Behind the Chernobyl children's travel ban
Behind the Chernobyl children's travel ban
The decision by the Belarusian government to prevent its children travelling to the West reveals a lot about the country and its politics, writes Daniel McLaughlin
THE DECISION by Belarus to stop children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster from travelling abroad not only outraged Irish families that welcome thousands of such youngsters each year, but threw a spotlight on one of the most secretive corners of Europe.
Ireland is lobbying for an exemption to the ban, which was imposed after Tanya Kazyra (16) refused to return to Belarus from California last month, after spending six weeks with the family with whom she has stayed each summer for the past nine years.
The ban appalled families across Europe and the US who give Belarusian children an annual break with the kind of good food and medical care that they would not get at home. Most parents have little money and live in areas contaminated by fallout from the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl atomic reactor, in what was then the neighbouring Soviet republic of Ukraine.
For critics of president Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus like a personal fiefdom for 14 years, shutting down critical media outlets and jailing political opponents, the decision was another display of his paranoid authoritarianism.
But while Washington denounces him as "Europe's last dictator", Lukashenko is his country's most popular politician, a symbol of stability to the many Belarusians who saw only looming chaos and uncertainty in the Soviet Union's collapse.
After the deal to disband the Kremlin's empire was signed in December 1991 at a villa in the Belavezha forest that straddles Belarus's border with Poland, many of the 15 Soviet republics were plunged into political and financial crisis and, in several cases, civil war.
Belarus escaped those woes and, after a brief flirtation with the West under its first post-Soviet president, Stanislav Shushkevich, it embarked upon a solidly pro-Russian course under the man who ousted him, Lukashenko, the former boss of a state farm.
His calls for discipline and patriotism appealed to much of a nation that, through government-controlled media, saw well the problems that beset their ex-Soviet neighbours. The KGB has survived in Belarus to maintain that order.
The US and EU deride regular elections in Belarus as shams intended only to preserve Lukashenko's rule, and he has used dubious referendums to vastly increase his powers and remove a limit on how long a president can serve.
For all the West's criticism, however, Lukashenko has never faced a true challenge to his popularity and, while the opposition blames police harassment and lack of media coverage, its in-fighting has also helped keep it divided and largely impotent.
One of Lukashenko's greatest fears, it seems, is the kind of Western-backed revolution that toppled the ex-communist old guard in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, and ushered in leaders intent on escaping Russia's grip and joining the EU and Nato.
Lukashenko often denounces Europe and the US for interfering in other countries and trying to undermine him, and his suspicion of the West at least partly motivates his occasional bans on foreign travel for Belarusian children, such as the one announced last month.
In 2006, he barred Belarusian orphans from going to Italy on holiday after one family refused to send a 10-year-old girl back to Minsk because she allegedly said she was being abused at her care home. The ban was lifted last year.
Belarus also prevented a group of children visiting the Czech Republic in 2004, shortly after Prague refused to grant visas for Lukashenko and other politicians to go to a Nato summit.
That row came just days after Lukashenko condemned the effect that travel to the West was having on Belarus's children.
"We should take children out of the country in cases of emergency only," he declared. "Don't you see the state in which children return from there? How does this way of life benefit us? This consumerist way of life has overwhelmed our youth and the whole country - and they were right to say this in Soviet times.
"These children become consumers when they return from there. We do not need this."
In the same speech, he also demanded that fewer Belarusian children be adopted by foreign families, and his officials have steadily tightened the rules on such procedures.
LUKASHENKO'S PRICKLINESS can only be exacerbated by the geographical position of Belarus, wedged between the EU and Nato members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, their big but unstable ally Ukraine, and an increasingly assertive Russia, which is at loggerheads with the West.
Annoyed by Moscow's demand for higher energy prices and alarmed at its intervention in Georgia last month, Lukashenko was slow to offer support for the Kremlin's military action.
At the same time, the US was lifting some sanctions on Minsk after it released several opposition activists from jail, and the EU is keen to improve relations with Belarus if this month's general election is more free and fair than the last.
The Irish Ambassador to Russia, Justin Harman, travelled to Minsk this week for talks on the children's travel issue. "There is considerable appreciation in Belarus of the help that comes from Ireland," he says.
"There are about 200 ambulances from Ireland driving around the roads of Belarus and several day-care centres have been built over the years by Irish volunteers. When I presented my credentials to President Lukashenko, he went out of his way to make that point."
According to the ambassador, Belarus has made clear that there is no intention to isolate Ireland on the issue, "but rather a desire to systematise these programmes on a legal basis".
A long-awaited rapprochement with the West could give Lukashenko leverage in his lopsided relations with Russia and encourage Belarus's opposition groups to work more effectively.
For thousands of children whose lives are still blighted by the legacy of Chernobyl, it could also rescue the hope of happy summer holidays in Ireland and elsewhere.