not require tremendous investment because all that’s really needed is a building with “at least minimal comforts… given that accommodations at every price have a buyer.”

Moreover, some of these homes provide a greater variety of accoutrements, including washing machines, garages, and televisions, and are located near some of Ukraine’s more popular summer tourist spots, especially in Chernihiv, which has an impressive landscape of churches, and the mountainous Carpathian regions.

They offer lower rates than hotels, and often provide cooking and other services, although the primary objective of green tourists is to get away from the city, Syomkin said.

He added that it’s difficult to gauge how many people travel to Ukrainian villages to vacation each year, because this sector of the economy legally falls under the domain of agriculture, as opposed to tourism. Nonetheless, his agency is currently working on a mechanism to measure this statistically.

Friendly hostels

Tourists coming to Ukraine looking for hostels will also have more to choose from in the near future.

Several hostelling associations in Ukraine are actively promoting ecotourism, drawing in younger tourists with smaller budgets.

The Ukrainian Youth Tourist Association, a non-profit NGO, is developing a network of hostels in Ukraine, of which they currently manage six.

The UYTA’s hostels provide beds and basic services. Rates at its hostel Venetsiya, in the village of Komsomolsk, Poltava region, which should open in May 2006, start at Hr 40 ($8) a night, said Oleksandr Faynin, president of UYTA.

In April 2006, UYTA opened two new hostels in the Carpathian Kosiv region - Zermatt and St. Moritz - both named after Swiss cities, with 36 and 64 beds, respectively. UYTA signs agreements with the owners of these buildings, who then agree to allow the organization to use its facilities either year round or during the peak summer and winter seasons, depending on the location.

UYTA's aim is to develop socially-driven ecotourism, said Faynin, and by hiring Ukrainian students with English-language skills to work in the hostels during the summer months, the association is attempting to draw travelers from neighboring European countries.

In 2004, the UYTA had just 400 visitors to its accommodations and tours. However, in 2005, with the establishment of its network of six hostels, this number grew to approximately 3,000 visitors, coming primarily from Germany, France and the UK, but also from as far as the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Requests for green, as well as extreme tours are rare for Bytsko, Malyovany said, adding that this is primarily due to the country’s poor tourism and travel infrastructure.

However, Malyovany said that if a request for a green or ecotourism package came from one of their many 20 foreign operators, “they would do everything possible to accommodate the request and meet the client’s wishes.”

Syomkin said tourism agencies and operators reported Hr 2.7 billion ($540 million) in revenues in 2005 for their services, a 26 percent increase from 2005. Moreover, by the STA’s estimates, tourists spent close to Hr 37.7 billion ($7.5 billion) in Ukraine in 2005 on hotels, transportation, food, excursions and other travel-related purchases.

Syomkin added that if Ukraine and Poland win their joint bid to host the World Cup in 2012, this could provide the necessary impetus to rapidly improve Ukraine’s tourism infrastructure, especially in building the sorely needed three- to five-star hotels. Ukraine’s government, he said, has allocated Hr 15 billion ($3 billion) for the improvement of roads and railways over the next five years.

Source: Kyiv Post

Flowers And Tears Mark Chernobyl Anniversary

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Mourners laid red carnations — symbols of grief — in the shadow of the ruined Chernobyl power station on Wednesday as they marked the 20th anniversary of the world's worst civil nuclear accident.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (R) takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument for those who died from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster near the Chernobyl nuclear plant April 26, 2006. Mourners marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Wednesday, honouring those who died as leaders pledged to ensure it would never happen again.

Hundreds filed past a memorial wall engraved with the names of the local fire crew. They were among the first to perish when Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 blew up on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive dust across Europe.

One old woman in a headscarf made the sign of the cross as she stooped to lay a single carnation at the foot of the wall.

Ukraine's President Victor Yushchenko said it was time to start healing the scars left by the disaster.

"After 20 years of pain and fear, this land must feel progress," he told mourners in Chernobyl — epicentre of a still-contaminated 30-km (19-mile) "exclusion zone" that straddles parts of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.

"The trance we were left in by Chernobyl is over. We are a strong and brave people and we are looking to the future."

His ex-Soviet state has been left to deal with a legacy of contamination, ill health among its people and a reactor that, though entombed in a concrete "sarcophagus," will remain radioactive for centuries.

Nuclear power, out of favor for years after the accident, is now making a comeback as governments like the United States and China seek cleaner and cheaper alternatives to oil and gas.

But environmental groups have warned the lessons of Chernobyl should not be forgotten.

The Soviet authorities sent in firefighters and conscripts to extinguish the fire and clean up radioactive material, some equipped only with shovels.

Officials waited two days before telling their own people, and the world, about what had happened.

The World Health Organization puts at 9,000 the number of people expected to die of radiation exposure from Chernobyl, while environmental group Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93,000.

