jeudi 25 septembre 2008

Tatiana Hlukhava-Kasperski: The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and the Identity Strategies in Belarus.

The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with and was precipitated by the public revelation of the true scale of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Republic of Belarus was forced to manage the consequences of its territories’ substantial radioactive contamination along with the strong popular dissent that resulted from the three-year cover-up of the true consequences, and the political and economic transformations provoked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all at the same time. The contentious nationalist movement, represented mainly by the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), challenged the Belarusian governing elite, which was fated to undergo political changes it didn’t aspire to. The challenger’s political and cultural claims received considerable popular support in the period of 1988 – 1991, mostly because the BPF was perceived as the political force that put an end to the dissimulation of the Chernobyl accident’s outcome and the dangers inhabitants of the contaminated areas and liquidators incurred.
Nevertheless, Belarusian separatist nationalists didn’t come to power. Marc Beissinger states they “failed mobilizationally but succeeded substantially”.[1] In other words, their demands for sovereignty from the USSR and the adoption of Belarusian as the state language were satisfied, but State authorities were the ones who obtained “the control of the success of nationalism” [2] by co-opting the main contentious demands. Thus, independence was mainly achieved through the strong influence of the external developments that made it unavoidable. The country became involved in the process of nationalization, democratization and market opening. These costly reforms would add to the enormous expenditures caused by the relocation of the population from the contaminated areas, the payment of compensations to the Chernobyl victims and the economic losses caused by the radioactive contamination. The reforms were then rapidly abandoned, and an authoritarian regime was progressively instituted after Alexander Lukashenka’s arrival to power in 1994 on the issue of the first democratic presidential elections in Belarus.
Keeping in mind the complexity of the political and economic transformations after independence and during the rule of Alexander Lukashenka, we’ll firstly focus on the connections between the management and the perception of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Secondly, we’ll discuss the nationalization policies engaged by the governing elite and contentious actors. Those policies correspond to what Rogers Brubaker called “the forms of nationalism that have resulted from the nationalization of political space”, and “are different from – and less familiar than – those that helped engender it”.[3] Both the State officials and their challengers tried to impose their nationalization projects to the new independent Belarus, praising their visions of national identity and the related political order that came with it. By doing so they were seeking to legitimize their authority or aspirations to power in the new institutional and political framework.
We will be analyzing these national identity strategies, focusing on the representations they constructed of the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster in an attempt to promote the sense of belonging to the Belarusian “imagined community”.[4]
Nation here is not to be understood as a real substantive entity, but as institutionalized form, practical and cognitive category[5], symbol[6]. Identity is here considered not as an intrinsic quality or a stable definition of something bounded, well-defined, homogeneous but as a process.[7] This process “includes many voices and varying degrees of understanding and, importantly, misunderstanding. It produces ceaseless changes, because even “to talk about identity is to change or construct it, despite the dominant epistemology of identity, which specifies immutability”[8] This understanding of nation and of national identity conduces us to consider the identity strategies engaged by the main Belarusian political actors, not only as an attempt to define the national community, but also as a form of establishing their “control over the imagination about community”[9] as Mark Beissinger suggests in his analysis of nationalism.
What are the national identity projects promoted by the main Belarusian political actors? How do they try to translate those identity representations into practices and institutions? What is the role of the collective memory of the Chernobyl disaster in these identity strategies? To answer these questions we’ll describe the characteristics of the Belarusian national community, imagined by State officials and contentious actors, and expressed through symbols, rituals, and narratives of different historical events that stigmatize enemies and glorify heroes. While examining the narratives of the Chernobyl disaster in the framework of two identity projects, we’ll focus on the mechanisms of description of “us” and “them”. The use of such terms creates imaginary frontiers for the community, and emphasizes the similarities between community members and their differences with non-members. The construction of enemies and threats will be one of the possible definitions of this otherness. We’ll also highlight the articulation of the past, present and future of the Belarusian community as it appears in the discourses of the Chernobyl disaster and its consequences.
Our analysis will focus mostly on the period from 1994 to the present. In fact, the Chernobyl disaster first became part of the nationalist discourses of the political forces contesting communist rule on the eve of the Soviet Union collapse. The official state discourse on Chernobyl disaster, and its role for the Belarusian people/nation, began to take shape after Alexander Lukashenka arrival to power in 1994.

