Saturday, April 30, 2011

New Dangers Arise At Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- In the aftermath of the anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history, Ukrainian authorities have pledged not to abandon those still in need of assistance. But many of the country’s policies may be increasing the risk of a new catastrophe.

Chernobyl victims after thyroid cancer surgery.

In April 1986 an explosion at reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 100km (62 miles) north of the capital Kiev, lead to the release of massive amounts of radiation, causing at least 4,000 deaths and the evacuation of up to 400,000 people.

The release of radiation only stopped after several months, when the damaged reactor was finally covered by a concrete structure known as the sarcophagus.

"Chernobyl is still one of the most dangerous nuclear facilities in the world," Arthur Denisnko, energy expert at the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine told IPS. "The existing confinement is unstable and was built 25 years ago in a rush. If the structure collapses, radioactive dust would be released."

Authorities are proceeding with the construction of a new sarcophagus that will cover the previous structure, a 1.5 billion euro project for which only one billion has been collected.

"The sarcophagous is welcome, but officials who say that this will solve the problem are not telling the truth: It will remain dangerous as long as there are 185 tons of nuclear fuel in it, fuel that is not contained in rods but is melted and spread out," says Denisenko.

"Today there is no technology to remove it, but this fuel can reach the underground water and eventually Ukraine’s main rivers," he says.

In spite of the catastrophic consequences of Chernobyl, Ukraine’s Energy Strategy, which runs until 2030, foresees a significant boost in the country’s nuclear power production, with the construction of 22 new units.

"Not only is this an extremely unrealistic project, but it is one of the most ambitious in the world," Denisenko told IPS.

Ukraine already has 15 functioning reactors which produce 47 percent of its electricity, a percentage which in Europe is only surpassed by France.

The new energy capacity will exceed domestic demand, whereas export opportunities are poor.

Moreover, Ukraine will not achieve its much vaunted goal of energy independence from Russia, as the Eastern neighbour remains by far the main provider of fresh nuclear and equipment supplies.

No comparable investment is being made into increasing energy efficiency. Ukraine is still two to three times more energy-intensive than most of Europe, partly explaining the country’s high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The cheaper possibility of upgrading existing thermo and hydro power plants, and what Denisenko claims is a "big potential in renewable energies like wind, biofuel and small hydroelectric energy" is being largely ignored by authorities.

Ukrainian authorities may even be increasing risks to the Chernobyl region itself by planning the construction of a central nuclear waste storage facility there.

The location is justified by the virtual absence of population in the area, but it runs counter to plans to revitalise the region, and ignores the risks involved in locating the facility in the proximity of the Dnipro river, which supplies water to 70 percent of Ukrainians.

About 150 tons of spent nuclear fuel are annually produced in Ukraine and, while several experts claim this fuel has potential for re-usage in new generation reactors, the construction of such reactors is yet unheard of worldwide.

For radioactive waste, which is accumulating in almost all Ukrainian nuclear power plants, there is also no solution in sight, a problem that is not unique to Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, 65 percent of Ukrainians believe their nuclear reactors are not safe, and many share the opinion Ukraine does not have the economic capacity for ambitious nuclear plans.

Moreover, the state still suffers from enormous Chernobyl-related expenses that cripple its budget. It is estimated that around seven million people worldwide benefit from Chernobyl-related welfare provisions.

The exact number of Chernobyl victims is still disputed, as official numbers ignore other health effects related to the disaster, such as mental disorders, strokes, heart attacks, liver disease and brain damage to foetuses.

Less controversial are the numbers related to thyroid cancer and leukemia. During the 1990s, cases of thyroid cancer among children in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were up by 200 percent compared to the previous decade.

The least conservative estimates calculate around 400,000 expected deaths related to Chernobyl worldwide, on the basis of increases in health complications in the aftermath of the disaster.

The explosion at Chernobyl also released large levels of caesium-137, a radioactive isotope that poses the most pressing health threat as it can be found in vegetables, fruits and mushrooms growing in the areas surrounding Chernobyl.

Ingestion of large quantities of this substance can lead to severe health complications, including thyroid cancer.

Greenpeace recently took samples of milk, berries and potatoes available in regions that had been under the direct path of the radiation cloud released in 1986, finding unacceptably high levels of caesium-137.

In spite of food restrictions and controls by Ukrainian authorities and their likely persistence for decades to come, the country is still plagued by the existence of poorly supervised markets throughout its territory.

Source: IPS

US Simplifies Visa Regime For Ukrainians

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has said that the United States has unilaterally simplified its visa regime for Ukrainians, and citizens who obtained visas a year ago will not now have to be interviewed to obtain them again.


Ministry spokesperson Oleksandr Dykusarov said at a briefing on Wednesday that in order to implement the agreements reached after the third session of the United States-Ukraine Commission on Strategic Partnership, the heads of the consular services of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had held a working meeting at the ministry on April 7 this year.

"In the context of the further liberalization of the visa regime and the deepening of interpersonal contacts, the U.S. side has announced its unilateral decision to cancel from April 20 this year for the citizens of Ukraine who have already received U.S. visas in the last 12 months the need to have an interview during further applications for several types of visas," he said.

Dykusarov also noted that according to the statistics of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, "more than 10% of the total number of potential applicants" would qualify for this simplification.

Source: Interfax

Ukraine Urges South Stream Gas Pipeline Project Freeze

KIEV, Ukraine -- Kiev maintains its position that the South Stream pipeline project, designed to pump gas from Russia to Europe bypassing Ukraine, is a threat to Ukraine's national security, the country's energy minister, Yury Boiko, said.

Yury Boiko

"The South Stream project is a real threat to our national interests, and we will always be against it," Boiko said in an interview with Ukraine's Inter TV channel on Friday.

Russia annually pumps about 100 billion cubic meters of gas to European countries via Ukraine, which makes up 80 percent of its total gas supplies to Europe.

The 15.5-billion-euro ($23 billion) South Stream pipeline project is designed to cut Russia's dependence on the Ukrainian transit system.

The Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly called on Russia to abandon the South Stream project and cooperate with Ukraine in modernizing its gas pipeline network.

The EU commissioner for energy, Gunter Ettinger, will visit Ukraine in June to witness the official start of the country's pipeline system renovation, Boiko said.

"The more we modernize our gas transportation system, the more we will be open and show our reliability, the less chances South Stream, which is designed to drain our gas transportation system, will have to be implemented," he added.

The modernization of Ukrainian gas pipelines is estimated to cost some $6.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would announce the final South Stream pipeline route in summer. Gazprom is considering three routes for the project - through Bulgaria to Serbia, Hungary and Austria, through Bulgaria to Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Italy, and through Bulgaria and Greece to the south of Italy.

Source: RIA Novosti

Friday, April 29, 2011

In Ukraine, One Newspaper Triumphs. Now What About The Rest?

KIEV, Ukraine -- On April 20 the "Kyiv Post" reinstated Brian Bonner. That was one small victory for freedom of the press in Ukraine. Many other reporters in the country are still waiting for a break.

Members of the activist group FEMEN, dressed in scanty "riot police" outfits, pretend to beat up a reporter during a rally against censorship and repression in the Ukrainian media.

Five days earlier Bonner was fired from his job as the newspaper's chief editor after refusing to obey an order by its owner to kill an interview with the minister of agriculture.

"Our reporters had not even returned to the office after the interview before I started getting calls from [management] saying the agriculture minister had complained about the aggressive style of the interview, the questions, raising big concerns about what kind of story is going to come out of this," says Bonner, who added that it was the first time that owner Mohammad Zahoor had interfered in the paper's editorial work since buying it two years ago.

When Bonner insisted on publishing the story, Zahoor, a British citizen and steel tycoon who made his fortune in Ukraine, fired him. Zahoor said that the article didn't meet proper journalistic standards, telling the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" in an interview that the piece was "unprepared and flabby." Then the 30-strong staff at the "Post" walked off the job.

The case triggered a storm of international attention, including articles in the "Financial Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" as well as a U.S. Embassy statement. Visiting U.S. senators expressed "serious concern" that Bonner's firing had undermined freedom of the press in Ukraine. Press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders also issued a strongly worded note of concern.

The backlash bore fruit. Five days later Bonner went back to work, now as part of a four-member editorial board, and the "Post's" reporters went back on the job.

A Trying Environment

All's well that ends well? Not quite. Bonner is the first to acknowledge that his story stands out in a country where most reporters can't count on comparable attention from the international press.

