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Test finds Chernobyl residue in Belarus milk

On the edge of Belarus’ Chernobyl exclusion zone, down the road from the signs warning “Stop! Radiation,” a dairy farmer offers his visitors a glass of freshly drawn milk.

Associated Press reporters politely decline the drink but pass on a bottled sample to a laboratory, which confirms it contains levels of a radioactive isotope at levels 10 times higher than the nation’s food safety limits.

The authoritarian government of this agriculture-dependent nation appears determined to restore long-idle land to farm use — and in a country where dissent is quashed, any objection to the policy is thin.

That finding on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident indicates how fallout from the April 26, 1986, explosion at the plant in neighboring Ukraine continues to taint life in Belarus. The authoritarian government of this agriculture-dependent nation appears determined to restore long-idle land to farm use — and in a country where dissent is quashed, any objection to the policy is thin.

The farmer, Nikolai Chubenok, proudly says his herd of 50 dairy cows produces up to two tons of milk a day for the local factory of Milkavita, whose brand of Parmesan cheese is sold chiefly in Russia. Milkavita officials called the AP-commissioned lab finding “impossible,” insisting their own tests show their milk supply contains traces of radioactive isotopes well below safety limits.

Yet a tour along the edge of the Polesie Radioecological Reserve, a 2,200-square-kilometer (850-square-mile) ghost landscape of 470 evacuated villages and towns, reveals a nation showing little regard for the potentially cancer-causing isotopes still to be found in the soil. Farmers suggest the lack of mutations and other glaring health problems mean Chernobyl’s troubles can be consigned to history.

“There is no danger. How can you be afraid of radiation?” said Chubenok, who since 2014 has produced milk from his farm just 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the shuttered Chernobyl site, and two kilometers (a mile) from the boundary of a zone that remains officially off-limits to full-time human habitation. Chubenok says he hopes to double his herd size and start producing farmhouse cheese on site.

His milk is part of the Milkavita supply chain for making Polesskiye brand cheese, about 90 percent of which is sold in Russia, the rest domestically. The World Bank identifies Russia as the major market for Belarusian food exports, which represent 15 percent of the country’s export economy.

Since rising to power in 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko — the former director of a state-owned farm — has stopped resettlement programs for people living near the mandatory exclusion zone and developed a long-term plan to raze empty villages and reclaim the land for crops and livestock. The Chernobyl explosion meant 138,000 Belarusians closest to the plant had to be resettled, while 200,000 others living nearby left voluntarily.

One of the most prominent medical critics of the government’s approach to safeguarding the public from Chernobyl fallout, Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, was removed as director of a Belarusian research institute and imprisoned in 2001 on corruption charges that international rights groups branded politically motivated. Since his 2005 parole he has resumed his research into Chernobyl-related cancers with European Union sponsorship.

Bandazhevsky, now based in Ukraine, says he has no doubt that Belarus is failing to protect citizens from carcinogens in the food supply.

“In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure.”

“We have a disaster,” he told the AP in the Ukraine capital, Kiev. “In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure. On the contrary, the government is trying to persuade people not to pay attention to radiation, and food is grown in contaminated areas and sent to all points in the country.”

The milk sample subjected to an AP-commissioned analysis backs this picture.

The state-run Minsk Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology said it found strontium-90, a radioactive isotope linked to cancers and cardiovascular disease, in quantities 10 times higher than Belarusian food safety regulations allow. The test, like others in resource-strapped Belarus, was insufficiently sophisticated to test for heavier radioactive isotopes associated with nuclear fallout, including americium and variants of plutonium.

The Belarusian Agriculture Ministry says levels of strontium-90 should not exceed 3.7 becquerels per kilogram in food and drink. Becquerels are a globally recognized unit of measurement for radioactivity.

