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(Un)Civil Societies Report: November 6, 2003

6 November 2003, Volume 4, Number 31
RUSSIAN CIVIL SOCIETY BY THE NUMBERS. The blizzard of speculation about the meaning of the arrest of Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii has caused some commentators to hunt for a different way to measure the status of Russian democracy than the fate of one man. Annoyed that media obsession with the legal troubles of one very wealthy and well-connected individual could cancel out the many less-visible gains of civil society, they have rushed to provide evidence that Russian democracy is thriving in many places in the form of civic groups and clubs, especially in Russia's provincial areas where the prospect of democracy had seemed bleak.

The emergence of a plethora of nongovernmental groups (NGOs) in the last decade in Russia has been taken as an indication that the existing system of power brokerage might some day be replaced by a genuine social contract under the rule of law. Yet Westerners tend to be more enthusiastic about the potential for the NGO revolution from below than Russians themselves; in many ways the old Leninist adage, "nizi ne mogut a verkhi ne khotyat" (the grassroots cannot and the elites will not) still pertains.

In the Soviet era, when Western critics probed officials about their mistreatment of minorities or expressed doubt, in the transition years, about the number of truly independent publications, they would find themselves deluged with statistics as a substitute for content analysis. Somehow, the fact that Leonid Brezhnev's "Virgin Land" had been translated into Estonian or Evenk and issued in thousands of copies never inspired confidence in an enlightened nationalities policy, nor did the existence of thousands of "nongovernmental" factory newspapers provide a convincing indication of press freedom. In the same way, there is still a tendency to accept quantity instead of quality in judging civil society's health when the question of the numbers and types of civic groups are discussed.

Nicolai Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island and a former State Department adviser, said in an essay for the "Providence Journal" on 30 October titled "Russia's Doing Just Fine" that 350,000 nonprofits exist in Russia, employing more than 2 million people and providing services to some 20 million Russians. To counter any arguments that such groups may have secured their existence by staying out of politics or controversial issues, Petro notes that "there is not a region in Russia with fewer than a dozen registered political parties and twice as many political associations."

Environmentalist Vladimir Orlov estimated "several hundred thousand" groups based on various mass signature campaigns, for example in protest against the import of spent nuclear fuel. Other activists say the figure is more like 70,000-75,000 because they reason that there are not 1,000 viable and active NGOs in each of Russia's 89 republics and regions. Some also question whether groups wholly funded and dependent on local government offices can credibly be called "NGOs." Most of the groups "doing just fine" are not talking about Chechnya, the killing of investigative journalists, racist attacks, or the suppression of press freedom.

To be sure, the growth in numbers tells an encouraging story of civic activism that was either missing, elaborately hidden in the officially sponsored Soviet-era "Nature" and "Knowledge" societies, or brutally suppressed. Still, the debates sparked by the government's staged dialogue with NGOs in the November 2001 Civic forum persist, as activists ask whether the exercise was a "civic forum" or a "civic chorus." On balance, even severe critics among Moscow human rights groups feel they averted the disaster of co-optation in the Civic Forum and engaged in some useful exchange, although follow-up has been absent. Now, like other enterprises thrown into disarray by presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin's departure, the officials associated with this dialogue who were close to Voloshin may have no more room to maneuver.

Aside from the co-optation issue, during the Civic Forum and ever since, both Russians and foreigners have used the occasion to accuse Moscow-based groups of hogging the lion's share of resources and getting magnified attention for their slightest harassment, although they are characterized as "radical" groups that are not typical of the NGO community, i.e. those attempting to report on the war in Chechnya critically. Human rights activists counter such critics by pointing out that through groups like the Moscow Helsinki Group or Memorial Society, who are beneficiaries of significant grants, many regional and local projects are sustained, such as Memorial's legal aid centers and the Helsinki Group's annual national human rights report. And it is not just a few groups in Moscow who have experienced harassment by authorities, since persecution tends to occur more frequently at the local level.

If a successor to the Soviet Peace Committee or the Families With Many Children associations of the past are able to make friends with a local mayor, get free office space and services, and snap up social contracts funded by the government to work on broad-based and politically benign issues like children or the environment, can their existence and health be an indicator of Russian democracy? In one way, they can, since under the previous system, such groups were far more heavily controlled than they are today.