Belarusian national community…

A … in official discourse and practices

1) Common past “from Great Patriotic War to the collapse of the Soviet Union”

In his discourse for the 60th anniversary of the victory in World War II, the Belarusian president summarized the official version of the common destiny of the Belarusian people: “we experienced three disasters during the last century: namely, the Grand Patriotic War, the Chernobyl tragedy and the collapse of the country – the Soviet Union”.[10] Thus, within the framework of the official Chernobyl discourse, the disaster is depicted as an unforeseen misfortune, which caused considerable losses to Belarusian people and is likened to two other national traumas: World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overcoming these miseries and restoring all the benefits the Belarusians had under Soviet rule is considered by the present-day Belarusian authorities as an important social and political goal.
The parallel established between the Chernobyl disaster and World War II is extremely important to understand the official national identity strategy of the Lukashenka regime. The memory of the “Great Patriotic War” is the main pillar of the historical narrative this official identity project is based upon.
During the Soviet period, the Communist Party created, as Nina Tumarkin describes in detail, a “full-blown cult of the Great Patriotic War, including a panoply of saints, sacred relics, and rigid master narrative of the war”. [11] This cult had a particular influence in Belarus where a very important partisan movement struggling against the invader was developed. Belarus also suffered the greatest destruction and losses. This explains a very strong Belarusian attachment, particularly in older generations, to the Soviet values and symbols. After his arrival to power, Lukashenka utilized this narrative to confirm his authority’s legitimacy. Lukashenka presented himself as the main defender of the sacred memory of the heroic exploit of the Belarusian people against all those who try to depreciate it. Thus, the cult of War was maintained and even reinforced under Lukashenka’s rule. The victory in the War is commemorated as a foundation myth of the Belarusian national community and serves to glorify the Soviet system and the principles and values upon which it was based.
Comparisons between Chernobyl and the Great Patriotic War are often present both in personal retellings of the event and in the official discourse. They contribute a great deal to the insertion of Chernobyl in the official historical pro-soviet narrative framed in terms of tragic catastrophes that became glorious victories through heroic exploits. Lukashenka suggested perceiving Chernobyl disaster as another battlefront for Belarusian nation which will unavoidably come out victorious, united and regenerated. By doing so, Lukashenka progressively achieved to supplant the anti-soviet contentious nationalists’ interpretation of the disaster, which was based upon the popular anger triggered by the pro-soviet frame cover-up of the accident, using the references to the Soviet past as a proof of the upcoming revival of the Chernobyl lands.

2) Common present and future: revival of the Chernobyl lands

The commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster is usually an occasion to depict a very positive image of the common present and future of the Belarusian people. Once elected, Alexander Lukashenka suggested a new approach to managing the Chernobyl disaster consequences, which broke the previous state policies in this area. The measures taken in the early 90’s were now considered too brutal and alarmist. The new policy aimed at solving two problems: the depopulation of the contaminated areas and the abandonment of vast agricultural lands. Hence the official discourse began to actively promote the recovery of the affected areas and the return of the people to these lands. This new policy was framed in terms of revival and consolidation of the Belarusian people in the heroic reconstruction of the injured homeland.
This shift in discourse and in policies allowed the government to break the deadlock in the management of the Chernobyl disaster consequences. Indeed, the State turned out to be incapable of providing relocated people with decent life conditions or paying the compensations to the inhabitants of the contaminated areas and to other victims of the accident. In fact, the budget expenditures dedicated to managing the Chernobyl consequences between 1991 and 1995 were less than 15% of the total amount of the social and economic damages provoked by the disaster at the same period.[12]
Alexander Lukashenka succeeded in supplying a positive interpretation of this State impotency by suggesting the country should not passively undergo the disaster consequences or admit losses in land, housing and employment. Instead, Belarus would have to overcome the tragedy and become the master of the situation. By doing so, the president aimed at establishing himself as a strong, proactive leader capable of consolidating the people and performing what his predecessors had failed to achieve: the overcoming of the disaster and the reconstruction of the national community. Neglecting the multiple risks of living and working in contaminated areas was the underside of this new approach..
For this new policy as well as for the official identity and memory strategy, revival became the watchword. Keeping his habit of highlighting the success of his policies, President Lukashenka confessed, on April 26, 2005, during his traditional trip to the affected “If someone had asked me 10 years ago whether we would manage to do so much I would not have believed we could. But the people did a lot assisted by the government”.[13] He was thus convinced that “in 20-30 years the damaged lands will be revived to be no worse than they used to be before the Chernobyl tragedy”.[14]
This revival rhetoric contributes not only to justify the decreasing expenditures on the post-accidental policies and the negation of the risks related to the recovery of the contaminated areas but also to maintain and to legitimize the very paternalist and populist style of government Lukashenka regime is based upon. Thus, Belarusian officials constantly emphasize governmental and personal presidential concern for every victim of the Chernobyl disaster. The authorities’ attitude towards the inhabitants of the contaminated regions is depicted by the official mass-media in very emotional terms. Their description bears more resemblances to parental child care than to the implementation of a public policy by State institutions.