LINGERING LEGACY

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the international community to honor the victims by continuing to provide aid to affected communities.

"Many hard lessons have been learned from Chernobyl, including the importance of providing the public with transparent, timely and credible information in the event of a catastrophe," U.N. chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Services of remembrance began in the small hours of Wednesday, when hundreds of people filed slowly through the streets of Slavutych, the town built to house the Chernobyl plant's workers displaced by the accident.

Each bearing a candle, they fell silent at 1:23 a.m. Moscow time (2123 GMT Tuesday) — about the time of the explosion.

Later in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Lyudmila Snizhok dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she remembered her husband Leonid, a paramedic at Chernobyl.

"He died three years ago … from the effects of radiation," she said. "He left three children"

President Bush, in a statement, honoured the "lives lost and communities hurt in the devastation."

Pope Benedict said he prayed for the Chernobyl victims and urged world leaders to see to it that, in future, nuclear energy was environmentally safe.

In Belarus, opponents of Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko— described by Washington as a dictator — were to hold a demonstration to mark the anniversary. The opposition said police might try to break up the rally.

Source: Reuters

Rice Looks To Set Ukraine On Track To Joining Nato

LONDON, England -- Nato is planning to put Ukraine on the path to membership, foreign ministers from the US-led alliance will be told this week.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

At a meeting in Sofia on Thursday, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, will seek the backing of her counterparts for Ukraine’s entry to Nato’s “membership action plan” – the key step before being invited to join the alliance.

The US would like Ukraine to join the membership action plan by September and certainly before a Nato summit in Riga in November. That would give the country the prospect of becoming a member before President George W. Bush leaves office in early 2009.

But resistance is likely to come from Russia, which is concerned at the prospect of membership for Ukraine, with which it has historic and strategic links. Moscow is still smarting from the accession of the former Soviet Baltic states to Nato.

In Ukraine, the US and other like-minded countries such as the UK are keen to consolidate the gains of the troubled pro-democracy “orange revolution” and reward Kiev for having held free and fair legislative elections in March, even though the prospective new pro-western government of President Viktor Yushchenko is far from united on the merits of Nato membership.

“Assuming that the new government came in committed to working towards Nato, you could say by Riga that they had done enough to get into the membership action plan,” said a senior Nato diplomat.

Although within Ukraine the European Union is more popular than Nato, the EU is deeply wary of making any promise of future membership to Kiev. Some western officials believe that the prospect of Nato membership may bolster Ukraine’s claims to join the EU.

The diplomat added that Ukraine was at a similar stage as several Balkan countries some years ago, when they were also put on the Nato membership action plan. Those countries – Croatia, Albania and Macedonia – now hope to join “as soon as possible” after the Riga summit. At the behest of Mr Bush, Nato is planning a second summit, in 2008, devoted to enlargement.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary-general, said on Tuesday he did not think the Riga summit would invite any country to join but that aspiring members had legitimate expectations of a positive signal on enlargement.

Source: Financial Times

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

20 Years Later, Chernobyl's Scars Remain

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians tried to make sense Tuesday of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion through scientific conferences, humanitarian missions and in quiet recollection of an event that still scars this ex-Soviet republic 20 years later.

Ukrainian students try on gas masks as part of a safety drill in a school in Rudniya, just outside the Chernobyl contamination zone

The April 26, 1986, explosion and fire, to be commemorated in the capital with pealing bells and a minute's silence, became the world's worst nuclear accident as it spewed radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles of the then-Soviet Union and Europe.

"The whole country grieves, and the whole world joins us in this grief," said Lena Makarova, 27, one of many Ukrainians to visit the Chernobyl museum in Kiev on the eve of the anniversary.

President Viktor Yushchenko planned to attend a solemn, candlelit memorial service near a small church built to commemorate Chernobyl victims in Kiev, where bells were to toll 20 times starting at 1:23 a.m. Wednesday, marking the exact time when plant workers set off the alarm at Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station two decades ago.

The explosion tore off the plant's roof, releasing about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima.

Death tolls connected to the blast remain hotly debated, as do the long-term health effects.

At least 31 people died as a direct result of trying to keep the fire from spreading to the plant's three other operating reactors. One plant worker was killed instantly and his body has never been recovered, 29 rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns and another person died of an apparent heart attack.

Some 350,000 people were evacuated forever from their homes, leaving a whole city, Pripyat, and dozens of villages to decay and rot away.

About 5 million people live in areas covered by the radioactive fallout, in Ukraine, neighboring Belarus and Russia.

Thousands have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, one of the only internationally accepted illnesses linked to Chernobyl, and the U.N. health agency said about 9,300 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation.

Some groups, however, including Greenpeace, have warned that death tolls could be 10 times higher than the U.N. agency predicted, accusing it of whitewashing the impact of the most serious nuclear accident in human history as a bid to restore trust in the safety of atomic power.