But the success of a group in the Urals providing after-school programs for teenagers is not what most Western commentators mean when they want to test Russia for democracy. They don't just mean the provision of social services that the state can't or won't provide, or that the Orthodox Church never assumed; they mean tolerance for liberal, democratic activities like critical war reporting, investigative journalism into corruption, and frank commentary on political leaders. They also mean independent research and public presentation of alternative information and constructive policy analysis on topics ranging from the environment to prisons. There is far more of the latter going on in Russia's highways and byways than outsiders realize, as regular readers of the news service of the Agency for Social Information ( appreciate, as they see struggles for AIDS victims, pensioners, and minorities being waged all over Russia, with impressive fortitude. Yet there is far less of the former type of political activism than might be implied by the figure of 350,000 NGOs.

Even without any directed political harassment, NGOs already face a fairly tough existence in Russia, since they have to pay far heavier taxes (about 40 percent just on payroll) and clear more paperwork hurdles than their Western counterparts. High insurance costs and rents also cripple their ability to find office space. But activists are also troubled by a series of incidents under the Putin administration in recent years which they feel have contracted the space for civic action, such as the trials of environmentalists and scientists on charges of espionage, as well as the expulsion of U.S. Peace Corps, religious, and labor workers.

Commenting that the perception of Russia as inhospitable for NGOs is outdated, Petro points out that a positive sign of progress is that the Khodorkovskii case is being handled by the courts, instead of, presumably, in the basement of Lyubanka. Courts have increased in strength, he says, with business disputes resolved by court proceeding increasing by 70 percent a year -- although the Khodorkovskii matter is a criminal case, not a business lawsuit. The number of suits filed against the government has surpassed those against businesses, Petro says, a further indication of people's faith in the judicial system. Still, as a poll conducted by Russians indicates, most people are pessimistic about the capacity of either the judicial system or NGOs to help them solve their problems, and are indifferent or hostile to political parties.

George E. Hudson, professor of political science at Wittenberg University, in a comment posted to the popular Johnson's List for Russia scholars on 31 October, also countered claims by U.S. media commentators that Russia's democracy was in jeopardy or had been overestimated all along, saying such views "are based on an incomplete understanding of what constitutes democracy and focus exclusively on national-level elite conflict, as if nothing happens in society below counts in how we evaluate Russian politics." This is a hangover of Sovietology, writes Hudson, when peering at Kremlin intrigues had to suffice for understanding the mood of a country largely off-limits to foreigners.

Hudson also cites the 350,000 registered groups described by "Izvestiya," and says of these, 70,000 are operational. National groups like the Russian Foundation for Legal Reforms help individuals to use the Constitution and spawn other local groups, and has had some success in prosecuting the state. The Civic Forum, which has drawn decidedly mixed reviews by Russian activists themselves, was nevertheless a place where groups obtained legitimacy from the power "vertical" and made valuable horizontal contacts. Hudson cites a Russian study of how groups in Volgograd contributed to the "greening" of the city and help for veterans. While certainly welcome, these are examples of precisely the kind of more benign efforts that some cynical activists in Moscow would call a "civic chorus" helping authorities extend their reach rather than a truly independent community holding officials' feet to the fire on the larger reasons why cities aren't "green" or veterans are impoverished.

Ultimately, for some commentators the most troubling aspect of the exaggerated focus on Khodorkovskii's arrest was the acceptance of this case, involving allegations of criminal business practices, as a marker for democracy, against a backdrop of a decidedly muted response from Western governments about long-standing severe human rights issues that are more clearly a function of an already-existing absence of the rule of law. "The murders of journalists, the arrests of environmentalists -- these kinds of stories have become too mundane to interest the jaded American public, particularly the small slice of it that cares about foreign policy," Anne Applebaum wrote in "The Washington Post" on 5 November. "Horrific rapes and murders in Chechnya -- those are an 'internal Russian matter' and not of much political significance. The arrest of a billionaire, on the other hand -- a person who hobnobbed with Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney -- that's really interesting," she said.

More than half a century ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asked where universal human rights could begin, and concluded, "In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world." Only justice achieved in the local community gave meaning to the abstract concept of rights. "Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world," Roosevelt said.