A bit of attention is the best possible support to anybody who has got in trouble through no fault of his. If the people around you sympathise with your difficulties, try sincerely to help you overcome them, the latter don’t seem so hopeless anymore. In their support of the « chernobylians » the authorities have adopted this very attitude : no to shed tears because of what happened. Unfortunately, this won’t change anything. But to help to do all possible to make the living in the affected districts as good and decent as in the rest of the country. The more especially as two decades after the nature itself helps us to overcome the Chernobyl disaster.[15]

Belarusian president is depicted as taking to heart all the Chernobyl victims’ difficulties, and all the State activities related to the management of the disaster’s consequences are accomplished under “personal patronage of the president”. His annual April trip to the contaminated areas has become a political ritual that aims at demonstrating his dedication to Belarusian people and the crucial role of his political will in overcoming the Chernobyl consequences. The following excerpt from the official description of these trips is illustrative:

Every April the residence of the Belarusian President moves to Polesye. The inhabitants are eagerly anticipating Alexander Lukashenka’s visit since it is a chance for them to directly transmit their concerns to the head of State, show their achievements and point to their problems. These visits are even more important for the residents of the contaminated towns and villages because the President’s trips are followed by crucial solutions and concrete measures which really improve the situation.[16]

B… in opposition discourse and practices

1) Common past: national community oppressed during the Soviet period.

Unlike the official discourse on the glorious soviet past of the Belarusian people the challengers of the Lukashenka regime depict the Soviet period as a tragic and gloomy interlude in the national Belarusian history. During the commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster anniversary the contentious forces aim at highlighting the existence of a national Belarusian community rooted in the ancient history, which goes back long before the Soviet period. The Chernobyl disaster representations are part of the past contentious nationalist tale articulated around the celebration of the glorious moments in the national Belarusian history and the tragedies the community experienced.
The historical moments put forward by the challengers of the Belarusian regime are most often related to the periods when Belarusians had the premises of their own distinct culture or state structures. The Great Duchy of Lithuania is therefore seen as a sort of golden age for the Belarusian nation. This historical period is mostly appreciated for the principles of government adopted by the political elite and the role played by the society of the time, transforming it into the symbol of both the rule of law and the society control over the government.
Another important contentious nationalist memory site is the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic on 25, March 1918 during the World War I when the territory of Belarus was occupied by the German troops according to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It ceased to exist since Belarus was taken under Soviet control when the Red Army arrived and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded in 1919. The government or the Rada (council) of the BPR went to exile and still exists. This short State experience has nevertheless a very important symbolic significance and is considered by the contentious nationalists as a glorious moment of nation-building history which obliged the Soviets to create the distinct State entity - Byelorussian Socialist Soviet Republic.
This long and glorious pre-soviet and anti-soviet history of the Belarusian national community is often highlighted during the contentious rallies and demonstrations including the annual commemoration of Chernobyl disaster. Thus, the use of both the three-striped flag – white-red-white – and the coat of arms Pahonia (which can be translated as Chaser) is a symbolic means to evoke this centuries-old glorious past. Their own history, say the contentious nationalists, is closely related to the history of the GDL and the BPR.[17]
The religious references, commonly found in opposition discourses on Chernobyl, and the religious symbols, often used during the opposition commemoration rallies, also contribute to emphasize the traditional Belarusian communities’ values break-away from soviet atheism.
The losses and tragedies experienced by the national community throughout its history is another important part of the collective memory mobilised by the contentious identity project. The negative historical symbols seem to assume higher importance for the identity strategies developed apropos the Chernobyl disaster.
The Chernobyl disaster is depicted as one of the of the Soviet system crimes against the Belarusian national community, repressed for many centuries by successive imperial authorities when it finally had a new chance for its revival after independence. The sufferings endured by the Belarusian people are emphasized in order to unify the national community. This victimization identity strategy can be identified through the frequent use of the term “genocide” in the nationalist rhetoric of the opposition forces.[18] Besides serving as a description of the Stalinist repressions period “genocide” is also associated with all the other major events in the last three centuries of the Belarusian history: the war between Muscovy and the Great Duchy of Lithuania in 1654-1667, the annexation of the Belarusian lands by the Russian Empire after three partitions of the Poland in 1772, 1791 and 1794, the policy of russification, the World War I, the October Revolution, the collectivisation, the Stalinism, the World War II, the Brezhnev period and the Chernobyl Disaster.[19] Furthermore, genocide, in this context, means not only the physical destruction of the Belarusian population, but also the destruction of the Belarusian language and culture (cultural genocide) and the use of the ecological disaster caused by the explosion on the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant against the country’s population (radio-genocide).
Thus, the interpretations of the Chernobyl disaster suggested by the contentious nationalists put forward the confrontation between communist criminal authorities described as colonizers and the Belarusian nation-victim, which endures the consequences of the disaster as an ultimate test of its survival capacity and unity, a test that contains a strong mystical and religious sense.
This national interpretation of the history appears through the parallel which is drawn between the Chernobyl disaster and the mass grave site of Kurapaty. Since its public revelation in June 1988, Kurapaty, a grave site where more than a hundred thousand bodies slaughtered by the NKVD between 1937 and 1941were discovered, has became the symbol of the Stalinist and Soviet repressions against the Belarusian people. This site of mass murder became an important memory site for the political movement contesting communist regime, and later for Lukashenka regime itself, considered the follower of the worst Soviet traditions. The commemoration of the dead is organized in Kurapaty several times during the year, especially at the end of October - beginning of November, on Dziady (All Saint’s Day) which was initially a traditional popular ritual of commemoration of ancestors.
Furthermore, Kurapaty and Chernobyl are now commemorated as the two Belarusian national tragedies which caused an important national uprising against criminal authorities in the late 80’s and early 90’s. This protest movement led the country to its independence and is now perceived by the contentious nationalists as proof of the vitality of the national community which was repressed for a considerable amount of time. It is also symbolic of the people’s indignation towards the authorities that have violated their rights to freedom, to culture and to the protection of life and health.
This martyr community, however, was not able to fully enjoy the opportunity for its fulfilment gained after the independence due to the instauration of the authoritarian rule after Alexander Lukashenka’s arrival to power in 1994. According to the opposition, the Lukashenka regime became a «political Chernobyl» for the Belarusian nation.