Radiation and health experts from international bodies including the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, the European Commission and the United Nations, gathered for the second day Tuesday in central Kiev to discuss what the world has learned from Chernobyl _ and what it can do to prevent a similar tragedy.

The head of the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, stressed the importance of international cooperation on nuclear safety matters.

"In remembering the Chernobyl accident, we should renew our determination to ensure that such a tragedy will not happen again," IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement, adding the explosions "made painfully clear that the safety risks associated with nuclear and radiological activities extend beyond national borders."

Another conference, hosted by Yushchenko's American-born wife, Kateryna, discussed the humanitarian challenges of the catastrophe. Senior officials from the International Red Cross, which provides free testing for thyroid cancer visited one of their mobile testing units outside of Kiev.

"Chernobyl is not just a Ukrainian problem, it's a disaster of international magnitude," said Markiyan Lubkivskiy, a presidential adviser on humanitarian issues.

European Green parties and environmentalists held their own conference in Kiev, raising concerns about the safety of nuclear energy and warning that the world should heed the lessons of Chernobyl and not build more nuclear power plants.

"There is no technology with such a high risk," said Ralf Fuchs of the Berlin-based Heinrich Boll Foundation, which helped sponsored the conference. "Instead of dreaming up new nuclear power plants, it would be much more profitable to invest money in energy saving and new energy efficiency."

The United Nations has said the aim now should be to reduce the feeling of malaise and doom that grips many in the affected region

"I don't want it to happen again," said Yevheniy Tyutyunnyk, a 19-year-old student as he looked through the often grim exhibits in the Kiev Chernobyl museum, whose hallways are lined with sign posts representing the radiation-dead villages around the region.

Source: AP

Chernobyl Widows Still Cope With Loss

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Once a year, Ukrainian widows board a train for the more than 500-mile train journey to the Mitinskoye cemetery in Moscow to visit their loved ones in their lead-encased coffins.

In this 1999 photo provided by the Shashenok family, Ruslan Shashenok and Petro Polomarchuk are seen near the grave of Volodymyr Shashenok, Ruslan's father and Polomarchuk's former co-worker in Moscow. As the country slept on April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl plant exploded during a test in what became the world's worst-ever nuclear accident. Volodymyr Shashenok, an engineer at the station, became the second victim of Chernobyl and died just five hours after the accident. Polomarchuk carried the dying Shashenok from the Chernobyl station after the explosion.

Twenty-nine firefighters, rescuers and nuclear plant workers died in the two months following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which happened 20 years ago Wednesday. Although the Ukrainians could now be reburied in their native soil, the widows are resolved to leave them lying together alongside their dead co-workers from other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Those whose husbands were plant workers have had to cope not just with bereavement, but with the memory of a Soviet government that blamed them for the accident. Their families received smaller death benefits than those of the firefighters, who were officially praised for their heroism.

The Soviet Union is long gone and the widows hope their husbands will be vindicated in time. In the meantime, they stick together for moral support, especially this week as they make their annual journey of mourning - alone, or with families.

"It is an opportunity to share our memories," said Nataliya Lopatyuk, 41, whose husband, a plant electrician, died from radiation poisoning. "All of us came through this grief."

Minutes after the April 26, 1986, explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Viktor Lopatyuk and a co-worker turned off a hydrogen generator, localizing the explosion at the fourth reactor. They wore no protective suits or masks.

Lopatyuk was one of the victims rushed to Moscow for treatment and because his body was considered highly radioactive and a potential risk.

His wife, Nataliya, was 21 years old and eight months pregnant when her husband left for his overnight shift and didn't come back. After hearing rumors of the disaster, she made frantic calls and was finally told Viktor was safe and in the hospital. They had 15 minutes together before he was taken to the Russian capital.

The next time she saw him was 15 days later in the Moscow hospital, where the doctors and nurses wore special suits to protect themselves from their highly radioactive patients. Viktor looked better, and he tried to reassure his wife, noting that unlike some of his co-workers, he still had his hair.

The hope was short-lived. Within two days, Viktor had gone completely bald, with terrible burns bubbling up on his arms. "I could see his bones," his widow recalled. He died on May 16, less than three weeks before the birth of his daughter, Yulia.

Nataliya has since remarried and has raised Yulia to be proud of her father and his colleagues. Had they not turned off that generator, Yulia says, "Me, you and millions of other people would not exist."

At least 19 other Chernobyl plant workers and liquidators diagnosed with radiation poisoning have died since 1987, and others have reportedly died from leukemia and other illnesses.

They have been buried separately, rather than in the Moscow cemetery where the initial victims were laid to rest amid heavy precautions - such as the lead coffins - for fear of radiation contamination.

Lyudmila Shashenok still struggles with her loss.

