Updated at 18:18,16-07-2018

Chernobyl haven lures war-worn Ukrainians to dictatorship

By Aliaksandr Kudrytski, Bloomberg.com

You know things are bad in Ukraine when even people who risk radiation poisoning for a living decide the countrys too depressing to live in anymore.

For most of their adult lives, Andrey and Marina Komelkov were happy working in the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation because their jobs at the nuclear cleanup site paid well. But then the war with pro-Russian separatists started hundreds of miles to the east and they became convinced the countrys corruption-fed cycle of economic and political crises will never end.

So, determined to give their daughter a better life, they piled into their battered Russian-made minivan last month and moved to the dictatorship across the border: Belarus, said Andrey, 39. If the couple feels at home in their new village, thats because it was built, like their previous apartment in Ukraine, just outside the Chernobyl radiation zone to relocate residents of the region after the reactor meltdown in 1986.

We really like the stability in Belarus, Andrey said in an interview in Masty, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Belaruss capital Minsk and 300 kilometers north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Some people call President Lukashenko a dictator, but how would he manage people without being one? said Andrey, who was born in Russia and blames anti-government protesters in Kiev for unleashing the latest round of chaos.

On Fire

Lukashenko, in power more than 20 years and shunned by the U.S. and the European Union, is positioning himself as a peace broker to help end the worst standoff between Russia and its former Cold War foes in decades. Hes hosted talks between the belligerents in Ukraine twice this month, including the one in Minsk that led to a cease-fire on Sept. 5.

Officials in Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, say more than 3,000 Ukrainians have arrived since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in March and Lukashenko, 60, said his brotherly arms are open to fellow Slavs seeking to escape the ensuing war. The conflict has claimed more than 3,500 lives and driven what the United Nations says is at least 615,000 people from their homes, about 340,000 of whom have fled the country, mostly to nearby Russia.

The Slavic world is on fire, Lukashenko said on Russian state television after the truce was signed.

Denis Drozdov, 31, knows that all too well. Unlike the Komelkovs, who consider themselves economic refugees, Drozdov and his wife and two young children made their way to Masty to avoid being killed.

Violence Ruled

The Drozdovs came from Shakhtarsk, a city deep inside rebel-held territory in the Donetsk region, which has seen some of the most intense fighting. Months of skirmishes have turned what was once a quiet mining community into a lawless expanse of destruction, Denis said, adding that he supports the rebels cause in general, though not enough to kill or die for.

Shakhtarsk has been wiped off the earth, leveled by shelling, Denis said. Looting and violence ruled.

Denis fled with his family north at first, into the Kharkiv region. Then, in early August, he decided to take his family out of the country altogether to avoid being drafted into Ukraines army, where he feared being forced to fight in the fratricidal war.

Like the Komelkovs, the Drozdovs received an apartment in Masty and the promise of employment once they complete their residency paperwork. Both families, two of seven who have already arrived or are on their way, say theyve been warmly welcomed by the towns 54 official inhabitants.

Shrinking Salary

Andrey, a telecommunications engineer at Chernobyl, already has a job as chief electrician at a local agriculture company, where Denis, a handyman back in Shakhtarsk, will soon start work doing construction.

Belarus may turn Andrey into a millionaire, but it wont make him rich. The average monthly wage in his field is 5.3 million Belarusian rubles ($500), according to government data. In Chernobyl, he made 10,000 hryvnia a month, which was worth about $1,200 when the Kiev protests turned bloody in February, leading to the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Now its $750.

The differences between the two former Soviet republics is stark, even though they share ethnic and trade ties that go back centuries. While Belarus has chosen to remain firmly within its old imperial master Russias orbit, Ukraines new government is pulling away in pursuit of EU membership.

Ukraine, with a population of 43 million, is Belaruss largest trading partner after Russia, with turnover of $6 billion last year. The two countries share a 1,100 kilometer frontier and both border Poland, a member of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Repression, Corruption

Yet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus, though economically and politically stable, has emerged as one of the most repressive nations in the world, according to the U.S. and the EU, whereas Ukraine, much freer, has become the most corrupt country in Europe, according to Transparency International.

Yanukovych, the deposed president, and his allies moved $70 billion into offshore accounts as they fled the country, leaving state coffers empty and robbed, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in February. Partly as a result of that, the economy of Ukraine, which has already endured three recessions since 2008, may contract 10 percent this year, according to the central bank.

Belaruss economy, on the other hand, expanded 1.5 percent in January through August compared with the same period last year, according to the National Statistics Committee in Minsk. When the Soviet Union disbanded, Belarus and Ukraine had similar gross domestic products, of $1,747 and $1,490 per capita, respectively, according to the World Bank. Now Belarus is almost twice as rich as its neighbor, with per capita GDP of $7,575 versus Ukraines $3,900.

Looking at it that way, Andrey said the choice between corruption and repression is no choice at all.

People obey the law here, Andrey said. All drivers are buckled up and rarely speed. Theres some red tape, but not a single clerk has demanded a bribe.

To contact the reporter on this story: Aliaksandr Kudrytski in Minsk, Belarus at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at [email protected] Brad Cook, Paul Abelsky