2) Common present: Lukashenka regime as political Chernobyl

In contrast with the optimistic vision of the official Chernobyl lands’ revival, the opposition refers to a political Chernobyl to qualify the regime instituted by President Alexander Lukashenka.
In his speech, delivered on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Alexander Milinkevich, opposition candidate for the presidential elections of March 2006, declared: “ The tragedy that happened 20 years ago could have consolidated the nation in the name of the future”. Yet, ten years after the disaster a coup d’état occurred which led us to another disaster, probably even more serious – a true spiritual and political Chernobyl[20]».
According to those who contest the Lukashenka regime, the current Belarusian authorities do nothing but continue the soviet crimes: the real dangers of the radio-active contamination are kept secret, the contaminated areas are officially declared as clean and are intensely farmed, the young employees and experts are sent there against their will, especially in the framework of the first compulsory job assignment after the university. Some categories of the affected populations were even deprived of certain privileges they were given in the early 90’s to indemnify the damages caused by the Chernobyl disaster.
Thus, Chernobyl remains essentially a political problem which can be solved only through the country’s democratization and the destitution of a regime based on violence and lies. The frame “Political Chernobyl” is therefore used as a metaphor to describe the current political situation of the country: the repressions against the opposition, the violation of human rights, and the break of political and economic freedom.

I. Belarusian Community’s “others” and threats…

A… in official discourse and practices

1) Invisible enemy and the threat of disappearance.

The official discourse on the Chernobyl lands’ revival is far from being incompatible with the ceaseless recall of the dangers threatening the people. The references to the threats related to the Chernobyl consequences is another symbolic means to imagine the community of people united by the necessity to protect themselves. What is silenced is not the threat itself, but the political responsibilities for putting in danger the inhabitants of the contaminated areas. Instead, the Chernobyl lands’ rehabilitation policy is described as a fatality or even a proof of courage and heroism. The policies of the early 90’s that led to the depopulation of the affected areas are presented as lacking lucidity, good sense and resoluteness in the critical situation. So long as the living on contaminated areas is accepted as a fatality, evoking the radioactive danger serves to constantly emphasize the national community and the government’s heroic attitude which dared to keep a straight face to the threat.
Thus, the Chernobyl disaster consequences and the radioactive contamination presence are still framed in terms of an exterior enemy and a silent war against the Belarusian people even if the contaminated areas’ inhabitants have been dealing with them on a daily basis for more than 20 years. This war against an invisible and perfidious enemy requires the national community to be united and vigilant.
An article on the disaster’s 20th anniversary written by a journalist for the main newspaper, for example, reads:

A silent war, that caesium and strontium still continue to deliver against Belarusian people 20 years after the disaster. The first attack of the Chernobyl against our health – through radioactive isotopes of iodine – was sudden and short. Then, it was the heavy artillery which entered into the battle – i.e. caesium and strontium. Will we be able to strike back? [21]

