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Explaining Divergent Foreign Aid Flows to Belarusian and Ukrainian Children After the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, 1986–2011


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This dissertation examines foreign humanitarian aid to Belarusian and Ukrainian children after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Although the scale of such aid was impressive, it was unequal: Belarusian children attracted much more attention than their Ukrainian counterparts. My research addresses the puzzle of why Belarusian "Children of Chernobyl" received such a large volume of aid. I use historical process tracing to delve into the Belarusian case, then compare Belarus with Ukraine.
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Explaining Divergent Foreign Aid Flows to Belarusian and Ukrainian
Children After the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, 19862011
Submitted as a Dissertation for the Master of Philosophy Degree Programme
Politics and International Studies
University of Cambridge
Isabelle K. M. DeSisto
June 2021
19,885 Words
This dissertation examines foreign humanitarian aid to Belarusian and Ukrainian children
after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Although the scale of such aid was impressive, it was
unequal: Belarusian children attracted much more attention than their Ukrainian counterparts. My
research addresses the puzzle of why Belarusian “Children of Chernobyl” received such a large
volume of aid. I use historical process tracing to delve into the Belarusian case, then compare
Belarus with Ukraine.
I argue that the domestic and foreign policy strategies of Belarusian political actors best
explain the scale of foreign assistance to the Children of Chernobyl. Three main factors drove aid
flows. First, opposition activists wielded aid in their political struggle against Belarus’s
authoritarian government. Second, Gennadiy Grushevoy, a charity director and regime critic, was
an important driver of aid in his own right. Third, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko
used aid to counteract the international isolation he faced due to Western sanctions. The absence
of these factors in Ukraine explains why aid to that country was comparatively limited.
This dissertation sheds light on how the politics of recipient countries shape aid flowsa
topic neglected in the prevailing literature on foreign humanitarian aid. My conclusions suggest
that political conditions, not need, are the key drivers of aid. More unexpectedly, I find that a
repressive political system may sometimes be more conducive to foreign aid, particularly if aid
becomes a weapon in a domestic political struggle. Finally, this dissertation advances our
understanding of a heretofore overlooked aspect of the history and politics of the Chernobyl
disaster: the Children of Chernobyl.
Table of Contents
Abstract ........................................................................................................................................... i
List of Abbreviations ................................................................................................................... iv
Introduction ................................................................................................................................... 1
Background ............................................................................................................................................... 2
Puzzle and Research Question .................................................................................................................. 3
Argument ................................................................................................................................................... 4
Dissertation Outline ................................................................................................................................... 6
Chapter 1: The Children of Chernobyl in Debates on Foreign Aid ......................................... 8
(1.1) The Foreign Aid Literature: A Donor’s Perspective ........................................................................ 9
(1.2) Scholarship on Foreign Humanitarian Aid: Debates and Shortcomings ........................................ 11
(1.3) The Politics of Foreign Humanitarian Aid in the Recipient Country ............................................. 15
(1.5) Hypotheses ...................................................................................................................................... 18
(1.6) Methodology ................................................................................................................................... 19
Chapter 2: Chernobyl Relief Programs in Historical Context ............................................... 23
(2.1) Explosion and Fallout Across the USSR ........................................................................................ 23
(2.2) Soviet-style Disaster Management ................................................................................................. 26
(2.3) Chernobyl and Glasnost-era Mobilization in Belarus and Ukraine ................................................ 27
(2.4) Post-Independence Regime Consolidation and Social Policies...................................................... 28
(2.5) Trends in Chernobyl Relief Aid ..................................................................................................... 30
(2.6) Local Drivers of Children of Chernobyl Programs ........................................................................ 32
(2.7) The Puzzle of Aid to Children of Chernobyl in Belarus ................................................................ 36
Chapter 3: The Children of Chernobyl in Belarus .................................................................. 38
(3.1) Pre-Independence Opposition Mobilization ................................................................................... 39
(3.2) Post-Independence Activism and Official Suspicion ..................................................................... 42
(3.3) Lukashenko’s Reactionary Chernobyl Narrative............................................................................ 43
(3.4) Responses From the Belarusian Opposition ................................................................................... 45
(3.5) Waves of State Repression ............................................................................................................. 48
(3.6) Lukashenko Clamps Down on Health Trips ................................................................................... 52
(3.7) Understanding Lukashenko’s Contradictory Behavior .................................................................. 55
(3.8) The Decline of Foreign Aid to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl................................................. 59
Summary ................................................................................................................................................. 61
Chapter 4: Comparing Aid to Belarus and Ukraine ............................................................... 62
(4.1) Contrasting the Behavior of Belarusian and Ukrainian Leaders Pre-Independence ...................... 63
(4.2) Post-Independence Chernobyl Narratives and Opposition Engagement ........................................ 66
(4.3) Individual Agency, and Lack Thereof ............................................................................................ 69
(4.4) Foreign Policy and Foreign Aid ..................................................................................................... 73
(4.5) Tackling Alternative Explanations: Who Needed Aid More? ........................................................ 76
Summary ................................................................................................................................................. 81
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 83
Bibliography ................................................................................................................................ 88
List of Abbreviations
BCCF Belarusian Charitable Fund “For the Children of Chernobyl”
BCDP Belarusian Christian Democratic Party
BPF Belarusian Popular Front
EC European Commission
EU European Union
ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross
IGO Intergovernmental organization
Komsomol All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (the youth wing of the Soviet
Communist Party)
NARB National Archive of the Republic of Belarus
NGO Non-governmental organization
NPP Nuclear power plant
OECD Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
PMC Philip Morris Company
Rukh Movement for Perestroika
TDAHO Central State Archive of Public Organizations of Ukraine
UK United Kingdom
UN United Nations
U.S. United States
USSR Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union
In 2000, over 60,000 Belarusian children traveled abroad as part of a large-scale
humanitarian aid campaign for victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
A group of
children from the Cherven Orphanage in Belarus spent the summer in County Clare, Ireland, where
they lived with host families and received treatment for radiation-related illnesses and physical
Brother Liam O’Meara, a cleric and head of the charity that brought the children to
Ireland, was proud of his work.
“We are making a difference for the children in Cherven,” he
wrote. “The visits to Ireland for rest, medical care and recuperation are all of great benefit to the
children…. Things are moving in the right direction.
Two years later, the director of the Belarusian orphanage sent O’Meara a letter ordering
the children to return to Belarus.
Within a week, the children had bid farewell to their Irish host
families and boarded a plane to Minsk.
The aid program’s future was now in limbo. O’Meara
contacted various ministries to resolve the issue, but to no avail.
Belarusian authorities maintained
that the government needed to develop new regulations before disabled children could travel
In this dissertation, I use spellings of names and places that appear more commonly in English-language sources.
Often, these are transliterations of the Russian words, instead of their Ukrainian or Belarusian equivalents. For
example, I use “Chernobyl” rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl” and “Aleksandr Lukashenko” rather than the
Belarusian “Alyaksandr Lukashenka,” as the former are more familiar to an English-speaking audience.
I use the terms “Belarusian” and “Ukrainian” to refer to people living in two countries, not ethnic groups. Melanie
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children: The Transnational Story of a Nuclear Disaster [Tschernobylkinder: Die
transnationale Geschichte einer nuklearen Katastrophe] (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020), 44243.
Liam O’Meara, Fallout: The Children of Belarus and the People of Ireland After Chernobyl (Dublin: Columba
Press, 2003).
“From the Burren to Belarus, 30 Years after Chernobyl Disaster,” The Clare Champion, April 17, 2016,
O’Meara, Fallout, 97.
Gordon Deegan, “Chernobyl kids ‘must return’ to Belarus orphanage,” Independent.Ie, October 25, 2002,
to-belarus-orphanage-26032297.html; O’Meara, Fallout, 117.
Minsk is the capital of Belarus. Gordon Deegan, “Families to plead for Chernobyl children,”,
October 29, 2002,
O’Meara, Fallout, 128.
As of 2003, children from the Cherven Orphanage had yet to return to the Emerald Isle.
O’Meara, for his part, remained willing to help. “Now we wait for the new legislation,” he wrote.
“We wait with pining hearts.”
O’Meara’s unpleasant encounter with Belarusian authorities illustrates the reality that even
though foreign humanitarian aid strives to be “impartial, neutral, and independent, such aid is
inseparable from politics.
My research examines an understudied dimension of post-Chernobyl
politics: the factors that affected foreign humanitarian aid to Belarusian and Ukrainian children in
the quarter century after the accident. Despite similar levels of human suffering, aid to these groups
was highly unequal. This dissertation seeks to explain this inconsistency and provide insight into
the politics of foreign aid programs.
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Soviet Ukraine
exploded. Fallout swept across Soviet Union, contaminating huge swaths of territory. Belarus and
Ukraine were particularly hard-hit; although radioactive particles contaminated a larger proportion
of Belarusian territory, the damage to both republics was staggering. The intensity of political
involvement in the Chernobyl accident mirrored the size of the explosion. Chernobyl not only
exposed the dangers of nuclear power, but also shed light on the failings of the Soviet system,
which was plagued by bureaucracy and secrecy. The accident fueled the environmental movement
and other forms of social mobilization in the twilight of the Soviet period.
As information about
O’Meara, 128–29.
O’Meara, 139.
Quote drawn from: Michael N. Barnett, “Humanitarian Governance,” Annual Review of Political Science 16, no. 1
(2013): 382.
See, for example: Mark R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, Cambridge
Studies in Comparative Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 25354; Kate Brown, Manual for
Chernobyl’s dire health consequences spread, organizations across the globe offered aid to victims,
particularly children. The scale of this assistance was impressive. In 2002, for example, the United
Nations (UN) described a subset of these effortsthe health trips for children from affected
territories—as “possibly the largest and most sustained international voluntary welfare programme
in human history.”
Puzzle and Research Question
The programs that delivered assistance to the so-called “Children of Chernobyl,a catch-
all term for children who were affected by the disaster, present a puzzle. Although Belarusian and
Ukrainian youth both suffered psychological and physical health problems after the Chernobyl
accident, the volume of foreign humanitarian aid to each group varied considerably. Charities sent
Belarusian children on health trips in greater numbers and media disproportionately reported on
conditions in Belarusian hospitals and orphanages. A lack of comprehensive statistics makes it
impossible to quantify the precise differences in aid allocation and media coverage, but abundant
evidence indicates that Belarus was the primary recipient. Between 1998 and 2020, for example,
the BBC published 57 articles that featured Belarusian Children of Chernobyl and omitted
Ukrainian children, but only 9 that focused exclusively on Ukrainians.
That Belarusian children
Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 229; Jane I. Dawson,
Eco-Nationalism: Anti-Nuclear Activism and National Identity in Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1996); Olga Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health
Effects after Chernobyl, Infrastructures Series (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014), chap. 3;
Aliaksandr Novikau, “The Evolution of the Environmental Movement in Belarus: From Chernobyl to Global
Climate Change,” Environmental Sociology 1, no. 2 (April 3, 2015): 92101; Graeme B. Robertson, The Politics of
Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2011), 63.
“The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: A Strategy for Recovery” (UNDP and UNICEF,
2002), 62,
See Section 7 of Chapter 2 for more information about how I conducted this media analysis.
received so much foreign attention is particularly surprising given that the Belarusian government
was hostile to foreign influence, while Ukraine welcomed such efforts.
This dissertation asks why foreign humanitarian aid to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl
was greater than aid to their Ukrainian counterparts. I devote the bulk of the dissertation to
unpacking the Belarusian case, which best illuminates the complex politics of aid; Ukraine serves
as a foil to Belarus. I focus on the period from 1986 to 2011, which encompasses the 25 years after
the Chernobyl accident, when humanitarian aid programs were most active. My approach is
grounded in historical process tracing and comparative analysis. I leverage primary and secondary
sources in multiple languages, including newspaper articles, archival documents, and government
publications, to explore five hypotheses that may help explain why Belarus received more aid than
I argue that the high volume of foreign humanitarian aid to Children of Chernobyl in
Belarus was a product of how Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko and his opposition
mobilized aid to advance their domestic and foreign policy goals. Three key factors drove foreign
aid flows. First, opposition activists wielded aid as a tool in their political struggle against
Belarus’s authoritarian government. When Lukashenko cultivated a narrative that minimized the
consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, activists responded by weaponizing images of sick
children to attract foreign aid and denounce the regime. Second, Gennadiy Grushevoy, a charity
director and Lukashenko critic, was an important driver of aid in his own right. Grushevoy used
his charisma and contacts with foreigners like O’Meara to advocate for Chernobyl victims,
incurring significant personal risk. Third, Lukashenko used aid as a means of building relations
with Western countries. Despite the danger of foreign aid’s connection to his opposition, the
Belarusian president chose to coopt aid rather than eliminate it. Above all, he hoped aid would
help counteract the international isolation he faced due to Western sanctions, which precluded
most forms of cooperation beyond Chernobyl relief projects. Together, these three factors
opposition engagement, the presence of a vocal activist, and Lukashenko’s use of aid as a foreign
policy toolcatalyzed generous foreign humanitarian aid for Belarusian Children of Chernobyl.
The absence of these factors in Ukraine explains why aid to that country was comparatively
limited. First, while the Belarusian government minimized Chernobyl, the Ukrainian government
acknowledged victims’ suffering. Ironically, this recognition reduced foreign aid for victims, as
local actors lacked incentives to transform disadvantaged children into a political tool. Second, no
Grushevoy-like figure led an aid crusade in Ukraine. Third, Ukraine’s integration with the West
created ample opportunities for cooperation beyond Chernobyl relief. Foreign donors prioritized
aid for democracy promotion and reform programsinitiatives that were politically impossible in
authoritarian Belarusover disaster relief. These differences between Belarus and Ukraine not
only explain why aid for Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl was scarcer, but also reinforce our
understanding of how Belarusian politics drove aid allocation.
This dissertation makes several contributions to existing scholarship. Most significantly, I
offer insights into how the politics of the recipient country shape aid flowsa topic neglected in
the prevailing literature on foreign humanitarian aid, which often takes the perspective of donors.
My conclusions confirm that political conditions, not need, are the key drivers of aid. More
unexpectedly, I find that a repressive political system may sometimes be more conducive to foreign
aid, particularly if aid becomes a weapon in a domestic political struggle. Finally, this dissertation
advances our understanding of a heretofore overlooked aspect of the history and politics of the
Chernobyl disaster: the Children of Chernobyl.
Figure 1: Argument summary
Dissertation Outline
Chapter 1 situates aid to the Children of Chernobyl within the bodies of literature on foreign
aid and, more specifically, foreign humanitarian aid. I summarize the main debates surrounding
the determinants and effectiveness of aid, arguing that scholars generally prioritize donors and
downplay the role of recipients in shaping aid allocation and delivery. Drawing from the foreign
aid literature and Keck and Sikkink’s work on transnational advocacy networks, I outline five
hypotheses to explain why Belarusian Children of Chernobyl received more aid than Ukrainian
children. Finally, I explain the case study methodology I adopt to explore these hypotheses.
In Chapter 2, I contextualize foreign humanitarian aid to the Children of Chernobyl. I begin
by tracing the Soviet government’s response to the Chernobyl accident. I then compare Belarus’s
and Ukraine’s disaster management policies and summarize the trends in foreign aid for Chernobyl
relief in both countries. Lastly, I provide an overview of the unique dynamics of aid for children
and discuss the puzzle of foreign aid to Children of Chernobyl in Belarus.
Chapter 3 examines the Belarusian case in detail, using primary sources to analyze how
the Belarusian opposition, local organizations, and the Lukashenko regime mobilized foreign aid
for the Children of Chernobyl to advance their political goals. I identify three main factors that
drove the high volume of aid: the political struggle between the Belarusian opposition and their
government; the presence of a vocal activist on behalf of Belarusian children; and the ability of
foreign aid to counteract Lukashenko’s international isolation. I argue that domestic and foreign
political considerations made foreign aid both a threat and an opportunity for the Belarusian
president, which explains why he sought to control such assistance, rather than eliminate it.
Chapter 4 contrasts Belarus, where aid for the Children of Chernobyl was plentiful, with
Ukraine, where it was relatively scarce. I highlight how Ukraine’s distinct Chernobyl narrative,
lack of a leading aid crusader, and integration with the West prevented the development of a
dynamic foreign aid campaign. I also evaluate alternative hypotheses for the divergence in aid,
illustrating why explanations based on differing social policies and need are inadequate.
In the conclusion, I situate the Children of Chernobyl within Belarus’s contemporary
political climate, introducing Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Chernobyl child who grew up to
challenge the Lukashenko regime. I then summarize my findings and suggest avenues for future
research on the role of recipient country politics in foreign humanitarian aid allocation. For
example, my findings may shed light on other cases of uneven aid allocation to countries affected
by disaster and conflict. The Children of Chernobyl also merit further exploration. In particular,
Tikhanovskaya’s political activism highlights the value of investigating how foreign aid programs
may have impacted children’s political views. As Belarus continues to make headlines for
Lukashenko’s crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations and dissident journalists, the
international community increasingly looks to young people as a source of political change.
Chapter 1: The Children of Chernobyl in Debates on Foreign Aid
The scale of international humanitarian aid grew dramatically in the post-Cold War
However, explanations for this trend—including powerful states’ increasing willingness
to use aid as a foreign policy tooldo not tell us why Belarusian Children of Chernobyl received
more attention than Ukrainian children.
In this chapter, I situate the puzzle of assistance to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl within
the rich literature on foreign aid. I begin by discussing the main debates in foreign aid scholarship,
which center around the determinants and effectiveness of aid. I argue that by prioritizing donors,
such writings neglect the role of political actors in recipient countries. I then explore the
scholarship on foreign humanitarian aid, which also takes the perspective of international donors.
I demonstrate that even when scholars identify the hierarchies in donor-recipient relationships,
they fail to show how recipients influence aid flows. The final sections of the chapter highlight my
contribution. Using the cases of aid to Belarusian and Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl, this
dissertation illustrates how foreign humanitarian aid interacts with the politics of the recipient
country. I disrupt the donor-recipient hierarchy by investigating how recipient country
governments and their challengers use aid to pursue political goals. I then present five hypotheses
to explain the puzzle of why more aid went to Belarus. Lastly, I outline my case study design.
Many authors acknowledge this trend in their work, among them: Alexander De Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics
and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, African Issues (Oxford; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997),
79; Michael N. Barnett and Raymond Duvall, eds., Power in Global Governance, Cambridge Studies in
International Relations 98 (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1; James Fearon, “The
Rise of Emergency Relief Aid,” in Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 2011); Barnett, “Humanitarian Governance,” 386; Johannes Paulmann, Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the
Twentieth Century, Studies of the German Historical Institute London (Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.