Over the past year, Ukraine's ranking in several internationally recognized surveys of measures of freedom has dropped markedly. In its 2011 report Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from "free" to "partly free," citing a "deterioration in press freedom." Reporters Without Borders pointed to "the slow and steady deterioration in press freedom since Viktor Yanukovych's election as president in February."

The U.S. State Department's 2010 "Human Rights Report" for Ukraine noted that, while the country's constitution proclaims freedom of the press, "in practice government pressure on the media intimidated journalists and media owners in some cases into practicing self-censorship."

Government officials say it's all bunk. Presidential adviser Hanna Herman dismissed the Freedom House ranking as "biased." Ruling Party of Regions lawmaker Vadim Kolesnichenko called the State Department's report "absolutely false."

Bonner disagrees. For most Ukrainian journalists, he says, editorial interference is a fact of life. In his case powerful supporters enabled him to fight back. "I hope other Ukrainian journalists take heart," Bonner says. Yet he concedes that most Ukrainian reporters face an uphill battle. "I'm an American. I have a contract. I put in legal protections. Most Ukrainian journalists don't have this."

"Most of the media in Ukraine is dominated by oligarchs that are close to the administration," says Roman Olearchyk, a "Kyiv Post" editorial board member and "Financial Times" stringer. "Some are not, but journalists often are far too beholden to the interests of their oligarch owners."

Political Pressure

The "Kyiv Post" interview with Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk allegedly triggered controversy because of questions put to Prysyazhnyuk about his rumored ties to a powerful businessman, Yuriy Ivaniushchenko.

Critics allege that Ivaniushchenko controls a grain-trading company that is said to have locked up the lion's share of grain-export quotas established by the government in the wake of a bad harvest last year. Ivaniushchenko, who hails from the hometown of President Yanukovych and claims to know him well, also happens to hold a seat in parliament for the ruling Party of Regions.

In an interview, Ivaniushchenko denied having interests in the company. Minister Prysyazhnyuk has admitted to knowing the identity of the company's owner and promised to provide registration documents disclosing the information. He has yet to deliver them, despite repeated requests by the "Kyiv Post."

James Marson, a member of the "Kyiv Post" editorial board, says that while Bonner's return to the paper is a victory for independent journalism in Ukraine, the incident has served as a sobering reminder of the realities for Ukrainian journalists. "If Zahoor did get the phone calls that he allegedly got [from the Agriculture Ministry], then it shows what a tough environment there currently is for media owners and journalists."

Ukraine's Window To The West

Marson adds that the "Kyiv Post" plays a unique role in the Ukrainian media market because it is widely read by members of the expatriate community inside Ukraine and many others internationally who use it to follow affairs in the country.

"The Ukrainian leadership seems to care what the rest of the world thinks [about Ukraine]. They know that if Ukraine starts to backslide on democracy, the West will give it a harder time."

Yuriy Lukanov, chairman of the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union, agrees that Western publications carry more influence with government officials. "When it comes to the Western press, [the people in power] are like attentive boys. They react because they care about their reputation in the West. They're not as interested in their domestic reputation."

According to Natalia Lygachova, director of the media-monitoring company Telekritika, "The two main censorship problems in Ukraine today are [so-called] telephone censorship [or warning phone calls from high-placed officials] and self-censorship. Managers and owners know there are certain themes the people in power don't want to see covered."

"The "Kyiv Post" was able to compromise because it "plays a big role with the West and because it separates the two functions of the editorial side and the commercial side." That, she notes, is not a common arrangement in Ukraine.

Standards Kept, For Now

Readers will now be waiting to see if the "Post" is allowed to live up to its high standards. On April 27, the paper's journalists and Zahoor announced that they had found a way to patch things up. A joint statement described Zahoor as "a consistent supporter of editorial independence since he acquired the 'Kyiv Post' two years ago in what is a very testing environment for a media owner."

Zahoor also offered to sell the "Kyiv Post" to editorial staff for $1 if they can arrange financing by September 1 to cover the newspaper's $2.4 million in costs and debts.

Olearchyk of the editorial board comes to the owner's defense. "We think it's undeserving that Zahoor got caught up in this, as by and large he has been the best of owners, investing heavily and not interfering in editorial," he says. "The roots of censorship in Ukraine stem from the nation's dominant oligarchs and politicians, not Zahoor."

"Post" readers can take heart from a statement Bonner issued on the day of his reinstatement: "The message to the community is: The 'Kyiv Post' is back, stronger than ever, committed to the highest standards of journalistic independence and integrity."

That sounds promising. It remains to be seen, of course, what will happen the next time the "Post" faces pressure from the politically well-connected. The experiences of many other journalists in Ukraine do not bode well.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Interview: Famed U.S. Attorney Dershowitz Says Kuchma Case Critical For Rule Of Law In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- It's the most high-profile murder case in Ukraine's history. While more than a decade has passed since the decapitated body of 31-year-old journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was found in the woods outside Kiev, the widely held belief that his killing was ordered from the top echelons of government remains unproven.

Alan Dershowitz says that having outside lawyers like himself involved "helps to bring a single standard of justice to the world [and] certainly to those countries that are interested in having the rule of law prevail."

Gongadze, editor of the news website Ukrayinska pravda, was a vocal critic of then-President Leonid Kuchma.

Controversy and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around a set of secret recordings made by a member of Kuchma's security staff that allegedly capture the ex-leader telling officials to "deal with" Gongadze.

A number of analyses have authenticated the recordings, while others said it was impossible to prove that they are original. Kuchma's claim that the tapes were doctored failed to stop mass demonstrations against his government in early 2001.

Years later, and even after former employees of the Interior Ministry were jailed for the murder, many Ukrainians believe the true orchestrators of the crime may never see justice.

But on March 24, Ukrainian prosecutors announced that they had launched a criminal investigation against 72-year-old Kuchma for his alleged involvement in the murder, evidently relying on the tapes as evidence.

That development, greeted by some as a breakthrough, has itself generated controversy among many Ukrainians, who see ulterior motives behind the investigation.

Is this meant to distract the public from the country's financial woes? Does this amount to the revenge of current President Viktor Yanukovych against Kuchma, who failed to use force to stop the Orange Revolution in 2004? Or is the case meant to show the West that Ukraine has undergone enough political development to finally hold its leaders accountable?

Another unforeseen twist came when, days after the investigation was announced, Kuchma hired star U.S. attorney Alan Dershowitz to join his defense team.

One of the United States' most formidable litigators and a prolific author, he is best known for his passionate defense of Israel and his work as an adviser to the defense team in the 1995 murder trial of former professional football player O.J. Simpson.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash, Dershowitz spoke about his role in the Kuchma case, the controversial recordings, and the rule of law in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: How did you become involved in this case and what convinced you to take it on?

Alan Dershowitz: Well, as is very common in my practice, a former student -- an honors student who I had the privilege of teaching at Harvard Law School -- called and told me about the case and asked me if I would have any interest. I've always had a lot of interest in the intersection of law, science, and politics, and this case has all three, because the crucial evidence is scientifically questionable.

There were audio recordings allegedly made by a rogue security officer, but held for 10 years -- he tried to sell them to people -- and they were found to be inauthentic and the investigation itself, done by the prosecutors' office, found that there was no way of authenticating the tapes, and it looked like the matter was over.

Then, just a month or so ago, they reopened the investigation, and basically without any new evidence said, "Now we think the tapes are authentic and we're going ahead with the investigation." So the science didn't change, the law didn't change, the evidence didn't change -- the only thing that changed was the politics.

RFE/RL: What are the facts, as you see them, in this case?

Dershowitz: Well, the facts are that there is a recording -- a recording that allegedly contains words spoken by former President Kuchma -- but the experts have concluded that it's more likely that the tape was faked and that words were transposed, omitted, added, to made President Kuchma appear to be saying things that he actually didn't say.

And without those tapes being authenticated, there really is no evidence, and that's what the chief investigator concluded in September of 2010 and why he strongly recommended that the investigation be closed and that no prosecution be brought.

RFE/RL: How much contact have you had with Kuchma himself? Is he confident that his name can be cleared?

Dershowitz: Yes, he is very confident and very hopeful. He knows what he said on the tape.

It reminds me of something that happened to me 25 years ago when I was the victim of a fake tape. In those days it was very easy to disprove a tape because it was a literal tape that had been cut and spliced and the FBI [U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation] determined that it was completely contrived.

