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Environmental Problems in Today’s Belarus

Environmental problems in today’s Belarus go back to the times of the Soviet regime. An agrarian republic, Belarus suffered from one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century: the Chernobyl disaster. Even though the accident occurred at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant, a neighboring Belarus endured the devastating effect of the atomic catastrophe. As a result of the accident, about two-thirds of the soil in Belarus got contaminated with radioactive cesium-137. Today, nearly 2 million people in Belarus still live in polluted regions. The government’s reluctance to address the tragic Chernobyl legacy properly leads to a continuation of its overwhelmingly negative impact on public health and the ecological situation in the region.

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One of the most well-known catastrophes in history, the Chernobyl accident is not the only source of environmental problems in today’s Belarus. Thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the republic preserves an archaic governmental structure that relies on security forces. As environmental problems often demand political solutions, or at least the authorities’ reaction, the political regime in Belarus doesn’t allow ecological initiatives to contradict the state’s officials (Shkaruba and Skryhan 157). The government’s position towards the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and the recent brutal repressions against environmental activists, who took part in anti-Lukashenka protests last year, make the regime hostile to environmentalists.

Chernobyl: 35 Years after the Disaster

Even though official records report only 31 deaths as the immediate result of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident, the UN estimates that somewhat 50 people have died directly after the catastrophe. Millions of people, including children, still reside in contaminated areas, and thousands have died eventually as a result of the radiation exposure (Shkaruba and Skryhan 152). Nuclides, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 deposited onto two-thirds of the country’s territory and were easily transported thousands of kilometers away from the accident, stay radioactive for more than thirty years. For other nuclides, the half-life can be thousands of years. During this period, they remain highly toxic for people and animals, accumulate in muscle tissue, and cause severe health problems, such as cancer, heart diseases, and cataracts.

Withholding such valuable information as actual pollution levels and their direct health impacts from independent experts and the public have been criticized by environmental activists and human rights advocates (Alimov). The government’s controversial and secretive approach to the country’s biggest environmental disaster in history also includes spending vast amounts of money on dealing with the consequences of the catastrophe, encouraging people to inhabit the contaminated zones, and constructing nuclear power plants, ignoring the voices of opponents. The regime’s position is particularly striking in the recent confrontation with Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Aleksievich, a celebrated author of Chernobyl Prayer.

Other Environmental Issues

Logging, poor development of the country’s vast environmental potential (such as the implementation of alternative energy sources), water and soil pollution, and the impact of climate change, among others, make up the most notable “green” problems that require actual political action. The country’s environmental issues are closely related to the political issues and its history, geographical position, and historical and political ties with Russia (Shkaruba and Skryhan 154). Simultaneously, environmental problems are expensive for the country’s budget, directly impact the population’s well-being, and require the close attention of the scientific community. Naturally, people’s ecological rights need to be reflected in the state’s political agenda but are absent from public discourse in the country.

Climate change impact is already apparent in the European country. With annual temperature rises, floods make up a serious problem for the economy, damaging agricultural areas, buildings, and roads (Meshyk et al. 18826). Waste disposal, air pollution in big cities, and the necessity to minimize harmful impacts of industry on the environment make up just a fracture of environmental needs that demand the attention of officials. A relatively small and less heavily populated than many other countries, Belarus has a huge potential for modern ecological practices that could positively change people’s quality of life through efficient environmental management techniques. However, Lukashenka’s regime is reluctant to embrace local or international green political initiatives, particularly in the context of recent political repressions and international sanctions imposed by the West.

Green Activism in Modern Belarus

Without a comprehensive government’s approach to environmental issues, the ecological rights of Belarusians remain at the level of interest of local environmental activists. In the past decades, many civic green initiatives have emerged in Belarus to address local environmental issues. Frequently, they are led by local scientists and researchers, who have confronted censorship or the government’s control in their work (Shkaruba and Skryhan 154). Environmental activism in Belarus is represented by individuals and organizations who try to inform the general public about environmental problems, provide legal protection in courts, and deal with state institutions when necessary.

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The political regime in the republic has never been welcoming for independent civil initiatives, relying on archaic governmental structures and robust security apparatus. However, small eco-friendly businesses, NGOs, and independent green media outlets have functioned in the country, combining elements of environmental agenda with civil rights and freedoms initiatives (Shkaruba and Skryhan 154). The situation has changed dramatically after Lukashenka’s sixth re-election. People’s general dissatisfaction with the regime resulted in a long wave of mass protests that followed brutal repressions, a wave of arrests, and political murders. Many people, who agreed to fight for their ecological rights against the current system, were arrested or persecuted for their decisions. Independent environmental organizations now confront particularly hostile surroundings they have to operate. It is unclear whether the current political situation means the end of open non-violent political activism in Belarus. Nevertheless, environmental problems, which imply concrete political actions to be resolved, remain in Belarus, regardless of the current regime.

Conclusion

Ecological problems in today’s Belarus are rooted in its soviet past, geographical position, distribution of resources, economic ties, and, above all, political regime. Environmental issues can hardly ever be resolved without political will and general awareness of personal ecological rights and freedoms. The legacy of one of the biggest technological disasters, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident, still represents one of the biggest environmental problems in modern Belarus. The officials’ dubious and secretive approach to the country’s nuclear legacy has been a subject of international criticism for years. Other environmental issues in the country, such as pollution, the impact of climate change, and inadequate management of the country’s vast environmental potential, cannot be properly addressed in the context of the present, archaic political system. Recent violent repressions against oppositional politicians and activists made it particularly hard for non-governmental institutions to operate. However, environmental problems that affect the country’s economy and people’s well-being prevail and demand political actions to be resolved.

Works Cited

Alimov, Rashid. “Chernobyl Still Burns.” Greenpeace, 2020, Web.

Meshyk, Aleh, Maryna Barushka, and Viktoryia Marozava. “Snow as a Contributor to Spring Flooding in Belarus.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research International, vol. 28, no. 15, 2020, pp. 18826 – 18836.

Shkaruba, Anton, and Hanna Skryhan. “Chernobyl Science and Politics in Belarus: The Challenges of Post-normal Science and Political Transition as a Context for Science–Policy Interfacing.” Environmental Science & Policy, vol. 92, 2019, pp. 152-160.

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