See, for example: De Waal, Famine Crimes, 13334; Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line:
Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (London: VERSO, 2000); Sarah Kenyon Lischer, “Military
Intervention and the Humanitarian ‘Force Multiplier,’” Global Governance 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 99119.
Other explanations cite the rise of the Western-dominated human rights movement and the expansion of markets:
David Chandler and Edward S. Herman, From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International
Intervention (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Thomas L. Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian
Sensibility, Part 1,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 2 (April 1985): 33961.
(1.1) The Foreign Aid Literature: A Donor’s Perspective
While a complete accounting of the literature on foreign aid is outside the scope of this
dissertation, two key trends are relevant to my research. First, most political science literature on
foreign aid examines either the determinants or the effects of aid. Second, in addressing these
topics, authors overwhelmingly adopt the donor country’s perspective.
When scholars investigate the determinants of foreign aid flows, they focus on the ways
donors decide who gets aid, and how much. Numerous studies probe the sources of popular support
for foreign aid within the donor country, identifying factors ranging from ideology and national
to religiosity and knowledge about poverty and international affairs.
Other scholars
assess how donor governments allocate aid.
Foreign policy considerations emerge as especially
salient determinants of aid. Alesina and Dollar, for example, find that donors prioritize political
and strategic considerations, like democracy promotion and political alliances, over efficiency
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith, as well as Licht, conclude that donors use aid to prop
up vulnerable foreign allies.
Additionally, tensions between the objectives of public and private
donors influence foreign aid flows.
Zhiming Cheng and Russell Smyth, “Why Give It Away When You Need It Yourself? Understanding Public
Support for Foreign Aid in China,” The Journal of Development Studies 52, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 5371.
Pamela Paxton and Stephen Knack, “Individual and Country-Level Factors Affecting Support for Foreign Aid,”
International Political Science Review 33, no. 2 (March 1, 2012): 17192.
See, for example: Alberto Alesina and David Dollar, “Who Gives Foreign Aid to Whom and Why?” Journal of
Economic Growth 5, no. 1 (2000): 33–63; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, “Foreign Aid and Policy
Concessions,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 2 (April 1, 2007): 25184; John M. Kirk and H. Michael
Erisman, Cuban Medical Internationalism: Origins, Evolution, and Goals (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009);
Amanda A. Licht, “Coming into Money: The Impact of Foreign Aid on Leader Survival,” The Journal of Conflict
Resolution 54, no. 1 (2010): 5887.
Alesina and Dollar, “Who Gives Foreign Aid to Whom and Why?”
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith, “Foreign Aid and Policy Concessions”; Licht, “Coming into Money.”
Brian H. Smith, More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 2014); Aelwen D. Wetherby, Private Aid, Political Activism: American Medical Relief to Spain and China,
19361949 (Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2017).
Another strand of literature evaluates foreign aid’s impact on recipient countries. This
scholarship still prioritizes the donor’s perspective, as it investigates the extent to which foreign
aid policies accomplish donors’ goals, like promoting democracy, increasing regime stability, and
reducing poverty.
Scholars cite various reasons why aid often proves ineffective, including
coordination problems and fragmentation within the donor community.
Given that donor
governments provide aid to shore up foreign allies, authors also consider the impact of aid on
regime legitimacy within the recipient country. Yet there is no consensus on whether aid helps or
harms recipient governments. Some writers conclude that aid may bolster state legitimacy by
filling a void in public goods provision, while others suggest that aid reduces legitimacy by calling
attention to the state’s retreat from its welfare obligations.
Although the literature often refers to “foreign aid” in general terms, it is important for
scholars to avoid conflating different types of aid. While aid comes in many forms, most of the
studies cited above use “foreign aid” to describe military, economic, or development assistance
provided by one government to another. Many of the insights these scholars offer, particularly
regarding the political drivers of aid, are broadly applicable. This dissertation, however, focuses
on humanitarian aid, which best characterizes the assistance foreign donors provided to the
Two examples are: Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, “Foreign Political Aid: The German Political Foundations and
Their US Counterparts,” International Affairs 67, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 3363; Laura Seelkopf and Ida Bastiaens,
“Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 17? An Empirical Investigation of the Effectiveness of Aid Given to
Boost Developing Countries’ Tax Revenue and Capacity,” International Studies Quarterly 64, no. 4 (2020): 991
Stephen Knack and Aminur Rahman, “Donor Fragmentation and Bureaucratic Quality in Aid Recipients,”
Journal of Development Economics 83, no. 1 (May 1, 2007): 176–97; Seelkopf and Bastiaens, “Achieving
Sustainable Development Goal 17?”; Haley J. Swedlund, The Development Dance: How Donors and Recipients
Negotiate the Delivery of Foreign Aid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).
For more on the debate around aid and regime legitimacy, see: Nora Gottlieb, Dani Filc, and Nadav Davidovitch,
“Medical Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Political Advocacy: The Case of the Israeli Open Clinic,” Social
Science & Medicine, Part Special Issue: Migration, “illegality”, and health: Mapping embodied vulnerability and
debating health-related deservingness, 74, no. 6 (March 1, 2012): 839–45; Lindsay R. Dolan, “Rethinking Foreign
Aid and Legitimacy: Views from Aid Recipients in Kenya,” Studies in Comparative International Development 55,
no. 2 (June 1, 2020): 143–59; Licht, “Coming into Money.”
Children of Chernobyl. Concentrating on humanitarian aid helps me better contextualize and
evaluate the complex interactions between donor and recipient organizations in Belarus and
Ukraine, as well as their governments.
(1.2) Scholarship on Foreign Humanitarian Aid: Debates and Shortcomings
Scholars offer various definitions of humanitarian aid. According to Barnett, the “more
restrictive definition” limits humanitarian aid to “the impartial, neutral, and independent provision
of relief to victims of conflict and natural disasters,” while the “more generous definition”
encompasses “any activity that is intended to relieve suffering, stop preventable harm, save lives
at risk, and improve the welfare of vulnerable populations.”
The most prominent providers of
humanitarian aid are intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), including UN agencies, economic
organizations like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and
regional organizations like the European Union (EU), as well as nongovernmental organizations
Drawing on Findley and the OECD, I delineate humanitarian aid as “medical, food, and
other assistance” provided in response to “natural or man-made disasters.”
Such disasters include
war and other types of conflict, abnormal weather events, as well as major technical failures like
the explosion at the Chernobyl NPP. My definition corresponds to Barnett’s restricted concept of
humanitarianism, but it rejects the notion that humanitarian aid must be “impartial, neutral, and
Barnett, “Humanitarian Governance,” 382–83.
Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
2011), 17.
Michael G. Findley, “Does Foreign Aid Build Peace?” Annual Review of Political Science 21, no. 1 (2018): 362;
Günther Fink and Silvia Redaelli, “Determinants of International Emergency Aid—Humanitarian Need Only?”
World Development 39, no. 5 (2011): 743.
Barnett, “Humanitarian Governance,” 382.
Both the literature and my analysis of aid to Belarus and Ukraine reinforce the idea that
foreign humanitarian aid is rarely neutral. Politics feature heavily in all the major strains of
literature on the topicfrom questions about donors’ motivations to debates over the allocation
and effects of aid. Like the broader literature on foreign aid, research on the politics of
humanitarian aid concentrates primarily on donors.
Debates surrounding donors’ motivations confound the idea that such actors pursue purely
altruistic goals. While donors may “feign a nonpolitical, humanitarian vocation,” writes McFalls,
their “missions and methods” are intimately intertwined with politics.
Chomsky, for example,
stresses that the United States designs foreign aid not to help the neediest, but to advance its
strategic interests.
Fassin similarly criticizes states and IGOs for “tak[ing] up the symbolic
mantle of humanitarian reason in order to justify and legitimate their actions, including military
Nor are NGOs blameless. Although they may denounce such distortions of
humanitarianism, they often collaborate with states and international institutions on aid projects in
the aftermath of military intervention.
Furthermore, while governmental assistance boosts
NGOs’ ability to support humanitarian causes, it also allows states to manipulate aid agencies.
After the 1990s, states provided help because it was in their interests,” writes Barnett. “Politics
was using humanitarianism.”
For donor governments and NGOs, strategic concerns often coexist alongside more
benevolent goals. Kirk and Erisman, for example, stress that Cuba’s decision to provide free
medical treatment to Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl “illustrates Cuban altruism at a time when
Laurence McFalls, “Benevolent Dictatorship: The Formal Logic of Humanitarian Government,” in Contemporary
States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 327.
Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line.
Didier Fassin, “Humanitarianism: Nongovernmental Government,” in Nongovernmental Politics, ed. Michel
Feher (New York: Zone Books, 2007), 152.
Fassin, 157.
Barnett, Empire of Humanity, 5.
the domestic economy was in freefall.”
But they acknowledge that such aid had political value:
it was “a major contributory factor to [Cuba’s] stature and influence (i.e., its soft power) on the
Cold War’s international stage.”
Fehrenbach describes how “shared humanity, even kinship”
motivated American families to adopt underprivileged foreign children after World War II.
international adoption was also a way to stabilize “the ailing economies of defeated or weakened
war-torn states.
These examples show how altruism and compassion comingled with strategic
concerns to drive foreign humanitarian aid.
The literature reveals that political considerations are also significant determinants of how
donors decide the volume of aid they will provide. Drury et al. and Olsen et al. both conclude that
foreign policy variables, including national security interests, are strong predictors of how much
relief donor governments offer victims of humanitarian emergencies.
As we have seen, however,
donors weigh strategic interests against other principles when allocating aid. While political factors
are crucial, humanitarian need also drives aid flows.
Fink and Redaelli, as well as Strömberg,
find that a rise in casualties increases the likelihood that a country will receive foreign aid during
Kirk and Erisman, Cuban Medical Internationalism, 56.
Kirk and Erisman, 91.
Heide Fehrenbach, “From Aid to Intimacy: The Humanitarian Origins and Media Culture of International
Adoption,” in Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016),
Fehrenbach, 220.
A. Cooper Drury, Richard Stuart Olson, and Douglas A. Van Belle, “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid: U.S.
Foreign Disaster Assistance, 1964–1995,” The Journal of Politics 67, no. 2 (2005): 45473; Gorm Rye Olsen, Nils
Carstensen, and Kristian Høyen, “Humanitarian Crises: What Determines the Level of Emergency Assistance?
Media Coverage, Donor Interests and the Aid Business,” Disasters 27, no. 2 (2003): 10926.
See, for example: Oscar Becerra, Eduardo Cavallo, and Ilan Noy, “Foreign Aid in the Aftermath of Large Natural
Disasters,” IDB Working Paper Series (Inter-American Development Bank, August 2012),
Aid-in-the-Aftermath-of-Large-Natural-Disasters.pdf; Tim Büthe, Solomon Major, and André de Mello e Souza,
“The Politics of Private Foreign Aid: Humanitarian Principles, Economic Development Objectives, and
Organizational Interests in NGO Private Aid Allocation,” International Organization 66, no. 4 (2012): 571607;
Fink and Redaelli, “Determinants of International Emergency Aid—Humanitarian Need Only?”; David Strömberg,
“Natural Disasters, Economic Development, and Humanitarian Aid,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 21, no. 3
(July 1, 2007): 199222.
a disaster.
Several scholars find that donors “often make trade-offs between aid according to need
and other distributive commitments” like religious beliefs, efficiency, and even a so-called coup
de coeur, or “an intense but fleeting passion or interest.”
Finally, heightened media attention
yields increased aid flows, irrespective of the magnitude of the emergency.
Aid allocation is a
messy business. Even if politics is not behind the wheel, it still rides in the passenger seat.
Foreign humanitarian aid also produces political effects in the recipient country. For
example, aid generates hierarchies of power even in cases where donors preach altruism. Some
scholars argue that such assistance is merely a pretext for dominant countries to impose their will
on the vulnerable.
Others claim that common narratives surrounding humanitarian aid rob
recipients of their agency by painting them as helpless victims.
Barnett, for example, denounces
what he sees as the paternalism inherent in humanitarian aid, in which donors aim to “improve the
health and welfare of others who are too weak and powerless to help themselves.”
media fuel these hierarchies, as NGOs accentuateand sometimes exaggeratethe scale of
disasters to attract donors.
While such authors criticize the way foreign aid reinforces hierarchies
between donors and recipients, rarely do they show how recipients influence aid flows despite
Fink and Redaelli, “Determinants of International Emergency Aid—Humanitarian Need Only?”; Strömberg,
“Natural Disasters, Economic Development, and Humanitarian Aid.”
Büthe, Major, and de Mello e Souza, “The Politics of Private Foreign Aid”; Jennifer Rubenstein, “The
Distributive Commitments of International NGOs,” in Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011). Quotes are drawn from: Rubenstein, 221, 229.
Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg, “News Droughts, News Floods, and U. S. Disaster Relief,” The Quarterly
Journal of Economics 122, no. 2 (2007): 693–728; Olsen, Carstensen, and Høyen, “Humanitarian Crises”;
Strömberg, “Natural Disasters, Economic Development, and Humanitarian Aid.”
McFalls, “Benevolent Dictatorship: The Formal Logic of Humanitarian Government”; Michel Agier, “Humanity
as an Identity and Its Political Effects (A Note on Camps and Humanitarian Government),” Humanity 1, no. 1 (Fall
2010): 29.
See, for example: Barnett, Empire of Humanity; Barnett, “Humanitarian Governance”; De Waal, Famine Crimes;
Fassin, “Humanitarianism: Nongovernmental Government”; David Kennedy, The Dark Side of Virtue: Reassessing
International Humanitarianism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Barnett, Empire of Humanity, 11.
Craig Calhoun, “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order,” in Contemporary States
of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 2958; De
Waal, Famine Crimes, chap. 4.
asymmetrical power relations. As this dissertation demonstrates, local NGOs and governments in
recipient countries may weaponize aid to suit their own political ends. Aid was particularly
political in Belarus, where the contentious nature of Lukashenko’s relationship with civil society
forced foreign donors to take sides.
(1.3) The Politics of Foreign Humanitarian Aid in the Recipient Country
Recipient countries receive little attention in the literature on foreign humanitarian aid. The
idea that aid responds to donor preferences reigns supreme. I challenge this simple picture by
highlighting how political dynamics within two recipient countries, Belarus and Ukraine, shaped
foreign humanitarian aid to the Children of Chernobyl.
Although recipient countries are not absent from the scholarship, they are rarely the focus
of debate. Authors acknowledge that recipients’ behavior affects aid, but many depict recipients’
actions as a form of “resistance” against powerful donors.
Recipients do balk at donors’ attempts
to impose their models of development and progress. In Chapter 3, for example, I show how
Lukashenko resisted Western aid for sick children, as he feared that such assistance might present
a political threat. Yet recipients’ actions are not exclusively reactionary. In the Belarusian case,
Lukashenko’s opponents shaped aid for Chernobyl victims. Other scholars detail how recipients
complicate aid distribution. Polman describes how recipients manipulate emergency aid in conflict
zones. She depicts these actors as self-interested spoilers who subvert the efforts of naïve donors
and “use aid for their own benefit, to the detriment of their enemies, and to prolong the fighting.
While these authors recognize that recipients can alter the dynamics of foreign humanitarian aid,
Barnett and Duvall, Power in Global Governance, 22.
Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, 1st U.S. ed. (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2010), 1516.
they still frame such actions as a response to donor strategies. I aim to show that such portrayals
are not inaccurate, but rather incomplete.
A smaller number of authors depict recipients as actors who solicit and wield humanitarian
aid strategically, shaping donors’ approaches to aid allocation. Paulmann stresses that “domestic
politics in donor and receiving countries determined the size, timing, and geography of aid, while
international relations affected who helped, to what extent, and for how long.”
His edited volume
features the case of humanitarian aid during Morocco’s Rif War (1921–1927), in which
belligerents both “mobilize[d] aid in the face of competing national powers and restricted
internationalism” to prevent aid from reaching their opponents.
In their account of humanitarian
psychiatric aid, Fassin and Rechtman write that “accident victims, refugees, lawyers, and activists
… make use of the category of trauma to garner international support in the aftermath of
In Chapter 3, I provide evidence of how Belarusian aid recipients also weaponized
images of sick children to elicit foreign assistance and, in doing so, denounce the failings of their
The patterns I explore in this dissertation mirror those Keck and Sikkink describe in their
pioneering work on transnational advocacy networks.
While these authors take a global view of
advocacy networks like the campaign for women’s suffrage, their research also applies to my study
of the politics of foreign humanitarian aid in recipient countries. Their analysis of the domestic
factors that facilitate strong advocacy networks is crucial to understanding why Belarusian actors
Paulmann, Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century, 29.
Paulmann, 16; Martínez-Antonio Francisco Javier, “Weak Nation-States and the Limits of Humanitarian Aid: The
Case of Morocco’s Rif War, 1921-1927,” in Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2016), 91114.
Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood
(Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009).
Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics
(Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998).
were more successful than Ukrainians at mobilizing foreign aid for the Children of Chernobyl. The
first important factor is what Keck and Sikkink call the “boomerang pattern,” which occurs when
“channels between the state and its domestic actors are blocked,” causing “domestic NGOs [to]
bypass their state and directly search out international allies to try to bring pressure on their states
from the outside.”
The second factor is determined activists, or “people who care enough about
some issue that they are prepared to incur significant costs and act to achieve their goals.”
activists create networks to gain support for their cause. As we will see in subsequent chapters,
these two factors were present to a greater extent in Belarus than in Ukraine, with serious
implications for foreign aid.
(1.4) Summary of the Literature
The bodies of literature on foreign aid and, more specifically, foreign humanitarian aid
provide a comprehensive account of the political factors that determine why and how donors
provide assistance beyond their borders. I argue, however, that extant scholarship tends to neglect
the role recipients play in defining the dynamics of such aid. Even when authors discuss the effects
of humanitarian aid in recipient countries, their analyses typically center on donors’ goals,
overlooking the ways in which recipients independently shape the behavior of their patrons. This
dissertation seeks to offset the literature’s disproportionate focus on donors by analyzing how
political conditions within recipient countries affect foreign humanitarian aid flows. To do so, I
examine the cases of Belarus, where aid to the Children of Chernobyl was substantial, and Ukraine,
where aid was comparatively limited.
Keck and Sikkink, 12.
Keck and Sikkink, 14.
(1.5) Hypotheses
Drawing on the literature outlined in this chapter, I present five hypotheses to explain the
puzzle of why foreign humanitarian aid for Belarusian Children of Chernobyl was greater than aid
for Ukrainian children. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. As with many complex
political processes, it is impossible to reduce the puzzle of aid to Belarus to a single explanation.
As I will show, however, certain causal pathways are more important than others. I devote the
remainder of the dissertation to exploring these hypotheses.