The Minsk lab informed the AP that the milk sample contained 37.5 becquerels. That radioactive isotope is, along with cesium-137, commonly produced during nuclear fission and generates most of the heat and penetrating radiation from nuclear waste. When consumed, scientists say strontium-90 mimics the behavior of calcium in the human body, settling in bones.

Milkavita chief engineer Maia Fedonchuk rejected the findings.

“It’s impossible. We do our own testing. There must have been a mix-up,” she said, adding they test samples from every batch of milk they receive from Chubenok and do an “in-depth” analysis every six months. She said the plant’s own lab analysis indicates its overall milk supply contains an average of 2.85 becquerels per kilogram.

A person who answered the telephone at the press office of the Belarusian Emergency Situations Ministry, which is tasked with dealing with the fallout of the nuclear disaster, said they would not comment on the AP’s findings.

Health officials say the danger level posed by low levels of radioactive isotopes depends greatly on length of exposure and individual physiology. Notably, the regional free-trade bloc that includes Belarus and Russia permits higher levels of strontium-90 in goods of up to 25 becquerels per kilogram, still lower than that detected in the AP-commissioned test.

The question is whether anyone in authority is positioned to identify the true level of risks in produce from farms on the frontier of Belarus’ prohibited zone.

The deputy director of Belarus’ Institute of Radiobiology, Natalya Timokhina, said Belarus permits food producers to conduct their own food safety monitoring and lacks the lab equipment necessary to identify the presence of americium, which is estimated to be present in about 2 percent of Belarus’ top soil and is expected to remain a health risk for another 270 years.

“One-time ingestion of contaminated food is not very dangerous,” Timokhina said. “What’s dangerous is the accumulation of radionuclides in the body.”

Ausrele Kesminiene, a doctor in the cancer research unit of the World Health Organization, said the consumption of radioactive food is linked chiefly to the development of cancer in the thyroid, a gland in the neck that produces body-regulating hormones. Thyroid cancer is typically not fatal if diagnosed early.

WHO officials say they are dependent on reports from sister agencies in Belarus to alert them to cancer clusters or other signs of unresolved Chernobyl-related dangers. Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said the agency had no authority to regulate or oversee food safety _ even products exported to other countries _ because that is a domestic responsibility.

“Radiation effects and the development of cancers and the effects on the region are something which go on over a long, long period. So we haven’t seen the end of it,” Hartl said. “Undoubtedly there is going to be some increase in cancers.”

Hartl said WHO officials have not received “any red flags” from Belarus.

Environmentalists critical of Belarus’ Chernobyl cleanup record says that’s hardly surprising, since the government has funded no machinery to scrutinize corrupt practices in the food industry. As a result, they say, no Belarusian food maker has ever been prosecuted for using ingredients or producing goods containing excessive levels of radioactive materials.

Irina Sukhiy, founder of the Belarus ecological group Green Network, said workers in food-industry factories have confidentially told her that ingredients and products are blended to dilute the impact of potentially radioactive ingredients from Belarusian suppliers bordering Ukraine. Such alleged mixing, she said, reduces the level of potentially carcinogenic isotopes in dairy products and processed meat below “the allowable dose, but it is still hazardous to health.”

The division of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry responsible for cleaning up the consequences of Chernobyl says that the rate of thyroid cancer in children runs 33 times higher than before the nuclear blast. It says thyroid cancer rates run several times higher in adults.

Farmers working both on the edge of, and inside, the prohibited zone say they see no obvious signs of nuclear dangers, have been given no guidelines on reducing the risk of permitting radioactive isotopes into the food chain, and aren’t worried about this.

Chubenok, the dairy farmer, said he had never heard of the sorbent substance Ferocin, known as Prussian Blue, which farmers in Ukraine feed their cattle to accelerate the removal of the cesium-137 isotope from their digestive tracts.

A tractor driver on one of his neighboring farms, where an abandoned village has been demolished to make way for fields of grain, says he’s never seen an official testing for radiation levels in the soil. But Leonid Kravchenko said there was no reason for alarm.