So I know what it feels like to be accused of something on tape when you know you didn't say it. I never worried for a minute because I knew I never said anything like what I was alleged to have said.

I think President Kuchma has the same level of confidence, except, of course, it's much easier now to doctor tapes with digital recordings and much harder to detect any doctoring. So inevitably he's a bit concerned, which is why, I think, he retained me and other experts to do a fair and complete analysis of the case.

I've met with President Kuchma, I've spoken to him, [and] I've met with his lawyers repeatedly. I'm involved in the case in a consulting capacity. Obviously, I'm not licensed to practice in Ukraine. I don't read or speak the [Ukrainian] language or Russian, but we have translators and students and lawyers who are bilingual, so I'm playing a very active role in the case.

Why Now?

RFE/RL: Why do you think the charges against Kuchma have been brought now, more than a decade after the journalist Gongadze was murdered?

Dershowitz: Well, I can tell you why they weren't. I can tell you reasons that would explain why they weren't brought. There's no new evidence, there are no new witnesses, there's no new technology that would help validate, and there's no new law, so really all that's left is politics.

There are new people -- they basically retired the old investigator and put on a new investigator -- and the rule of law has to prevail over the whim of human beings. In this case, it's just the human beings who are involved in the prosecution that have changed. Nothing else of relevance has changed.

So I can't tell you why there has been a renewed investigation. I can tell you what reasons don't exist that would justify a new investigation. So it seems to me that politics is the best explanation -- the rule of man rather than the rule of law.

RFE/RL: Previously, Kuchma has said that the recording scandal was perhaps organized by foreign security services. Do you plan to use this claim as part of your defense?

Dershowitz: No. We have no burden to prove who faked the tapes. The prosecution has the burden to prove that they were not faked. So we'll leave that to historians and to journalists to decide who might have been involved in this plot. For us, as lawyers, our only obligation is to look at the actual evidence in the case, and we're confident that any objective view of the evidence will lead to the conclusion that they cannot be validated, they cannot be verified, and they cannot be used in any criminal case against the defendant.

Will The Rule Of Law Prevail?

RFE/RL: Another person who is mentioned on the recordings as being connected to the Gongadze case is current parliament Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn. However, no charges have been brought against him. Is this selective justice?

Dershowitz: Well, there are a lot of situations where there haven't been charges brought. For example, the man who allegedly made the recordings and tried to sell them and may have doctored them -- there was a criminal investigation opened on him and it was closed. Now there's an effort to reopen it.

What I think has to prevail is one rule, one standard of justice for all. There can't be selective decisions that a certain person should be prosecuted and others not prosecuted. It has to be a single standard of justice and that's all we're demanding -- a single standard based on the evidence and on the law.

RFE/RL: Rights watchdogs have described the Ukrainian judicial system as suffering from inherent corruption, ineffective procedures, and lack of professionalism. Will the judicial climate be an impediment to a fair case?

Dershowitz: Well, I think one of the benefits of having outside lawyers -- I call them "lawyers without borders" now -- coming into these cases -- and I'm not the only American lawyer involved [in cases in Ukraine]: the former prime minister [Yulia Tymoshenko] has an American law firm representing her as well -- I think it helps to bring a single standard of justice to the world [and] certainly to those countries that are interested in having the rule of law prevail.

So I'm going to look at the Ukrainian system with an open mind and with an open heart, hoping that it will achieve what it aspires to, and that is an ability to do fair justice. No system of justice is perfect. I've been very critical of the United States' system of justice: I wrote a book critical of the Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore and other cases.

So every system of government and every system of law has its flaws. Most aspire to eliminate those flaws, and I hope I can be helpful in pushing the Ukrainian system toward more of a system of the rule of law and less of a system based on who happens to be in power [and] who the investigators are at a particular period of time.

'Not Justice, But Politics'

RFE/RL: Many Ukrainians think political motivations are behind the charges against Kuchma, as you yourself have also suggested. There's speculation that the government might have been motivated to open the investigation as a way to influence Western views of Ukraine, in the belief that observers might be pleased to see more transparency, to see the government hold its leaders accountable. What about suggestions that Kuchma hired you, a high-profile Western lawyer, to try to offset that potential interpretation of what this case is about?

Dershowitz: Well, I think that no legal case should ever be brought to make a point. In order to prove that a system works or doesn't work, you shouldn't be leaning over forward [and] you shouldn't be leaning over backward. Cases should be brought based solely on the evidence, solely on the testimony, and solely on the law.

If this case will help improve the system of justice in Ukraine, that's fine, but that's just an added benefit. I get very uncomfortable when somebody says, "We're bringing this case to prove to the West that we have a good system of law." That presupposes a particular outcome, and when you presuppose a particular outcome in a case, that's not justice. That's politics.

RFE/RL: What impact do you think this case could potentially have on governance and politics in Ukraine?

Dershowitz: Well, it's a very important case. It's an important case particularly for the rule of law in Ukraine. I have no interest -- none at all -- in what effect it has on Ukrainian politics. I know nothing about Ukrainian politics. I don't know, if I were Ukrainian, who I would vote for for any particular office. It's not something that I have studied with care.

Obviously I would like to see Ukraine move toward democracy and the rule of law, and this is a very important case because it asks the question, "Should a prosecution be brought based solely on a change of personnel, without any change in the evidence, and without any real doubt that the original investigator was very professional and came to the right professional conclusion based on the law and the facts and the evidence that no prosecution should have been brought?" So that, to me, is the key question in this case.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Chernobyl Nuke Cleanup To Be Costly For Decades

KIEV, Ukraine -- A week of meetings on the world's worst nuclear accident has highlighted a key message: the Chernobyl cleanup will remain expensive and anxiety-provoking for decades to come.

Chernobyl reactor 4 radiation meltdown.

Still, differences over the true consequences of the 1986 calamity meant that no formal conclusions were issued as the meetings ended Friday.

The Ukrainian government organized four days of conferences in the capital Kiev to mark the 25th anniversary of the April 26, 1986, blast that sent radioactive fallout over much of Europe.

An international donors' conference raised pledges of euro550 million ($802 million) to build a shelter to cover the exploded reactor building for the next century.

But that was short of the euro740 million ($1.1 billion) sought for the shelter and a facility for storing spent reactor fuel.

Once the enormous shelter is completed and slid over the reactor building on rails, expected in 2015, workers can begin disassembling the reactor and disposing the hundreds of tons of radioactive material inside. It is still not clear how that will be done or how much it will cost.

"Right now, we don't have the processes, but we are working on developing them," Igor Gramotkin, director of the now-decommissioned power plant, told delegates.

The human and ecological tolls of the explosion are equally difficult to nail down.

More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been detected in people who were children or adolescents when exposed to high levels of fallout in the period immediately after the blast, and at least 28 people have died of acute radiation sickness from close exposure to the shattered reactor.

But Mikhail Balanov of the U.N. Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation told Friday's conference that other medical effects were difficult to project because the margins of error in various studies are too high to allow reliable assessment.

Balanov did say that radioactive contamination of mushrooms and berries - both popular delicacies in Ukraine - remain high "and we will face elevated levels for decades to come."

Concern is high in Ukraine that contaminated mushrooms and berries are sold in unregulated local markets.

Around 115,000 people were evacuated from the plant's vicinity after the blast. A 30-kilometer (19-mile) area directly around the plant remains largely off-limits and the town of Pripyat, where plant workers once lived, today is a ghostly ruin of deteriorating apartment towers.

In the face of continuing uncertainty about the disaster's effects and debate about future measures, the conference delayed its intention of producing a final document.

"It is clear it is not possible to come up with crystal-clear conclusions," said moderator Volodymyr Holosha, director of the guarded "exclusion zone" around the plant.

Throughout the week, officials drew attention to the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, with many declaring that it and Chernobyl show that "radiation does not respect borders."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used the conference to call for "top-to-bottom" review of nuclear safety standards and for strengthening the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Later Friday, seven employees of the British and French Embassies in Kiev launched a nonstop, 24-hour 110-kilometer (68-mile) charity walk to Chernobyl to raise money for children affected by the disaster.

Source: AP

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ukraine Gongadze Murder: Secret Trial For Pukach

KIEV, Ukraine -- The main suspect in the notorious 2000 murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze has gone on trial in the capital Kiev, local media report.

Olexiy Pukach

Journalists were barred from the preliminary hearing for Olexiy Pukach, a former senior official at the interior ministry.

He is said to have confessed to strangling and beheading Gongadze.