'INDIFFERENT MAJORITY' DETERMINES DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA. Three Russian think tanks -- the Institute for the Development of Electoral Systems (IRIS), the Institute of Comparative Social Studies (TsESSI), and the Institute for State and Law (IGP) -- completed analysis of a survey conducted last summer of 1,400 Russian citizens on their attitudes toward civic participation -- 450 who described themselves as civic activists and 945 people chosen from the public at large. Informatics for Democracy (INDEM) assisted in the poll. The samples were taken from across the country and the questions explored Russians' attitudes toward the prospects for civic action and its affect on the political process. At a press conference in Moscow on 29 October, a transcript of which was provided by, Aleksandr Yurin of IRIS said the purpose of the study was to learn whether there are people in Russia "capable of taking on responsibility and making decisions, who were not waiting for anyone to do everything for them."

Yurin concluded pessimistically that only a small percentage of such people seemed to exist -- described variously at the press conference as 3 percent to 9 percent -- and were in isolation from state agencies, with little means for feedback. The fate of Russia's democracy is "in the hands of the silent, or indifferent majority, which is incapable of showing willpower and taking responsibility for any actions and even for the fate of the country," Yurin said. Another scholar put it more bluntly: "Water and gas and electricity must be cut off to prompt a man to start doing something, and never before."

Coming at a time when all eyes are on the Khodorkovskii case, the study raises interesting questions about whether only fantastically rich and daring tycoons can challenge the state's monopoly on public life, or whether the myriad little groups scattered throughout the country are beginning to constitute something like a civil society, even if most of the public is indifferent or hostile. The answers the Russian scholars obtained to their questions are in stark contrast with the rosy accounts of some of their U.S. counterparts of a thriving Toquevillian democracy based on grassroots initiative.

The scholars wound up having to divide their questionnaires' respondents into two categories, "ordinary people" who were not involved in civic associations or initiatives, and those defined as "activists" who were members of such groups. A key test of democracy for the pollsters was to determine whether groups of citizens were turning to civic groups to resolve their problems. They found only 3 percent-9 percent of those polled had faith in such avenues of redress -- the overwhelming majority did not see any point in joining civic groups.

This phenomenon also helps to explain poor turnout for elections, William Smirnov of IGP said, as well as the growing trend to cross out all names on a ballot in protest and to refrain from joining political parties. Smirnov regretfully concludes, recalling the explosion of civic groups at the end of the Soviet era, that "those same upshoots that emerged in the late 1980s and that were our hope still are nothing more than hope" -- civil society never became an equal partner for the government, nor did it exercise oversight of the government. At best, it merely became a submissive implementer of social programs. Most people in the poll concluded not only that elections were not free and fair, but that they would not help change anything. Only 20 percent-22 percent of respondents declared a membership in a political party. Left-wing parties attracted 28 percent of activists and 22 percents of nonactivists; Unified Russia, the president-backed party, had 23 percent support from activists and 25 percent from nonactivists.

In perhaps the most reliable statistic on civil society's numbers available, the scholars cited the Russian Justice Ministry's current figure of over 135,000 registered civic organizations, but also noted that the State Statistics Committee estimates there are as many as 570,000 NGOs, if nonregistered and informal groups are included. Either figure appears small given the size of the Russian population, Smirnov said, concluding that "society is atomized, which is one of the characteristics of totalitarian, disorganized society that is easy prey for the political authorities."

An "alarming" 40 percent of the respondents said they had experienced human rights violations personally; among activists, the figure was 60 percent, said the sociologists. Still, more than 50 percent said they did try to stand up for their rights -- a positive sign -- but they also acknowledged that they did not view civic groups, self-identified human rights defenders, as helping them to achieve this. Economic and social rights were paramount in the minds of respondents who felt their rights were curtailed; wrongful detentions were the second-most cited type of abuse, and then electoral rights and other political liberties were cited in third place.

Intriguingly, two-thirds of the "uninvolved" said that if they had an invitation to activism and knew where to go to get involved, they would become active. Such responses formed the basis for the sociologists' severe critique of what they felt was the insularity of civic groups, which do not reach beyond themselves and focus only on their own needs, i.e. whether a group that wants to save the Himalayan tiger or learn to play chess. Their analysis differed from NGOs' own surveys, which accept as a given that some groups will serve only their own members, and some will serve the public at large or vulnerable groups in the population, and all have a right to exist. The survey also evidently failed to factor in the deluge of official propaganda directed against the most critical of NGOs -- they are constantly portrayed as marginal, unpatriotic, and living off Western grants -- which has achieved its goal now of shaping public attitudes toward civic activism in general.