Twenty years ago, she was awakened by a phone call and told to run to the hospital emergency room. Her husband had been injured in an accident at the plant.

At first, Shashenok thought that it was nothing serious - her husband, Volodymyr, had told her many times that his engineering job wasn't dangerous. But when Shashenok saw him at the hospital, she was horrified.

"It was not my husband at all, it was a swollen blister," she said. He was connected to a breathing apparatus, but Shashenok, a nurse, knew the situation was hopeless.

"I told him, 'This is the end, Volodya.'"

He was buried two days later in a village cemetery near Chernobyl, but Shashenok wasn't there. She had been evacuated from her home, and officials didn't notify her of the burial.

More than a year later, Shashenok was reburied in Moscow, in a lead-encased coffin under concrete slabs.

Shashenok, who has not remarried, recalls that on the apartment building where she lived in Pripyat, a town built specially for the station's workers, was an inscription: "Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier."

"I never thought the atom would kill my husband," she said.

Source: AP

Chernobyl's Poisonous Legacy Lives On

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Twenty years after the explosion at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the poisonous radioactive legacy of the accident is crippling the health of several generations.

Images from around Chernobyl

But while domestic and international agencies are disputing estimates of the damage, many Chernobyl victims remain deprived of aid.

There could have been up to 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to Chernobyl disaster among the people who worked on the clean-up operations, evacuees and residents of the contaminated regions in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report earlier this month.

"The WHO report on the health effects of Chernobyl gives the most affected countries, and their people, the information they need to be able to make vital public health decisions," said Dr Lee Jong-wook, WHO Director-General.

However, the environmental group Greenpeace challenged the WHO report and claimed that the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter of a million cancers cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers. Greenpeace report described the U.N. data on Chernobyl "as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering."

Greenpeace's report said it was based on Belarus national cancer statistics and predicted up to 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also estimated that 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

The Greenpeace report said the incidence of cancer in Belarus had jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000, with children not yet born at the time of the disaster showing an 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.

Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for Geneva-based WHO, reportedly defended its figures. He said the predicted eventual number of extra deaths in the most polluted areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was estimated to be 4,000, while another 5,000 deaths were predicted among those who had been living in the less contaminated zones.

Haertl questioned Greenpeace's estimated 10 percent death rate for thyroid cancers, arguing that actual rate is one percent. "They are overstating the figures," he said.

The fourth Chernobyl nuclear plant reactor, located 80 miles north of Ukraine's capital Kiev, exploded on April 26, 1986, sending up a poisonous radioactive cloud over Europe. Subsequently, the staff of the nuclear power plant was accused of causing the disaster by testing reactor number 4 in violation of safety rules. During the ill-fated experiment, the chain reaction in the reactor went out of control, entailing a strong explosion.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 30 firefighters and plant workers died from high radiation. This year's commemoration ceremonies to honor these first victims are held at the Chernobyl Memorial in Kiev, Russia's main Orthodox cathedral and at Mitino cemetery near Moscow.

As a result, radioactive dust blew across wide areas contaminating large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia -- over an area of more than 160,000 square kilometers. An estimated 50 million units of radiation -- 500 times stronger than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb dropped on Japan by the United States in 1945 - was released. Chernobyl is still blighted by a 30-square-km contaminated area surrounding the plant.

In December 2000, Ukraine shut down the plant's last functioning third reactor. All fuel rods from reactor No 3 are to be removed, and all jobs will be shed, by the year 2008. The first of four graphite-cooled reactors at Chernobyl, completed in 1977, was shut off in November 1997.

Reactor No 2 has not worked since a fire in its turbine building in 1991. However, a number of Chernobyl-type reactors, although modernized, still remain in operation in Russia and some other former Soviet states.

The Ukrainian, Belarus and Russian authorities are struggling with the problems of Chernobyl victims as the poisonous radioactive legacy of the accident is crippling the health of millions. Statistics show rising numbers of radioactivity-related diseases. About 3.2 million of Ukraine's 50 million people, including more than 1 million children, have been affected by Chernobyl, according to official figures.

The ill-fated nuclear plant still poses danger as the "sarcophagus" of reactor No 4 is in bad condition. Chernobyl plant officials fear that the structure could collapse and release hundreds of tons of deadly radioactive dust into the atmosphere. There are also 1.5 million tons of irradiated waste in the vicinity of Chernobyl.

In the wake of the disaster, some 57,000 square km of the Russian soil, with a population of 3 million people, is contaminated, according to Russia's official estimates. It is estimated that Belarus spends some 20 percent of its budget, Ukraine 10 percent, and Russia 1 percent to tackle the consequences of Chernobyl.

After the accident 116,000 people were evacuated from the area. An additional 230,000 people were relocated from the highly contaminated areas to other areas in subsequent years, according to the WHO. Russia has approved a series of bills to help Chernobyl victims and survivers, but not all of them are actually receiving promised aid.