The murder has gripped Ukraine for years, with former President Leonid Kuchma facing related charges.

Valentina Telichenko, representing Gongadze's widow Miroslava in court, said most of the trial would probably take place in secret.

Arrested in 2009, Mr Pukach was said by Ukrainian investigators to have confessed to the murder, using an axe to behead the journalist.

Kuchma charged

Three other officials are already serving jail terms for their part in the murder while former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, now dead, is said to have ordered the crime.

Mr Kuchma was charged last month with abuse of power over the murder, which occurred while he was president.

Prosecutors say he gave orders to interior ministry officials that "eventually led to the journalist's killing".

Despite the charges, some analysts doubt Mr Kuchma's case will go to trial and, with 10 years having passed since the murder, some suggest he may benefit from the statute of limitations.

Gongadze's death sparked massive street protests against Mr Kuchma's government.

Gongadze - founder of the Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) website - had sought to expose high-level corruption.

Source: BBC News

Prosecution Of Tymoshenko In Ukraine: An Internal Political Tool, Not A Gas Contract Revision Tool

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian authorities have launched a fresh criminal investigation against former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, along with the criminal prosecution of Oleh Dubyna, head of Naftohaz Ukrainy under Tymoshenko’s premiership.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Both are charged with exceeding their powers and inflicting massive economic damage on Ukraine by concluding the January 2009 gas supply agreement with Russia’s Gazprom, allegedly in breach of Ukrainian laws.

Technically, Dubyna signed the agreement for Ukraine, capping negotiations between Tymoshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, both of whom attended the signing event in Moscow.

Hardly anyone, in Ukraine or abroad, doubts that President Viktor Yanukovych’s government has inspired these criminal proceedings.

Some Ukrainian officials and commentators suggest that the agreement can be annulled, and the gas price re-negotiated in Ukraine’s favor, if Tymoshenko and Dubyna are proven to have violated Ukraine’s legislation when negotiating and signing the agreement.

Some even credit the current government with orchestrating the prosecution as a tool for pressuring Moscow to re-negotiate the gas price. According to this scenario, Ukraine would appeal to arbitration courts in Stockholm or London to invalidate the agreement on grounds of its noncompliance with Ukrainian laws.

In a variation on this wishful scenario, Moscow would settle with Ukraine and re-negotiate the gas price, rather than going to international arbitration and facing demands to disclose secret documents there.

Inna Bogoslovskaya, a prominent parliamentarian from the governing Party of Regions, chairing the Rada’s special commission to investigate the gas agreement, launched on April 11 that line of speculation.

Inasmuch as the agreement is illegal under Ukrainian law, she and others claim, Ukraine can use the same agreement’s arbitration clause and seek its re-negotiation in the Stockholm court.

Bogoslovskaya was speaking on the same day (April 11) that the Prosecutor-General’s Office announced this new investigation against Tymoshenko.

The First Deputy Prosecutor-General, Rinat Kuzmin, in charge of the case, went on to claim that Tymoshenko lacked proper legal authority to negotiate (and Dubyna to sign) the agreement.

According to Kuzmin, this would provide sufficient grounds for challenging the agreement’s validity in international arbitration courts.

The criminal prosecution is moving faster against the jailed Dubyna. The prosecution seeks to build a case that Tymoshenko ordered him to sign the January 2009 agreement. Thus, she is clearly the main target in this case, the third initiated against her since the current authorities came to power in early 2010.

For a case orchestrated by circles from the Party of Regions, it may seem ironic that charges against Tymoshenko include disobeying negotiation guidelines from the then President Viktor Yushchenko.

In fact, Yushchenko’s energy team had brought the notorious RosUkrEnergo into Ukraine in 2006, with the then-president himself providing political cover for the deal.

The Tymoshenko government’s main goal in the January 2009 negotiations (and in defending successfully against Gazprom’s cut-off of supplies that month) was to remove RosUkrEnergo from the Russia-Ukraine gas trade. The January 2009 agreement achieved that goal.

Under the Party of Regions’ government, RosUkrEnergo is back, linked to the same figures who had allied tactically with Yushchenko in the twilight of his presidency.

However, the Party of Regions’ leaders and party-affiliated industrial interests do not intend to challenge Moscow in international courts any time soon. The Kiev newspaper Segodnya, an outlet for the Party of Regions and Donetsk industrialists, has published an extensive debate on this issue, with almost all participants warning against the risks of going to arbitration against Russia.

Evidently, industrialists are loath to jeopardize the stable supplies of Russian gas; while the government (mainly at their prompting) is considering a wide range of possible economic concessions to Moscow, in return for a second round of cutting the price of gas.

President Yanukovych has weighed in with a legal argument against resorting to international arbitration. According to him, proving that the agreement was negotiated unlawfully from a Ukrainian standpoint could not cause Russia to annul or re-negotiate it.

Such a finding would have no bearing on Russia’s actions in concluding that agreement. Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov also insists that Ukraine cannot revise the gas agreement unilaterally, but only by agreement with Russia.

Following Putin’s and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin’s visits to Kiev on April 12 and April 19, respectively, Yanukovych and Azarov insist that Ukraine would strictly observe the existing gas agreement on a quid-pro-quo basis with Russia.

Thus, the anti-Tymoshenko investigation does not look like a tool to de-legitimize the Ukraine-Russia gas agreement, whether on the bilateral or the international level.

Possibly, some circles in the Party of Regions briefly considered such a possibility, but the idea has been squashed from on high. This investigation and prosecution is being used by the authorities purely as an internal political tool at this stage.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Ukraine Condemns Belarusian President's Statement Against The EU

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine considers the official Minsk and Belarusian President Lukashenko's recent approach in relations with the European Union and other members of the international community inconsistent with international communication norms.

Belarusian President Lukashenko

A statement has been released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine (MFA) in response to Lukashenko's address to the European and Ukrainian leadership.

In the statement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the Belarusian President's comments "unprecedentedly inappropriate".

However, Ukraine expressed hope that the Belarusian leadership would return to constructive dialogue with the EU and Ukraine. Both Ukraine and the EU would like to see Belarus a prosperous, democratic and successful state.

Also, according to the statement, both the Ukrainian state and people stay firm in preserving their "warm and friendly" attitude towards Belarusian people.

"The tragic accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant unites the three neighboring and friendly nations - Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian. This was the reasoning behind Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's invitation of the presidents of the Russian Federation and Belarus to jointly commemorate the victims of the largest anthropogenic accident in the history of human kind on the very day Chornobyl blew up. There should be no politics on this day," reads the statement.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine stated that verbal insults are unacceptable in communication between state leaders, who represent independent countries and unions of member-states.

Yesterday, President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko commented on his absence at the Chornobyl conference in Kiev, initiated by the Ukrainian president.

In his interview, Lukashenko criticises European leaders, namely the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the Ukrainian president.

On March 18, Ukraine stated its eagerness to promote the renewal of relations between Belarus and the EU.

Earlier, on January 31, the EU banned the entry of 158 Belarusian high officials, including President Lukashenko and two of his sons.

The EU and nine other EU-friendly states (Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Iceland, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Liechtenstein and Norway) have imposed such penalties in protest to perceived repression of the Belarusian opposition by the country's leadership, following December 19 presidential elections.

Source: Worldwide News Ukraine

Former Prime Minister Says Gas Trader Runs Racket For Ukraine's President

NEW YORK, NY -- In a RICO and Torture Victims Act class action, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko claims a gas trader dismantled Ukraine's judicial system with help from President Victor Yanukovych, "stripping away all remaining vestiges of an independent judiciary and the rule of law" in the Ukraine.

Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko

Tymoshenko, a leader of the so-called Orange Revolution, sued Dmytro Firtash and RosUkrEnergo under the Torture Victims Protection Act, the Alien Torts Statute, and the federal RICO Act.

She seeks "to recover monetary damages and other relief arising out of the defendants' concerted efforts to defraud the Ukrainian people of their valuable natural resources, as well as their political and human rights."

Firtash owns 45 percent of RosUkrEnergo (RUE) and a partner owns 5 percent; the other half is owned by Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly, according to the federal complaint.

Tymoshenko, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010, claims "Firtash has admitted that he got his start in the gas trading business with the assistance of Semion Mogilevich, the Russian organized crime boss.

Firtash is also a close associate and advisor to the current Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych."

Tymoshenko says her co-plaintiffs, John Does 1-10, were all members of her administration, and that they have all been subjected to politically motivated investigations and selective prosecutions by the current Ukrainian administration under the leadership of President Victor Yanukovych.

