By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — With close to 1000 square kilometres of Ukraine made uninhabitable by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, you might expect the authorities in the capital, Kiev, to take a tolerant attitude to protests against nuclear power. And you might think the government would permit state-owned mass media to give a hearing to anti-nuclear campaigners.
Not a bit of it. In the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe on April 26, the Ukrainian government banned its media outlets from publicising anti-nuclear information. And public actions in Kiev to mark the anniversary were forbidden by the city's mayor.
When anti-nuclear campaigners on April 23 defied the ban and picketed government offices, the result was bruised limbs and a string of arrests and jailings.
The anti-nuclear protest began early in the afternoon of April 23 when environmentalists from Ukraine, Russia and other countries gathered on Independence Square. The protesters were demanding the shutting down of the remaining reactors at Chernobyl; an end to moves for the further development of nuclear power in Ukraine; the initiation of a program to close down all the country's nuclear power plants; and the development of non-nuclear energy alternatives.
The activists first created a chain symbolising Ukrainian nuclear dependence. Speakers included Sergey Fomichev, a well-known activist of the Rainbow Keepers radical environmental group, and Vladimir Slivyak, an anti-nuclear spokesperson for the Russian-based Social-Ecological Union.
After about an hour, some 30 demonstrators marched to the offices of the Cabinet of Ministers and mounted a picket outside the building. About 30 minutes later, special forces police moved in to smash the gathering, arresting a total of 19 demonstrators.
The "justice" these people received was as rough as their arrests. The environmentalists were denied lawyers and translators as well as medical treatment. At the Pechersky Police Office that evening, they were put before a magistrate who denied them any chance to speak. Five of the demonstrators, including Fomichev and Slivyak, were jailed. The imprisoned activists began a hunger strike.
Anti-nuclear activists discussed the arrests with representatives of the Kiev Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. The committee members noted that at least five serious violations of Ukrainian laws appeared to have occurred during the arrests and trial.
By April 26, Fomichev and Slivyak had been released. On the street near the mayor's office, the two addressed an impromptu press conference. "The authorities tried to threaten us and disrupt our plans for the Chernobyl anniversary", Slivyak declared. "But they can't kill the worldwide anti-nuclear movement, just as they can't kill the memory of Chernobyl." Special forces police soon arrived to drive off demonstrators who had unfurled a banner near the press conference.
The arrested picketers were released only gradually, and at least one was still being held on April 29. The Anti-Nuclear Campaign in the Former USSR is now consulting with lawyers, with a view to launching a criminal court case around the violation of the environmentalists' human rights.
Despite the continuing horror of Chernobyl, the nuclear industry remains an influential force in Ukraine. Europe's largest nuclear power plant, the third largest in the world, is at Zaporizhye in the country's south-east. At present, nuclear power accounts for about 35% of Ukraine's electricity production; anxious to reduce dependency on gas supplies from neighbouring Russia, the government plans to increase this figure to as much as 60%.
Billions of dollars are at stake in orders for new nuclear installations, and the people who run the former Soviet nuclear industry have no intention of allowing environmentalists to block the spending of this money. In setting out to protect their profits, the nuclear bosses obviously have the ear of the Ukrainian authorities.