H1: Domestic politics explanation
The actions of domestic political figures drove aid allocation, as opposition activists
solicited foreign assistance for the Children of Chernobyl to pressure their government to change
its Chernobyl policies.
H2: Individual agency explanation
Aid responded to the actions of individual activists. The presence of a committed, vocal
advocate for the Children of Chernobyl was an important driver of foreign aid.
H3: Foreign policy explanation
The literature indicates that the foreign policy considerations of recipient country
governments are an important determinant of how donors allocate foreign humanitarian aid. Thus,
greater aid flowed to recipients who cultivated international support for the Children of Chernobyl
to advance their foreign policy goals.
H4: Social policy explanation
Although there is no consensus on whether foreign aid increases or decreases regime
legitimacy in the recipient country, scholars agree that aid often fills a gap in the state’s social
welfare policies. Therefore, the generosity of social protections for Chernobyl victims affected
foreign aid flows, with less generous social policies giving citizens greater incentives to appeal to
foreign donors.
H5: Greatest need explanation
Some scholars stress that need is also an important driver of foreign humanitarian aid. For
this reason, foreign charities directed aid to Chernobyl victims based on the level of radioactive
contamination those people endured.
In this dissertation, I argue that although many factors were at play, evidence suggests that
a combination of H1 (domestic politics explanation), H2 (individual agency explanation), and
H3 (foreign policy explanation) best accounts for the considerable attention paid to Belarusian
Children of Chernobyl, and the comparative lack of attention paid to their Ukrainian counterparts.
I rule out H4 (social policy explanation) and H5 (greatest need explanation); although it is true
that Belarus had worse social protections for Chernobyl victims and more contaminated land than
Ukraine, these factors were not significant drivers of aid for the Children of Chernobyl.
(1.6) Methodology
I explore these hypotheses using historical process tracing. First, I delve into the Belarusian
case, then compare Belarus with neighboring Ukraine. This method allows me to probe the causal
mechanisms that led to divergent levels of aid for the Children of Chernobyl in the two countries.
The fact that Ukraine did not develop a vibrant Children of Chernobyl aid community suggests
that Belarus had somethingor thingsthat Ukraine lacked.
Tilly writes that process tracing can “explain salient features of episodes, or significant
differences among them, by identifying within those episodes robust mechanisms of relatively
general scope.”
Slater and Ziblatt echo the value of this approach.
Indeed, studies need not rely
on quantitative analysis to make a valuable contribution to scholarship. Controlled comparisons,
assert Slater and Ziblatt, “remain indispensable,” as they “generate both internal and external
validity when their practitioners (a) craft arguments with general variables or mechanisms, (b) seek
out representative variation, and (c) select cases that maximize control over alternative
This dissertation aims to satisfy these conditions. However, as Tilly cautions,
“mechanism- and process-based explanations aim at modest endsselective explanation of salient
features by means of partial causal analogies.”
My findings can thus shed light on humanitarian
aid in other contexts, but they do not offer a universally generalizable theory.
Belarus and Ukraine provide fertile ground for comparison, given their common
geographies and histories but divergent attitudes toward Chernobyl aid. Both countries are in
Eastern Europe and have majority-Slavic populations. The Belarusian and Ukrainian republics
were among the four founding members of the Soviet Union in 1922. As strategically important
republics, they experienced significant industrial development during the Soviet period. Both
Charles Tilly, “Mechanisms in Political Processes,” Annual Review of Political Science 4, no. 1 (June 1, 2001):
Dan Slater and Daniel Ziblatt, “The Enduring Indispensability of the Controlled Comparison,” Comparative
Political Studies 46, no. 10 (October 1, 2013): 1304.
Slater and Ziblatt, 1301.
Tilly, “Mechanisms in Political Processes,” 24.
Daniel Ziblatt, “Of Course Generalize, but How? Returning to Middle-Range Theory in Comparative Politics,”
APSA-CP Newsletter 17, no. 2 (2006): 811.
gained independence from the USSR in 1991. However, while independent Ukraine developed
into a democratic regime, albeit a troubled one, Belarus sank into authoritarianism, particularly
after Lukashenko’s election in 1994. I am hesitant to label Belarus and Ukraine most-similar cases,
as the two exhibit differences in areas like national consciousness, foreign relations, and economic
Nevertheless, I argue that their commonalities provide ample opportunities for
comparison, as they help eliminate potential confounding variables and isolate relevant
explanatory variables.
I exclude Russia from my comparison. Although it was one of the three Soviet republics
most affected by Chernobyl, it absorbed by far the smallest dose of radiation.
Initially, Russia’s
disaster management program covered only a single region, Bryansk, though the state later
acknowledged that other areas suffered some level of radioactive contamination.
The fact that
the official zone of contamination was so small led authorities to neglect Chernobyl relief efforts.
Further, prior to independence, Russia was the only Soviet republic without its own Communist
Party branch. This meant that Soviet authorities made all decisions about Chernobyl clean-up,
preventing the kind of international outreach that local authorities conducted in Belarus and
Ukraine. International attention to Russia was thus limited because the country was not seen as a
victim on the scale of Belarus or Ukraine, and it lacked early advocates for children.
Foreign aid
The most-similar method compares two or more cases that are “similar on all the measured independent variables,
except the independent variable of interest.” Jason Seawright and John Gerring, “Case Selection Techniques in Case
Study Research,” Political Research Quarterly 61, no. 2 (June 2008): 304.
Belarus: 20 year-long battle with Chernobyl consequences: Photo album [Беларусь: 20 лет противостояния
Чернобыльской катастрофе: Фотоальбом] (Minsk, Belarus: Belarusian State Committee on the Problems of the
Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe, 2005), 7.
David R. Marples, “The Legacy of Chernobyl’ in 1997: Impact on Ukraine and Belarus,” Post-Soviet Geography
and Economics 38, no. 3 (1997): 164; M. Zgersky, “Legal regime of the Chernobyl problems in the USSR, Belarus,
Russia and the Ukraine” (Japan: Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, 1998), 268,
Alla Yaroshinskaya, “Problems of Social Assistance to Chernobyl Sufferers in Russia” (Japan: Research Reactor
Institute, Kyoto University, 1998), 261.
Marples, “The Legacy of Chernobyl’ in 1997,” 164.
to Russia, therefore, does not present the puzzle that it does in Belarus and Ukraine. Nor do the
patterns observed in Russia help us better understand the Belarusian casethe focus of this
dissertation. As discussed above, Ukraine provides a much more fruitful point of comparison.
My research is based on primary and secondary sources published in multiple languages.
All translations of quotations from Russian, Ukrainian, and Spanish are my own. First, I draw on
articles from Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian newspapers, which I accessed online through the
East View database. I also cite newspaper articles from donor countries, including Cuba, Ireland,
the United Kingdom, and the United States. Second, I examine archival documents available in
print and through the Ukrainian state archival service’s online platform. These documents are
primarily from the electronic archive of the Central State Archives of the Supreme Bodies of Power
and Government of Ukraine, which hosts materials from local Ukrainian archives and Belarusian
state archives. Other sources I consult include speeches, government publications, memoirs, and
survey data, which I accessed both in printed publications and online. Finally, this dissertation
leverages a rich collection of secondary sources from diverse fields, including political science,
history, and anthropology.
Chapter 2: Chernobyl Relief Programs in Historical Context
In this chapter, I contextualize Chernobyl’s historical significance and the political
dynamics behind aid to victims of the disaster. First, I examine the accident within the wider
political landscape of the late Soviet Union, offering a brief account of the Soviet government’s
negligent response. Next, I focus on disaster management in Belarus and Ukraine, illustrating
Chernobyl as a source of political mobilization before the Soviet collapse and explaining how
economic and political developments affected victims after independence. I then turn to Chernobyl
relief assistance to Belarus and Ukraine, outlining how foreign aid in most areas fell short of
expectations, particularly in Belarus. Finally, I describe how local actors fostered a distinctive
feature of foreign humanitarian aid in the wake of the disaster: Children of Chernobyl programs. I
assert that the high volume of aid to the Children of Chernobyl in Belarus presents a puzzle that
the remainder of this dissertation will seek to unravel.
(2.1) Explosion and Fallout Across the USSR
The explosion and partial meltdown of Reactor No. 4 of Ukraine’s Chernobyl NPP released
the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs’ worth of radiation into the atmosphere.
The accident
occurred less than a week before the 1986 International Worker’s Day parade. Ukrainian
Communist Party officials knew that the health consequences of radiation exposure could be dire
for the population, particularly children.
They urged party bosses in Moscow to cancel the
parade, but to no avail. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was intent on maintaining a guise of
So, on May 1, Volodymyr Scherbytsky, First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2016), 311.
Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 131.
Plokhy, The Gates of Europe, 31011.
Party, processed through the streets of Kyiv with party officials, folk ensembles, and children in
tow, while radioactive fallout spread across the Soviet Union.
Radiation from Chernobyl mainly landed on territories in three Soviet republicsBelarus,
Ukraine, and Russia. Although the accident occurred in Ukraine, Belarus received the greatest
share: 70 percent of radionuclides released by the plant fell on the republic, contaminating 23
percent of its territory.
In contrast, 4.8 percent of Ukrainian territory was contaminated, and just
0.5 percent of Russian territory.
(See Figure 2.) This uneven spread was in part due to the Soviet
government’s deliberate manipulation of weather patterns to prevent radioactive rain from
polluting strategic Russian and Ukrainian cities.
People living in the contaminated territories
absorbed significant doses of radiation, but the impact was unequal: children took in three to five
times more radioactive iodine than adults.
Plokhy, Chernobyl, 13233.
Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future, trans. Antonia W. Bouis (London: Aurum,
1999), 1.
Belarus: 20 year-long battle, 7.
Soviet air force pilots caused clouds to shed their radioactive waste before reaching these cities by shooting “jets
of silver iodide” into the air to induce rain: Brown, Manual for Survival, 4045.
Iodine and cesium (see Figure 2) are two radioactive elements: Brown, 31.
Figure 2: Map of the distribution of radioactive cesium-137 particles from Chernobyl across Belarus, Ukraine, and
Russia. Reprinted with permission from Møller and Mousseau.
Anders Pape Møller and Timothy A. Mousseau, “Strong Effects of Ionizing Radiation from Chernobyl on
Mutation Rates,” Scientific Reports 5, no. 1 (February 10, 2015): 2.
(2.2) Soviet-style Disaster Management
Moscow’s emergency management strategies proved inadequate.
When Soviet
authorities finally admitted that an accident had occurred at Chernobyl, they blamed it on human
error, ignoring the reactor’s design flaws that were the main cause of the crisis.
As high levels of
radiation persisted, the Soviet government concealed the disaster’s magnitude from its citizens.
During their belated evacuations of Pripyat, the city closest to the plant, authorities moved most
of the 44,000 evacuees to areas with even greater radioactive contamination.
evacuees found themselves living in similarly precarious conditions, plagued by poverty and
The government organized special summer camps for children from
contaminated territories, but these facilities often lacked adequate food supplies and qualified
medical personnel.
Although local public health officials noticed a sharp uptick in health issues after
Chernobyl, the Soviet government maintained that the accident’s consequences were limited.
Ukrainian doctors recorded increases in thyroid and heart diseases, endocrine and GI tract
disorders, anemia, cancers, pediatric infections, and congenital malformations.
But Soviet
officials discredited these conclusions.
Foreign experts echoed their narrative: an evaluation by
members of the International Commission on Radiological Protection concluded that “no harmful
Edward Geist, “Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’,” Slavic Review 74, no. 1
(2015): 10426.
Plokhy, Chernobyl, chaps. 4, 5.
Brown, Manual for Survival; Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s
Greatest Nuclear Disaster (London: Corgi Books, 2019); Plokhy, Chernobyl.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 27.
David R. Marples, Belarus: From Soviet Rule to Nuclear Catastrophe (London: Macmillan, 1996), 63.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 15762.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 16667.
Brown, 18695.
effects that can be conclusively linked to radiation have been observed.”
No long-term
epidemiological study was conducted.
To this day, UN websites report total Chernobyl fatalities
between 31 and 54, a figure Brown says “stretches credulity to the furthest.”
People were clearly sick, but the true health effects of radiation are difficult to determine,
given the lack of comprehensive data. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to isolate the impact of
Chernobyl from other factors, like poor economic conditions and stress.
For my purposes, what
matters is not exactly how sick the Children of Chernobyl were, but rather how Belarusian and
Ukrainian politics influenced their care.
(2.3) Chernobyl and Glasnost-era Mobilization in Belarus and Ukraine
During the late 1980s, the Soviet Union’s changing political climate widened citizens’
access to information about Chernobyl, sparking mass mobilization against government
disinformation and neglect. In 1985, Gorbachev initiated a series of economic and political reforms
known collectively as perestroika [restructuring] and glasnost [openness].
Although popular
mobilization was limited during the first two years after Chernobyl, citizens began to speak out as
Gorbachev’s reforms accelerated.
After 1989, information about the Soviet government’s
botched accident response diffused across Belarus and Ukraine, sparking protests and strikes.
From Potochnii arkhiv Verhovnoi Radi Ukraini, June 24, 1988. Reprinted in The Chernobyl tragedy: documents
and materials [Чорнобильська трагедія: документи і матеріали] (Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 1996), 49395.
Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl, 360.
See Brown (2019) for more information about how the UN and other IGOs minimized the health consequences of
Chernobyl. Brown, Manual for Survival, 3, 310.
Marples, Belarus, 63, 85; Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2013).
Mikhail Gorbachev, “On Convening the Regular 27th CPSU Congress and the Tasks Connected with Preparing
and Holding it,” April 23, 1985, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History,
Dawson, Eco-Nationalism, 6869, 87; Novikau, “The Evolution of the Environmental Movement in Belarus,” 95;
Plokhy, Chernobyl, chap. 19.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, chap. 3.2.1; Brown, Manual for Survival, 229; Kuchinskaya, The Politics of
Invisibility, chap. 3; Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes, 63.
Chernobyl became an important rallying cry for pro-independence nationalist movements
in many Soviet republics, including Belarus and Ukraine.
Both Belarus’s principal opposition
group, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), and Ukraine’s leading pro-independence group, the
“Movement for Perestroika” (commonly known as “Rukh”) made the disaster a centerpiece of
their criticism of Soviet authorities.
These “eruptions of nationalist mobilization” throughout the
country interacted with Gorbachev’s “failed institutional reform[s]” to bring about the
disintegration of the Soviet state in 1991.
(2.4) Post-Independence Regime Consolidation and Social Policies
The Soviet Union’s collapse played out differently in Belarus and Ukraine. Although
Ukrainians were not universally pro-independence, self-determination was far more popular there
than in Belarus, where the nationalist movement was weaker and the state more active in repressing
and coopting the opposition.
Both countries became independent in 1991, but while Ukrainians
eagerly proclaimed their independence, Belarusians had independence thrust upon them.
The two countries’ political trajectories diverged further after independence. The
Belarusian opposition made some progress in its anti-communist organizing, but independence did
Brown, Manual for Survival, 26784; Plokhy, Chernobyl, 202.
See, for example: Susanne Bauer, Karena Kalmbach, and Tatiana Kasperski, “From Pripyat to Paris, from
Grassroots Memories to Globalized Knowledge Production: The Politics of Chernobyl Fallout,” in Nuclear
Portraits: Communities, the Environment, and Public Policy, ed. Laurel Sefton MacDowell (University of Toronto
Press, 2018), 149–89; Tatiana Kasperski, “The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and Identity Strategies in Belarus,” in
History, Memory and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Georges Mink and Laure Neumeyer (Palgrave
Macmillan UK, 2013), 121–35; David R. Marples, “The Political Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster in
Belarus and Ukraine,” in Chernobyl: The Event and Its Aftermath (Friends of Chernobyl Centers, 2006), 5367;
Andrei Stsiapanau, “The Chernobyl politics in Belarus: interplay of discourse-coalitions,” Filosofija, sociologija, no.
2 (2010): 143–50; Ekatherina Zhukova, “Chernobyl, Responsibility and National Identity: Positioning Europe and
Russia in the Media of Belarus and Ukraine (1992–2014),” Europe-Asia Studies 70, no. 7 (August 9, 2018): 1055
Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization, 78.
Beissinger, 197, 25457; Marples, Belarus, chap. 5.
Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization, 254.
not bring “a transition from a Communist state to a democracy.”
By the early 2000s, Belarus’s
political landscape was “bipolar,” with a pro-Russian, anti-Western majority supporting the
president and a radical opposition espousing diametrically opposed views.
Ukraine, in contrast,
underwent democratic development (albeit gradually and unevenly). Although Ukraine’s political
and economic reforms progressed slowly at first, the election of Leonid Kuchma as president in
1994 strengthened the country’s European orientation.
The nature of the Ukrainian opposition
depended on who was in power. At first, Rukh was a major opposition force in parliament, but
over time the group splintered, and the Ukrainian political landscape coalesced around pro-
Western and pro-Russian vectors.
The former maintained dominance during the period covered
by this dissertation. As we will see in Chapter 4, this divergence in political regimes across Belarus
and Ukraine had a significant impact on the dynamics of foreign aid.
Despite their differing political trajectories, the two countries faced similar challenges in
dealing with Chernobyl’s economic consequences. In the early years of independence, debates
about Chernobyl shifted their focus from the dangers of radiological contamination to the
socioeconomic consequences of the disaster.
Citizens throughout Belarus and Ukraine were sick.
Thousands of evacuees required resettlement. The Belarusian and Ukrainian governments
championed generous social welfare benefits for Chernobyl victims, but the economic burden of
these benefits was gargantuan: in Belarus, Chernobyl-related expenses made up 12.6 percent of
Marples, Belarus, 124.
Grigory Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus: Economy and Political Landscape,” Europe-Asia Studies 56, no. 1 (2004):
Paul Kubicek, “The European Union and Democratization in Ukraine,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies,
Ukraine: Elections and Democratisation, 38, no. 2 (June 1, 2005): 274.
Ivan Kapsamun and Olha Reshetylova, “Lessons to Be Learned,” The Day, March 24, 2009,
//; Andreas Umland, “Ukraine Right-Wing Politics: Is the Genie
out of the Bottle?” OpenDemocracy, January 3, 2011,
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 74.
the state budget in 1992; in Ukraine, 15.7 percent.
Financing Chernobyl programs became
increasingly difficult, as the post-Soviet countries’ economies “faced growing deficits, inflation,
joblessness, and poverty.”
“Neither the Soviet government nor the democratic governments
have managed so far to provide their citizens with the minimum which is set by the Chernobyl
laws adopted by their parliaments,” lamented Ukrainian journalist and politician Alla
Yaroshinskaya in 1998.