The reason why their names are not specifically listed as plaintiffs in this matter is that, in some cases, they are incarcerated under conditions that severely restrict their ability to communicate freely, and both those who are incarcerated and those that are not, but are under intense investigation, would likely be subjected to further intimidation and persecution if their names were listed as plaintiffs in this action.

Tymoshenko says that Firtash colluded with the Yanukovych administration to seize $3.5 billion in resources by "stripping away all remaining vestiges of an independent judiciary and the rule of Law" in Ukraine.

Yanukovych, accused of massive corruption throughout the complaint, is not a defendant. Up to 100 unnamed corporate and individual co-conspirators are listed as defendants.

"For many years, RUE bought cheap gas from Russia and Turkmenistan and had Gazprom deliver it to the Ukrainian border, where most of the natural gas was sold at a favorable price to the state-owned Ukrainian company, Naftogaz, and the rest to European customers at global market prices," Tymoshenko says in her 29-page complaint.

As prime minister, On Jan. 19, 2008, Tymoshenko says she negotiated with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to eliminate RUE as the broker of gas transactions between Russia and the Ukraine, and agreed to have the two countries trade directly with each other.

She says that Western countries celebrated the deal, which the U.S. Embassy said would bring "transparency and accountability" to Ukraine's gas trade. But public and secret critics of the plan signaled that it would have a violent fallout, according to the complaint.

Tymoshenko says the deputy chairman of Ukraine's state-run oil company received threatening phone calls from Kiev, warning him that he would "do time" if he signed the agreement.

She says Firtash publicly denounced her agreement with Russia as "criminal" and said that if anyone else had made it, "he would have already been hanging from the streetlights."

Firtash opposed the deal at the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, but the Ukrainian government was confident that it would win, Tymoshenko says. But she says everything changed when Yanukovych became president in February 2010, financially backed by Firtash.

Firtash immediately joined the Yanukovych administration's inner circle; his associates were put in key positions, including chief of staff, energy minister and security chief, and Yanukovych replaced the entire management of the state-run gas company Naftogaz, Tymoshenko says.

"Since the entire management team at Naftogaz now reported to the Yanukovych administration, the two parties that were facing each other in the Stockholm arbitration were now friends and allies," the complaint states.

By March 2010, Yanukovych's Naftogaz announced a "change of position" and "admitted" that the seizure of RUE's natural gas was illegal, Tymoshenko says.

"Upon information and belief, Naftogaz's 'change of position' was due to the fundamental conflict of interests, collusion and corrupt agreement between defendants Firtash/RUE and the Yanukovych administration," the complaint states.

The Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal, lacking any opposition, awarded RUE 12.1 billion cubic meters of gas.

"In order to understand the enormity of the transaction, it should be noted that the 12.1 billion cubic meters of gas that Naftogaz transferred to RUE following the Tribunal award represented approximately 50 percent of the 25 billion cubic meters of gas produced in Ukraine annually, and approximately one-sixth of Naftogaz's total annual 'gas balance' of 75 billion cubic meters, which includes the gas shipped by pipeline into Ukraine from Russia and Turkmenistan," the complaint states.

Tymoshenko says the Yanukovych administration enacted a set of "reforms" to make sure the Ukrainian courts would rubber-stamp the Stockholm award.

"In July 2010, under the guise of 'Judicial Reform,' the administration also granted the Supreme Council of Judges certain powers not specifically enumerated or even mentioned in the constitution, including the power to appoint the head judges of all the courts, to control the assignment of cases and the allocation of offices, computers and other resources, and to remove judges within one month's period without hearing, the right to defend against the charges, or other indicia of due process.

"Since the Yanukovych administration has the allegiance of at least 16 of the 20 members on the Supreme Council of Judges, through the increased powers granted to the Supreme Council, the administration has virtual complete control over the hiring and firing of judges, thus precluding the possibility of any independent judiciary," the complaint states.

Tymoshenko says Yanukovych's courts arrested, jailed, exiled and psychologically tortured his political opponents.

The complaint names four high-ranking officials of her administration who allegedly have been subjected to such persecution, including Tymoshenko's minister of the economy, acting minister of defense, Customs chief, and deputy Customs chief.

She seeks treble damages and punitive damages for the class.

She is represented by Kenneth McCallion.

Source: Courthouse News Service

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ukrainian Far-Left Party Awards Gaddafi Anti-NATO Award

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's far-left Progressive Socialist Party said on Tuesday it has delivered an award to the Libyan embassy in Kiev naming Muammar Gaddafi a "soldier of anti-NATO resistance."

Muammar Gaddafi

The Marxist-Leninist party fiercely criticized attempts by the last Ukrainian leadership to join NATO and supports the closer integration of Ukraine with Russia and Belarus.

"Today, the central committee of the Ukrainian Progressive Socialist Party unanimously awarded Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with a 'soldier of anti-NATO resistance' award for his heroic fight to protect the Libyan people from NATO aggression," the party said in a statement.

NATO is currently enforcing a UN resolution to protect rebel forces and civilians in Libya in a civil war that began in February after Gaddafi's troops violently quashed public protests.

Source: RIA Novosti

Ukrainian Ex-PM Sues Gas Company, Businessman In US Court

KIEV, Ukraine -- The former prime minister of Ukraine is suing a natural gas company businessman and close associate of the current president in U.S. court, alleging fraud, human rights violations and racketeering.

Yulia Tymoshenko

According to court papers filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Yulia Tymoshenko, who served as prime minster in 2005 and again from 2007 to 2010, brought suit against businessman Dmytro Firtash and Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo AG (RUE) -- a company jointly owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) and Firtash.

Tymoshenko accused the defendants, who include 100 unnamed "John Doe" individuals and companies, of defrauding Ukraine's citizenry by manipulating an arbitration court ruling, "undermining the rule of law in Ukraine."

The allegations stem from an international arbitration court ruling in Stockholm last year that ordered Ukraine's state energy company Naftogaz to pay RUE 11 billion cubic meters of gas to compensate for fuel it had "expropriated" plus 1.1 billion bcm as a penalty, according to an RUE shareholder.

Naftogaz and Gazprom said in November they had agreed to a settlement under which Naftogaz would return 12.1 bcm of gas -- worth almost $3 billion -- to RUE, while RUE would redeem $1.7 billion of debt to Naftogaz and $810 million to Gazprom.

According to the suit, the Stockholm ruling was "widely perceived as a means of generating huge sums of cash with which Firtash and his associates could continue to illegally fund the pervasive" corruption that it said marks every level of government, "while at the same time suppressing political dissent through intimidation, racketeering and other violations of fundamental human and political rights."

The suit, a class action on behalf of the Ukrainian people, was filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Torts Statute, which accommodates actions in U.S. courts to uphold international law, as well as the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Practices Act (RICO).

Tymoshenko was joined in the suit by 10 unnamed John Does who it alleged "have all been subjected to politically motivated investigations and selective prosecutions" by Ukraine's current leaders.

Ukraine's state prosecutor's office earlier this month launched a criminal case against Tymoshenko over a gas deal she reached with Russia in 2009. Tymoshenko was already accused in two other separate criminal cases since her rival, President Viktor Yanukovich, came to power.

According to the suit, which seeks unspecified damages and alleges that Firtash is a close associate of Yanukovich, the Yanukovich administration has "launched a wave of arrests and investigations aimed at ... Tymoshenko and her political allies in ... a concerted campaign to intimidate, suppress and ultimately eliminate any and all political opposition in Ukraine."

Source: Ynet News

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chinese State Media, In A Show Of Openness, Print Jet Photos

BEIJING, China -- The J-15 Flying Shark is China’s newest attack jet, a sinuous fighter with the folding wings, shortened tail cone and bulked-up landing gear it needs to serve on China’s first aircraft carrier, which is expected to start sea trials soon. It is indisputable evidence of China’s growing mastery of military technology.

China's J-15 which externally seems a clone of the Ukrainian Su-33.

Also military technology of Russia and Ukraine, albeit not entirely with their consent.

Barely two weeks after splashing photographs of the aircraft carrier on the Internet, China’s state media on Monday published the first close-up pictures of the J-15.

The day before, Web sites that focus on China’s military had run the same photograph, snapped outside the Shenyang plant in northeast China where the plane is being developed.