“Nobody’s in danger,” he said.

Driving toward Chernobyl and into the nearby Radioecological Reserve required AP journalists to negotiate painstaking government permission. Inside the zone, Belarus has authorized an experimental farm to operate for the past decade. Today it contains 265 horses, 56 cows and apiaries buzzing with honey bees.

The farm director, Mikhail Kirpichenko, said he’s permitted to pursue commercial ventures, including the sale last year of 100 horses to a Belarusian manufacturer of kumys, a popular beverage in swathes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Kumys is produced from fermented mares’ milk.

“We’re not afraid of radiation. We’ve already gotten used to it,” said Kirpichenko, who suggested that his horses had to pass a basic eyesight test to confirm their good health.

“Horses aren’t being born with two heads or without legs. There are no such mutations,” he said. “This Chernobyl syndrome passed long ago.”

Associated Press reporters Jim Heintz and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Pietro DeCristofaro in Geneva and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this story.


No medals for Olympic Committee

When the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Games, it inadvertently put a spotlight on one of the world’s most unapologetically corrupt, bigoted and despotic nations. If committee members thought the event would have a civilizing effect on Russia, they should have looked to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

The choice of Vladimir Putin’s favorite semitropical resort to host the Winter Games is proving to be an unparalleled disaster on several fronts in addition to the iffy weather.

The IOC’s selection of Sochi was a slap in the face of LGBT people every- where. Russia has criminalized public displays of non-heterosexual behavior and expressions of pro-equality sentiment. Putin’s government openly encourages and coddles gay bashers and killers.

With a price tag of $51 billion, the Sochi Games are already the most expensive in history — five times as costly as the Vancouver Games. The outrageous cost overruns are largely due to bribes, payoffs and kickbacks to Putin’s cronies, who run the government in the same fashion as the Mafia.

A report by Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, and Leonid Martynyuk, a member of the Solidarity movement, claims Russian officials have stolen nearly three times Putin’s original estimate of $12 billion to produce the games. Olympic contractor Valery Morozov is one of many to be stung by public officials. He says he was told by local Olympic officials to add about $30 million to his bill, which he was instructed to turn over to them through phantom companies.

After going public with the scam, Morozov learned that a hit was ordered on him. He’s living, for now at least, under asylum in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the state company Olympstroi, which is in charge of Sochi construction, is the subject of three criminal investigations. Of course, it’s not likely that any of them will reach a courtroom, much less that anyone will face punishment. Russia’s deplorable prison camps are filled with political dissenters like the recently released punk rockers Pussy Riot, not with the criminals who generate much of the nation’s economic activity.

Russia’s ruthless treatment of the former Soviet Union’s satellite nations has unleashed a backlash that makes the nation among the most despised on earth — and consequently one of the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Bombings in Volgograd timed in connection with the passing of the Olympic torch through the city on Dec. 30 killed 34 people.

Muslim groups have issued a chilling warning to expect more of the same. The Pentagon has assured the press that the U.S. Navy has stationed a destroyer and an amphibious ship in the Black Sea near Sochi in case a crisis arises.

We believe that a crisis arose on the day the IOC chose Sochi for the Winter Games. The Olympics were created to stand for a “universal quest for peace, moral integrity and an exalted mix of mind, body, and spirit that transcends culture.” Nothing about the savage, corrupt nation of Russia embodies that standard.

If disaster should strike the Games, IOC members who pushed to have them held in Sochi must be held accountable.

Putin frees his enemies as part of Sochi spin

It came as a shock both for those released and the general public — President Vladimir Putin’s move to pardon his foes has allowed him to drive the news agenda less than two months before the Sochi Games.

Putin is dribbling out a headline day after day in the media. First, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released after a decade in prison, then Pussy Riot activists were pardoned and now 30 Greenpeace activists are awaiting their turn.

