Sunday, May 1, 2016

Chernobyl-Hit Regions in Russian Federation Get Little Attention and Ever Less Support



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 1 – Most people in Russia and the West link the Chernobyl tragedy to Belarus and Ukraine, the two republics hardest-hit by the 1986 nuclear disaster, forgetting that adjoining regions of the Russian Federation were also affected and that 1.3 million of the five million people still living in contaminated areas are Russian citizens.

            Gennady Sharipkin, an RFI correspondent, says such forgetfulness has made it easier for Russian officials to do even less than their Belarusian and Ukrainian counterparts to protect the population and clean up the region, leaving the southwestern portion of Bryansk oblast “simply terra incognita” as far as Chernobyl is concerned (ru.rfi.fr/rossiya/20160428-rossiiskii-chernobyl-zabytye-no-obitaemye-pustoshi).

                What is striking, the journalist continues, in comparison with Ukraine and Belarus, there are “practically no signs warning about radiation dangers” in contaminated parts of the Russian Federation. As a result, what should remain an exclusion zone is completely open for anyone who wants to come and go, picnic, fish, collect mushrooms and so on.

            Initially, the Soviet authorities declared two-thirds of the districts of Bryansk oblast to have been contaminated and made plans to resettle residents, including all 40,000 people in the city of Novozybkov. “But after calculating the cost, they decided that it would be simper to remove the top and most contaminated later of the ground.”

            Even at that time, Greenpeace says, Soviet officials evacuated Russians from these places only when there were much higher levels of cesium-137 than those that led Belarusian and Ukrainian officials to act.  As a result, Russians living in contaminated areas were and still are exposed to more radiation than those in the neighboring countries.

            The situation became worse, Sharipkin says, last October when the Russian government reclassified most of the cities and villages in Bryansk that had been “zones of resettlement” into “zones with the right to resettle,” a downshifting that meant there was less money and less support available to those who seek to move out of this area.

            At the same time, the Russian government eliminated many of the benefits it had earlier offered Russians in the contaminated areas, including free admission to universities, supplements to pay and pensions, longer vacations, and earlier retirement ages for both men and women. Residents wanted to protest but were talked out of it by officials.

            One local activist says that he and others will turn to the courts to seek a return of these benefits to at least those who have been living permanently in Bryansk oblast since 1986. At present, they have launched a petition drive in support of that goal.

            The Russians in Bryansk oblast are motivated both by the findings of outside experts like Greenpeace that radiation levels are still well above those deemed safe even by Russian officials who continue to insist that now “everything is normal” and by higher than average rates of cancer and other diseases among the population.

            And they are also agitated by the fact that the cutbacks in government subsidies mean that they will be forced to eat more locally produced food, much of which is radioactive. That in turn means that for the Russian victims of Chernobyl, the next 30 years may be even worse than the last.

             

Moscow Should Restrict US-Funded Russian Groups More than Those Backed by Other Countries, Markov Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 1 – Not only should Moscow broaden the definition of prohibited political activity by NGOs but it should treat them differently depending on the country from which they receive funding, with those getting money from the US more severely punished than those getting it from other countries, according to Sergey Markov.

            Markov, a former KGB officer and now member of Russia’s Social Chamber, is often a bellwether of the Kremlin’s intentions and so his words merit attention both as an indication that the Russian government assumes East-West tensions will remain high and that it wants to be able to play one group of countries off against another (evrazia.org/news/45846).

                The Moscow political analyst says that Russia should not “consider the entire world as hostile to Russia.” Instead, it should classify the states of the world in terms of “the threat which they pose for the sovereignty and security of our country,” with “the most dangerous” being “the US, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

            Other members of the NATO bloc and most other countries around the world, Markov suggests, represent much less danger. Indeed, he continues, funders from Belarus and Kazakhstan “should be treated completely differently” and presumably less repressively “than those financed from the United States.”

            Markov has called for a tougher approach to NGOs for some time. Ten days ago, for example, he suggested that the Russian law on such groups should be amended so that the authorities would have the tools they need to combat illegal political activity, which he proposed defining far more broadly than current legislation does (evrazia.org/news/45769).

            He pointed to the case of Ukraine where NGOs financed from abroad and initially pursuing purely non-political goals “sharply changed the character” of their actions and “played an important role in the organization of mass disorders.”  The same thing could happen in Russia, he says, because most foreign-funded NGOs there are interested in its destabilization.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Easter Becomes Latest Official Excuse to Limit Freedom of Assembly in Russia



Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 30 – As Sofya Mokhova points out in a Rosbalt commentary, Russian officials have come up with a variety of excuses to deny Russians their constitutional right to peaceably assemble.  Some of them may be rational; others are clearly not; and some especially in the case of occupied Crimea are “exotic.”

            But this year, the coincidence of May Day and Easter has opened the way for Russian officials to deploy not only all their usual justifications for preventing those the regime doesn’t like from marching or meeting but also a new one: marches and meetings, they say, could prevent Russians from attending Orthodox services.

            Mokhorova writes that the proclivity of Russian officials to find “ever more means of refusing to agree to protest actions” suggests that the country is proceeding along the path toward a police state” in which only pro-government marches and meetings will be tolerated (rosbalt.ru/piter/2016/04/26/1510097.html).

                Among the methods the authorities use in refusing to give permission to opposition groups are scheduling pro-government activities at the same time and place, claiming that a given place is being repaired, suggesting that the group will violate laws on promoting this or that banned idea, and pointing to mistakes in applications.

            Sometimes the excuses reach truly amazing heights, Mokhrova says. In Barnaul, officials refused to allow a demonstration that planned to use dolls to make its point. They said only people could do that.  And in occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities have pointed to the risk of the spread of African swine flu in denying marches.

            But this year, Russian officials are using the coincidence of May Day and Easter to refuse to give permission for demonstrations almost certainly because they fear that these events could lead to serious protests but ostensibly because they want to ensure that all Russians who want to attend Orthodox Easter services will be able to (rosbalt.ru/federal/2016/04/27/1510452.html).

            Rosbalt journalist Dmitry Remizov says that officials in numerous regions have invoked Easter services as a reason not to allow May Day demonstrations, thus making them “’more holy than the pope’” given that the Moscow Patriarchate’s press service has said that it doesn’t see a problem with celebrating both on the same day.

            Vadim Abdurrakhmanov, a KPRF leader in the Khanty-Mansiisk AO, says that Easter services are just an excuse. In fact, he argues, “the powers that be are afraid because they know what the economic and political situation in the country is.” People want to protest and May Day is a traditional occasion to do so.

            Andrey Korablyev, a member of the Union of the Militant Godless in Tyumen, is even blunter: officials will use anything including Easter to prevent people from meeting and marching.  No May Day demonstrations will prevent Russians who want to from going to church given that the former last only a half an hour or so and the others go on all day.

            Anna Ochkina, head of the Moscow IGSO Center for Social Analysis, says that the way the authorities are using Easter as an excuse is “very strange” because most of the people who attend May Day demonstrations don’t go to church and vice versa, although it is possible that the authorities really don’t understand.

            They probably think, she says, that “the Russian people are entirely part of the church” and that May Day demonstrations would interfere with their attendance. But if they do, Ochkina concludes, this only shows “once again” that “the authorities do not know the people which they are trying to govern.”