Like the aircraft carrier it will call home, the jet faces years of tests and refinement before it will formally enter service, military analysts say. The photographs nevertheless suggest that the People’s Liberation Army, long notoriously secretive, is lifting some veils.

“The recent spate of releases of photographs of airplanes under development is a sign of relaxed control of military information in China,” Lan Yun, an editor at the Beijing-based Modern Ships magazine, said in an interview. “It could be seen as a sign of more transparency of the Chinese military.”

Mr. Lan and Andrei Chang, the Hong Kong-based editor of Kanwa Asian Defense Review, said that the photograph indicated that the aircraft had passed factory tests and was now bound for flight testing.

Internet posts by analysts and Chinese aviation enthusiasts point to a fighter crammed with the best technology China can produce: holographic “heads-up” instrument displays, advanced anti-ship radar and, Mr. Lan said, self-guiding missiles, in contrast to the gravity-controlled bombs and sight-guided missiles that largely populate China’s existing 3,200-aircraft fleet.

When it is deployed — probably sometime after 2015 — the J-15 will signal the dawn of a new ability by China to assert authority along its coastline.

The carrier and its jet are said to employ the best Chinese technology, but both are also direct descendants of weaponry devised in the dying days of the old Soviet Union.

China’s new carrier, expected to be christened the Shi Lang, is a retrofitted version of a 1988 Soviet aircraft carrier that Chinese interests bought from Ukraine after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, supposedly for conversion into a floating casino in Macao.

But the Macao gambling license never materialized, and as many had suspected, the ship wound up elsewhere — in Dalian, a city in northeastern China where workers began a decade-long retrofit.

The J-15 has followed an even more tortuous route.

At the century’s turn, many news reports say, the Chinese beseeched Moscow to sell them a Sukhoi-33, a 1980s Soviet fighter capable of landing on carriers.

Moscow refused. But in 2001, the Chinese bought an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, and began a teardown to learn its secrets.

The Russians were incensed.

Yet the J-15 unofficially unveiled this week, which externally seems a clone of the Su-33, in fact has been remade inside with Chinese improvements. Mr. Lan said that advances in the plane’s outdated avionics and missile-guidance systems had made it a far more sophisticated version of the Russian jet.

The J-15 is being compared in some quarters to the American F-18, a workhorse on Navy carriers. But Mr. Lan said it had a shorter range, in large part because its takeoff method — flying off a ski-jump-style runway — dictated that it could carry less fuel than a comparable American jet, which is propelled off a flat carrier runway.

Flying a ski-jump is not duck soup. And in February, a Ukrainian court convicted a Russian man of conspiring to give the Chinese details of a Crimean air base that had been used to train Su-33 pilots to take off from a carrier’s ski-jump ramp.

In Huludao, a navy installation on China’s northeast coast, workers are said to have built a rough clone of the Crimea test center, complete with a ski ramp for ascending jets.

None of this is exceptional. Russian, Chinese and American espionage agents wage unacknowledged wars to steal the others’ technology.

But the Chinese, some experts say, are notably adept.

“They take what they can get, and improve what they can,” Abraham M. Denmark, an independent expert on China’s military in Washington, said in an interview. “It’s a strategy that permeates many of their innovations.”

Source: The New York Times

Chernobyl Widows Mourn As Bell Tolls 25 Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Black-clad Orthodox priests sang solemn hymns, Ukrainians lit thin wax candles and a bell tolled 25 times for the number of years that have passed since the Chernobyl disaster as the world began marking the anniversary Tuesday of the worst nuclear accident in history.

Ukrainians light candles to commemorate those who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, during a ceremony at the memorial to Chernobyl firefighters in the city of Slavutich, Ukraine, on April 26.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led the nighttime service near a monument to firefighters and cleanup workers who died soon after the accident from acute radiation poisoning.

"The world had not known a catastrophe in peaceful times that could be compared to what happened in Chernobyl," said Kirill, who was accompanied by Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other officials.

"It's hard to say how this catastrophe would have ended if it hadn't been for the people, including those whose names we have just remembered in prayer," he said in an emotional tribute to the workers sent to the Chernobyl plant immediately after one of its reactors exploded to try to contain the contamination.

Tuesday's service began at 1:23 a.m. (2123 GMT), the time of the blast on April 26, 1986, that spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas in Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.

The explosion released about 400 times more radiation than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Hundreds of thousands were sickened and once-pristine forests and farmland still remain contaminated.

The U.N.'s World Health Organization said at a conference in Kiev last week that among the 600,000 people most heavily exposed to the radiation, 4,000 more cancer deaths than average are expected to be eventually found.

Several hundred Ukrainians, mostly widows of plant workers and those sent in to deal with the disaster, came to Tuesday's service to pay their respects to their loved ones and colleagues. Teary-eyed, they lit candles, stood in silence and crossed themselves to the sound of Orthodox chants.

"Our lives turned around 360 degrees," said Larisa Demchenko, 64. She and her husband both worked at the plant, and he died nine years ago from cancer linked to Chernobyl radiation.

"It was a wonderful town, a wonderful job, wonderful people. It was our youth. Then it all collapsed," she said. "If only you knew how much our hearts ache for our children, how many sick grandchildren there are, how many couples without kids.

"We come here to look each other in the face. If it hadn't been for the people buried here, Kiev would no longer exist," Demchenko said.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have cut the benefits packages for sickened cleanup workers in recent years, and many workers complained directly to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as he handed them awards for their work at a ceremony Monday in Moscow.

Officials in Bryansk, the Russian region most contaminated by the disaster, have failed to make necessary repairs at the local cancer hospital, worker Leonid Kletsov told the president.

"It's the only place of rest for us," he said. "Officials promised to renovate it, but these promises are still promises."

Medvedev was to join Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych for memorial ceremonies in Chernobyl later Tuesday.

A service similar to the one in Kiev was held at the same time early Tuesday in Slavutich, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Chernobyl that was built for people evacuated from homes close to the plant.

Vladimir Stanelevich, a 61-year-old former cleanup worker, said he came to remember the people who gave their lives to protect others.

"You understand, there (in Japan) it was let's say a natural catastrophe, and here it was a technological one. it's a big difference."

Chernobyl has come into renewed focus since an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan last month, with the country still struggling to bring the radiation-spewing Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant under control.

Japanese newspapers on Monday highlighted the significance of Chernobyl. The Asahi interviewed a former Chernobyl worker under the headline: "Fukushima, don't tread the same route."

In Germany, thousands of people demonstrated on Monday near several nuclear power plants, demanding a speedy end to the use of atomic energy.

Japan's crisis has prompted Germany to freeze plans to extend the life of its plants, order a temporary shutdown of its seven oldest reactors and seek a quicker transition to renewable energy.

In Austria, Chancellor Werner Faymann used an event in Vienna marking the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl to call for a nuclear-free Europe.

Source: MSNBC

Ukraine's President Resists Russia On Trade

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yanukovych brushed off Moscow's latest efforts to woo Ukraine into a Russia-led trade bloc, insisting in an interview that Kiev wants special terms that would allow it to develop relations with the European Union as well.

President Viktor Yanukovych

The comments Monday highlight the difficult balancing act that Mr. Yanukovych, who came to office in 2010 promising to repair relations with Moscow without giving up ties to Europe, faces as he tries to navigate his country of 45 million between east and west.

In recent weeks, Moscow has stepped up pressure on Ukraine to join its Customs Union, which already includes former Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on a visit to Kiev on April 12 that membership would bring benefits of up to $9 billion a year for Ukraine.

Other officials suggested Ukraine could save $8 billion a year on its gas bill to Russia if it joined the Customs Union.

In the interview, Mr. Yanukovych dismissed such offers as "political statements," and said that "Ukraine hasn't received any concrete proposals."

He all but ruled out full membership of the Customs Union, which would preclude the EU free-trade deal Ukraine is currently negotiating.

Instead, he suggested Ukraine would seek a free-trade agreement and other cooperation with the post-Soviet bloc in what he called a "3+1" format.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko told Parliament on Friday that this meant cooperation "outside the framework of formal membership."

Mr. Yanukovych declined to speak in detail about the shape these relations would take, saying that would be "crystal ball-gazing" because negotiations have yet to start.

Some observers say Kiev's tough line could be at least partly a negotiating tactic. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Ukraine on Tuesday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and he is expected to discuss the Customs Union with Mr. Yanukovych.

Mr. Yanukovych's choice is seen as a bellwether for Kiev's geopolitical direction. The EU agreement would be a major step toward deeper economic, political and cultural integration and offers Ukraine access to a larger, wealthier market.