The abrupt move by Putin to release his adversaries mixed the elements of an astute spin effort with a crude KGB-style operation. The pardons could help repair some of the damage to Russia’s image before the Winter Olympics, which run Feb. 7-23, but it doesn’t ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and other issues, including gay rights, and keeps tight Kremlin control over Russia’s political scene unchanged.

No one in Russia expected Putin to release Khodorkovsky, his arch-foe and once Russia’s richest man, after more than a decade in prison. In fact, most observers felt pretty certain that authorities would file another set of criminal charges against the former oil tycoon to prevent him from walking free after serving his term.

One-time Kremlin insider, political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, saw the gloomy expectations as part of a carefully choreographed performance ending with Khodorkovsky’s surprise release and his swift move to Germany.

“It’s quite obvious that it was timed for Christmas,” Pavlovsky said. “Putin has turned it into a big European and global show.”

Putin announced his decision to pardon Khodorkovsky as he was walking out of a four-hour news conference in response to a question from a Kremlin-friendly news outlet. If he did that at the news conference, it would have diverted attention from other subjects and spoiled the show.

Khodorkovsky told the media in Berlin that Putin’s statement came as a surprise to him, even though he had submitted a request for a pardon on German advice. A few hours later, he was taken from his bunk in the middle of the night, flown away from prison in a helicopter and put on a Germany-bound private jet.

Some compared Khodorkovsky’s release to the expulsion of dissidents during Cold War times, when Putin served as a KGB officer.

One motive behind the secretive effort could be a desire to prevent Khodorkovsky from making a triumphant exit from prison to dozens of TV cameras – something the KGB also tried to do when they quickly and quietly escorted foes of the Soviet regime out of the country.

Khodorkovsky’s release topped the news for several days. Then, on Monday came the turn of the two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were serving two-year terms for an irreverent protest against Putin at Moscow’s main cathedral in March 2012.

The two women didn’t receive the same secretive treatment that Khodorkovsky had and were quickly released. Maria Alekhina was driven to a railway station, but walked away and went to a local non-governmental organization. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went to her grandmother’s home after being released from prison and briefly speaking to journalists.

“They were released at a speed unseen in a clumsy Russian prison system,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst who had close links with the Kremlin in the past. “There must have been a strict order to do it quickly.”

Immediately upon their release, the band members slammed Putin’s amnesty as a publicity stunt, and Tolokonnikova called for a boycott of the Sochi Games to protest Russia’s human rights record. They likely will remain a thorn in Putin’s side, but keeping them in prison through the Olympics until their term expires in March could have posed a much bigger problem for the Kremlin, serving as a globally recognizable symbol of Russia’s intolerance to dissent.

Next on the list is the 30-member crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, who spent two months in jail for a protest outside Russia’s Arctic oil platform. They are waiting for a stamp in their passports to be able to leave Russia, something expected within days.

The timing of the amnesty was carefully chosen to prevent Putin from looking as if he caved in to pressure. For many years, the Kremlin has ignored calls at home and abroad for Khodorkovsky’s release, and it has likewise stonewalled protests against jailing the Pussy Riot band members from some of the world’s leading musicians and renowned public figures.

The amnesty came at the moment when few expected it.

By pardoning his most visible foes and critics, Putin removes some of the most visible irritants in Russia’s relations with the West that threatened to stain the Olympics, his pet project.

But other problems continue to mar Russia-West ties.

Putin’s efforts to block Ukraine’s pact with the European Union have caused dismay in both Brussels and Washington.

The Kremlin law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” that activists and Western governments denounced as discriminatory against gays remains and will continue to draw protests in the run-up and during the Olympics. Putin has shown no intention to rescind the legislation that he cast as a necessary part of efforts to shore up Russia’s traditional values.

And other repressive laws, rubber-stamped by the Kremlin-controlled parliament after Putin’s election to a third term, also stand. In response to mass protests in Moscow against Putin’s rule, legislators sharply hiked fines for participants in unauthorized protests and imposed new tight restrictions on non-government organizations, which the Kremlin sees as an outlet of Western influence.