Nonetheless, former nuclear power minister Yevgeny Adamov, now in Russian jail on fraud and embezzlement charges, used to describe Chernobyl as a "minor technical incident." Adamov also notoriously suggested that those complaining about the victims "should be sent to mental institutions".

Both local and international non-governmental organizations have been carrying out a program of "Solidarity with Chernobyl Children". Under the program, thousands of children have been sent on vacations outside Ukraine, Belarus and Russia since the disaster.

To deal with the aftermath of the disaster, the U.N. set up a 19-member inter-agency Task Force on Chernobyl, which, together with NGOs, provides aid to people affected by radiation, studies the radiation's environmental impact, facilitates waste disposal and decontamination, and provides technical support for improved nuclear safety. The U.N. Strategy for Recovery, launched in 2002, gave all UN agencies and the international community a framework for rebuilding the affected areas.

Despite the damage cause by the Chernobyl disaster, the Russian authorities allowed the commercial import of spent nuclear fuel. In December 2000, the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, approved three drafts to change the law that forbids the long-term storage of nuclear waste on Russian soil.

Before December 2000, Russian law prohibited the importation of radioactive waste or nuclear materials from other countries for long-term storage or burial. Russia's Nuclear Power ministry had expected to attract clients to reprocess $20 billion worth of spent nuclear fuel from around the world, but -- luckily for Russia -- these expectations have failed to materialize so far.

As the world marked the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster, available evidence indicates that necessary lessons have not been learned, as the Russian nuclear officials are still willing to take risks of importing nuclear wasted from around the globe.

Source: Ohmy News

20 Years Ago, A Plume At Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Chernobyl still haunts, 20 years after that morning, April 26, 1986, when something went wrong in Reactor No. 4, and it exploded, sending a plume of debris and radioactive particles across the Soviet Union and eventually far beyond.

Memorial to the Chernobyl 'liquidators'

Some have said that Chernobyl - the human and environmental toll it caused, the obfuscations of a sclerotic state it revealed - hastened the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps. It was certainly never the same afterward.

"What they described in newspapers and magazines - it was all rubbish," said Anatoly Rasskazov, the station photographer who was there that day.

"The ruins that I photographed from the ground and the upper part were retouched so it couldn't be seen that there was a ray coming from there, that everything was glowing," he said. "Just a ruin. So as not to get the public up in arms."

Twenty years later, the anniversary has occasioned new debate among those who have studied its consequences and those who have wielded the results as evidence of what a world in urgent search of energy should do with nuclear power.

A committee of United Nations agencies released a study last autumn concluding that the effects were not as dire as first had been feared. It suggested that only 4,000 would, in the end, die from diseases caused by direct exposure to the radiation. Greenpeace released its own response last week, saying Chernobyl would kill at least 90,000.

The answer may never be known, but the lasting impacts, physical and psychological, are evident in those who came to be known as "liquidators."

They were the hundreds of thousands of firemen, pilots, soldiers, scientists and experts sent to contain the damage, to evacuate the citizenry and encase the deadly ruin in a concrete sarcophagus whose stability appears precarious.

In interviews in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk, some of them recounted their experiences at the time and in the turbulent years that followed.

What they described sounded very much like war.

"Just like the Germans had come, this enemy had arrived," said Arkady Rokhlin, an engineer, who was 58 at the time and so old enough to remember that war. "And we had to defend ourselves."

And like war, it was disorienting. Fear and heroism mingled with bureaucratic chaos and surrealistic calm. "In a real war, shells explode, bullets fly, bodies fall, blood flows," he said. Then he remembered the summer of '86 in the most poisoned place on earth: sun, birds, gardens "bulging with fruit."

"You couldn't possibly have imagined that all this was death."

Source: The New York Times

Monday, April 24, 2006

Ukraine Asks Help For Chernobyl Region

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yushchenko appealed to the international community for financial help Monday, two days before the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, to aid the region surrounding the nuclear plant.

The old control room is shown inside reactor No.4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This is the location where Soviet engineers flipped a power switch on April 26, 1986, and two explosions followed one after another immediately, sending radioactive clouds thoughout most of Europe, causing the world's worst nuclear accident.

"We need to get rid of the Chernobyl stereotype as an incurable inflammation on the body of Ukraine," Yushchenko said, opening an international conference of radiation and health experts in the Ukrainian capital. "This is land _ land we should recover and put back to life. ... A new day should come to the Chernobyl area, a day of its recovery."

That will require money _ far more than this cash-strapped former Soviet republic can afford, Yushchenko said, noting that Ukraine had already spent $15 billion on Chernobyl-related projects.

The April 26, 1986, explosion and fire at Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor spewed radiation across much of northern Europe over a 10-day period, resulting in the evacuation of more than 100,000 people and the contamination of more than 77,220 square miles of European land.