As their revenues nosedived, Belarus and Ukraine made desperate
appeals for foreign aid.
(2.5) Trends in Chernobyl Relief Aid
The Soviet government’s reluctance to acknowledge that it needed help managing the
consequences of Chernobyl initially prevented foreign disaster aid from reaching those who
needed it. While local political actors and associations in Belarus and Ukraine began making
appeals for aid in 1989, Moscow “acknowledged the need for international assistance only in
The UN responded by adopting a resolution to encourage international cooperation to
provide Chernobyl relief, which sparked many research projects and aid programs in areas ranging
from health to clean food production.
After Belarus and Ukraine gained independence, their governments and newly-formed
NGOs intensified their outreach efforts, particularly to compensate for the countries’ deteriorating
Volodymyr Tykhyi, “Chernobyl Sufferers in Ukraine and Their Social Problems: Short Outline” (Japan:
Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, 1998), 241; Mikhail V. Malko, “Social Aspects of the Chernobyl
Activity in Belarus” (Japan: Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, 1998), 253.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 7677; Petryna, Life Exposed, 110.
Yaroshinskaya, “Problems of Social Assistance to Chernobyl Sufferers in Russia,” 259.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 78.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 214; Yaroshinskaya, “Problems of Social Assistance to Chernobyl Sufferers in
Russia,” 262. Quote drawn from: “International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day,” United Nations (blog)
(United Nations), accessed April 17, 2021,
“International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day.”
economic states.
At first, aid from foreign governments, IGOs, and NGOs concentrated on
humanitarian issues, like health and housing.
In 2002, however, the UN reoriented its strategy,
arguing that promoting socioeconomic development in the contaminated territories was a more
effective way of improving citizens’ wellbeing than delivering humanitarian aid.
This approach
corresponded to the common belief that Belarusians’ and Ukrainians’ problems were more the
result of psychosomatic illnesses, poverty, and inadequate health care than radiation from
Although Ukraine generally received more attention than Belarus, the international
community delivered less aid than it promised to each country. Western donors concentrated their
funds in Ukraine, as securing and decommissioning the Chernobyl NPP was their top priority.
Donors also dangled aid to persuade Ukraine to enact reforms and give up its nuclear weapons.
Belarus received meager financial assistance.
Not only did it lack a damaged reactor and nuclear
weapons, but it was also under international sanctions for human rights violations.
disaster relief could bypass sanctions, Ukraine remained the favorite of international donors.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 78.
“The Human Consequences of Chernobyl,” 14.
“The Human Consequences of Chernobyl,” 8.
“The Human Consequences of Chernobyl,” 8; Marples, Belarus, 112–14; Igor Kolchenko, “The obvious versus
the unbelievable [Очевидное против невероятного],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, September 8, 2005.
“International support for rehabilitation of Chernobyl site,” World Nuclear News, April 27, 2016,
for-rehabilitation-of-Cherno; Petryna, Life Exposed, 5; Frederick Ponsonby, “Fifteen years after Chernobyl:
financing a lasting solution” (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Committee on Economic Affairs
and Development, April 6, 2001),;
Astrid Sahm, “On the Way to a Transnational Society? Belarus and International Chernobyl Aid [Auf dem Weg in
die transnationale Gesellschaft? Belarus und die internationale Tschernobyl-Hilfe],” Osteuropa 56, no. 4 (2006):
Robert Seely, “West’s Help for Chernobyl Area Falls Far Short of Expectations,” Los Angeles Times, April 27,
Ponsonby, “Fifteen years after Chernobyl.”
Bauer, Kalmbach, and Kasperski, “From Pripyat to Paris, from Grassroots Memories to Globalized Knowledge
Production,” 156; “International Projects and Programs [Международные проекты и программы],” Department
But declining Western interest in Chernobyl after the fall of the USSR, as well as bureaucratic and
budgetary problems, limited assistance to both countries.
Aid to the Children of Chernobyl,
however, was an exception to these trends: foreign donors prioritized Belarus over Ukraine, and
enthusiasm surged after the Soviet collapse.
(2.6) Local Drivers of Children of Chernobyl Programs
Local actors were the main force driving foreign aid to Belarusian and Ukrainian children.
Between 1989 and 1991, the Children of Chernobyl became a salient group in domestic and foreign
media, as glasnost-era political openness drew Soviets out of international isolation. Some early
appeals for foreign aid came from Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities.
The Ukrainian
Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth organization, was one of the first actors to take initiative,
asking various countries to help treat Ukrainian children.
Later, Belarusian and Ukrainian
branches of the state-supervised Lenin Children’s Foundation petitioned Moscow to authorize
additional trips.
The most forceful advocates for the Children of Chernobyl, however, were local
NGOs and dissidents. Belarus’s main opposition group, the BPF, established a Children of
Chernobyl committee, led by activist and politician Gennadiy Grushevoy. Grushevoy later
founded his own organization, the Belarusian Charitable Fund “For the Children of Chernobyl”
(BCCF), which organized medical trips, donations of food and medical equipment, and other
Following Grushevoy’s lead, independent organizations dedicated to Children of Chernobyl
for the Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster of the Ministry of Emergencies of the Republic
of Belarus, accessed April 18, 2021,
Seely, “West’s Help for Chernobyl Area Falls Far Short of Expectations.”
Brown, Manual for Survival, 214.
Nikolai Pugovitsa, “Cuba - a small country with a big heart [Куба - маленькая страна с большим сердцем],”
Pravda Ukrainy, March 23, 1995.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 216.
Arndt, chap. 4.2.
proliferated in Belarus.
In Ukraine, political groups and NGOs like Rukh played “the leading
role” in contacting foreign donors, with state-sponsored organizations like the Komsomol acting
as mediators.
Children of Chernobyl programs were a crucial component of civil society
development in both Soviet republics.
During the late Soviet period, Belarusian and Ukrainian organizations, both independent
and state-sponsored, managed their relations with donors relatively autonomously. According to
Yaroshinskaya, the years between 1989 and 1991 were the “peak of [the] ‘Chernobyl’ movement
in [the] USSR and abroad.”
Brown describes the atmosphere: “Hundreds of charitable
organizations, religious groups, and start-up nonprofits scrambled to find Soviet partners with the
simple idea that people could engage in diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange and bypass their
warring governments.”
Judging by the number of Children of Chernobyl who traveled abroad
through these partnerships, their hopes were realized: in 1990, 1,235 children made health trips to
22 countries.
Soviet officials held little sway over such programs; their attention was turned
elsewhere in the chaotic years that preceded the country’s collapse.
After Belarus and Ukraine gained independence, donors redoubled their efforts to provide
aid to the Children of Chernobyl, even as Western enthusiasm for most forms Chernobyl relief
dwindled. Foreign donors ranged from large organizations with government support, like the
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to a plethora of smaller charities.
Most were
Brown, Manual for Survival, 287–88; N. Feskov, “Money from the telethon. Where is it? [Деньги
телемарафона. Где они?]” Pravda, May 17, 1991; Grigory Ioffe, “Belarus and Chernobyl: Separating Seeds from
Chaff,” Post-Soviet Affairs 23, no. 4 (October 1, 2007): 357; Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 78; Marples,
Tykhyi, “Chernobyl Sufferers in Ukraine,” 242.
Yaroshinskaya, “Problems of Social Assistance to Chernobyl Sufferers in Russia,” 263.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 226.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 220.
“On the implementation of international humanitarian projects with the goal of overcoming the consequences of
the accident at the Chernobyl NPP [О реализации международных гуманитарных проектов в целях
преодоления последствий аварии на Чернобыльской АЭС],” Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Austria,
NGOs concentrated in Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the United States, among other countries.
Their motivations for supporting the Children of Chernobyl were diverse, from religious
inspiration to a desire to help disadvantaged citizens in their homelands.
Evidence suggests,
however, that local organizations led the aid crusade, particularly in Belarus. In 2003, Igor
Kolchenko reported that 270 Belarusian groups had registered to organize health trips for Children
of Chernobyl.
Some of the charities were holdovers from Soviet days; others emerged after
independence. But Grushevoy’s BCCF remained “the largest nongovernmental charity
organization in the post-Soviet space providing aid to victims of the Chernobyl disaster.”
As we
will see in the following chapter, Grushevoy was the main muscle behind the campaign on behalf
of these children, while other local charities rode on his coattails. The success of the BCCF was
thanks to both Grushevoy’s activism and the strategies of the Belarusian opposition.
Belarusian and Ukrainian actors also helped shape the types of humanitarian aid that donors
provided to the Children of Chernobyl. Foreign NGOs worked with local partners to conduct health
screenings, repair hospitals and orphanages, train doctors, and deliver food, medicine, and medical
equipment to needy populations.
But the most common form of aid involved health trips abroad,
in which children spent around two months in summer camps or with host families.
A press
April 24, 2014,
Sahm, “On the Way to a Transnational Society?” 112.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children; Svetlana Bodrunova, “Chernobyl in the Eyes: Mythology as a Basis of
Individual Memories and Social Imaginaries of a ‘Chernobyl Child,’” Anthropology of East Europe Review;
Bloomington 30, no. 1 (2012): 1324; Brown, Manual for Survival, 28788; Kuchinskaya, The Politics of
Invisibility, 8590.
Igor Kolchenko, “The kindness reflex [Рефлекс доброты],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, October 10, 2003.
Artur Smirnov, “From tragedy to garden of hope - a new book about Chernobyl [От катастрофы до сада
надежды - новая книга о Чернобыле],” DW, February 2, 2016.
Maria Khudaya, “The Chernobyl catastrophe - a common pain [Чернобыльская катастрофа - боль общая],”
Belarus’ v mire, July 1, 2002, 1516.
In Russian, ozdorovlenie is most frequently used to refer to these trips. Although there is no English equivalent,
common translations include “recovery,” “recuperation,” and “treatment.” I. A. Obodovskii, “Social aspects of rest
sanitation abroad for children-victims of the Chernobyl accident,” in Proceeding of the 2-nd International
Conference “Long-term Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster” (Ukraine: Scientific Center for Radiation
release by the Belarusian embassy in Austria emphasized that the trips provided children with three
main benefits: a clean environment with a favorable climate, nutritious food, and cultural
Most participants were not seriously ill, although some received medical treatment
To be sure, donor buy-in partially accounts for why these trips were such an integral
part of aid for the Children of Chernobyl, as host families and volunteers like Brother O’Meara
from Ireland built deep bonds with the children.
But local preferences were equally important.
Although health trips were possible thanks to the commitment of foreign charities and their
patrons, such trips also depended on local demand. And demand was not wanting. Health trips
proved extremely popular among participants, as well as the Belarusian and Ukrainian populations
at large.
This should come as no surprise, given that nearly a million Children of Chernobyl
traveled abroad between 1990 and 2015a figure equivalent to around one tenth of the Belarusian
Some critics denounced the trips for their “half-opaque” selection processes and
financing schemes.
One UN report argued that such travel was neither cost effective nor
beneficial for participants’ health, but rather fueled a sense of “victimization and dependency.”
Medicine, 1998),;
Ekatherina Zhukova, “Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational
migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy,” Identities, November 13, 2019, 67.
“On the implementation of international humanitarian projects.”
Obodovskii, “Social aspects of rest sanitation abroad for children.”
O’Meara, Fallout; Zhukova, “Kinning as intimate disaster response.”
Kolchenko, “The obvious versus the unbelievable”; “The Human Consequences of Chernobyl,” 61.
The data do not distinguish children who have participated in multiple trips, so this figure likely overstates the
number of participants. Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 443.
Bodrunova, “Chernobyl in the Eyes,” 15–16; Sergei Almazov, “Charity with a commerial bent
[Благотворительность с коммерческим душком],” Izvestiia, November 23, 1993; Ivan Cherepanov, “A lie: The
obvious and the unbelievable [Обман: очевидное и невероятное],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, November 27, 2010;
Valerii Druzhbinskii, “The rest of the world will help cure us of our naivete [Заграница нам поможет вылечиться
от наивности],” Zerkalo Nedeli, October 5, 2002; Valentina Mokhor, “Bitter piece of another’s pie [Горький кусок
чужого пирога],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, January 21, 2004; “Verifications were conducted and the guilty were
punished [Проведены проверки. Виновные наказаны],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, March 4, 1998.
“Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the
Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine” (Austria: The Chernobyl Forum, September 2005),
But these criticisms fell on deaf ears. The health trips persisted for decades, which speaks to their
widespread appeal not only with donors, but especially among local populations.
(2.7) The Puzzle of Aid to Children of Chernobyl in Belarus
Foreign humanitarian aid programs for Belarusian and Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl
were popular among donors and recipients alike. But such aid did not benefit all children equally:
Children of Chernobyl from Belarus attracted far more attention than their Ukrainian counterparts.
Given the wide-ranging nature of foreign aid to these children, statistics are scant. As Fearon
writes, “the data on private contributions to the humanitarian enterprise are terrible.”
the few metrics available, including scholars’ observations, data on health trips, donor rhetoric,
and media attention, reveal that more aid went to Children of Chernobyl in Belarus. Although the
lack of comprehensive data limits my ability to quantify the difference in aid, triangulating various
pieces of evidence offers a general picture. Arndt, for example, stresses that Belarus had the largest
Children of Chernobyl movement.
Italy hosted half of all Children of Chernobyl who traveled
abroad for health trips; of those, 72 percent were Belarusian.
An article published by the BBC
in 2009 stated that the trips “have been going on since the 1990s, mainly taking children from
Belarus to the UK, other parts of Europe and North America.”
Furthermore, Belarusian children
Fearon, “The Rise of Emergency Relief Aid,” 67.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 33.
Ekatherina Zhukova, “Chernobyl brought Italy and Belarus closer together – their approach could do the same for
other nations,” The Conversation, May 8, 2018,
closer-together-their-approach-could-do-the-same-for-other-nations-95820; Nina Romanova, “I’ll take your pain,”
Sovetskaia Belorussiia, August 8, 2009,
Emphasis added. Eddie Mair and Michael Buchanan, “After Chernobyl. Michael Buchanan reports tonight.,”
BBC Radio 4 (blog), June 25, 2009,
received far more attention in foreign press. Of the 105 newspaper articles and videos about the
Children of Chernobyl that are archived on the BBC website, 57 reference Belarusian children
exclusively, while 9 mention Ukrainians alone.
Why did Belarusian children receive more aid
than Ukrainian children? The following chapters seek to answer this question through a close
examination of how politics and aid interacted in the two countries.
9 articles mentioned children from both countries, and 30 did not specify which country the children were from. I
conducted this analysis by doing a keyword search for “Children of Chernobyl” on the search function.
My search yielded 105 articles and videos from 1998 to 2020. I omitted radio programs from my analysis, as these
were not available online.
Chapter 3: The Children of Chernobyl in Belarus
The large volume of aid to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl presents a puzzle. First,
although Belarus suffered the greatest dose of radioactive contamination of all the affected
republics, most people associate the Chernobyl disaster with Ukraine.
Second, Belarus’s
authoritarian president Aleksandr Lukashenko was highly suspicious of Western influence.
donors flocked to Belarus in the decades after the Chernobyl accident, channeling large amounts
of funding to food, medical care, and health trips for disadvantaged children.
In this chapter, I investigate why Children of Chernobyl programs thrived in such a hostile
environment. Evidence suggests the domestic and foreign policy strategies of both Lukashenko
and the Belarusian opposition best explain the scale of foreign attention to the Children of
Chernobyl. I find that opposition activists used aid to spotlight the repressive political regime, in
line with H1 (domestic politics explanation). Gennadiy Grushevoy’s crucial role as leader of the
country’s largest charity reinforces H2 (individual agency explanation). Although Lukashenko
feared the connections between foreign aid and domestic dissidents, he preferred to control and
coopt Children of Chernobyl programs rather than eliminate them. I argue that the president
recognized aid’s domestic popularity and value as a foreign policy tool, fitting H3 (foreign policy
This chapter proceeds chronologically, charting the role foreign aid played in the
antagonistic relationship between the Belarusian opposition, local NGOs, and Lukashenko. In the
first two sections, I explain how Belarusian dissidents, including Grushevoy, mobilized around the
Chernobyl issue, criticizing their leaders’ handling of the disaster and allowing foreign aid to
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 6.
Aleksandr Feduta, “Resistance to abstract humanism [Отпор абстрактному гуманизму],” Moskovskie novosti,
March 20, 2001.
flourish. The third section details how Lukashenko tightened his grip on power and minimized the
suffering of Chernobyl victims to justify slashing their social benefits. In the fourth section, I
analyze how the Belarusian opposition and local NGOs retaliated against the president by
accentuating the predicament of the Children of Chernobyl and appealing to foreign donors. The
fifth and sixth sections delineate the Belarusian government’s efforts to restrict, control, and coopt
Children of Chernobyl programs, which Lukashenko viewed as a political threat. In the seventh
section, I outline a combination of domestic and foreign policy interests that explain why
Lukashenko chose to manipulate foreign aid, rather than eradicate it. Finally, in the eighth section,
I reveal how this strategy proved successful in redirecting foreign aid for the Children of Chernobyl
toward projects that fit the president’s policy agenda.
(3.1) Pre-Independence Opposition Mobilization
In the years after Chernobyl, Belarusian officials imitated Moscow by covering up the
accident, a policy that would eventually sow seeds of unrest. The Belarusian leadership obeyed
Moscow’s orders to evacuate a disproportionately small number of at-risk citizens, then later
resettled thousands of people to contaminated homes.
These decisions sparked resentment
among Belarusians, but they had no proof that conditions were dangerous.
Local scientists knew
better. After analyzing radiation levels around the republic, they concluded that many places would
not be fit for agricultural production or human habitation for decades to come.
A group of
scientists reported that the incidence of disease among the juvenile population of the Gomel oblast
Ioffe, “Belarus and Chernobyl,” 355; Brown, Manual for Survival, 74.
Natsіonal’nii arkhіv Respublіki Bіlorus’ (NARB), f. 7, op. 10, d. 614, l. 151; d. 1863, l. 32-33; d. 2416, l. 182-
NARB f.4p, op. 156, d. 626, l. 81-88.
was 4.1-4.9 times higher in 1988, compared with the pre-accident period.
But Soviet and
Belarusian authorities disguised and discredited these conclusions. As a result, the general
population had limited knowledge about the true effects of Chernobyl.
Citizens were incensed when they learned the extent of the damage. In 1989, previously
secret information began to spread thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms. Belarusian and Ukrainian
newspapers published maps showing extraordinarily high radiation levels, shocking residents.
A group of Belarusians voiced their frustration in a 1990 appeal to the Supreme Soviet of the
USSR, the country’s highest legislative body. “Considering the difficult economic situation in the
country, we didn’t protest or organize strikes,” they wrote. But our fourth year living in these
conditions is coming to an end, and we haven’t felt any real concern [from the state].”
patience had reached its limit. Demonstrations and strikes multiplied across the republic.
