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RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team
TRAVEL AGENT PROMISES VACATION WITH A DIFFERENCE. Sixteen years ago today, the world's worst civilian nuclear accident turned Chornobyl into a byword for disaster. The images broadcast on television appeared like scenes from a terrible war against an invisible enemy. The world watched the hissing Geiger counters, the firefighters trying to plug the gaping hole in the reactor, and the evacuations of thousands from what became known as "the zone" with a mixture of fascination and horror. For years, the zone remained closed to all outsiders. But now, in a surprising move, the Ukrainian government has begun to promote limited tourism to the area. It's not for everyone, but those who prefer to experience things firsthand can now sign up for a daytrip to Chornobyl, and it even comes with lunch included.
This is ecotourism with a difference -- no tents, mosquito repellent, or scuba gear needed. Instead, standard equipment includes a Geiger counter, protective clothing, and a disposable respirator. Contact with the surrounding environment is limited to a few hours and most of the sights are, sadly, all too man-made. Welcome to the "Chornobyl Tour" currently being offered by the Kyiv-based SAM travel agency.
Thanks to an exclusive contract with the Ukrainian government, SAM has actually been organizing visits to Chornobyl for journalists, scientists, and environmental activists since the end of 1998. But starting last year, trips were expanded to include ordinary tourists.
Tour operator Taras Horkun told RFE/RL that everyone who takes part in the one-day tour returns to Kyiv deeply moved. "They are struck most not by individual sites but by the whole experience. You know the saying, 'Better to see something with your own eyes once than to hear about it a hundred times.' To see with their own eyes what they have read about in the press or seen on television is much more impressive to them. It's clear they won't come back for a second visit, but the reactions are very enthusiastic," Horkun said.
So what do tourists see on the Chornobyl Tour and how is the day spent? For participants, the tour begins at 8 a.m. in Kyiv, when a minibus arrives at their hotel to pick them up. Two hours later, the bus reaches the so-called "exclusion zone." After the 1986 explosion, some 135,000 people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the crippled reactor -- including all 47,000 inhabitants of the city of Prypyat -- were permanently evacuated due to high radiation levels. The zone was colored red on maps and military checkpoints were established around its perimeter that guard the area to this day.
At the perimeter checkpoint, tour participants are met by scientists working within the zone. They switch buses and don protective overalls. They also receive a Geiger counter and a disposable respirator. Horkun described the rest of the journey.
"They follow a specific route in the zone. They see such sites as the so-called Red Forest, which suffered radiation contamination from the explosion. They see lakes. From an observation platform they can see the reactor -- it's located about 100 meters from the reactor. On the platform there is a model of the sarcophagus [which encloses the destroyed reactor]. They are shown a video. They can also meet with specialists working in the zone. They visit the dead city of Prypyat. They enter the apartment buildings, climb up on the roofs. Everything depends on the visitors' wishes," Horkun said.
Lunch is included -- and as Horkun was quick to stress, the produce is tested for safety. "All the food is brought up from Kyiv. We do not buy produce that is grown there [in the zone] and sold in the surrounding villages and markets. You can say we provide ecologically clean food."
After a visit to a junkyard where thousands of vehicles too radioactive to be taken out of the zone lie in a scrap heap, tour participants can also meet some of the handful of locals who have chosen to remain in the zone -- despite warnings about health hazards and government efforts to move them out.
At 4 p.m., Geiger counters and protective suits are returned, the checkpoint is crossed and the tour leaves the eerie quiet of the zone for the bustle of Kyiv.
So what kind of people sign up for the tour? Horkun said most are just curious foreigners. "They are just regular tourists. They are all foreigners -- either people working in Ukraine on short-term contracts or visitors on tour. Last year, we had about 40 tourists. Since the start of this year, we've taken 10 people up there."
Clearly, Chornobyl tourism is a niche market. Horkun described it as "eco-extreme tourism." But should the tours be taking place at all?
Tobias Muenchmeyer, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace, said "no." Muenchmeyer, who has himself spent time in the zone and studied the effects of the Chornobyl catastrophe on local people and the environment, told RFE/RL that taking tourists near the reactor is irresponsible.
Muenchmeyer confirmed that visiting the zone, with its entombed reactor and the nearby deserted city of Prypyat, is an unforgettable experience. But even a day spent in the area, with its patches of high ambient radiation, could pose a health risk, especially to young women of childbearing age. The problem, says Muenchmeyer, is that highly contaminated radiation hot spots occur in patches throughout the zone and can shift unpredictably when brush fires or rain occur. "This is not like a day trip to the Grand Canyon," said Muenchmeyer. There are dangers, he stressed, and he personally deplores the idea of commercializing this modern human tragedy.
Samuel Lepicard, a scientist at the French-based Study Center on the Evaluation of Nuclear Protection (Centre D'Etude Sur L'Evaluation de la Protection dans le Domaine Nucleaire), does not necessarily share this view. Lepicard told RFE/RL that fellow scientists from his institute have mapped areas of the exclusion zone where ambient radiation levels are no higher than in any European city. But he does agree that in some spots, radiation levels can spike to levels 500 times higher than normal.