Death tolls connected to the explosion, which released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, remain hotly debated, although at least 31 people died as a direct result of trying to contain the fire.

Thousands have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the U.N. health agency said about 9,300 people were likely to die of cancers caused by radiation. Some groups, however, including Greenpeace, have put the numbers 10 times higher.

"The toll of the accident was huge, that is clear. And we can never forget the problems it caused, but there is a way forward," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Kalman Mizsei, defending last year's U.N. Chernobyl Forum report that found the biggest obstacle to recovery was a sense of malaise and fear among residents _ rather than lingering radiation.

The U.N. report concluded that most of those affected received such low doses of radiation that it was unlikely to have had any significant health effects.

"The 5 million residents of contaminated areas need not live in fear of radiation _ and that is a hopeful finding," Mizsei said.

The three-day conference in Kiev was co-hosted by U.N. agencies, the European Commission and the governments of Russia and Belarus. It was aimed at "reviewing and better using the experience gained from the accident and enabling the world to be better prepared for a future accident of this magnitude," organizers said.

Yushchenko complained that even 20 years after the accident, much remained unknown about the tragedy. He said people deserved the truth more than anything, adding that while the accident was horrific with almost unspeakable consequences, it should not be used as a "black spot on energy technology."

"We have learned some lessons," said Yushchenko, who has expressed his backing for nuclear energy as a way to reduce Ukraine's energy dependence on Russian gas supplies.

Environmentalists protested outside the Ukrainian Opera House, where the conference was held, carrying signs that read: "Remember Chernobyl. No new Reactors."

Source: AP

Chernobyl Scientist Warns Of Nuclear Folly'

MINSK, Belarus -- One of the most experienced researchers into the Chernobyl disaster has broken his silence to warn European leaders that flirting with nuclear power "is folly of the first order".

Belarussian scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky, a specialist in nuclear medicine, at his home in Minsk

The views of Yuri Bandazhevsky have cost him his reputation as one of the former Soviet Union's most respected scientists and earned him a five-year stint as a prisoner of conscience in Belarus, where contradicting the government line is always a risk.

Reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl power station, in Ukraine, exploded 20 years ago on Wednesday, spreading a nuclear cloud that stretched from Truro to Tokyo.

Ever since, Mr Bandazhevsky has dedicated his life to studying the effects of low-level radiation around Belarus's second city of Gomel in the heart of the area contaminated by the world's worst nuclear accident.

After years of studying corpses in the mortuaries of Gomel and collecting what available statistics there were on still-births in the affected zones, he concluded that exposure to the radioactive element caesium-137 was causing far more deaths than was generally realised.

Six months after being freed, Mr Bandazhevsky is speaking out again now that he sees that nuclear power is once again becoming acceptable in western Europe.

"Not just because of Chernobyl but also because of nuclear testing around the world, the stratosphere holds huge amounts of caesium," he said.

"To start re-engaging in full-scale nuclear power as Europe seems determined to do is folly of the first order."

An investigation by 100 scientists acting under the auspices of nine United Nations bodies and published last year said that fewer than 50 people died as an immediate result of the accident. It said that the eventual number of deaths attributable to longer-term radiation was unlikely to exceed 9,000.

But Greenpeace issued a report by 52 scientists that put the number of terminal cancer cases at 93,000 and said that a further 200,000 might already have died of radiation related illnesses in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus alone.

Mr Bandazhevsky, too, rejected the UN study. "The authors want to draw a line under Chernobyl," he said. "The report humiliates the people who suffered from this catastrophe."

Mr Bandazhevsky said that vital information had been suppressed first by the Soviet authorities then by the Belarussian government.

The figures did not include non-cancerous diseases, such as heart disorders and birth defects, caused by exposure to low doses of caesium-137. He also challenged the methods used in the study.

Mr Bandazhevsky used to be a member of five academies of science. Now he is shunned by colleagues who are now too frightened to be seen consorting with him and he is reduced to conducting experiments in his study.

He believes that trying to calculate the number of fatalities caused by Chernobyl is futile.

"It is impossible to conclude with certainty that someone died from a cancer caused by smoking or by radiation," he said. "Just as you can't tell if heart disease was caused by radiation or alcohol."

However, that did not mean that there was no evidence, he said. Cardiovascular diseases in Belarus were the highest in Europe, nearly three times as high as in Britain.

Dr Anders Møller, a research director at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, in Paris, and Dr Timothy Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina, agree that current estimates play down the death toll.

They say that Chernobyl studies have attracted only about $10 million for research worldwide - a small sum for a disaster of such magnitude - and are calling for more money.

Source: Telegraph

Chernobyl: 20 Years On

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, environmentalists are releasing new alarming estimates of the future death toll.