Pro-independence groups like the BPF mobilized around the state’s cover-up, setting the
stage for the development of local relief organizations. In April 1989, the BPF founded a
committee to help the Children of Chernobyl.
Later that year, Grushevoy leveraged his
experience leading this committee to launch his own organization, the BCCF.
This move
corresponds to Keck and Sikkink’s observation that the most successful activists gained
experience in earlier [campaigns].”
The BCCF was the first Belarusian nonprofit dedicated to
NARB f.4p, op. 156, d. 626, l. 89.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 16970.
NARB, f. 7, op. 10, d. 2416, l. 182.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 202, 229; Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, chap. 3.2.1; Kuchinskaya, The Politics of
Invisibility, chap. 3; Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes, 63.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 229.
Pavel Severinets, “Gennadiy Grushevoy - the man who directed the world’s attention to the Chernobyl
catastrophe [Геннадий Грушевой – тот, кто обратил внимание мира на Чернобыльскую катастрофу],”, January 30, 2017,
Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders, 14.
Children of Chernobyl, and it quickly became the largest.
The foundation sent over 6,000
Belarusian children to five different countries before it was officially registered with authorities in
November 1990.
Although Grushevoy was part of a wider network of civil society actors, he
was particularly skilled at attracting foreign partners and publicity.
Belarusian citizens were grateful for local organizations and their foreign partners, but they
were also outraged by authorities’ inaction. “How can it be that they understand our pain abroad
before it reaches the elected officials of our country?” wrote a group of Chachersk residents in
In an article from February 1991, Dmitrii Semenik wrote that “the ‘Children of
Chernobyl’ committee [of the BPF] did its work without a single state employee, without an office
space, and without being a legal entity.” In the year and a half since its founding, the group sent
5,000 children abroad for rehabilitation, while the “all-powerful state” sent only 1,200 children
overseas in the four years after the accident. “If the state can’t resolve this issue it created on its
own, then it should at least not bother, and better yet help, those like the ‘Children of Chernobyl’
committee, who are doing its job for it,” Semenik concluded.
In the context of the state’s
incapacity and retreat from its social policies, the role of civil society expanded.
These examples of pre-independence opposition mobilization against the state’s Chernobyl
response conform to H1 (domestic politics explanation), which suggests that domestic political
actors solicited foreign aid to pressure their government to change its policies. Furthermore, the
way Grushevoy garnered visibility and resources for Belarusian children lends credence to H2
(individual agency explanation), which emphasizes the power of individual activists.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 22728.
Arndt, 238.
Marples, Belarus, 68.
NARB f. 7, op. 10, d. 2416, l. 183.
Dmitrii Semenik, “A mask for the charity committee [Маска для благотворительного комитета],” Krokodil,
February 1991.
(3.2) Post-Independence Activism and Official Suspicion
After independence, Grushevoy’s work with the BCCF expanded. In 1994, the foundation
comprised 56 grassroots organizations with 3,000 employees throughout Belarus and partners in
20 foreign countries.
One of Grushevoy’s earliest contacts was Brother Liam O’Meara from
Ireland, who appears in this dissertation’s introduction.
By 1996, the BCCF had sent over 80,000
children to countries throughout Europe, as well as Canada, Japan, Turkey, and the United
The organization also delivered medical equipment, coordinated resettlement efforts, and
conducted education programs for doctors, farmers, and construction workers.
Other NGOs
organized their own aid programs for the Children of Chernobyl, but the BCCF was by far the
most active.
Even before Lukashenko’s rise to power, the Belarusian government regarded these
organizations with suspicion due to their political connections. In 1996, David Marples reported
that “virtually every significant nongovernment attempt to deal with the effects of Chernobyl has
emanated from organizations or individuals who can be equated with the political opposition.”
As a result, the BCCF “operated in an atmosphere of dissidence and isolationduring the early
Government ministries feared that Grushevoy’s cooperation with foreigners would
undermine their authority.
Survey data validated their concern: a majority of Belarusians
considered foreign humanitarian aid to be more effective than state aid.
Marples, Belarus, 70.
O’Meara, Fallout, 13.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 239.
Marples, Belarus, 71.
Belarus: 20 year-long battle, 8586; Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 163; Marples, Belarus, 7275.
Marples, Belarus, 127.
Marples, 70.
Marples, 70.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 79.
Grushevoy’s work on Children of Chernobyl aid programs in the early years of
independence likewise supports H2 (individual agency explanation). Not only did the BCCF
garner impressive amounts of foreign assistance, but Grushevoy persisted in his advocacy despite
government obstruction. With Lukashenko’s election in July 1994, however, Grushevoy’s work
became even more challenging.
(3.3) Lukashenko’s Reactionary Chernobyl Narrative
Much to the consternation of Western leaders, Lukashenko sidelined the legislative branch
and built an authoritarian regime. During his first term in office, he clashed with parliament over
issues like integration with Russia.
In 1996, the president pressured the body to approve a
referendum to expand his powers.
Although accusations of voter fraud abounded, by all
accounts Lukashenko’s constitutional amendments received widespread public support.
But the
referendum “tarnished [the president’s] image in the West.
In 1997, the EU shelved the
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement it signed with Belarus three years earlier and imposed
strict sanctions.
Ioffe clarifies that these sanctions banned “any cooperation with Belarus except
for combating the effects of the Chernobyl disaster.”
Until the late-2000s, such restrictions
severely inhibited Belarusian cooperation with Western countries.
V. Chernov, “Political Movements: NGOs in Belarus: Problems of Their Establishment and Development
[Политические Движения. НПО в Белоруссии: Проблемы Становления и Развития],” Mirovaia Ekonomika i
Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniia, December 1, 2002; Marples, Belarus, 13334.
Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2014), 134.
Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus,” 97–98.
Ioffe, 95.
Clara Portela, “The European Union and Belarus: Sanctions and Partnership?” Comparative European Politics 9
(September 1, 2011); “Resolution on Obstruction of Non-Governmental Humanitarian Relief Organizations in
Belarus” (Official Journal of the European Communities, June 30, 1997),
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 89.
As he tightened his grip on power, Lukashenko recalibrated official discourse on
Chernobyl. Rather than denouncing Soviet policies, Lukashenko advocated a national identity that
mirrored the Soviet historical narrative, with an emphasis on the cult of victory around World War
He framed Chernobyl as “another battlefront for the Belarusian nation, which will
unavoidably come out victorious.”
State-run media echoed this comparison. An article
published in Sovetskaia Belorussiia announced that Chernobyl “marks a stage in our tragic fate—
an ultimate injustice; having lost thirty percent of the population during WWII, Belarus was then
afflicted by this Chernobyl pain.”
The notion that Chernobyl was a battle to win helped justify Lukashenko’s new policies in
the contaminated territories. Instead of acknowledging that the area was dangerous for human
habitation, he advocated for the lands to be “rehabilitated” to resume agricultural production and
return people to their homes.
“It doesn’t make sense to blow the problem out of proportion,”
said the president in 2011. “The attitude of dependency is pervasive. We are from the Chernobyl
zone, we got sick so give us something! To which I reply: Guys, calm down.”
rhetoric minimized the severity of the accident and justified his reductions to compensation for
Chernobyl victims.
Meanwhile, the president ignored Belarusian scientists’ warnings about
rising rates of illness and grew hostile to Chernobyl advocates.
Bauer, Kalmbach, and Kasperski, “From Pripyat to Paris, from Grassroots Memories to Globalized Knowledge
Production,” 154; Kasperski, “The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and Identity Strategies in Belarus,” 123–24.
Kasperski, “The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and Identity Strategies in Belarus,” 124.
Romanova, “I’ll take your pain.”
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 80–81; Stsiapanau, “The Chernobyl politics in Belarus,” 148;
Ekatherina Zhukova, “Trauma management: Chernobyl in Belarus and Ukraine,” The British Journal of Sociology
67, no. 2 (2016): 21112.
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 22930.
Kasperski, “The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and Identity Strategies in Belarus,” 122.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 291–93; Marples, “The Legacy of Chernobyl’ in 1997,” 167.
(3.4) Responses From the Belarusian Opposition
Lukashenko’s eagerness to dismantle social protections and paint Chernobyl victims as
hypochondriacs emboldened his critics. The opposition argued that the Lukashenko regime was a
“‘political Chernobyl’ for the Belarusian nation.”
In 2006, nationalist presidential candidate
Aleksandr Milinkievich called Lukashenko’s 1996 referendum a “coup d’état” that ushered in
“another disaster, probably even more serious [than Chernobyl].”
Opposition news outlets like
Narodnaya Volya criticized state-run media’s focus on the economic consequences of Chernobyl
in the contaminated territories, implying that the government’s policies were ineffective.
Kuchinskaya argues that opposition activists accentuated their victimhood to “counter official
discourse” that minimized it.
Domestic opposition was not limited to the media sector. While Grushevoy devoted most
of his attention to Chernobyl advocacy, he was also a leading figure in the Belarusian Christian
Democratic Party (BCDP), an opposition party he founded in 1994.
In 1995, Grushevoy became
a deputy to the Belarusian parliament, but Lukashenko dissolved the body, thwarting Grushevoy’s
ability to enact legislative change.
Meanwhile, the BPF continued to organize demonstrations.
In March 1997, 10,000 Belarusians took to the streets to voice their discontent with the regime.
Through their organizing, activists hoped to generate both domestic resistance and foreign
attention to Lukashenko’s reactionary policies. Newspapers like Narodnaya Volya used
“emotionally charged, exaggerated language,” unsubstantiated health statistics, and images of
Kasperski, “The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident and Identity Strategies in Belarus,” 127.
As quoted in: Kasperski, 127.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 8586.
Kuchinskaya, 8593.
Severinets, “Gennadiy Grushevoy - the man who directed the world’s attention to the Chernobyl catastrophe
[Геннадий Грушевой – тот, кто обратил внимание мира на Чернобыльскую катастрофу].”
Marina Volkova and Iuras Karamanov, “Opposition and supporters of the president held protests [Оппозиция и
сторонники президента провели митинги],” Nezavisimaia Gazeta, March 25, 1997.
children with cancer to elicit sympathy from foreign audiences.
(See Figure 3.) Sensationalized
reports of sick children generated foreign interest in Belarus and helped foreign charities justify
their programs to their donors. Chernobyl Heart, a documentary depicting the dire conditions of
orphanages and children’s hospitals in contaminated regions of Belarus, won an Academy Award
in 2004.
Weaponizing the Children of Chernobyl issue was a shrewd strategy: in an authoritarian
country where expression was heavily policed, lamenting the plight of sick children was a subtle
yet compelling way to criticize government failings.
These efforts captured the world’s attention. Foreign governments did not look kindly upon
the regime’s crackdown; the U.S. suspended $40 million of economic aid after Belarusian
authorities arrested an American diplomat during the 1997 protest.
Meanwhile, aid to Belarusian
children spiked after the mid-1990s. In 1995, 31,474 children traveled abroad on health trips. By
1998, the figure had nearly doubled, reaching 61,167.
The way Belarusian opposition activists and charities used the Children of Chernobyl as a
tool to attract foreign aid and criticize the Lukashenko regime’s Chernobyl policies bolsters H1
(domestic politics explanation), which suggests that domestic activists sought international allies
to amplify their voices and put pressure on their unresponsive government.
Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 79.
Maryann De Leo, Chernobyl Heart (HBO, 2003),; Violetta Dralyuk, “In this
film everyone is a main character [В этом фильме все - главные герои],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, March 3, 2004;
Brown, Manual for Survival, 288.
Volkova and Karamanov, “Opposition and supporters of the president held protests [Оппозиция и сторонники
президента провели митинги].”
Figure 3: Narodnaya Volya article depicting a sick child. The headline reads: “Payments to people disabled by
Chernobyl are 23 times lower [than necessary], and ‘compensation’ for families of deceased Chernobyl cleanup
workers are 25 times larger. Today the price of health lost due to Chernobyl is evaluated at 100 dollars, and the price
of the life of a Chernobyl worker at 150 dollars.” Reprinted with permission from Kuchinskaya.
From Narodnaya Volya, April 29, 1998. Reprinted in Kuchinskaya, The Politics of Invisibility, 87.
(3.5) Waves of State Repression
In the late 1990s, as opposition activists ramped up their anti-government organizing,
Lukashenko cracked down on independent NGOs. This repression campaign progressed in three
waves, according to exiled Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Rouda.
The president’s
strategies discouraged some organizations from continuing their work, but the most committed
stood their ground. As we will see, this back-and-forth demonstrates how Belarusian recipients of
foreign aidboth NGOs and Lukashenkomolded such assistance to suit their political agendas.
The first wave of repression, from 1996 to 1997, involved policies that intimidated the
“most authoritative and financially independent NGOs, like Grushevoy’s BCCF.
In March
1997, the Belarusian security services launched an investigation of the organization, accusing it of
evading taxes and financing the opposition.
Grushevoy fled to Germany, returning a year later
when charges had been dropped.
His decision to return to Belarus and face further repression is
significant. Keck and Sikkink write that advocacy networks are most likely where there are
activists who are “prepared to incur significant costs … to achieve their goals.”
The Belarusian
government subjected Grushevoy to financial pressure, legal charges, and slander in state-
controlled media. Yet he persisted, cultivating a vast network of foreign donors. This perseverance
is clear evidence that Grushevoy was responsible, at least in part, for the high level of foreign aid
to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl, in keeping with H2 (individual agency explanation).
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 25152; Nelly Bekus, Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative
“Belarusianness,” CEUP Collection (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2013), chap. 10.
Chernov, “Political Movements: NGOs in Belarus.”
Dmitrii Krakhov, “Children of lieutenant Schmidt hide behind ‘Children of Chernobyl’ [За ‘Детьми Чернобыля’
прячутся дети лейтенанта Шмидта],” Rossiiskaia gazeta, June 7, 1997; “Official charges have not been filed
against Genadii Grushevoi [Официальное обвинение Геннадию Грушевому не предъявлено],” Sovetskaia
Belorussiia, June 17, 1997; Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 262–63; Marples, “The Legacy of Chernobyl’ in 1997,”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 266; Krakhov, “Children of lieutenant Schmidt.”
Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders, 14.
The second wave of repression, from 1999 to 2000, saddled civil society groups with
bureaucratic red tape. In 1999, Lukashenko ordered NGOs, political parties, and trade unions to
re-register under stricter conditions. Around 15 percent of the organizations that applied for re-
registration received denials.
Grushevoy’s BCDP was not re-registered, but the BCCF
Even after this culling, Lukashenko continued to accuse NGOs of using foreign aid to
undermine him. An article published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on December 21,
2000, reported that Lukashenko “accused … the ‘Children of Chernobyl’ foundation and many
[other] foreign foundations of using only one out of every ten ‘humanitarian dollars’ for children
and the other nine for financing ‘the extreme opposition.’”
In parallel with these first two waves, Lukashenko gradually strengthened state control
over aid programs for the Children of Chernobyl. In 1997, he created a “Department of
Humanitarian Aid to mediate contacts between foreign charities and Belarusian NGOs.
that came a steady stream of new regulations, including complex customs policies and a mandate
that all donations be distributed by the Belarusian government, rather than local organizations.
NGO representatives were frustrated. In an interview from April 2000, Grushevoy complained that
the department’s regulations intended “to make us and our international donors submit to the will
of the president.”
Other civil society leaders reported that regulations discouraged foreign
partners and caused local NGOs to abandon their efforts. “It’s becoming harder and harder to
Chernov, “Political Movements: NGOs in Belarus.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 252.
Sabina Sokol, “‘The Children of Chernobyl’ had better not be in the opposition ["Детям Чернобыля" не быть в
оппозиции],” Kommersant Daily, December 21, 2000.
“Official charges have not been filed.”
Anatolii Kozlovich, “Four Belarusian children didn’t reach foreign paradise [Четверо белорусских детей не
доехали до заграничного рая],” Literaturnaia gazeta, July 9, 1997.
Natalia Radina, “The costs of total control [Издержки тотального контроля],” Nasha svaboda, April 18, 2000,
work,” lamented Mikhail Sobol, head of the organization Hope Express. “We’re talking about
The state often justified its control measures by pointing to accidents and instances of
misconduct by NGOs. Lukashenko used ordinary mistakes, like flight delays and car crashes, to
punish all charities.
“Just look what happens when civil society is in charge of Chernobyl
children!” announced one bureaucrat, while visiting the site of a car accident. “The state should
take complete responsibility for the issue of health recovery, just like it took charge of
humanitarian aid.”
The government also used isolated instances of corruption within small
charities to discredit larger, politically active organizations like Grushevoy’s BCCF. State-run
newspapers printed articles with stories of Belarusian NGOs swindling unsuspecting foreign
donors and earning kickbacks by sending abroad privileged children instead of kids from
contaminated territories.
Such impropriety took place, but most large NGOs like the BCCF
enjoyed a good reputation. Regardless of who was at fault, all organizations paid the price of
increasingly cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.
Lukashenko’s efforts to hinder foreign aid to the Children of Chernobyl in the 1990s show
that he viewed such assistance a threat; as H1 (domestic politics explanation) suggests, the
president recognized that NGOs and activists were using aid to undermine his authority.
Maria Yarovenko, “Control over humanitarian activities [Контроль за гуманитарной деятельностью],”
Belorusskaia delovaia gazeta, December 21, 2004.
Fyodor Mukha and Mikhail Drobnovich, “Accident near Kobrin: four children died. President expressed
condolencenes to the families of the dead and injured [Авария под Кобрином: погибло четверо детей. Президент
выразил соболезнование семьям погибших и пострадавших],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, June 4, 1997; Pyotr
Radechko, “Once more about the causes of the incident with the Chernobyl children in Italy [Еще раз о причинах
инцидента с чернобыльскими детьми в Италии],” Sovetskaia Belorussiia, August 23, 1997.
Kozlovich, “Four Belarusian children didn’t reach foreign paradise.”
“Verifications were conducted and the guilty were punished [Проведены проверки. Виновные наказаны]”;
Mokhor, “Bitter piece of another’s pie [Горький кусок чужого пирога]”; Cherepanov, “A lie: the obvious and the
unbelievable [Обман: очевидное и невероятное].”
In the third wave of repression, during the early 2000s, Lukashenko’s strategy shifted from
control to cooptation. In 2003, he signed a decree to fund groups engaged in “assignments
significant to the state.”
Thus began a campaign that promoted “pseudo-independent”
government-organized NGOs, whose objective was to compete with existing nonprofits.
writes that such groups gave the impression of the existence of pseudo-civil society in the public
space,” while real civil society was limited by legislative restrictions, ideological pressure, and
[an] information vacuum.”
