Monday, July 23, 2007

Accident-Prone Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The modern Ukrainian state was born from the ashes of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident. So, one might think that the young country’s leaders would be a particularly careful lot. Keep thinking.

Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk in photo as Defense Minister

Just over 20 years since the fateful Chernobyl blast, on April 26, 1986, Ukraine is still scaring its neighbors and its citizens with accidents at least partly rooted in official negligence.

A chemical spill in western Lviv Region was the latest disaster to strike, causing around a thousand people to evacuate their homes, and over 180 to be hospitalized.

A freight train carrying tanks of yellow phosphorus, which is both poisonous and flammable, derailed on its way from Kazakhstan to Poland on Monday, July 16.

A blaze ensued, followed by a noxious cloud of smoke that covered around 90 kilometers of surrounding territory, including 14 villages with 11,000 residents.

Within a few days, the government was reporting that everything was under control and that there was no danger from poisonous gas or contamination on the ground.

But it didn’t take long for people to start making comparisons with Chernobyl.

In fact, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, himself a veteran of more than one Ukrainian catastrophe, first recalled the ghost of the nuclear nightmare in an appearance on Ukrainian television shortly after the spill.

A day later, after having visited the scene of the spill, Kuzmuk was telling his countrymen that they could feel free to drink water from their wells and graze their cattle in meadows near the scene of the spill.

Other comments by officials aired by the nation’s media only added to the feeling of uncertainty.

Thankfully, no fatalities have been reported, as of the writing of this piece.

But that’s little reason to breathe easily.

Ukraine has a history of tragic disasters, and history keeps repeating itself with alarming frequency.

In 2000, a stray missile demolished a block of flats in a small town just outside of Kyiv, killing three. It was mislaunched during a training exercise by Ukraine’s military, then headed by Defense Minister Kuzmuk.

A year later, in October 2001, the Ukrainian military mistakenly shot down a Russian passenger liner over the Black Sea, killing almost 80 people on board.

This time, Kuzmuk was forced to resign. But that didn’t prevent him from being reappointed to the Cabinet a few years later by now former President Leonid Kuchma, his political benefactor.

Then there was the Sknyliv air show disaster, another world record breaker, which saw 80 more people killed when a jet fighter crashed into a crowd of spectators in the summer of 2002.

Since then, Ukraine has witnessed explosions at military depots, in 2004 and 2006, with the first one creating a first class fire works display that wrought havoc and significant material damage in the surrounding countryside.

“What’s going to happen next?” is not an entirely unfair question to ask.

Yes, accidents, including very deadly ones, happen everywhere, and Ukraine may be particularly prone to them due to its ongoing, difficult transition since independence from the Soviet Union.

But a disturbing pattern has emerged over the years.

For one thing, few, if anyone, and certainly not anyone high up, is ever held responsible for Ukraine’s disasters. Indeed, Kuzmuk is a perfect but by no means the only example of Ukrainian officials' resilience to blame.

Now a deputy prime minister in the government of Viktor Yanukovych, Kuzmuk recently denied that the Ukrainian military was responsible for the shoot-down over the Black Sea, although Ukraine agreed to pay damages.

In the Sknyliv disaster, only the pilots were sentenced to prison terms, while the air show organizers and higher military officials got off clean.

If no one was responsible in these disasters, then no one will be responsible for preventing future ones.

But just because no one is punished doesn’t mean that plenty of noisy accusations haven’t been made.

Following last week’s chemical spill, for example, the parliamentary opposition, as well as President Viktor Yushchenko’s Secretariat have taken turns in blaming their mutual foe – the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

In particular, both BYuT and the Secretariat called for the dismissal of the country’s Transportation Minister, Mykola Rudkovsky. With elections around the corner, no one should be surprised.

However, this kind of response to disaster does little to prevent new ones.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office has also opened a criminal case, but as history has shown, the chances of anyone being tried are slim to nothing.

The chances of meaningful compensation and a transparent investigation are also lean, but President Yushchenko has promised both this time around.

The reform-minded president might even be able to keep his word, as the chemical spill has yet to claim any lives. Thus compensation should be manageable.

As for the investigation, the EU has offered to send specialists to monitor the extent of the environmental damage.

But a more burning issue is whether anything will be done to prevent such accidents from reoccurring.

Ukraine’s security service, the SBU said that after having conducted a check of the country’s rail system in May, following the derailment of a passenger train, it reported safety concerns, but they weren’t addressed.

Yushchenko has warned that he won’t tolerate any “Soviet” cover-ups.

But in the mean time, the Ministry of Agriculture has come out with a statement saying that all produce from the affected area is safe, despite warnings by independent experts urging a fuller study of the spill’s effects.

The emergency crews have put out the fire and, hopefully covered up all the spilt phosphorus with sand, but the poison might have leaked into the ground, especially during recent heavy rains.

The Emergency Ministry has boldly announced that it would send the yellow phosphorus back to Kazakhstan. But is this wise – especially considering that the government itself has been saying that the tanks in which the chemicals were being transported were the cause of the accident? What if there is another spill on the way back to Kazakhstan?

Clearly, the most important thing at this stage in the game is to figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The same can be said for Ukraine’s other deadly disasters in recent years.

As most of these were caused by the country’s military, it is encouraging that Yushchenko put a civilian reformer in the job immediately after replacing Leonid Kuchma as president in January 2005.

Among other badly needed reforms, Defense Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko has stepped up cooperation with NATO, which has helped Ukraine dispose of dangerously idle ammunition.

Also, the country seems to be on the right track in reforming its nuclear industry, seeking Western help to process spent fuel and seal up the deadly Chernobyl reactor.

But the reappearance of controversial figures like Kuzmuk in the government of Viktor Yanukovych raises concerns that Hrytsenko’s reforms could be reversed if the factions endorsed by Yushchenko don’t do well in the upcoming early elections. Also, the Chernobyl sarcophagus is still plodding along.

If Ukraine wants to get through its accident-prone early years in one piece, it’s going to take a marked change in attitude toward dealing with disaster.

To keep them from reoccurring, the country, especially the military, needs serious reform. And if they do happen, transparency and responsibility should be the operative words.

Accident can happen anywhere, but Ukraine’s had more than its share in these formative years of the young country.

Source: Eurasian Home Analytical Resource

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