“The government wants to show mercy, but if someone else challenges the government on issues that it considers important, it will show no clemency,” said Alexei Makarkin, a deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based independent think-tank. “If some businessman decides tomorrow to finance the opposition, he may share the fate of Khodorkovsky.”

In a clear signal to the opposition that the Kremlin has no intention to ease control, Putin’s amnesty freed only few of more than 20 people arrested for their role in a May 2012 protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration that ended in scuffles with police.

Ukrainian court cancels gay Pride

A Ukrainian court on May 23 banned what would have been Ukraine’s first-ever gay Pride celebration, upholding a suit by city authorities, who argued the rally would disturb annual Kiev Day celebrations and could spark violence.

The ruling dashed the hopes of Ukraine’s LGBT community, which planned to use the event to fight discrimination and derogatory stereotypes of gays. Last year, organizers canceled the event at the last minute when skinheads gathered at its planned location, intent on beating up the participants. Still, two leading activists were brutally beaten by radicals in subsequent weeks.

While the recognition of gay rights advances in much of the West, antipathy toward gays remains strong in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Homosexuality was a criminal offense in the USSR and societal resistance to it remains strong two decades later.

The highly influential Orthodox Church strongly opposes gay rights. A small gay Pride rally in the capital of Georgia last week was attacked by a large mob that included Orthodox priests; attempted rallies in Moscow in recent years attract crowds of bellicose Orthodox conservatives.

The gay community is now pondering whether to hold the even at a different location, far away from Kiev Day celebrations, or merely hold a press briefly on the banning of the rally.

Amnesty International said in a recent report that Ukraine’s gay community suffers attacks and abuses and widespread discrimination. Despite condemnation from the West, the Ukrainian parliament is debating several anti-gay bills, including one which would make any public positive depiction of homosexuality punishable by up to five years in prison.

Ukraine scored 12 out of 100 points on the so-called Europe rainbow map, a study of gay rights and freedoms conducted by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. By comparison, Britain had 77 points.

“There is not enough information about who gays and lesbians really are,” said Volodymyr Naumenko, a leading gay rights activist here. “They are people, first of all, they are people who want happiness for themselves.”

While many Western countries debate and pass laws allowing gay marriage and gay adoption, those notions are still a distant dream for Ukrainian gays. Naumenko said his immediate concern is putting a stop to attacks on gays “and if they do beat you up, let it be prosecuted as a crime based on homophobia.”

Last year, a local gay-rights advocacy group, cited by Amnesty International, received 29 reports of violent attacks against gays and 36 complaints of threatened violence. Most of these crimes went unresolved, Amnesty said.

Last May, the gay Pride rally had to be called off at the last minute after scores of thugs had arrived near its planned location looking for trouble – some intent on defending traditional and church values, others with the goal of beating up gays. Even though the event was canceled, a top organizer was chased down by masked youths who kicked him in the head, legs and arms and then stomped on his back. Several weeks later another leading gay activist suffered a broken jaw and a concussion when he was attacked by men shouting homophobic insults.

Naumenko, 24, says it took him a while to reveal his sexuality to his friends and parents, but eventually he became tired of having to lie when asked about his plans for a family or having to describe a boyfriend walking next to him as merely a friend, a colleague or a distant cousin.

“It’s very unpleasant; you lie to the people who are dear to you,” Naumenko told The Associated Press at a hotel on the outskirts of Kiev, where he was training organizers of the Saturday rally to maintain order and react to possible violence.

Already, anti-gay communities on social media were seeking confrontation and plotting counter rallies and attacks. “How to stop this? Who to write to or call?” asked one member in a posting in one such online group. “Take a hammer and (strike) the skull,” replied another.