Essentially, the sociologists' critique appears to stem from the age-old debate in Russia about the role of the intelligentsia and "the people," with intellectuals fretting that they are cut off from the masses, who won't listen to them, and the people viewing the intellectuals with indifference or even hatred for their disruptive and even catastrophic ideologies foisted on society in the name of progress. This pessimistic view of NGO insularity, reported as a perception but without specific examples, seems to brook no notion prevalent in Western democracies that the self-interest of interest groups, associations, and businesses, taken as a pluralistic aggregate, is not only permissible but beneficial for a thriving democracy. A civic group does not have to follow the Apostolic imperative to become "all things to all men."

If trust of civic groups is at an all-time low, it is not necessarily countered by belief in the state's efficacy. Faith in the government has declined, the pollsters found, with the exception of the person of President Vladimir Putin, whose credibility was 78 percent among activists and 74 percent among the general population. That faith did not extend to his government, which garnered 53 percent and 48 percent, respectively, from the two groups, although results varied by region depending on the type of governor. Trust in the church and the army, which had previously polled very high, has dropped to around 50 percent.

Commenting on Putin's popularity and the sense of estrangement from local politicians, Vladimir Rimskii of INDEM said it was an unhealthy sign -- if people thought that the president would solve all their problems, "it is not a position in which the civil society has any significance for the authority." Essentially, this is the old theory of the "good tsar" with the "bad advisers," but in a modern democracy, there should be a sense of partnership in which government and citizenry work together for the whole good of society, he said.

Rimskii was particularly hard on NGOs -- "they seek to convert their social activity into a government job, into a good relationship with the authorities" � without explaining whether the perception was based on his polling data or his own experiences. A mechanical increase in numbers of groups or levels of activism would not fix the democracy deficit, Rimskii said, because activists would appear who will "simply steal this opportunity to represent people's interests." Ordinary people don't sign petitions or negotiate with the authorities about their problems, only activists perform these actions, and therefore, in Rimskii's perception, "the most important things for the people have all been taken over by the activists." That would not be such a bad thing if they really had the structure to represent people's interests and had the trust of the public, but they do not in many cases, Rimskii said. To overcome these gaps, more dialogue between authorities and ordinary people as well as among activists is needed, Rimskii said.

Many of the activists might start in small places but they strive for district and regional centers and ultimately for Moscow, the scholars said, a tide that no one can seem to stem. Civil-society watchers are frustrated that "all roads lead to Moscow" and the many people who wish to solve local, let alone national problems, turn to Moscow. This leads them to brand the relatively well-off Moscow activists who sometimes skirmish with authorities as not typical of the whole NGO community and to characterize them as unfairly benefiting from Western attention. President Putin has encouraged a long-standing tendency for centralism, by stressing that no problem can be solved without the federal center, and by increasing federal oversight of regions. With the Kremlin establishing such a "vertical" of power, and with the power ministries and legislature as well as foreign embassies and press located in Moscow, NGOs have no choice but to gravitate to Moscow to raise their issues.

Yurin felt even the active "3 percent" were very vulnerable to manipulation by local authorities, especially those willing to throw money at them. They can be bought by the state budget, and "they will do what they are told to do. They will write reports and be happy with their jobs. You promise them an apartment, and they will do anything," he said. Yurin did not cite the responses or the statistics in the poll to support this perception, but it was openly discussed at the time of the November 2001 Civic Forum that the main agenda for regional NGOs was to get more of a share of government budgets for their work. Even in Moscow, where groups had more opportunity to diversify the sources of funding and were more sophisticated, INDEM's Rimskii found that groups were divided into those who had accommodated with the authorities, and therefore "get offices and live in peace" and those with all kinds of problems, who have no opportunity to learn from the former.

Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, who headed the organizing committee for the Civic Forum, told "Moskovskie novosti" at the time that the Kremlin sought to counterbalance established Moscow NGOs by giving more support to regional groups. "The president is interested in how social organizations live all over Russia, not just in the 500 people that have monopolized Western grants," "Moskovskie novosti" quoted him as saying. His characterization appeared to deliberately reinforce the stereotype that unworthy Muscovites were hogging resources, pitting regional groups against them, quite possibly because the Moscow groups posed the greater threat to the Kremlin.