Although some independent NGOs succumbed to the pressure campaign, others
radicalized. Chernov writes that the Belarusian government’s repressive policies caused a split
between NGOs who defended their independence and those who felt obliged to collaborate with
the government. The first group became highly politicized; many refused to submit to re-
registration and tightened ties with opposition parties.
Grushevoy, for example, demanded that
foreign partners renounce all collaboration with the Belarusian government.
The fact that NGOs
continued to oppose Lukashenko’s restrictions is further evidence of H1 (domestic politics
explanation), which highlights how activists used foreign contacts to pressure their government.
Lukashenko clearly viewed foreign humanitarian aid as a threat, given its connection with
his political opponents. But one type of aid generated more controversy than the others: health
trips for the Children of Chernobyl.
Bekus, Struggle over Identity, chap. 10.
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 252.
Bekus, Struggle over Identity, chap. 10.
Chernov, “Political Movements: NGOs in Belarus.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 26869.
(3.6) Lukashenko Clamps Down on Health Trips
The Belarusian president was suspicious of health trips for several reasons. First, they were
“an embarrassment to the government because they dr[ew] attention to the inability of the official
organs to provide such aid.”
In April 2006, an independent think tank asked 1,594 Belarusians
who they thought made the greatest contribution to health trips for the Children of Chernobyl. 35
percent of respondents chose “Belarusian NGOs,” and 30.5 percent chose “foreign countries.”
Only 24.5 percent thought that Belarusian authorities deserved credit for the trips.
These results
echo the complaints that indignant Belarusians voiced in the late Soviet period, when foreigners
were doing more to help sick children than their own government.
Beyond perceptions of state incapacity, Lukashenko worried that unsupervised trips could
have a pernicious influence on Belarusian children. Above all, he feared that children would prefer
life in their host countries, which would reflect poorly on his leadership.
The president’s
concerns were not unfounded. Newspapers recounted stories of children who became attached to
their host families and were reluctant to return to Belarus.
Children who traveled abroad were
more likely to emigrate out of Belarus as adults.
Grushevoy predicted that the trips would give
children new ways of thinking, which they could later use to encourage change in Belarus. “The
children are my last hope,” he stressed.
Marples, Belarus, 75.
“Results of the Nation Opinion Poll Conducted in April of 2006” (IISEPS, April 2006),
Olga Kitova, “Lukashenko canceled the radiation... [Лукашенко отменил радиацию...],” Russkii kur’er,
November 22, 2004.
Vladimir Skosirev, “Igor doesn’t want to speak Russian [Игорь не хочет говорить по-русски],” Izvestiia, April
2, 1997.
Zhukova interviewed 16 former Chernobyl children who participated in health trips to Italy. Of these, six still
regularly travel to Italy, eight moved there for higher education, and two migrated there for marriage. Although
these examples are anecdotal, they reflect a broader trend: Zhukova, “Kinning as intimate disaster response,” 7.
“If Chernobyl happened today, we too wouldn’t have learned the truth [Если бы Чернобыль случился сегодня,
мы бы тоже не узнали правду],” Komsomol’skaia Pravda - Belarus, April 27, 2006,
These fears motivated Lukashenko to clamp down on health trips. In a 2004 speech, the
president complained about the “uncontrolled nature” of the trips, noting that of the 130
organizations authorized to coordinate them, only four were governmental. “Let these
nongovernmental and religious organizations … bring humanitarian aid for our country here, he
Belarus had its own summer camps, after all, even if they were less exciting than trips
Lukashenko went on to condemn the “consumerist lifestyle” children were being
exposed to in Western countries, and announced that going forward the Minister of Education
would need to personally authorize each trip abroad.
The president’s restrictive measures had a
significant effect on the number of Children of Chernobyl who traveled abroad, which dropped
from 55,231 in 2004 to 44,015 in 2006. (See Figure 4.)
A high-profile scandal provoked further regulations. In 2008, sixteen-year-old Tatiana
Kozyro, who had visited the same family in California for nine summers, announced that she
would not return to Belarus.
Foreign media spread the story globally, heightening the drama.
On October 13, Lukashenko responded by issuing “Ukaz 555,” a presidential decree which
stipulated that children could only travel to countries with which Belarus had a bilateral
Aleksandr Lukashenko, “Aleksandr Lukashenko: discipline and, again, discipline! [Александр Лукашенко:
дисциплина и еще раз дисциплина!],”, November 18, 2004,
The Human Consequences of Chernobyl,” 62; V.A. Ryzhankov, “The Organization of Recuperation and
Sanatorium-Resort Treatment of the Population That Suffered from the Disaster at the Chernobyl NPP
[Организация Оздоровления и Санаторно-Курортного Лечения Пострадавшего От Катастрофы На
Чернобыльской АЭС],” in 17 Years After Chernobyl: Problems and Solutions [17 Лет После Чернобыля:
Проблемы и Решения] (Gomel: Republican Scientific-Practical Center of Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology,
2003), 6768.
Lukashenko, “Aleksandr Lukashenko: discipline and, again, discipline!”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 384–95; Aleksandr Tomkovich, “Adult games for children [Взрослые игры –
детям],” Nashe mneniye, October 30, 2008,
See, for example: “Belarusian Girl Returns From U.S. On Family’s Request,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty,
November 24, 2008,
Under the new rules, participation was limited to children under 14 years old, and
no child could visit the same family more than three times.
Grushevoy denounced Ukaz 555 as
revenge against Belarusian families and children.” He argued that the decree was merely a pretext
“to force Western governments to interfere in the activities of civil society.”
Ukaz 555 had a significant effect on aid programs. Although foreign governments were
initially reluctant to comply with the decree, as it involved “state interference into the affairs of
civil organizations,” gradually they agreed to sign agreements with Belarus.
But Children of
Chernobyl programs still suffered because of the decree. Grushevoy noted that “many community
initiatives stopped collaborating with Belarus.”
While Germany, Great Britain, Ireland,
Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and Spain signed agreements, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech
Republic, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, and the United States
closed their Children of Chernobyl programs.
A friend of Tatiana Kozyro’s American host
mother put it bluntly: “We are not going to concede to a dictator.”
Participant numbers declined after Ukaz 555. In 2008, 38,111 Children of Chernobyl
traveled abroad; by 2009, this number had dropped by 25 percent to 28,784. (See Figure 4.) As
was the case with his repression campaign against Belarusian NGOs, Lukashenko’s actions
regarding these health trips show that he viewed foreign humanitarian aid to the Children of
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 395; Natalia Grigorieva, “Recuperation of Belarusian children abroad: partners
reestablish contacts [Оздоровление белорусских детей за границей: партнеры восстанавливают контакты],”
Deutsche Welle, September 4, 2009; Tomkovich, “Adult games for children.”
“Chernobyl Programmes will continue in Italy only,” EuroBelarus, November 14, 2008,
Tomkovich, “Adult games for children.”
Quote drawn from: “Chernobyl Programmes will continue in Italy only”; Grigorieva, “Recuperation of
Belarusian children abroad.”
Grigorieva, “Recuperation of Belarusian children abroad.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 39596. As of 2014, Belarus had bilateral agreements with 14 countries: “On the
implementation of international humanitarian projects.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 39495.
Chernobyl as a threat. As H1 (domestic politics explanation) posits, the Belarusian president
understood that NGOs and activists were using such assistance to weaken him.
Figure 4: Data from Arndt (2020). Graph shows number of children in tens of thousands.
(3.7) Understanding Lukashenko’s Contradictory Behavior
Yet Lukashenko’s hostility toward local and foreign NGOs belies the president’s complex
relationship with aid to the Children of Chernobyl. Although the president recognized the risks of
humanitarian aid, he also saw its potential advantages at home and abroad. For example, although
Lukashenko placed restrictions on health trips, he never banned them completely. Why, then, did
Children of Chernobyl programs persist for so many years?
First, Lukashenko allowed the programs to continue because they were domestically
popular. A 2006 poll found that 53.3 percent of Belarusians opposed Lukashenko’s restrictions on
health trips, while only 23.8 percent supported them.
These trips, moreover, had a diverse
support base that included both poor families from the disaster zone and wealthy Belarusians.
Numerous reports found that officials and businesspeople leveraged connections to secure spots
for their children on trips abroad.
Although Lukashenko had sidelined his opposition, his rule
was still grounded in public consent. As Balazs Jarabik explains, “His social contract is based on
constant economic growth and a more equal distribution of wealth.”
On the one hand, foreign
aid to Chernobyl victims made Lukashenko’s government look incompetent. On the other hand,
such aid enjoyed widespread support.
Second, Lukashenko used foreign aid for Chernobyl victims as a tool to maintain relations
with Western countries and reduce his dependence on Russia. After 1997, EU sanctions banned
all technical assistance except in the case of humanitarian or regional projects or those which
directly support the democratization process.”
Chernobyl relief efforts were one of the few areas
in which cooperation could continue.
Allowing foreign charities to supply hospitals with
medical equipment and send children abroad would thus help Belarus build ties with Europe.
Although Lukashenko was suspicious of foreign charities, he was willing to make these
concessions, as he recognized that playing the EU and Russia off each other was better than relying
exclusively on Russian economic support. Lukashenko benefited from subsidized Russian fuel,
“Results of the Nation Opinion Poll.”
“A lie [Обман],” Novoe russkoe slovo, December 11, 1992; “Children of former CPSU officials arrive in
Germany instead of Chernobyl victims [Вместо жертв Чернобыля в Германию приезжают дети бывших
функционеров КПСС],” Novoe russkoe slovo, December 1, 1992; Anton Bulanov, “Stupidity tax 2, or a
continuation of the lottery mayhem [Налог на глупость-2, или Лотерейный беспредел с продолжением],”
Izvestiia, June 9, 1994.
As quoted in: Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 54.
“Council Conclusions on Belarus: 2027th Council Meeting” (Brussels: European Commission, September 15,
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 89.
but this dependence gave Moscow significant leverage over him.
In 2002 and 2006, for example,
Russia manipulated gas supplies and prices to punish Belarus for pursuing energy policies Moscow
Recognizing the dangers of overreliance on Russian fuel, Lukashenko intensified his
efforts to improve relations with Europe.
In addition to his hopes for reduced dependence on Russia, Lukashenko aspired to redirect
foreign aid for the Children of Chernobyl to finance his economic development initiatives in
contaminated territories.
In 2005, Vladimir Tsalko, head of the Belarusian Committee for the
Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster, argued that foreign aid should be reoriented, not reduced.
“There is no need to give gifts or send sacks of humanitarian aid,” he stated. Instead, we need to
revive the economy in the affected regions.
At the same time as he handicapped Children of
Chernobyl programs, Lukashenko sought to use them for his own ends.
Even as Lukashenko hindered these aid programs, he continued to wield them as a foreign
policy tool to gain political and economic support from the West. To accomplish these goals,
Lukashenko both justified his domestic crackdown as a way of controlling irresponsible NGOs
and made symbolic gestures to express his gratitude for foreign aid. In 2002, the president gave
French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who supported several charities involved with Chernobyl
relief work, a medal “for his significant contribution to helping overcome the consequences of
the accident.”
Lukashenko presented the same honor to other foreigners involved in Children of
Aliaksandr Novikau, “Nuclear power debate and public opinion in Belarus: From Chernobyl to Ostrovet,” Public
Understanding of Science, May 5, 2016, 278.
Ioffe, “Understanding Belarus,” 94; David R. Marples, “The Energy Dilemma of Belarus: The Nuclear Power
Option,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 49, no. 2 (March 1, 2008): 21527.
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 90.
“International aid to Chernobyl victims [Международная помощь чернобыльцам],” Molodezh’ Estonii, April
27, 2006; Kolchenko, “The obvious versus the unbelievable”; Romanova, “I’ll take your pain.”
Kolchenko, “The obvious versus the unbelievable.”
Elena Ermicheva, “To the fashion designer - from the president [Кутюрье - от президента],” Rossiiskaia gazeta,
October 24, 2002.
Chernobyl programs.
Belarusian diplomats likewise camouflaged their government’s repression
of NGOs by lavishing praise on foreign donors. In 2002, the Belarusian ambassador to Germany
stated that the country’s “charity activities are welcomed at the highest governmental level.”
2009, the Belarusian ambassador to Italy thanked the country for its contribution to summer health
In these statements, Belarusian officials were careful to omit explicit references to local
NGOs like the BCCF. This tactic accomplished a dual purpose: it minimized the influence of civil
society actors and allowed the Belarusian government to take credit for popular aid programs.
In early October 2008, around the same time Lukashenko restricted health trips under Ukaz
555, the US and EU loosened sanctions on Belarus.
The EU’s decision gave diplomats hope for
future cooperation between Western countries and Belarus. While there is no explicit evidence that
Lukashenko’s decision to clamp down on aid to the Children of Chernobyl was a response to the
suspension of sanctions, the fact that the two events occurred within days of each other is
suggestive. Lukashenko may have determined that these aid programs were less important now
that the scope of international engagement with Belarus had widened. Additionally, observers
noted that the president may have expected less foreign pushback against Ukaz 555, given that
“the EU [was] keen to improve relations with Belarus.”
Indeed, the European Commission (EC),
the EU’s executive branch, was reluctant to pressure Belarus on the issue of health trips, stating
that “this is not an issue for EC competence” and mentioning that Belarus had “taken some
Vladimir Skvortsov, “Dialogue and cooperation [Диалог и взаимодействие],” Belarus’ v mire, July 1, 2002.
Romanova, “I’ll take your pain.”
Daniel McLaughlin, “Behind the Chernobyl children’s travel ban,” The Irish Times, September 13, 2008,
travel-ban-1.938394; Philippa Runner, “MEPs set stage for lifting Belarus sanctions,” EUobserver, October 8, 2008,
McLaughlin, “Behind the Chernobyl children’s travel ban.”
concrete positive steps” toward democratization after sanctions were lifted.
This possible
connection between Ukaz 555 and Western sanctions reinforces the point that Lukashenko’s
isolation was a key driver of aid to Belarusian children.
In summary, both domestic and foreign policy considerations played important roles in
Lukashenko’s decision to allow aid programs for Belarusian Children of Chernobyl to continue.
Most significantly, the president’s foreign policy strategy involved using foreign aid as a
“counterweight” to Belarus’s isolation from the West.
Lukashenko’s behavior thus supports H3
(foreign policy explanation), which suggests that the foreign policy priorities of recipient country
governments are an important driver of aid allocation.
(3.8) The Decline of Foreign Aid to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl
After Ukaz 555, health trips for the Children of Chernobyl tapered off. In 2008, 38,111
children went abroad; by 2011, the number had fallen to 26,175a drop of 31 percent. (See Figure
4.) Several factors account for this decline. First, although the Belarusian government pressured
some foreign governments to sign bilateral agreements concerning the trips, others canceled their
Children of Chernobyl programs, rather than impinge upon civil society groups. Second,
Lukashenko coopted aid programs by pressuring local NGOs and foreign donors to fund projects
inside the country.
For example, after summer trips to the U.S. ceased in 2008, some American
NGOs turned to projects within Belarus.
Meanwhile, Grushevoy’s refusal to cooperate with the
“Answer to a Written Question - Preventing Children from South-Eastern Belarus, a Radioactive Fallout Region,
from Staying Temporarily with Host Families in EU Member States” (European Parliament, February 23, 2009),
Sahm, On the Way to a Transnational Society?” 116.
“On the implementation of international humanitarian projects.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 398.
state, combined with tightening restrictions on health trips, caused foreign partners to withdraw.
Third, a quarter century had passed since the Chernobyl accident, and many foreign donors turned
to more pressing humanitarian causes.
Even the most active local NGOs began to lose steam. In 2012, Grushevoy announced that
the BCCF “had fulfilled its social mission.”
In total, the organization had sent over 500,000
children to dozens of countries.
Grushevoy thought that charities’ resources could be better used
elsewhere: “Now the Children of Chernobyl have grown up, they have their own children, and we
can’t help them as much.”
After this statement, the foundation’s days were numbered: not only
had foreign aid dried up, but Grushevoy was suffering from leukemia. The BCCF was officially
dissolved in 2015, a year after his death.
The fact that aid waned as Grushevoy became less
active further supports the notion that he was an important driver of foreign support, in line with
H2 (individual agency explanation).
The late-2000s also marked a new stage in Lukashenko’s Chernobyl policy. In 2008, the
president declared his intention to build Belarus’s first nuclear power plant, stating that his “main
goal is [the] transition from rehabilitation to the development of the [affected] territories.”
meant eliminating categories that distinguished Chernobyl victims and redirecting compensation
funds to regional development projects.
While he had long been wary of recognizing the unique
Arndt, 278.
Smirnov, “From tragedy to garden of hope.”
“Charity foundation for Chernobyl children ceases its activities [Благотворительный фонд «Детям
Чернобыля» прекращает деятельность],”, December 21, 2012,
Smirnov, “From tragedy to garden of hope.”
“Charity foundation for Chernobyl children ceases its activities.”
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 278.
Novikau, “Nuclear power debate and public opinion in Belarus”; Stsiapanau, “The Chernobyl politics in
Belarus,” 148.
Stsiapanau, “The Chernobyl politics in Belarus,” 149.
suffering of the Children of Chernobyl, now there was “no place for post-Chernobyl social
Lukashenko was moving on, and he wanted everyone else to do the same.
The scale of foreign humanitarian aid for Belarusian Children of Chernobyl is surprising,
given Lukashenko’s reactionary Chernobyl narrative and hostile attitude toward foreign influence.
I argue that the dynamics of this aid are best explained by the domestic and foreign policy strategies
of the Belarusian president and opposition. Opposition activists and media weaponized children’s
suffering to generate domestic criticism of the Lukashenko regime and attract foreign donors, as
outlined in H1 (domestic politics explanation). Instrumental to their success was Gennadiy
Grushevoy, whose personal animosity toward Lukashenko and commitment to the cause of
Chernobyl victims motivated him to cultivate a vast network of foreign contacts through the BCCF
(H2 individual agency explanation).
Yet Lukashenko had a complex attitude toward foreign humanitarian aid for Children of
Chernobyl. Although the president was wary of increasing foreign influence and local NGOs’ ties
to the Belarusian opposition, he recognized that Belarusians liked the programs. Furthermore,
despite his tense relations with the West, Lukashenko was loath to cut off all contact, lest he remain
wholly dependent on Russia (H3 foreign policy explanation). This explains why Lukashenko
simultaneously restricted and permitted aid programs. Simply put, the Belarusian president wanted
to have his cake and eat it too.
Stsiapanau, 149.