A deal with the Customs Union would tie Ukraine more closely to its former Soviet neighbors, but could bring short-term benefits to the country's struggling economy and its powerful industrial tycoons.

Russia seemed to be tightening its grip on Ukraine after Mr. Yanukovych agreed in April 2010 to a controversial deal that extended the leasing of a Ukrainian port to Russia's Black Sea Fleet until 2042 in return for a big discount on natural gas.

He also pledged to end his predecessor's pursuit of membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had irked Moscow.

But Mr. Yanukovych balked at Russian proposals for even closer cooperation, such as merging Russian state energy giant OAO Gazprom with its Ukrainian counterpart Naftogaz.

Mr. Yanukovych, brought up in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, was long seen as favoring Moscow. He received Russian backing in his 2004 bid for the presidency, but was thwarted by the Orange Revolution, which propelled pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko into office.

Since coming to power, however, Mr. Yanukovych has balanced the revival of relations with Russia by stepping up negotiations with Europe on a free-trade agreement.

Talks with the EU have come a long way, Mr. Yanukovych said, and a number of differences had been overcome. "We haven't agreed yet on some of the questions, and that process is continuing," he said.

The Ukrainian government has said it wants to iron out remaining differences with the 27-nation bloc by the end of the year.

Mr. Yanukovych said Ukraine had proposed seeking compromises with individual countries over their demands, which could then be adjusted in the EU's negotiating mandate.

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko criticized Mr. Yanukovych for not coming out more clearly in favor of an agreement with Europe. "He's treading water while the country is stagnating," she told reporters Friday.

Ms. Tymoshenko and around a dozen members of her former government are under investigation in criminal probes that have been criticized by U.S. and EU officials as politically tinged. Mr. Yanukovych brushed off the concerns.

"There's no politics here," he said, adding that the investigations were part of an anticorruption drive and that a court would decide whether those being investigated were guilty or not.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Monday, April 25, 2011

World Remembers Chernobyl, Haunted By Nuclear Fears

KIEV, Ukraine -- The world on Tuesday marks a quarter century since the world's worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, haunted by fears over the safety of atomic energy after the Japan earthquake.

Former rescue workers sent to fight the Chernobyl disaster attend a ceremony.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, workers at the Chernobyl atomic power station were carrying out a test on reactor four when operating errors and design flaws sparked successive explosions.

The radioactive debris landed around the reactor, creating an apocalyptic scene in the surrounding area, while material also blew into the neighbouring Soviet republics of Belarus and Russia and further into western Europe.

Two workers were killed by the explosion and 28 other rescuers and staff died of radiation exposure in the next months. Tens of thousands needed to be evacuated and fears remain of the scale of damage to people's health.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev annonced he will make a landmark visit to Chernobyl on Tuesday to take part in the memorial ceremonies, where he is expected to be joined by his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will hold a service in the Kiev region in the early hours of Tuesday, striking a bell at 1:23 am local time (2223 GMT) -- the time when the explosion went off -- to formally mark the start of remembrance ceremonies.

He will then head to the affected zone to hold an Easter service at a chapel in the settlement of Chernobyl and then a service by a memorial next to the disused power station itself.

But the anniversary has gained an eerily contemporary resonance after the earthquake in Japan which damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and prompted leaks of radiation.

Japan has placed the disaster on the maximum seven on an international scale of atomic crises, the same level as Chernobyl, and the troubles at Fukushima have prompted many questions about whether atomic power is too great a risk.

The operator of Fukushima, Tokyo Electrical Power Co. (TEPCO), has also come under fire over its information policy, an echo of the disastrous reluctance of the Soviet authorities to admit the truth over Chernobyl in 1986.

Moscow stayed silent on the Chernobyl disaster for three days, with the official news agency TASS only reporting an accident at Chernobyl on April 28 after the Forsmark nuclear plant in Sweden reported unusually high radiation.

In 1986 and 1987, the Soviet government sent over half a million rescue workers (liquidators), to clear up the power station and decontaminate the surrounding area, many not fully aware of the scale of the calamity.

"I think that our modern states must see the main lesson of what happened at Chernobyl and the most recent Japanese tragedy as the necessity to tell people the truth," Medvedev told a meeting of liquidators in the Kremlin.

"The world is so fragile and we are so connected that any attempts to hide the truth, to gloss over a situation, to make it more optimistic, will end with tragedy and cost the lives of people."

But despite the notoriety of Chernobyl, controversy has raged for years even between the UN's own agencies over the number of deaths directly caused by the disaster, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to dozens.

Some experts have said the worst health legacy of Chernobyl is mental rather than physical, with those affected traumatised by the memory of April 1986, forced relocation and the sense that they are victims of nuclear catastrophe.

In 2005, several UN agencies including the World Health Organisation, said in a report a total of 4,000 people could eventually die as a result of the radiation exposure.

But the UN Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says other than the 30 confirmed deaths in the immediate aftermath only 19 ARS (Acute Radiation Syndrome) survivors had died by 2006 for various reasons.

Other than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer -- a usually treatable condition -- from contaminated milk there was "no persuasive evidence" of any other effect on the general population from radiation, it said in a report in February.

But environmental campaign group Greenpeace in 2006 accused the UN agencies of grossly underestimating the toll, saying there would be an estimated 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl.

After the disaster, the Soviet authorities put up a supposedly temporary concrete shelter to protect the destroyed reactor but there have long been worries about its durability.

A new sarcophagus is being built nearby and is scheduled to be erected over the reactor in the next years.

But astonishingly, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is running the project, has yet to win full funding for its completion.

The conference last week secured 550 million euros ($785 million) in new pledges, short of the 740 million euros still needed.

Chernobyl continued producing energy until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reactor number two shut after a fire in 1991, reactor number one closed in 1997 but reactor number three continued working right up until December 2000.

Source: AFP

English-Language Press Flexing Its Muscles In Eastern Europe

KIEV, Ukraine -- Brian Bonner, the editor of The Kyiv Post, a small English-language newspaper here in the Ukrainian capital, received the first phone call even before his journalists had returned from their interview with the minister of agriculture. Other calls followed, growing increasingly shrill.

"Kyiv Post" owner Mohammad Zahoor bought the newspaper in 2009.

And soon enough, Mr. Bonner, a former reporter at The St. Paul Pioneer Press who moved here a few years ago for the adventure of working at an English-language newspaper abroad, found himself on a bizarre trip through the journalistic norms of former Soviet states.

Minutes later, an aide to the newspaper’s publisher began calling the editor, expressing concern about the tone of the questions to the minister, Mykola Prysyazhnyuk.

Eventually, the publisher called demanding that the newspaper drop the project and not write about the interview, Mr. Bonner said.

The ministry of agriculture later said it had not contacted the publisher asking that the article be withheld.

Media rights groups say that all too often at newspapers in this region, a phone call is all it takes to kill an article, even if only to save face for a public official who misspoke.

But when that approach was applied to an English-language newspaper with Western ideals, the phone calls did not work as intended. Mr. Bonner refused to kill the article and was fired, and the newsroom went on strike to support him.

The episode highlighted the spunky role English-language newspapers play in many Eastern European capitals, particularly in countries with repressive policies toward publications in the local language.

Distributed free in racks at bars and hotels, the papers blend nightlife reporting for tourists with hard-hitting news aimed at a highbrow audience of businesspeople and diplomats.

In Ukraine and Russia, these newspapers come under less scrutiny than their local counterparts, which made the move to muffle reporting at The Kyiv Post unusual.

English-language newspapers like The Moscow Times, The Prague Post, The Budapest Times, The Slovak Spectator, The Baltic Times and The Krakow Post have been springboards for a generation of American journalists interested in working in the former East Bloc — though not in the servile role of many local publications.

“Kyiv Post had a great tradition of editorial independence,” Mr. Bonner said in an interview. “I don’t want the job if it’s not independent journalism. Who would want it?”

In the interview, reporters at The Kyiv Post, whose name is an alternative spelling for the Ukrainian capital, had asked Mr. Prysyazhnyuk about a hot topic in Ukrainian business circles — the appearance of favoritism in awarding grain export quotas to a trading company, Khlib Investbud, suspected of having insider ties with government officials.

At one point, he said he did not know who owned the company, and “should not know this.” Later in the interview, he said he did know who the owners were.

After disregarding the calls from a representative of the publisher — Mohammad Zahoor, a British citizen with other business interests in Ukraine — Mr. Bonner was fired on the day of publication, April 15.