Workers sweep radio-active dust in front of the 'sarcophagus' covering the damaged fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Twenty years after the worst nuclear accident in history, a huge concrete shield and small army of workers are all that stand between Chernobyl's deadly number-four reactor and the outside world

Scientists are examining the deadly consequences of the fallout, while survivors go on living in contaminated areas, watching their children, born long after the blast, die.

Last week world news agencies reported that the environmental watchdog Greenpeace said the eventual death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could be far higher than official estimates, released earlier by a forum of UN agencies.

Based on research by the Belarus National Academy of Sciences, the Greenpeace report said that of the 2 billion people globally affected by Chernobyl fallout, 270,000 would develop cancers as a result, of which 93,000 would prove fatal, the Reuters news agency reported.

However, the Chernobyl Forum, a group of eight UN agencies plus the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, estimates an eventual death-toll of only several thousand as a result of the April 26, 1986 explosion at the power plant in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.

Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Ivan Blokov accused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, of “whitewashing the impacts of the most serious nuclear accident in human history.” In Vienna, an IAEA official rejected the accusation, saying it was responsible in the Forum only for an environmental impact study while the casualty figures were drawn up by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Gregory Haertl, a spokesman for Geneva-based WHO, said it stood by its figures. He said the predicted eventual number of extra deaths in the hardest-hit areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was estimated to be 4,000. Another 5,000 deaths were predicted among those who had been living in the less contaminated zones of the three countries at the time of the disaster, he added. Haertl also noted that the WHO had not done a Europe-wide study and said Greenpeace’s figures appeared to assume one.

The Greenpeace report said that a further 200,000 people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus may have died as a result of medical conditions — such as cardiovascular diseases — attributable to the disaster, but that there was no accepted method of calculating the number of deaths from such diseases.

The report said the incidence of cancer in Belarus had jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000, with children not yet born at the time of the disaster showing an 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers. Leukemia is also reported to be on the increase in the Chernobyl region, as are cases of intestinal, rectal, breast, bladder, kidney and lung cancers, the Greenpeace report said.

Haertl questioned Greenpeace’s estimated 10 percent death rate for thyroid cancers among children and adolescents. “We actually know the death rate is one percent. They are overstating the figures,” he said.

The relocation of hundreds of thousands of people has put further strains on the population. “The Chernobyl accident disrupted whole communities in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia,” Greenpeace concluded.

“A complex interaction between factors such as poor health, the increased costs of health services, the relocation of people, the loss of agricultural territories, contamination of foodstuffs, the economic crisis, the costs of the clean-up to the states, political problems, a weakened workforce ... creates a general crisis.”

In April, 1986 the deadliest nuclear accident the world had ever seen sent out a plume of radioactive dust which blew across northern and Western Europe and as far as the eastern United States.

The accident occurred at Chernobyl in the then-Soviet Ukraine. The nuclear power plant, located 80 miles north of Kiev, had 4 reactors and whilst testing reactor number 4 numerous safety procedures were disregarded. At 1:25am the chain reaction in the reactor went out of control creating explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid.

The Chernobyl accident killed more than 30 people immediately, and as a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding 20-mile radius, 135,000 people had to be evacuated forthwith.

“A huge concrete shield and small army of workers are all that stand between Chernobyl’s deadly number-four reactor and the outside world. The sarcophagus stands over the ruins of the reactor and radioactive fuel in the heart of the 30-kilometer-radius (18.6-mile) exclusion zone, where the gray concrete buildings of the power plant emerge from a pine birch forest near the Pripyat river,” AFP correspondent reported recently from the site of the tragedy.

The only sign of life is a plume of smoke from a thermal plant providing electricity needed for work on dismantling what was once meant to be the world’s largest nuclear power station, with eight reactors planned. On a wall, a barely legible slogan still proclaims: “We are building communism.”

Chernobyl’s last functioning reactor was shut down in December 2000. The 3,500 people still working here for the most part concentrate on maintaining the sarcophagus which was erected in the immediate aftermath to confine the radiation leaks. Over the years they have installed huge steel girders and propped up the sarcophagus’s foundations and outer walls.

Chernobyl’s deputy head engineer, Valery Seida, told AFP the sarcophagus is in a satisfactory condition, but needs further stabilizing before a second and better wall, nicknamed “the arch,” can be built. This 190-meter (623-feet) wide and 200-meter (656-feet) long construction will be in the shape of a half-cylinder and literally slide over the existing sarcophagus.

The steel structure will weigh some 18,000 tons — more than twice as heavy as the Eiffel tower. Two buildings are also being constructed to house the facilities that will process the radioactive waste, consisting of 15,000 cubic meters (529,740 cubic feet) of liquid radioactive discharge and 3,000 cubic meters (105,948 cubic feet) of solid matter, Seida says. In fact, the exclusion zone is already a large nuclear dump, where waste is gathered in designated places, or buried in 30-meter (98-feet) by 10-meter (33-feet) trenches.

