Belarus was and remains one of the countries most affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986. Since the late 1980s, the date has become a traditional day for oppositional protest marches.
But as the country has been changing over the past 30 years, so has the meaning behind the protest.
The Tradition Begins
Named a “Chernobyl Way” the march was first organized in 1989 in then Soviet Belorussia. Tens of thousands of people demanded the truth about the hazard of Chernobyl radiation from authorities.
The rally was openly anti-communist, which was permitted in the late ’80s. Those days, the Soviet Union was going through perestroika, a gradual democratization process launched by the last USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A third of protesters traveled to Minsk from radiation-contaminated areas. They held the signs with their town names.
The march was headed by the famous writers Vasil’ Bykau and Ales’ Adamovich together with the leaders of Belarusian People’s Front – the movement that soon became the No1 force in Belarusian opposition.
A Political Protest
Seven years after the first rally, Chernobyl Way re-emerged as a demonstration against poor treatment of people affected by radiation.
It gathered from 30,000 to 60,000 people.
The political element of the rally was also evident: the Chernobyl Way-1996 became the culmination in a series of protests against Alexander Lukashenko tightening control over the country and launching the integration with Russia.
The demonstration got rough.
As the police blocked people from marching along the planned route, some activists started overturning police cars. In the end, anti-riot forces brutally dispersed the rally, arrested some of the leaders, while others fled the country in fear of persecution.
In the following years, the numbers of the protesters fell to several thousand, but the agenda of Chernobyl Way kept two distinct messages. One was opposing the president, his authoritarian and pro-integration with Russia policies, another – commemorating the Chernobyl tragedy in general.
Over the following decade – from 1996 to mid-2000s – the march got its ritual. It started at the venue near the Belarusian Academy of Sciences. People who headed the demonstration were always carrying the Christian icon and ringing the church bell symbolizing the mourning.
When the march was unauthorized by the government, it sometimes ended in clashed with the police.
Presidential elections of 2001 and 2006 brought its sentiment to the Chernobyl Way, making it more political than usual.
A New Agenda
A lot changed in 2008 when Belarus decided to build its own nuclear power plant (Ostrovets NPP). This topic has begun to dominate the annual rallies of 26 April.
The protesters called the Ostrovets NPP “a second Chernobyl”. They mistrusted the Russian company building the station and Belarusian authorities who controlled the process because of little transparency and occasional incidents at the construction site.
Eco-activists started to play leading roles in organizing the march and filling it with anti-nuclear placards.
However, a political element remained. If there were political prisoners in Belarus at the time of the Chernobyl Way, there were demands to release them.
Besides that, people protested against producing food in the radiation-affected areas. They also demanded to return the withdrawn social benefits to the so-called “liquidators” – people who fought the consequences of Chernobyl disaster.
Gradually, the Chernobyl Way ran out of steam. Instead of thousands, only hundreds of people took part in the latest marches.
In 2019 the government obliged the organizers of any mass rally to pay for the services of the police, ambulances and communal cleaners. The fees reach thousands of dollars per average-sized demonstration, which is a lot for Belarus.
On 25 April 2019, the Chernobyl Way organizers canceled their plans to hold an annual march after the local police refused to allow them not to pay. Today, about three dozen activists turned up at the Chernobyl Way anyway – the number of police watching them was probably higher.
This might be the end of the Chernobyl Way. Or just a pause.