Chapter 4: Comparing Aid to Belarus and Ukraine
While post-Soviet Belarus fostered a hostile climate for foreign aid to the Children of
Chernobyl, Ukraine threw open its doors. Ukraine was the country donors most readily associated
with the Chernobyl disaster, and its government advanced a national narrative that acknowledged
victims’ suffering. Furthermore, Ukraine was more integrated with the West than its neighbor. Yet
foreign donors did not arrive in droves to Ukraine as they did to Belarus.
Although Children of Chernobyl programs were not uncommon in Ukraine, they were less
active and did not garner the same media coverage that they did in Belarus. This trend is best
observed in the small number of Ukrainian children who went on health trips abroad. As Ukraine
did not track the trips as carefully as authoritarian Belarus, there is no comprehensive dataset.
Statistics from individual host countries, however, illuminate the overall picture that Ukrainian
children went on fewer health trips. (See Chapter 2 summary.) Ukraine received aid to improve
the safety of its nuclear power plants and decommission the Chernobyl NPP, but, unlike in Belarus,
the Children of Chernobyl were not the primary recipients of aid.
This comparative lack of
attention is puzzling, given the auspicious conditions described above.
I argue that Ukraine lacked the domestic and foreign policy conditions that fostered a
vibrant aid community in Belarus. While Lukashenko tightened his authoritarian rule over Belarus,
Ukraine underwent democratic development. Domestically, the latter country’s post-independence
leaders framed the Chernobyl disaster as an important aspect of the Ukrainian national identity.
Unlike in Belarus, competing Chernobyl narratives did not spawn a political struggle. The
Diana Kuryshko and Tet’yana Mel’nichuk, “‘Save our children from radiation’: How the world helped Chernobyl
victims ["Врятуйте наших дітей від радіації". Як світ допомагав жертвам Чорнобиля],” BBC News Ukraine,
June 29, 2019,
Ponsonby, “Fifteen years after Chernobyl”; “International support for rehabilitation of Chernobyl site”;
“International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day.”
existence of a political consensus surrounding the role of Chernobyl in Ukrainian society
dampened incentives for government critics to publicize the plight of sick children (H1 domestic
politics explanation). Furthermore, no Grushevoy-like figure emerged at the vanguard of
Ukraine’s Children of Chernobyl aid campaign (H2 foreign policy explanation). From a foreign
policy perspective, Ukraine was on a path to European integration. Consequently, foreign aid
supported initiatives aligned more closely with a Western policy agenda: namely, closing the
Chernobyl plant and implementing democratic reforms (H3 foreign policy explanation). Aid
tied to democracy promotion was acceptable in Ukraine, but anathema to the Lukashenko regime.
Taken together, these factors explain the divergent outcomes in aid to Children of Chernobyl in
Belarus and Ukraine.
(4.1) Contrasting the Behavior of Belarusian and Ukrainian Leaders Pre-Independence
In the years following the Chernobyl disaster, the Ukrainian leadership’s position was more
closely aligned with that of the domestic opposition than was the case in Belarus. This discrepancy
became important after independence, as it meant that Ukrainians had fewer incentives to use
Chernobyl to criticize their government.
Belarusian officials downplayed the Chernobyl accident to avoid mass evacuations and
popular hysteria, while Ukrainian officials took the situation more seriously. At the end of the
summer of 1986, for example, Belarusian leaders obeyed Moscow’s orders to return evacuees to
contaminated villages near the Chernobyl plant, but their Ukrainian counterparts refused to
In challenging Moscow, Ukrainian party bosses adopted a critical stance that
corresponded to the anti-Soviet campaigning of Ukrainian pro-independence groups like Rukh.
Brown, Manual for Survival, 74. NARB f. 7, op. 10, d. 614, l. 151.
After 1989, Rukh mobilized around the Soviet government’s negligent response to Chernobyl.
Although the group viewed Ukrainian Communist Party officials as complicit in Soviet abuses,
they were willing to work with Ukrainian officials to assist Chernobyl victims. An article published
in Pravda Ukrainy on May 22, 1990, describes a flight carrying 120 tons of humanitarian aid from
the Ukrainian diaspora community in North America to Children of Chernobyl in Kyiv. Taras
Gunchak, who coordinated donations from the U.S., emphasized that this humanitarian effort
enjoyed the support of both the Ukrainian leadership and Rukh. “I was personally touched by the
fact that the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Ukraine and a representative of Rukh
visited the United States,” he said.
This humanitarian flight was just one of many instances of collaboration between
Ukrainian officials and foreign donors. The Ukrainian Komsomol, for example, contacted various
countries to request medical aid for Children of Chernobyl. Cuba was among the first to respond.
In March 1990, the first children from Kyiv traveled to Havana for medical treatment.
A month
later, the ICRC delivered a convoy containing 20 tons of “ecologically clean” food to regions
around the Chernobyl zone, as part of a larger aid program organized alongside Kyiv regional
Ukrainian authorities’ eagerness to work with foreign donors and opposition
activists may help explain why Ukrainian civil society did not mobilize around the Chernobyl issue
after independence as Belarusian groups did.
Tykhyi, “Chernobyl Sufferers in Ukraine,” 242.
S. Volnyanskii and A. Trotsenko, “Bridge of compassion [Мост милосердия],” Pravda Ukrainy, May 22, 1990.
Nidia Díaz, “Abalkin highlights Cuba’s solidarity with the USSR in difficult moments [Destaca Abalkin
solidaridad de Cuba con la URSS en momentos difíciles],” Granma, April 21, 1990.
Fidel Castro, “Speech made while delivering the renovated construction of the José Martí City of Pioneers for the
treatment of the Children of Chernobyl on July 1, 1990 [Discurso pronunciado al entregar las obras de remodelación
de la Ciudad de los Pioneros José Martí para la atención de Niños de Chernóbil el 1 de julio de 1990],” Granma,
July 4, 1990.
A. Oleinik, “Sign of compassion [Знак милосердия],” Pravda Ukrainy, April 15, 1990.
In Belarus, local authorities and pro-independence leaders did not set aside their differences
to collectively provide relief to Chernobyl victims. When Belarusians learned the extent of their
exposure to radioactive contamination, they felt betrayed by their leadership and took to the streets.
As I describe in Chapter 3, the pro-independence BPF united Belarusians around the government’s
botched Chernobyl response. Between 1989 and 1991, both Belarusian authorities and independent
organizations solicited foreign humanitarian aid for the Children of Chernobyl.
But I did not
find evidence of the kind of collaboration between the leadership and opposition that occurred in
Ukraine. Instead, Belarusian authorities obstructed the work of opposition-affiliated charities. The
BCCF and its leader Gennadiy Grushevoy, for example, experienced significant pushback from
Belarusian authorities.
Belarusian officials wanted international aid, but not if it was tied to the
political opposition.
After Chernobyl, Ukrainian authorities contradicted Moscow’s policies of minimization
and secrecy, while Belarusian authorities adhered to the party line. The Ukrainian leadership’s
actions thus corresponded to the position of dissidents who objected to the official Soviet disaster
response. The Belarusian leadership, in contrast, reinforced the Soviet position. After 1989, both
Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders appealed to the international community for aid, but Ukrainian
officials agreed to cooperate with pro-independence activists to deliver assistance, while
Belarusian officials hampered such efforts. The actions of Belarusian and Ukrainian leaders before
independence reinforce H1 (domestic politics explanation), as they illustrate why Belarusian
activists had greater incentives than Ukrainians to criticize the way their government managed the
Brown, Manual for Survival, 226. Tsentral’nii derzhavnii arkhiv hromads’kikh ob’yednan’ Ukrainy (TDAHO). f.
1, op. 32, cpr. 2612, ark. 77.
Semenik, “A mask for the charity committee [Маска для благотворительного комитета]”; Dmitrii Semenik,
“The massacre of innocents, or Poison from the dictatorship of the nomenclature [Избиение младенцев, или Яд от
диктатуры номенклатуры],” Krokodil, November 1991.
disaster. As we will see in the following section, this pattern continued into the post-independence
period, when the independent Belarusian and Ukrainian governments advanced contrasting
Chernobyl narratives, which elicited different responses from citizens.
(4.2) Post-Independence Chernobyl Narratives and Opposition Engagement
Belarus and Ukraine diverged further after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December
1991. As Belarus veered toward authoritarianism, Ukraine developed into a democracy.
Furthermore, while competing Chernobyl narratives caused controversy in Belarus, Ukrainians
united around their common victimhood. Lukashenko downplayed the consequences of the
Chernobyl disaster, generating backlash from critics who emphasized the plight of sick Belarusian
children. Yet actors across Ukraine’s political spectrum wore Chernobyl as a badge of suffering.
The political consensus surrounding the disaster’s impact discouraged Ukrainians from using the
Children of Chernobyl to criticize their government. The fact that Chernobyl was an object of
political struggle in Belarus but not Ukraine supports H1 (domestic politics explanation), which
posits that activists solicited foreign aid to pressure their unresponsive government.
Before and after independence, Chernobyl was an important nation-building tool in
Ukraine, where citizens banded together as nuclear victims. The authors of the 1990 article about
aid from the Ukrainian diaspora emphasized that Ukrainians at home and abroad are different
branches, but of one tree.”
This quote demonstrates how Ukrainians within the USSR viewed
themselves as part of a wider ethnic community that joined forces in a time of need. On July 4,
1992, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma published a letter in which a group of
Ukrainian mothers thanked Cuban leader Fidel Castro for the medical treatment their children
Volnyanskii and Trotsenko, “Bridge of compassion.”
received on the island. The letter exemplifies Ukraine’s victimhood narrative and makes a thinly
veiled critique of Soviet policies. “We are speaking out so that the destiny of our children, whose
lives were cut off by war, atomic bombs and chemical attacks, is not repeated,” wrote the women.
“We don’t want the Children of Chernobyl, the children of Ukraine, to continue this bitter list.”
Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhii summarizes Ukrainians’ attitudes toward the disaster: We are
the people marked by Chernobyl, we are the victims of nuclear energy.
While Ukrainian leaders endorsed this victimhood narrative, the Belarusian president did
not. In another letter to Castro, Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk expressed his gratitude that
Cuba had helped Ukraine in the difficult struggle against the consequences of the Chernobyl
disaster.” Describing the “serious illnesses [these children] suffered,” Kravchuk wrote that Cuba’s
help “will stay forever in the memory of the Ukrainian people.”
In 2002, Sergei Shevchuk,
Secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Public Health, criticized international organizations’
attempts to minimize Chernobyl and emphasized the disaster’s negative health consequences.
While Ukrainian officials acknowledged their population’s suffering, Lukashenko cautioned
Belarusians not to “blow the problem out of proportion.”
While the Ukrainian government
preserved welfare benefits for Chernobyl victims, Lukashenko dismantled such programs.
Ukraine, the government and its citizens agreed about the damage from Chernobyl; in Belarus,
they did not.
Vladimir Zazhitski, Natalia Kosareva, and N. Livientseva, “Letter to Fidel in the name of the mothers and
children of Chernobyl [Carta a Fidel en nombre de madres y niños de Chernóbil],” Granma, July 4, 1992.
“‘Chernobyl Accident Became Element of Our National Identity’, Serhii Plohii,” Uatom.Org (blog), November
11, 2019,
Leonid Kravchuk, “Letter to Fidel from the president of Ukraine [Carta a Fidel del presidente de Ucrania],”
Granma, July 15, 1992.
Natalia Savchenko, “The sentence is subject to appeal [Приговор обжалованию подлежит],” Zerkalo nedeli,
April 27, 2002.
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 22930.
Petryna, Life Exposed, 45.
These conflicting attitudes bred different levels of opposition engagement with the
Chernobyl issue. In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime’s reactionary narrative meant that Chernobyl
was “fated to be associated with the opposition.
In Ukraine, however, the issue was no longer
a point of political contestation. “Whatever the reality of the health picture in Ukraine, there is no
dissension on this matter between the government on the one hand and its opposition on the other,”
wrote David Marples in 2006.
Zhukova echoed this sentiment: While certain groups in Ukraine
promote antagonistic narratives about World War II similar to those of the Belarus[ian] opposition,
Chernobyl has not become a part of the political struggle or the question of nationalism in
This meant that Ukrainian critics did not adopt Belarusian activists’ tactic of
exploiting images of sick children to denounce their government.
Beyond the fact that Chernobyl was a cornerstone of Ukrainian national identity, the
country’s relatively open political climate created avenues for dissent. Unlike Belarus, Ukraine
was a democracy (albeit a flawed one). Although opposition groups and NGOs still faced
restrictions on freedom of speech and association, the situation improved after 2004.
could express their political beliefs and social activists championed many causes, like human rights
and electoral fraud.
Belarusian activists, in contrast, sought clever ways to criticize Lukashenko
while avoiding repression. As we will see in Section 4 of this chapter, foreign donors took
advantage of Ukraine’s political openness and desire for Western integration to support economic
and political reforms, sidelining aid for the Children of Chernobyl. In Belarus, political repression
forestalled projects explicitly linked to democracy promotion, so Children of Chernobyl programs
Marples, “The Political Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster in Belarus and Ukraine,” 62.
Marples, 62.
Zhukova, “Trauma management,” 5.
Svitlana Kuts, “Civil Society in Ukraine: 'Driving Engine or Spare Wheel for Change?',” CIVICUS Civil Society
Index (Kyiv: CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, 2006), 4344,
Mridula Ghosh, “In Search of Sustainability: Civil Society in Ukraine” (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2014).
became an indirect way for NGOs to promote democracy. The fact that Ukrainian civil society had
a wider menu of issues to defend helps explain why Children of Chernobyl did not become a
political tool in Ukraine as they did in Belarus.
Together, the previous two sections provide evidence to support H1 (domestic politics
explanation). In Belarus, the political opposition weaponized the Children of Chernobyl to
counter Lukashenko’s attempts to minimize the Chernobyl disaster and draw domestic and
international condemnation of his authoritarian regime. Seeking foreign aid for Children of
Chernobyl was a way to criticize the Belarusian government in a political climate where more
obvious forms of dissent were infeasible. In Ukraine, a political consensus developed around a
national narrative of victimhood, which reduced incentives for citizens to mobilize around the
Children of Chernobyl—particularly given that Ukraine’s political climate allowed civil society to
tackle more controversial issues.
(4.3) Individual Agency, and Lack Thereof
Another factor that distinguished Belarus’s domestic politics from Ukraine’s was the
presence of a vocal, unifying advocate for the Children of Chernobyl. I argue that Gennadiy
Grushevoy’s individual agency was crucial for building a strong aid campaign on behalf of
Belarusian children. The fact that Ukraine lacked a similarly charismatic figure leading the charge
for Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl strengthens the claim that Grushevoy mattered (H2
individual agency explanation).
As Chapter 3 outlines, Gennadiy Grushevoy was at the vanguard of the Belarusian Children
of Chernobyl aid community. His commitment to his work, in addition to his connection to
Belarus’s political opposition, attracted significant attention to Belarusian children and proved
crucial to the success of his organization. Grushevoy leveraged his personal connections to contact
foreign donors and gave frequent interviews to cultivate a visible presence in domestic and foreign
media. His refusal to remain politically neutral boosted the prominence of his advocacy work, as
attempts to punish him for criticizing Lukashenko made him a martyr in the eyes of the
international community. Grushevoy’s symbolic value as an object of state persecution also made
foreigners more sympathetic to the cause of the Children of Chernobyl. While it is difficult to
assess the relative weight of the “Grushevoy factor” in comparison to other drivers of aid, we
should not discount his contribution. This becomes clear when considering Ukraine, where a
similar figure was notably absent.
In an article published in Zerkalo nedeli on December 17, 2011, Natalia Preobrazhenskaia
wrote that although the Ukrainian National Academy of Medical Sciences boasted a “powerful
team of specialists” who had published many scientific articles and books on Chernobyl, nobody
was truly “sound[ing] the alarm bell about the catastrophic situation regarding the state of the
health of the Ukrainian population.”
In 2009, Konrad et al. published a study that identified a
worrying lack of agency in Ukrainian hospitals, noting that “despite the dependency on
international aid, hospital administration generally tends to exhibit a passive attitude toward
seeking international donors.”
Ukraine was not devoid of Children of Chernobyl advocates, but
no Grushevoy-like figure led the charge. Nor was there an unmistakable connection between
Children of Chernobyl programs and the political opposition.
Natalia Preobrazhenskaia, “A period of collapsing conscience [Период распада совести],” Zerkalo nedeli,
December 17, 2011.
Renata Konrad, Kalyna Bezchlibnyk-Butler, and Marika Dubyk Wodoslawsky, “Allocation of Aid for Health
Institutions in Ukraine: Implications from a Case Study of Chornobyl (Chernobyl) Area Hospitals,” International
Journal of Health Services 39, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 637.
Cuba’s Children of Chernobyl program supports the notion that individual agency
mattered. The impetus for the program came from Anatoly Matvienko, General Secretary of the
Ukrainian Komsomol, who “worr[ied] about the state of Ukrainian children after the accident.”
Two Ukrainian ambassadors to Cuba, Viktor Paschuk and Tatiana Saienko, were also strong
advocates for the program.
From 1990 to 2011, 21,874 children86 percent of them
Ukrainianreceived treatment in Cuba.
While this figure is impressive, it pales in comparison
to Grushevoy’s BCCF, which incorporated dozens of countries and sent over 500,000 children
The Cuban side, moreover, was just as active as the Ukrainian side. Beyond
humanitarianism, maintaining ties with Ukraine had many potential benefits for Cuba, including
trade relations and international prestige.
Castro judged these benefits as so great that he
preserved the program even after Ukraine tightened ties with Cuba’s principal adversary, the
United States.
Although individual commitment clearly sustained Cuba’s medical program, it is
impossible to identify a leading figure. Furthermore, the presence of other motivating factors,
particularly for Cuba, shows that individual agency was only part of the story.
“The children of Chernobyl in Cuba: An untold story (I) [Los niños de Chernóbil en Cuba: Una historia no
contada (I)],” Cubadebate, June 19, 2019,
“Viktor Paschuk, Ukrainian ambassador in the Republic of Cuba, dies [Скончался посол Украины в
Республике Куба Виктор Пащук],” Podrobnosti, April 7, 2005,
respublike-kuba-viktor-paschuk.html; Svetlana Garazha, “Fidel: Immortality [Фидель. Бессмертие],” Rabochaia
gazeta, February 2, 2018; “Ukrainian Ambassador Passed away in Havana,” Radio Rebelde, January 8, 2013,
“The children of Chernobyl in Cuba: An untold story (IV) [Los niños de Chernóbil en Cuba: Una historia no
contada (IV)],” Cubadebate, July 17, 2019,
Pugovitsa, “Cuba - a small country with a big heart [Куба - маленькая страна с большим сердцем]”; Alex
Tehrani, “Chernobyl Children in Cuba,” The Progressive (Madison, United States: Progressive Incorporated,
November 1994); Kirk and Erisman, Cuban Medical Internationalism, 91.