This war frame serves some political objectives. It contributes to dissimulate the political responsibility for the accident and the management of its consequences. It helps maintaining an everyday power control over every individual through prescription of innumerable rules and norms of behaviour in the contaminated areas such as regular compulsory controlling of the internal contamination and state of health levels, and measurements of alimentary and environmental radioactivity. The issue of living on the contaminated areas is thus efficiently depoliticized, since the individuals themselves are held responsible for the state of their health, instead of the authorities which have done all their best informing the population on the risks and prescribing the rules. Thus, this interpretation of the Chernobyl disaster contributes to maintain a very paternalist and authoritarian management system of the Chernobyl disaster and to legitimate the current political regime.
Another way to describe the threats requiring constant society mobilisation under the direction of the authorities is the discourse on demographic crisis and the concern about «demographic security [22]». This preoccupation is regularly expressed in numerous speeches and has been translated into two national programs for demographic security. It is frequently reminded that the country’s population has been constantly decreasing since 1994, as a result of the strong mortality and low birth rates. Chernobyl-affected areas are the most threatened by depopulation. In 20 years, the Gomel region has lost about 9% of its inhabitants (150.6 thousands of persons), and the Moguilev region about 7% (88.1 thousands of persons). Thus, the Chernobyl disaster is indirectly associated with the possible decline or even disappearance of the Belarusian community, which has to mobilize immediately in reaction to this threat.
In an interview dedicated to the demographic problems in Belarus, the Belarusian vice- prime minister highlights that the demographic security is one of the main elements of the national security. Thus caring for one’s health and giving birth to children is a duty of every citizen toward the State and the people as a whole:

The children are not only the future of each family. They’re the real strategic resource for the State in the geopolitical space. For without citizens there is no country – nobody to protect it, nobody to create its GDP, to increase its scientific and cultural potential, nobody to support the old generation […] Many people have this not very serious attitude towards their health and the health of their children, towards their future […] We are constructing the State for the people, but the people also have to exist for the State. We’ll claim that people take care of their health. We won’t allow the citizens of the country to simply depart this life![23]

This demographic discourse shows a very technical and centralised management of the public health and demographic problems, where people’s life is primarily seen as a resource for the authorities and it is not appreciated for itself. It also highlights the policies encouraging the contaminated areas rehabilitation, which are based on the statistic comparison of the possible additional losses due to the harmful effects of the radiation on human beings and those provoked by the abandonment of the agricultural lands and industries in the contaminated areas.
From the evocation of external enemies and threats of the Belarusian people the official discourse easily proceeds to the stigmatisation of its internal enemies.

2) Opposition as an internal enemy

The threats related to the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster and the demographic problems are instrumentalized by the Belarusian authorities to legitimate the growing control over all spheres of the political and social life and the repressions against the opposition. Thus, those who protest against the regime and its post-accidental policies are accused of seeking to use the Chernobyl disaster to destabilize the Belarusian society, to provoke conflicts inside it and to prevent the government from helping Belarusian people to return to a normal life.
Commenting upon the protest commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster in April 2004 Belarusian president qualified its participants as hoodlums (otmorozky):

Is this an opposition? People called them by their right name, “hoodlums” (otmorozky), no one can’t say better. And, generally speaking, how is it possible to transform, say, the Chernobyl tragedy into the instrument splitting the society ? It can’t be logically explained. At all times the troubles have rallied people in Belarus. People get together to overcome it . Look what they are doing ! A political show, a performance based on human grief![24]

During his traditional annual trip to the contaminated regions Lukashenka often accused the opposition of impeding the State’s struggle against Chernobyl:

Lately, they are particularly aggressive about the new State’s approaches to the management of the Chernobyl disaster consequences and to the revival of Chernobyl lands. But our people can not accept this destructive attitude and show their love and their dedication to their homeland[25].

3) The rest of the world: between accusation and messianism

The way Belarussians define themselves in opposition to the rest of the world – i.e. the other countries and communities – form an important part of the Belarusian collective imagination framed by the official identity strategy. How do such representations appear in the Chernobyl discourse ? Firstly, the authorities usually emphasize the fact that Belarusians are those who suffered the hardest consequences from the Chernobyl disaster. “ The Belarusian Chernobylians are the most Chernobylian” – as summarized by a Belarusian researcher. [26] Thus, the representations of others are based on the belief that the whole world is indebted to the Belarusians who got the most important part of the fallouts and damages caused by the Chernobyl disaster. This national tragedy is also pictured as a source of national pride since Belarusians managed to hold out in this tremendous battle. The official discourse insists that Belarus did almost without any help from other countries. This is another important point in the way Belarussians represent themselves in opposition to other peoples.

While the world got engrossed in the debate about causes and guilt, Belarus, virtually alone, was trying to cushion the impact of the disaster. And the country held out[27]!