In any event, caution is advised. Now that the option of a trip to the zone is open, it will be up to prospective travelers to make up their own minds whether a day touring Chornobyl is vacation time well spent.
"[Compared with] some countries that already are associate [EU] members -- I won't name them so as not to offend anyone -- in terms of economy and democracy, Ukraine is standing higher than some of these countries. Let us face it -- it is only Ukraine that has in fact been pushed out of this process, and I don't think that would be too strong a statement." -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on 27 April, after a meeting with his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski; quoted by 1+1 Television.
"Now we have a deaf and dumb democracy. We have no political system that will build and strengthen democracy. Our key problem today is a crisis of power." -- Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko; quoted by Reuters on 26 April.
"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.
BLACK SEA FLEET DEAL EXPECTED IN JUNE. Ukraine and Russia are planning to sign a comprehensive agreement on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in June, Russia's Industry, Science and Technologies Minister Ilya Klebanov said on 29 April, RIA-Novosti reported. In Kyiv the same day, Klebanov and Ukrainian Deputy Premier Vasyl Rohovyy presided over a meeting of Russian and Ukrainian officials who will work out details of the Black Sea Fleet's future deployment in Ukraine. BW
SIX ISLAMISTS SENTENCED IN AZERBAIJAN. Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes handed down prison terms on 29 April ranging from six to seven years on one Ukrainian and five Azerbaijanis accused of planning to commit terrorist acts against Western embassies in Baku and overthrow the Azerbaijani government, Turan and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January, 21 February, and 19 April 2002). The men are said to be members of the illegal Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which advocates creating an Islamic state by peaceful means. The six all pleaded not guilty, according to their defense lawyer Elchin Mamedov, whom Turan quoted on 22 April as saying that the court failed to demonstrate that they had committed any crime. LF
TURKMENISTAN INVITES UKRAINIAN PARTICIPATION IN CONSTRUCTION OF GAS EXPORT PIPELINE. During talks in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi (Krasnovodsk) on 29 April, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov suggested to his visiting Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma that Ukrainian firms could supply equipment for, or participate in, the construction of the planned pipeline to export Turkmen gas via Afghanistan and Pakistan, Interfax reported. Niyazov is to meet next month with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss that project. Niyazov and Kuchma also signed an agreement on the development of interstate relations; Kuchma affirmed after the signing ceremony that Ukraine "is ready to develop military, economic, scientific, and cultural cooperation" with Turkmenistan. He further praised the agreement under which Ukraine pays for deliveries of Turkmen natural gas half in cash and half in commodities. LF
RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR SAYS UKRAINE, RUSSIA 'NOT READY' FOR BORDER DEMARCATION. Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin has said neither Russia nor Ukraine is yet ready for border demarcation, UNIAN reported on 29 April, quoting the "ForUm" website. "We are not ready for that and do not intend to put a fence between Russia and Ukraine," Chernomyrdin said, adding, "It is our agreement that demarcation is out of the question as of yet." Chernomyrdin said the issue of demarcation is being imposed on Ukraine by Western countries. According to him, the West is concerned because Ukraine's neighbors Poland and Hungary will soon join the EU. Chernomyrdin stressed that neither Russia nor Ukraine can currently afford the demarcation because of the lack of funds and because the border is very long. JM
CRIMEAN AUTONOMOUS LEGISLATURE ELECTS SPEAKER, APPOINTS PREMIER. The new Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which gathered for its first session on 29 April, elected 63-year-old Borys Deych as its speaker. Deych obtained 52 votes while former speaker Leonid Hrach received 22 votes, UNIAN reported. Deych was first deputy speaker in the preceding Crimean legislature. Hrach said the vote count was rigged and demanded a repeat election. The same day, the Supreme Council voted by 64 to zero to endorse Serhiy Kunitsyn for the post of Crimean premier. The nomination of Kunitsyn, who already headed the Crimean government in 1998-2001, needs to be approved by President Leonid Kuchma. Meanwhile, Crimean Election Commission head Ivan Polyakov, who chaired the session, announced the ethnic composition of the current 93-member Crimean legislature: 41 Russians, 35 Ukrainians, seven Crimean Tatars, four Jews, two Gagauzians, one Czech, one Greek, one Armenian, and one Abkhaz. JM
UKRAINE PLANS FOR RECORD HARVEST (18 APRIL) Deputy head of the Ukrainian Agriculture Ministry's Grain Department Ivan Martynyuk said that Ukraine's 2002 grain crop may reach a record 40 million tons, compared with a current estimate of 36.6 million tons, Reuters reported. Ukraine's harvest last year totaled 39.7 million tons. Martynyuk said, "This spring, Ukrainian farms used much more fertilizer than a year ago and they completed spring grain sowing at the best time." However, some analysts question the forecast. "We see no real grounds for such an optimistic forecast," said Mykola Vernytsky, analyst at leading agricultural consultancy ProAgro. (JMR)