Most of the staff of 23 Ukrainians and seven Western journalists and editors then struck in protest, taking laptops to a city park and posting updates about the dispute on a Facebook page.

The recourse to social networking sites “shows how hard it is to practice censorship these days,” Mr. Bonner said.

While on strike, reporters and editors wrote that they were told by representatives of Mr. Zahoor’s publishing company, the Istil Group, that “independent journalism potentially threatens the company’s other investments in real estate, media and other areas.”

Repression of free speech has taken many forms in the former Soviet space, some far more violent than the pressure on publishers.

In Russia, four reporters for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta have been killed in the last decade, in what appeared to be a poisoning, an assault with a hammer and two shootings.

In Kazakhstan, an opposition journalist was once held down while assailants carved an X — the mark of the censor — on his chest with a knife.

In Ukraine, prosecutors are pressing charges against a former president, Leonid Kuchma, related to the killing of the opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000. Mr. Gongadze was beheaded.

But in Ukraine, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, a major obstacle to routine public service journalism today is the ownership of newspapers and television stations either by the state or by publishers whose other business is beholden to government favors, Natalia Ligacheva, the director of Telekritika, a media monitoring group in Kiev, said in an interview.

“Nobody goes to the printer at midnight and seizes the print run these days,” Mr. Bonner said. “It’s all understandings with the publishers.”

In a compromise reached after publicity created on blogs by the journalists elicited a statement of support by an American Congressional delegation that happened to be visiting Kiev recently, Mr. Zahoor rehired Mr. Bonner, though as one member of a four-member board, rather than as editor in chief.

In a meeting with staff members, Mr. Zahoor acknowledged that they disagreed with his reasons for firing Mr. Bonner, but praised their commitment to editorial independence.

Mr. Bonner said the standoff was ultimately good for the Kyiv Post’s reputation. “Nobody wants to edit a paper that isn’t read, or doesn’t stir up controversy from time to time,” he said.

Source: The New York Times

Chornobyl: A Troubled Health Legacy

KIEV, Ukraine -- Tovstyj Lis was once a pretty village in northern Ukraine surrounded by rolling hills and orchards. Today, the village no longer exists, razed to the ground after the Chornobyl catastrophe.

Children wear masks at a hospital for leukemia patients in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. The risk of leukemia in children in the contamination zones is three times higher than elsewhere.

On April 26, 1986, the powerful explosion that tore through Chornobyl's nuclear power plant spewed radioactive material across large swathes of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Tovstyj Lis, just 11 kilometers away, was one of the worst-hit areas. It was evacuated within weeks and became part of the exclusion zone that now surrounds the crippled nuclear reactor.

Olha Bolyura was born in Tovstyj Lis.

Of the 3,000 people who lived in the village before the accident, she says only a handful are still alive.

"There are almost no people left. All the drivers have died, all the builders have died. These were young people, and now just a few are left," she says. "Somehow it's the young people who died first. The elderly are still alive."

'All Because Of Chornobyl'

When the reactor exploded, Bolyura, who was then 32 years old, lived in Kyiv with her husband and their young son. But the rest of her family lived in Tovstyj Lis or in neighboring towns and was exposed to massive doses of radiation.

Bolyura's father died one year after the Chornobyl explosion. Her brother, who helped clean up the contaminated wreckage, died four years ago after suffering a brain tumor and three strokes.

Her other relatives are all battling serious health conditions that Bolyura blames on radiation.

Bolyura's niece Natalya, who was a healthy teenager at the time of the accident, is the most severely disabled.

"She cannot walk. She is blind. She is an invalid of the first category," she says. "It's awful to see her suffering. She drags herself through the house on her backside. Her legs have given out; her arms are weak. This is all because of Chornobyl."

Natalya is the only member of the family to receive compensation from the state in the form of a monthly invalidity pension that is barely enough to cover her basic needs.

Like many in Ukraine and Belarus, Bolyura resents the Soviet government for initially covering up the disaster. Now, 25 years later, she says authorities are deliberately playing down its long-term health effects.

Imprisoned For Criticism?

Yury Bandazhevsky is a medical pathologist who was the first expert in Belarus to study the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster.

While head of the Gomel Medical Institute -- located in one of the cities worst affected by the meltdown -- Bandazhevsky chronicled a growing incidence of cancer and other afflictions in the wake of Chornobyl.

He criticized Soviet authorities for their failure to respond urgently to the crisis by providing quick supplies of substances like potassium iodide, which can prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine into the thyroid.

Bandazhevsky was imprisoned by Belarusian authorities in a case that international watchdogs like Amnesty International believe was tied to his openly critical stance.

After his release, Bandazhevsky left Belarus and now works in France and Ukraine.

An ardent opponent of nuclear power, he tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that authorities in Minsk even today continue to disregard the massive health crisis caused by the disaster.

He says fallout from Japan's Fukushima reactor, damaged in last month's earthquake and tsunami, as well as plans to construct a new Russian-built reactor in Belarus, will only exacerbate illnesses in people whose health has already been compromised by radiation from Chornobyl.

"Several generations already have been exposed to large doses of radiation, and the result is the poor state of health that we're now seeing," he says.

"Cardiovascular disease and cancer -- all this is a consequence. And any additional doses [of radiation], even small ones, will cause people's health to deteriorate further because they're already in poor health, with lowered immunity and metabolic problems. So to receive additional radiation on top of that is highly undesirable."

The health effects of the Chornobyl disaster have long been subject to debate. But researchers generally agree that the incidence of thyroid cancer, particularly among children, increased thirty fold after 1986.

Tens of thousands of cases have since been reported, as have rises in the incidence of breast cancer, intestinal cancer, cancer of the bladder, lung cancer, and gastric cancer.

The risk of leukemia in children in the contamination zones is three times higher than elsewhere.

Blame It On Chornobyl

Disorganized research standards in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia have meant that not all health effects of Chornobyl were measurable.

And that, say researchers like Ukrainian psychiatrist Semyon Hluzman, has caused a knock-on psychological effect -- the sense among many survivors that all ailments are tied, in one way or another, to Chornobyl.

"It's interesting to observe that today, people who were born into an independent Ukraine, or people who have long since forgotten about Chornobyl and are living their nice Kyiv lives -- all the same, these people almost all say that their poor health is a result of the Chornobyl disaster," Hluzman says.

"This isn't a problem of Chornobyl. It's a problem of lack of trust in medical practitioners, in Ukrainian medical science."

Such self-diagnoses have led Chornobyl to play a disproportionate role in authorities' thinking on health-care matters.

Johan Havenaar, a Dutch psychiatrist who has conducted numerous studies in Belarus and Ukraine since 1990, has consistently found lower incidence of psychological illnesses among Chornobyl survivors than studies done by local doctors.

Havenaar, who currently works with the Altrecht Institute for Mental Health, chalks up the discrepancy to poor epidemiological standards in Belarus and Ukraine and a willingness among some researchers to blame Chornobyl for all of society's ills.

At the same time, however, he says the Chornobyl accident -- which came just years before the Soviet collapse -- undoubtedly left deep psychological scars on those it affected, particularly the 400,000 people who were forced to evacuate their homes.

"All these people really have lost a lot of trust in their environment," Havenaar says. "They're confused by all the contradictory reports; they don't understand why some people are receiving examinations every year while they are living in almost the same conditions and they're not getting anything. Many people had to be evacuated. [The disaster also] had an enormous impact on the economy, which was already going down when the Soviet Union was falling apart. So this disaster had an enormous societal impact."

History Repeating Itself

Japan's Fukushima disaster has served as an eerily appropriate backdrop to the Chornobyl anniversary, with the world once again fixated on the dangers of nuclear power.

Many Chornobyl experts say Japan is better equipped to deal with its nuclear crisis because of strong community support systems and a more transparent government.

But the government of Japan, like that of the former Soviet Union, has come under criticism for failing to accurately assess the severity and scope of its own meltdown.

Bandazhevsky says Japanese authorities are poised to preside over their own unfolding health disaster -- and are turning a blind eye to the true scale of the problem, just as authorities did a quarter-century ago with Chornobyl.

"The situation is being repeated," he says. "Twenty-five years ago we were hearing the same things about the Chornobyl disaster -- that there was no problem, that Chornobyl was safe. They really said almost nothing at all the first week. And then we found ourselves faced with a terrible nightmare."

Source: Radio Free Europe