This frame that keeps on ignoring all the international help received by Belarus became a constant element of the official Chernobyl discourse and is used for different strategic purposes which influence identity representations. Thus it is sometimes used to highlight a kind of messianic role the Belarusian community has endorsed experiencing the most important accident of the world.
But the use of this frame mainly reveals the Belarusian’s’ definitions of their relationship with other countries, or more precisely the perception they have of Russia and the Western countries. The choice between Russian or Western vectors in Belarusian foreign policy constitutes the crucial geopolitical choice for the future of the country and has been fiercely discussed by different political forces since independence. Moreover, the geopolitical vector is the major indicator of the difference between the identity projects defended by Belarusian State and opposition forces.
Thus, the official identity project put forth in the references to Chernobyl disaster is characterized by the pro-russian and anti-western orientations.
The necessity to maintain a close relationship with Russia is a constant element of the Belarusian official discourse and is part of different forms of the official apologetics of the Soviet past and of the historical and cultural unity of the Slavic people. This constantly expressed desire to further integrate with Russians doesn’t imply, however, the negation of a specific Belarusian identity. As for the discourse on the glorious Soviet past and the Slavic unity, the emphasis is on the important and unique role played by the Belarusian people in the whole region and never on the dissolution of the Belarus in some supra-national entity. Belarusians are presented as those who preserve the most fiercely the memory of the Soviet grandeur and are the most fervent defenders of the weal of all fraternal nations i.e. their re-established unity. This constitutes Belarusian specificity in the eyes of the Belarusian president. In this discursive frame Chernobyl disaster is seen as a common tragedy (not at all as common fault or responsibility) though it was most harmful for the Belarusians. The brotherly Russian people is thus supposed to help Belarus in distress. Providing cheap or even free energy resources, for example, is one way to help.
Thus, in 1999 in his speech delivered in Russian Duma Lukashenka said:

By the way, about Chernobyl. The Chernobyl plant was constructed (everybody knows it already) not in our territory, we didn’t blow it up and it was not our fault, but the consequences of this disaster are all ours. Who has helped us? Maybe those who now shout loudly about the violations of human rights and freedoms in Belarus? Nobody has helped us! We were left alone in the face of the awful disaster consequences. My country has to spend annually a quarter of our budget (Think about it, You’ve just adopted a new budget, do you have such budget heading?), a quarter of our budget, every fourth rouble on the management of the consequences of this terrible disaster. How can you speak about wealth today?! Of course, it is much easier to reproach Belarus for 200 billion dollars debt for Russian energy supplies[28].

But the main enemy which is stigmatized in this discourse on the lack of international assistance are western countries. The West is constantly depicted as an external force which is interested purely in destabilizing the country and in preventing it from becoming a strong rival:

I was already saying 10 years ago that we can only rely on ourselves in coping with the Chernobyl problems. I saw pretty clearly then that nobody would help us for free, even if we were in distress. The opposition shouted loudly at this time “ the West will help us”. But generally speaking the West has helped nobody. We knew that we would not receive any substantial humanitarian aid, as well as Russia or Ukraine. Apart from some individuals whom we rewarded and who have really helped us. (…) Nobody will help us in order to “level us up” a little bit. Nobody needs a rival. Everybody needs us to be weak. And we want to be strong. But we can only rely on ourselves to become strong[29].

B … in opposition discourse and practices

1) Lukashenka regime and the physical disappearance of the nation.

The threat of physical disappearance is also used by those who seek to overthrow Lukashenka’s regime. It is supposed to weld Belarusian national community in the struggle against of the authoritarian regime. The opposition representatives emphasise the disastrous demographic situation in Belarus. The governmental policy of negation of the radioactive risks for the population is depicted as one of the main causes of the demographical crisis.
Thus a Belarusian academician Ivan Nikitchenko, who supports the Belarusian Popular front in his Chernobyl activities begins one of his numerous articles dedicated to the Chernobyl consequences and demographic problems in such a manner: « From 1993 the Belarusian population has crossed the threshold where the extinction of the nation starts, i.e. the demographic catastrophe. »[30]
Zianon Pazniak, the ex-leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, denounces the « Chernobyl genocide » accomplished by Alexander Lukashenka’s regime:

The conditions have now been created. We can expect the radioactive extinction of the Belarusian population, the loss of health of the Belarusian nation and the increasing illness of the Belarusian children. Every time Belarusians try to do something to struggle against the consequences of Chernobyl, they meet an open or hidden resistance to the national salvation[31].

The demographic statistics are quoted to illustrate this discourse[32].
Getting people informed of this extreme threat is supposed to help the oppressed nation to get consolidated in the struggle for its survival which requires the destitution of the Lukashenka regime and the achievement of the country’s full independence. This independence is first of all considered as a freedom from the colonial dependence from Moscow.