Gay community leaders say that less than 1 percent of Ukraine’s gays and lesbians are open about their sexual orientation, while the rest are forced to hide from friends and co-workers and deceive their loved ones. “A situation in which people see you as someone from the Moon or from Mars or from a psychiatric hospital is painful,” said Danil Los, a gay 23-year-old medical student who attended Naumenko’s seminar.

Ukraine may ban gays in TV, movies, rallies, parades

If a group of Ukrainian lawmakers succeeds in its mission, TV shows and movies sympathetically portraying gays such as “Brokeback Mountain” will be banned. So will gay Pride parades.

The recently introduced bill, supported by the president’s representative in parliament, would impose prison terms of up to five years and unspecified fines for spreading “propaganda of homosexuality” — defined as positive public depiction of gays in public.

It has sparked an outcry from rights organizations in Ukraine and beyond, who condemn the bill as a throwback to Soviet times when homosexuality was a criminal offense. They also warn that harassing the gay community could lead to a spike in the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine, one of Europe’s most severe, by driving gays further underground.

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in Ukraine and neighboring Russia after the fall of communism, animosity toward gays remains high across the former Soviet sphere. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and regarded as one of the country’s most sophisticated, this year passed a law mandating fines of up to $33,000 for promoting homosexuality among minors. A gay Pride parade in the Georgian capital ended in a scuffle with opponents in March.

The Ukrainian bill comes in the wake of organizers’ decision to cancel the country’s first gay Pride parade in May, which they made after hearing that hundreds of potentially violent opponents of gay rights had come to the capital.

Two Ukrainian gay rights activists have been brutally attacked in recent months.

The hostility toward gays raises concern wider questions about tolerance in Ukraine and whether the country is truly capable of embracing Western values as strives to join the European Union. In the run-up to last month’s European football championship, co-host Ukraine was rocked by allegations of racism, as fans at one stadium performed monkey chants directed at black players.

Pavlo Ungurian, one of the six lawmakers from various parties who authored the bill, told reporters Monday that growing acceptance of gay rights in the West is “not evolution, but degradation” and needed to be fought.

“Our goal is the preservation of the moral, spiritual and physical health of the nation,” Ungurian said. “We must stop the propaganda, the positive description and the publicity … of this abnormal lifestyle.”

Ruslan Kukharchuk, who heads the group “Love Against Homosexuality” and campaigns in support of the bill, said the legislation would make TV dating shows involving same-sex couples and movies like “Brokeback Mountain,” which explores the romantic relationship of two cowboys in the United States, illegal. Gay Pride events and parades would also be banned.

Kukharchuk charged that homosexuality is an illness and that people must be treated for it. In 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the international classification of illnesses.

“We believe that homosexuality is a disease, it is a psychological disorder of a person and without a doubt there must be institutions, perhaps even financed by the government, to help such people get rehabilitation therapy,” Kukharchuk said.

No date has been set for a vote on the bill in parliament, but Kukharchuk hopes it will be considered in September before a parliamentary election in October.

President Viktor Yanukovych has remained mum about the initiative, but the fact that his parliamentary representative Yuri Meroshnichenko supports the bill is an indication that Yanukovych may back it as well. It was unclear how much support the bill enjoys among lawmakers.

Anastasia Zhivkova, a gay rights activist, called the bill “a throwback to the Middle Ages” that would even further clamp down on Ukraine’s gays and lesbians, most of whom already hide their lifestyle because of a severe public stigma. For every one gay Ukrainian who is out, another 80 are forced to conceal their sexuality, according to gay groups.

The United Nations Development Program said in a statement that the bill amounts to “state-supported discrimination against” gay, lesbian and transgender groups and could fuel the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine, by preventing them from getting proper information on preventing and living with sexually transmitted diseases.

Zhivkova said gays are forced to hide their relationships not only from their work colleagues, but also from their relatives, often cutting vacation photos in two, to avoid showing who accompanied them.

“A great part of our life remains in the shadows,” Zhivkova said. “All the time you balance between being an outcast or a criminal.”

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