Garazha, “Fidel: Immortality.”
The Philip Morris Company’s (PMC) donations to Ukrainian hospitals are another example
of a Children of Chernobyl program in which individual agency mattered. Yet, as in the Cuban
case, no single figure stood at the helm of the initiative. The closest to a leader was Tatiana
Kharchenko, head doctor at a children’s hospital in the Ukrainian city of Khar’kov. After
Kharchenko met a representative from PMC at a medical conference in 2001, the company worked
with a local charity to provide equipment to her hospital.
Kharchenko’s lobbying was certainly
an important driver of aid, but her hospital was just one recipient in PMC’s larger philanthropic
campaign, which supported 11 Ukrainian medical institutions.
It is unclear how much of the
program’s success can be explained by Kharchenko; PMC was already enthusiastic about donating
to charity causes in Khar’kov, as this was its main production center in Ukraine.
while the doctor’s efforts were admirable, their scale was small compared to Grushevoy’s
operation in Belarus.
Aid provided by Cuba and PMC demonstrates the power of individual agency in Ukraine’s
Children of Chernobyl programs, but on a much smaller scale than in Belarus. Neither program
featured a single, vocal leader, nor were the individuals involved politically active members of
Ukrainian society, as was Grushevoy. It is difficult to determine whether a powerful individual
would have fundamentally altered the aid landscape in Ukraine. But the fact that Ukraine lacked a
Grushevoy-like figure lends credence to H2 (individual agency explanation), or the claim that
he played a crucial role in spurring aid for the Children of Chernobyl in Belarus. To borrow from
Arthur Conan Doyle, Ukraine was the dog that did not bark.
Anton Lebedev, “Compassion in the name of life [Милосердие во имя жизни],” Vechernii Khar’kov, April 21,
Lebedev; Vadim Samoilenko, “Charity: The Chernobyl password: compassion, humanity, aid
[Благотворительность. Чернобыльский пароль: сострадание, человечность, помощь],” Delovaia Ukraina,
April 26, 2002.
Lebedev, “Compassion in the name of life.”
David Collier, “Understanding Process Tracing,” PS, Political Science & Politics 44, no. 4 (October 2011): 825.
(4.4) Foreign Policy and Foreign Aid
Belarus and Ukraine differed not only in their domestic politics, but in their foreign policy
trajectories. While Belarus was isolated from the West, Ukraine favored integration. These
divergent paths affected aid flows. As outlined in Chapter 3, Belarus’s repressive political climate
and international sanctions limited foreign cooperation to a few areas, including Chernobyl relief.
Ukraine, in contrast, enjoyed many forms of cooperation with its Western neighbors. As a result,
Children of Chernobyl programs took a back seat to other types of aid. Moreover, Chernobyl-
related aid to Ukraine concentrated on securing and decommissioning the power planta
challenge Belarus did not confront. It is to this final point that we turn first.
In the years after independence, the West viewed the precarious status of the Chernobyl
NPPnot sick childrenas Chernobyl’s most alarming legacy in Ukraine. Recognizing this
concern, the Ukrainian government launched programs to decommission the plant. Western
countries rewarded its efforts by promising “further technical assistance, loans, and potential
trading partnerships.”
These countries were not immune to the suffering of the Children of
Chernobyl, but the power plant was their priority. The EU organized a funding drive to shut down
the reactors, a process that ended in 2000.
Securing the plant came next. A Council of Europe
report stated that as of 2001, the bulk of committed aid from the international community has
been going into the rebuilding of the sarcophagus [safety cover] over the damaged Chernobyl
Workers completed the new cover in 2019 at a total cost of 2.2 billion Euros.
Petryna, Life Exposed, 5.
“International support for rehabilitation of Chernobyl site.”
Ponsonby, “Fifteen years after Chernobyl.”
“International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day.”
With their energy concentrated on shutting down the Chernobyl NPP, the international
community and the Ukrainian government shelved other Chernobyl-related issues, like the
Children of Chernobyl. An EC statement regarding Lukashenko’s 2008 suspension of health trips
provides evidence of the discrepancy. While the EC representative highlighted that the EU had
devoted massive resources to securing the power plant and assisting Belarusian children, she did
not mention Ukrainian children.
This does not indicate that Western governments ignored
Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl, but it does suggest that the children were not their priority.
Belarus lacked a nuclear plant, rendering the human consequences of the disaster, particularly for
children, more visible.
Another reason why Belarusian Children of Chernobyl received more attention than
Ukrainian children concerns the level of integration each country pursued with the West.
Compared to Belarus under Lukashenko, Ukraine enjoyed closer relations with Western countries.
While this might lead one to expect aid for Children of Chernobyl to flourish in Ukraine, the effect
of tighter ties with Europe and the U.S. was in fact the opposite. Unburdened by the severe
sanctions Belarus faced, Ukraine had plenty of channels for cooperation with the West, both related
and unrelated to Chernobyl. In this comparatively dynamic organizational landscape, Children of
Chernobyl programs took a back seat.
As Lukashenko faced increasing international condemnation and isolation, Ukraine drew
closer to the West. Although Ukrainian leaders were not equally committed to strengthening ties
with Europe, the overall thrust of Ukrainian foreign policy in the 1990s and early 2000sthe
period covered by this dissertationwas of European integration.
In 1994, President Kuchma
“Answer to a Written Question.”
Olesia Tragniuk, “European Union and Ukraine: Some Issues of Legal Regulation of Relations – From
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to Association Agreement,” Critical Quarterly for Legislation and Law 99,
no. 1 (2016): 4463.
signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU and declared his intention to seek
EU membership by 20032004.
In 1997, around the same time the EU levied sanctions against
Belarus, the first EU-Ukraine summit took place.
Viktor Yushchenko’s election as president of
Ukraine in 2004 solidified the country’s European path.
But Ukraine’s European ambitions
depended on successful political, economic, and institutional reforms.”
Western donors were
eager to support initiatives promoting democratic governance, human rights, and rule of law.
Many hoped that promoting democracy and European integration would draw Ukraine out of
Russia’s orbit.
Pro-EU civil society organizations in Ukraine welcomed their assistance.
This emphasis on reform marked a major difference between foreign aid to Ukraine and
Belarus. While Ukrainian NGOs could accept foreign aid with explicitly political aims, Belarusian
NGOs could not. “In Ukraine, reform-oriented, democracy-promoting and progressive
organisations do not face political restrictions and even advise political elites and monitor their
activities,” write Mazepus et al., whereas “in Belarus … political and legal restrictions on the civil
society sector mean that relatively few [groups] promote European values and ideals openly, and
the domains in which they can operate are more limited.”
Until 2008, EU sanctions barred all
technical assistance to Belarus except that which was related to “humanitarian or regional projects
or those which directly support the democratization process.
Lukashenko would not permit
Tragniuk, 46–47; “EU-Ukraine Summits: 16 Years of Wheel-Spinning,” The Ukrainian Week, February 28,
“Council Conclusions on Belarus: 2027th Council Meeting.”
Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton, Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-
Soviet Eurasia (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018), 876.
Charap and Colton, 95.
Natalia Shapovalova, “Assessing Democracy Assistance: Ukraine” (FRIDE, 2010),
Michael McFaul, “Ukraine Imports Democracy: External Influences on the Orange Revolution,” International
Security 32, no. 2 (2007): 4583.
Honorata Mazepus et al., “Civil Society and External Actors: How Linkages with the EU and Russia Interact
with Socio-Political Orders in Belarus and Ukraine,” East European Politics, February 9, 2021, 1415.
“Council Conclusions on Belarus: 2027th Council Meeting.”
democratization projects, but he was willing to tolerate Children of Chernobyl programs
provided he could coopt and control them.
Belarus’s isolation from the West limited cooperation and made foreign aid for Children
of Chernobyl programs more attractive to both parties. For the Belarusian government, this aid
was a way to maintain ties with Europe while other channels were blocked; for Belarusian NGOs
and foreign donors, it was a substitute for reform-oriented civil society initiatives. In Ukraine,
Western donors were concerned first and foremost with decommissioning and securing the
Chernobyl NPP, while other Chernobyl-related issues faded into the background. Further,
Ukraine’s integration with the West widened the scope of cooperation between the two, causing
aid to flow toward democracy promotion and reform efforts. These contrasting foreign policy
priorities and aid outcomes provide evidence for H3 (foreign policy explanation), which
maintains that Belarus’s foreign policy strategies were an important driver of aid.
(4.5) Tackling Alternative Explanations: Who Needed Aid More?
Together, the previous sections of this chapter support a combination of H1 (domestic
politics explanation), H2 (individual agency explanation), and H3 (foreign policy
explanation). We can thus attribute differing levels of foreign aid to Children of Chernobyl
programs in Belarus and Ukraine to the domestic and foreign policy concerns of the two
governments and their political opponents, while recognizing that individual actors also influence
aid flows. In this section, I address two alternative explanations for the divergent aid outcomes.
At first glance, H4 (social policy explanation) and H5 (greatest need explanation) seem
plausible, as they predict more aid for Belarus. H4 posits that citizens sought foreign aid to fill the
void left by the state’s retreat, implying that Belarusians had greater incentives to solicit aid, given
that their government dismantled social benefits for Chernobyl victims while the Ukrainian
government maintained them. H5 suggests that foreign donors directed aid to victims who suffered
a larger dose of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident. By this logic, Belarusian children
were needier, as a larger proportion of Belarusian territory was contaminated. A reexamination of
the facts, however, suggests that these hypotheses are misleading. Both the Belarusian and
Ukrainian health sectors were under pressure after the Soviet collapse. Foreign donors would have
found it difficult to determine which country offered worse social protections and which children
needed aid more. Although H4 and H5 correctly predict greater aid to Belarus, their logic is
Section 2 of this chapter explains how the newly independent Ukrainian government
guaranteed generous social welfare benefits for Chernobyl victims, while Belarus rolled back
compensation. In 1995, over 65 percent of the resources Ukraine devoted to Chernobyl cleanup
went to social compensations for sufferers and on maintaining a massive legal-medical, scientific,
and welfare apparatus.”
Belarus, however, “spen[t] considerably less on the social welfare
of its sufferers” and encouraged citizens to return to contaminated territories.
Given the
Belarusian state’s rollback of its social protection policies, we might be tempted to interpret greater
foreign aid to Belarusian Children of Chernobyl as a strategy to fill this gap. Perhaps Belarusians
were more motivated than Ukrainians to solicit foreign aid. While this reasoning makes sense, it
is overly simplistic. Although independent Ukraine kept more welfare benefits for Chernobyl
victims specifically, Belarus maintained the overall Soviet-era social welfare state to a greater
extent than Ukraine. Thus, the idea that Ukraine’s generous social policies dissuaded Ukrainians
from seeking aid (H4 social policy explanation) is inaccurate.
Petryna, Life Exposed, 4.
Petryna, 45.
Healthcare statistics suggest that although Ukraine earmarked more funding for Chernobyl
victims, the Belarusian government may have compensated for this by offering greater social
welfare benefits to the general population. Health care was an important component of
Lukashenko’s Soviet-style welfare state, while independent Ukraine “struggle[d] to maintain the
legacy of health care inherited from the Soviets.”
After independence, Belarus spent a higher
share of its GDP on health care than Ukraine. Between 1991 and 2009, health care made up 4.8
percent of Belarus’s GDP, but only 3.6 percent of Ukraine’s.
This disparity translated to
indicators like infant mortality: data show that between 1991 and 2011, Belarus’s infant mortality
rate was below Ukraine’s.
According to many indicators of social wellbeing, however, the two
countries were evenly matched. Life expectancy in Belarus and Ukraine was virtually identical
over the same period, as were their Human Development Index scores.
These statistics challenge
H4 (social policy explanation)’s notion that a reduction in social protections for Chernobyl
victims gave Belarusians greater incentives to seek foreign aid.
Economic considerations suggest that the countries had the similar motivations for
soliciting aid. If anything, conditions in Belarus and Ukraine were equally bad after the collapse
of the USSR. Consider health care spending. In 2000, Belarus and Ukraine spent $45.41 and
$16.63 per capita on health care, respectively, while the European average was $677.
countries’ health care systems were struggling, leaving Children of Chernobyl in dire straits.
Newspaper articles reflect this bleak picture. In an interview, one German doctor described his
Konrad, Bezchlibnyk-Butler, and Wodoslawsky, “Allocation of Aid for Health Institutions in Ukraine,” 625.
Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka, 33.
Ioffe, 36.
In both countries, life expectancy was around 70 throughout the period: Ioffe, 36. In 1996, Belarus’s HDI score
was 0.664 and Ukraine’s was 0.646; in 2006, both countries received a score of 0.744: “Human Development Data
Center,” United Nations Development Programme, accessed April 23, 2021,
“Domestic General Government Health Expenditure (GGHE-D) per Capita in US$,” World Health Organization,
accessed April 23, 2021,
visit to a Belarusian clinic in 1990: “It was a scary dream. Two children to a bed, no shower… Of
course, they didn’t have money for equipment.”
While the doctor’s depiction may be extreme,
it reflects the fact that independent Belarus inherited a health care system that had been crippled
by the economic downturn of the late Soviet period. Conditions improved over time, in part thanks
to Western medical aid, but even in 2008, Grushevoy argued that “Belarus lacks the appropriate
conditions” for treating sick children.
The situation in Ukraine was no better. On April 22, 1994,
Pravda Ukrainy wrote that in one Kyiv neighborhood, “the administration of the radiation
rehabilitation center, which was financed solely by the state budget, could neither acquire
medications to treat patients, nor provide nutritious meals.”
Similar to the health statistics above,
these observations call into question H4 (social policy explanation), or the notion that differences
in social policies gave Belarusians greater incentives to solicit aid.
Both such statistical profiles and anecdotal evidence from newspaper articles, moreover,
undermine H5 (greatest need explanation), or the idea that Belarus received more aid because it
was needier than Ukraine. Given that both countries faced challenging economic situations,
“greatest need” does not appear to be a significant determinant of foreign donors’ decisions about
where to direct aid. Not only would they have had trouble judging the neediest candidates, but
further, if medical need were paramount, then health trips would not have featured so heavily in
Children of Chernobyl programs. After all, program directors often deemed the neediest children
too sick to travel.
Svetlana Tutorskaia, “Doctor Gerein not permitted to treat children for cancer [Доктору Герайну не дают
лечить детей от рака],” Nedelia, February 16, 1998.
“Grushevoy: ‘there still aren’t proper conditions’ for treating children in Belarus [Грушевой: для оздоровления
детей в Беларуси ‘пока нет подходящих условий’],”, November 14, 2008,
Grigorii Prilutskii, “Compassion isn’t spread with champagne [Милосердие не осеняют шампанским],”
Pravda Ukrainy, April 22, 1994.
Obodovskii, “Social aspects of rest sanitation abroad for children.”
A final piece of evidence casts doubt on the hypothesis that need drove aid (H5 greatest
need explanation) and provides support for H1 (domestic politics explanation). After
Lukashenko suspended foreign health trips in 2008, some foreign donors redirected their aid from
Belarus to Ukraine. When the U.S. government refused to sign a bilateral agreement with Belarus
to continue the trips, several American organizations decided to host Ukrainian children instead.
The fact that these groups easily switched recipients indicates that either need was not of the utmost
importance, or that they saw both countries as equally needy. A blog post published in 2010 on
the website of the American charity CofCUSA supports the idea that foreign donors did not see
Belarusian and Ukrainian Children of Chernobyl as fundamentally different. Addressing American
host families, the post reads: “Reaching out to other needy children who are living under the
shadow of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine can be just as rewarding as the bonds you have made
with the Belarusian youth.”
While a single blog post is not dispositive, it is revealing. A
representative of another American organization echoed this sentiment: “For the most part, the
host families did not even notice any differences in the process, schedule, costs and especially, in
the children!”
Rather than computing a calculation of who needed more assistance, these
organizations responded to changes in Belarusian domestic politics, in line with H1 (domestic
politics explanation).
An examination of the public health landscapes of both countries discredits explanations
based on social policy (H4) and perceived greatest need (H5). While Belarus reduced
compensation for Chernobyl victims, it also preserved the Soviet-style welfare state, partially
offsetting the loss of targeted benefits. Evidence suggests that neither country’s health care system
Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 39699.
“Ukraine Respite Video,” CofCUSA (blog), January 29, 2010,
As quoted in: Arndt, The Chernobyl Children, 397.
was properly equipped to treat its citizens after independence. Both populations suffered,
particularly children; Belarusians did not have noticeably greater incentives to solicit aid. Nor were
Belarusian children obviously more deserving in the eyes of foreign donors.
This chapter compares the dynamics of foreign aid for Children of Chernobyl in Belarus
and Ukraine. Examining the Ukrainian case reinforces the arguments advanced in Chapter 3 to
reveal why Belarus received significant aid, despite hostile political conditions, while Ukraine did
not. Several factors explain the puzzle. First, while the tragic legacy of the Chernobyl accident
became an object of political struggle in Belarus, it was a point of consensus in Ukraine. Second,
while Belarus’s Children of Chernobyl movement benefited from an outspoken leader—Gennadiy
Grushevoyno such figure emerged in Ukraine. Finally, Belarus and Ukraine had different levels
of interaction with the West, which facilitated different types of foreign aid. Together, these
findings support H1 (domestic politics explanation), H2 (individual agency explanation) and
H3 (foreign policy explanation). Additionally, this chapter evaluates and rebuts two alternative
explanations: H4 (social policy explanation) and H5 (greatest need explanation). As the
Belarusian and Ukrainian health care systems were woefully underfunded, children in both
countries desperately needed assistance.
Figure 5: Argument summary, comparing Belarus and Ukraine
In a 2006 interview, Belarusian activist Gennadiy Grushevoy expressed hope that health
trips abroad would “transform” the Children of Chernobyl, emboldening them to participate in
civil society and advocate for change in their country.
Over a decade later, in August 2020,
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya emerged as the leader of a mass protest movement against Belarus’s
autocratic president Aleksandr Lukashenko.
While Tikhanovskaya’s political organizing is
important, it is her early life that sparks immediate interest. Tikhanovskaya was one of nearly a
million Belarusian children who traveled abroad through humanitarian aid programs for victims
of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Grushevoy did not live to witness Tikhanovskaya’s meteoric rise, but he would have been
gratified to see his political hopes coming to fruition. Tikhanovskaya acknowledged that the trips
she made to Ireland as a child “expanded her horizons” and provided a model for how her country