2) Chernobyl as the consequence of the Soviet-Russian genocide. The demand for reparations

Russia and its colonial ambitions are depicted through the commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster as the main external threat of the Belarusian national community and its cultural, economic and political fulfilment. This stigmatization of Russia takes different discursive forms. Some radical contentious nationalists see all the policies related to the management of Chernobyl disaster consequences as the result of Russia’s will to destroy Belarusians using the puppet Lukashenka regime: “Chernobyl genocide of the Belarusian people is a Moscow’s hidden policy and a Lukashenka’s open policy”.[33]
The demand for reparations of the damages caused by the Chernobyl disaster addressed to Russia is another symbolic means to highlight the frontier between Russia and the Belarusian community. This demand is often articulated in the discourses of the contentious nationalists. It is suggested that Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, should pay the reparations to indemnify the consequences of the disaster made possible by the soviet authorities. Such a demand, which in reality has little chance to be satisfied, has above all a symbolic meaning. It aims to brake away from the official discourse on the fraternity and the common destiny of two nations.
Finally the negative representations of the eastern neighbour shows in the opinion, constantly expressed by the opposition members, that the Belarusian dependency from Russia is the main obstacle for the democratisation of the country and its opening to the (western) world considered as the necessary conditions to the successful management of the Chernobyl consequences.

3) Openness to the Western world and the return to Europe as a unique hope to overcome Chernobyl
The international isolation of Lukashenka’s Belarus is depicted as the major obstacle in organising an effective assistance to the Chernobyl-affected populations. Thus, in spring 2006, when the State and the opposition commemorated the 20th anniversary of the disaster, the leader of the United Civil Party Anatoly Lebedko commented on the international conference organized by the Belarusian authorities: :

We have to understand that as long as this regime goes the successful solution for all the problems the « Chernobylians » are facing is impossible. Iouchtchenko, Putin, Adamcus, Katchinsky, presidents of the neighbouring countries that have experienced firsthand the Chernobyl problems haven’t come to Minsk for the international conference, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. This is significant. Belarusian authorities that have chosen the policy of auto-isolation have demonstrated that their ability to cope with real problems is minimal. The political component of the Chernobyl issue appears to be the most important.[34]

The negative consequences of this isolation are often illustrated by the concrete examples of how the authorities impede the realisation of the international assistance projects to the affected populations: the state’s stranglehold on the distribution of the international humanitarian aid, the repressions against Belarusian non-governmental organisations that cooperate with the western organisations and seek to provide Chernobyl victims with the assistance, the restrictions on the abroad travel of the children from the affected areas which was a very common form of assistance provided by the families of western countries willing to help the children of Chernobyl.
At the symbolic level the openness to the world is above all understood as the return of the Belarusians to the European context, seen as the synonym of the democratisation. Thus in his speech delivered to the European Parliament on the occasion of the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster one of the leaders of the BPF Vintsuk Viachorka declared:

I do not see ways to change strategies of rescuing the Belarusian nation without the country’s return to the path of freedom, democracy, and European values.[35]

Thus, the analysis of public tales of the Chernobyl disaster highlights the process of making a meaning out of what was the most important nuclear accident in the human history. This disaster’s interpretations as well as the authorities’ responses to it have been significantly changing since the end of the 80’s depending upon the political and institutional context and political actors’ strategies. Such interpretations have been shifting from the strong anti-Soviet resentment to the apologetics of the soviet past and soviet system. The revelation of the magnitude of the accident and of the official lies and disinformation haven’t helped the opposition nationalists to successfully mobilize anti-soviet national identity and to overthrow the governing elite. But the memory of the disaster is still a very important part of the identity strategies of both the State and its challengers in Belarus. Twenty years later, the disaster is still subject to reinterpretation regarding its social, political or cultural meaning as well as its physical, biological and medical consequences. Thus, the recent decision of the Belarusian authorities to construct the first Nuclear Plant on the Belarusian territory seems to have created a new ground for the struggle over the Chernobyl memory and its significance for the past, present and future of the Belarusian nation.
[1] Mark BEISSINGER, National Mobilisation and The Collapse of the Soviet State, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.252
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rogers BRUBAKER, Nationalism reframed : nationhood and the national question in the New Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.4
[4] The concept derives from Benedict Anderson’s text in which he suggests the following definition of the nation: “… it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” See Benedict ANDERSON, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London and New York, Verso, 1991, p.6
[5]Rogers BRUBAKER, op. cit., p.13, see also the whole Chapter 1 “Rethinking nationhood: nation as institutionalized form, practical category, contingent event”, p.13-22
[6] Katherine VERDERY, « Whither “Nation” and “Nationalism” » ?, in Daedalus, summer 1993, volume122, n°3, p. 38
[7] Richard HANDLER, « Is “Identity” a useful cross-cultural concept ? », in John GILLIS (dir.), Commemorations: the politics of national identity, Princeton, Princeton university press, 1994, p. 30
[8] Ibid.
[9] Mark BEISSINGER, op. cit., p.18

[10] The speech delivered by the President Alexander Lukashenka at the solemn meeting on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Victory of the soviet people over the fascist invader 10.05.2005,, 29.05.08