The Chernobyl plant has been idle for 20 years, and its last reactor was taken out of service some six years ago. But a dozen other reactors of the same design — albeit modernized — remain in operation and some could be in service for another 30 years. Experts attribute the tragedy to a fatal combination of design flaws and poor staff training. The design problems have been addressed, but doubt remains about the human factor, The Associated Press said in a report.

Vladimir Chuprov, head of energy issues at the Russian branch of Greenpeace, said working conditions are as important as the technology — and more worrisome. Reactors can be modernized, he told AP, but “the majority of nuclear accidents are connected not with technology, but with the human factor.”

A study by Greenpeace and the Russian Academy of Sciences found many nuclear workers in Russia showing up for work drunk or on drugs, Chuprov said. At the Leningradsky plant in northern Russia, pay is so poor that some workers have to moonlight as taxi drivers, he said.

Yuri Sarayev, a nuclear expert at the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, said pay hasn’t kept up with the country’s booming economy, so “specialists with solid training and 10-15 years experience are leaving, and being replaced by less qualified people.”

But while environmentalists, scientists and politicians continue to examine and debate the deadly consequences, survivors continue to live — and die — in the contaminated areas.

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, survivors still grapple with the memories — and fallout — of the radioactive disaster. “I remember looking back at the plant after the explosion,” recalls Valentina Prokopivna, then head librarian in Pripyat — the hardest hit locality — told journalists. “It was like looking into a furnace.”

Official estimates from the three former Soviet countries affected — Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — say around 25,000 people had died by 2005. But 20 years after the accident, many of the survivors’ descendants are still suffering the effects of the nuclear fallout.

Irradiated parents have passed on problems to their offspring. Out of the 3 million people officially recognised as victims of Chernobyl by the Ukrainian government, 642,000 are children. Many continued to live in the Chernobyl zone, despite the fact that the soil and water for 30 km around the plant are heavily irradiated. They face the likelihood of throat cancer and serious damage to their neurological systems.

Source: MosNews

Truth Still Radioactive 20 Years After Chernobyl

TOLEDO, OH -- Twenty years ago this week a nuclear reactor blew up at the Chernobyl power plant in the then-Soviet Ukraine.

A chimney tower stands over the sarcophagus that covers destroyed Reactor No. 4 at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Saturday, April 22, 2006.

The world's worst nuclear-power accident has killed between 50 and 200,000 people, depending on who is counting - independent experts or Russian bureaucrats and their sidekicks in the United Nations.

The latter grossly underestimate the death toll. They simply refuse to acknowledge the link between the accident and the ensuing spike in cancer-related deaths in the area.

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, Russians have been accusing Ukrainians of trying to bilk them by exaggerating the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. These allegations intensified after a U.S.-supported democracy was established in Ukraine early last year.

The Kremlin has recently dredged up another overused allegation - that Ukraine withheld 200 to 250 nuclear warheads when it turned over its nuclear cache to Russia in 1996.

Though the transfer was executed under a U.S. supervision, Russian-affiliated Ukrainian lawmakers have made this claim several times over the past several years, each time without any proof and each time for obvious political reasons of their own.

It happened again earlier this month, but with one significant difference.

The old claim was picked up by a publication in Novaya Gazeta, an independent Moscow newspaper famous for its unabated criticism of the Kremlin.

Moreover, the author of the article hinted that the 250 nukes have ended up in Iran.

Because I held the author and the newspaper in high esteem, I seriously wondered what was going on.

It was soon very clear.

"Russia's general staff has no information about whether Ukraine has given 250 nuclear warheads to Iran or not," Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, Russia's deputy defense minister and the chief of the general staff, said, according to RIA Novosti, a major Kremlin-affiliated news and feature agency.

Does that sound reassuring?

This amounts to saying that there's a 50-50 chance that Iran is in possession of 250 nuclear warheads.

You have to consider the source to see that the chance of that is in fact slim to none.

Russia is simply protecting its multibillion-dollar interests in the Iranian nuclear industry it is developing.

Iran is enriching uranium in defiance of the international community, which is quite certain that it is doing so to build its own nuclear weapons.

Russia has been stalling the process of bringing Iran in compliance with the U.S.-led effort to force it to give up its uranium enrichment program.

As the diplomatic efforts are failing and proposed economic measures appear to be doomed, there has been official U.S. talk that all options (read "including the military") are open to tame Iran. So the Kremlin decided to caution the United States against going down that road.

But unlike the "missing nukes," the broken reactor continues to pose a threat. A degraded sarcophagus entombing the reactor may soon collapse, causing a disaster of a scale similar to the original one, independent Russian experts say.

The Kremlin, however, is ignoring the real nuclear threat from the broken Chernobyl reactor. It focuses instead on playing the fictional missing nukes card, interfering with the international effort to prevent another real nuclear threat - Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Source: TMC Net