[11] Nina TUMARKIN, The living and the dead : the rise and fall of the cult of World War 2 in Russia, New York, Basic Books, 1994, p.134
[12] V. E. ŠEVČUK, V. L. GURAČEVSKIJ, Posledstviâ Černobylâ v Belarusi: 17 let spustâ. Nacional’nyj doklad, (The Chernobyl consequences in Belarus: 17 years after. National Report), Minsk, Propilei, 2003, p. 34
[13] Belarus : 20 year-long battle with Chernobyl consequences. Photo album, Minsk, Belta, 2005, p.33
[14] Ibid., p.4
[15] «Belarus’ spravitsiâ s zadačej reabilitacii černobylskih regionov », ( Belarus will deal successfully with the task of recovery of the Chernobyl-affected areas. The report on the president Alexander’ Lukashenka’s trip to the Braguine district and Gomel region on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident,, 27.04.06
[16] Belarus : 20 year-long battle with Chernobyl consequences. Photo album, op. cit., p.33
[17] Indeed, Pahonia was the official coat of arms of GDL until the annexation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Russian Empire in 1795. The legend origins of the white-red-white banner are related to the battle of Grunwald when the armies of Poland and the Great Duchy of Lithuania defeated the German knights of the Teutonic Order and a white bandage soaked with blood was used as a victorious banner. But Historically White-Red-white flag first appeared only in 1918. The Pahonia and the white-red-flag became the official symbols of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic
[18] On the use of the term genocide by Belarusian nationalist opposition see Alexandra GOUJON, « Genozid » : a rallying cry in Belarus. A rhetoric analysis of some Belarusian nationalist texts » in Journal of Genocide Research, n° 1(3), 1999, pp.353-366
[19] Zânon PAZNÂK, « Fizičnae zniščèn’ne belaruskaj nacyi » ((Physical destruction of the Belarusian nation)) in Zânon PAZNÂK, Novae stagoddze (New century) , Vilnius, Tavarystva Belaruskaj Kultury ŭ Letuve ; Warsaw, Belaruskiâ vedamas’ci, 2002, pp. 45-50
[20] Alexandre MILINKEVIČ, « Ostanovim političeskij Černobyl » (Let’s stop the political Chernobyl),, 23.04.07
[21] Lûdmila KIRILLOVA, «Tihaâ ohota», (Silent war) in Belarus’ Segodnâ, №78,, 26.04.06
[22] In 2006 Belarusian government adopted the “National Program for the Demographic Security of the Republic of Belarus for 2007 - 2010”
[23] “Demografiâ : vopros žizni i smerti dlâ nacii, ili kak belorusskiï krest prevratit’ v belorusskiï plus”, (Demography : a matter of life and death for the nation, or how to turn Belorusian cross into Belarusian plus”), interview with the Belarusian vice-prime minister Alexander Kossinets,, 21.02.08

[24] The speech delivered by the President of the Republic of Belarus on the occasion of the annual Presidential Address to the Parliament of the Republic of Belarus,, 20.06.08
[25] «Belarus’ spravitsiâ s zadačej reabilitacii černobylskih regionov », op. cit.
[26]Ûriï ŠEVCOV, Ob’edinennaâ naciâ. Fenomen Belarusi (A united nation: the Belarusian phenomenon), Moscow, Evropa, 2005, p. 141,
[27] Belarus : 20 year-long battle with Chernobyl consequences. Photo album, op. cit., 2005, p.4
[28] The speech delivered by Alexander Lukashenka at the plenary session of the State Duma of the Russian Federation on 27 October 1999,, 24.05.2001
[29] “Silnymi nas ne sdelaet nikto, krome nas samih” (We can only rely on ourselves for becoming strong),, published on 26.04.05
[30] Ivan NIKITČENKO, “Ècologičeskaâ ugroza Belarusi“ (Ecological threat over Belarus), in Narodnaâ Volâ, 13.09.2007,, 20.06.08
[31] Zânon PAZNIÂK, “Slova ŭ 15-û gadavinu Čarnobyl’skaï tragedyi” (A message on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy), in Belaruskiâ Vedamasci, n°4(34), April 2001, p.1
[32] Uladzimer STARČANKA, “Idze Čarnobylskaâ vaïna!”, (Chernobyl war is going on!), in Belaruskiâ Vedamasci, n°4(34), April 2001, p.2-4
[33] Zânon PAZNIÂK, “Slova ŭ 15-û gadavinu Čarnobyl’skaï tragedyi” (A message on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy), in Belaruskiâ Vedamasci, n°4(34), April 2001, p.1-2
[34] Anatoly LEBEDKO interviewed by the Press Service of the United Civil Party on April 26, 2006,, 15.06.08
[35] Vintsuk Viachorka’s speech delivered on the 17th of April, 2008 at the European Parliament,, 02.06.08

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