For their part, Moscow NGOs leaders said they didn't want to deal with the government through its established think tanks, which they believed viewed the NGOs with hostility as competitors for government attention, but wished to deal with the presidential administration directly. The NGOs have continued to refuse any kind of joint government-civic body to rule the nonprofit sector, which would legitimize the Kremlin's co-optation effort. Their efforts succeeded in Moscow, but as the think-tanks' poll illustrates, the problem elsewhere appears to be getting Russians active enough even to be noticed by government, let alone co-opted.

ANTI-SEMITIC ATTACKS STILL PLAGUE MINSK. The closure of the International Humanitarian Institute (IHI) in Minsk, said to be the only college where the history of Judaism and ancient and modern Hebrew is taught, has been interpreted by some Jewish activists as another display of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, following a rash of other incidents where the authorities tolerated or ignored incitement of hatred against Jews and their property, local media and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) have reported.

But Jewish activists have also said that the closure of the IHI isn't necessarily a display of official anti-Semitism, as the president has ordered a mass campaign to reorder all educational institutions under state control and inculcate ideological training to ensure loyalty. There is also the possibility that competition between institutions could be involved, not without official connivance, as the IHI had planned to fund a new campus in the center of town with the help of foreign investors, valued at $32 million. Some Orthodox Church leaders who have helped the government rein in dissenting churches as well as other denominations may have been made uneasy by the presence of the courses in Judaica at IHI and the major donor support, not forthcoming for their own programs.

Jewish community leaders told IWPR that the IHI came on the authorities' radar screen after the passage of a controversial law on religious belief last year that was explicitly designed to give pride of place to the Orthodox Church, and the signing of a concordat between the Orthodox Church and the state in June of this year. "There cannot be any equality [of faiths] because now religions are ranked, and the Orthodox Church comes first," Ivan Pashkevich, a deputy in the presidentially controlled legislature, told IWPR. Education Ministry inspectors were sent to the IHI and found unidentified "shortcomings" which led to the closure of the college. "This decision has political overtones," Galina Similo, a lecturer at IHI on Judaism, told IWPR. "Whatever the internal debates over the closure of the institute, the international community will see this as a revival of the old Soviet attitude to Jews," she said.

Education Minister Alyaksandr Radkov denied the charges of anti-Semitism, saying "We treat all nationalities equally," IWPR quoted him as saying, and that the government was streamlining education. In one sense, he is correct: the Belarusian authorities are equal-opportunity oppressors. They have shut down a Belarusian-language lyceum this year and scores of newspapers and civic groups, and have also prevented various religious groups from conducting public events or building places of worship.

Still, both Jewish and non-Jewish NGO activists and opposition leaders believe the government still holds the anti-Semitic worldview of the Soviet era, as officials occasionally let slip their attitudes in bigoted comments, or in their failure to speak out against violence against Jews and to protect synagogues, cemeteries, and the mass-grave sites of the Holocaust.

Belarus, located in the region known as the "Pale of Settlement" in tsarist Russia, once had a population of at least a million Jews, but at least 800,000 were killed on what is now Belarusian territory, and many thousands fled abroad. Today, a mainly elderly population of between 25,000-50,000 people who identify themselves as Jewish remain. Others with Jewish roots hide their background to avoid discrimination, just as they did in the Soviet era. While other former Soviet republics have made progress in returning buildings to the Jewish community confiscated under the Soviets, in Belarus, authorities so far have turned over nine synagogues while continuing to house various official agencies in 34 other facilities once owned by the community, "Belarus Update" reported in July 2003, citing AFP and local media.

Last summer, there was a rash of grave vandalizations, with more than 50 Jewish tombstones smashed in two Minsk cemeteries, Yury Dorn, head of the Jewish Religious Union, said. Seventy gravesites were also desecrated in Borisov and other localities, and "anti-Semites feel impunity" in Belarus, Dorn said, because the authorities dismiss such actions as unrelated to ethnic hatred and dismiss it as teenage "hooliganism." Officials contacted by AFP shrugged when asked to comment on the tombstone vandalism and said only police could decide to open criminal investigations, although law-enforcement bodies are totally under the control of the executive branch in Belarus. Even President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself has been dismissive, calling the grave desecration accidental "hooligan action" and even implying that not native Belarusians, but foreigners could be responsible for the vandalism..

The systematic nature of such "hooliganism" is tacitly admitted by the parliament's call last year -- uncharacteristically outspoken -- to stop the destruction of Jewish cultural monuments in Minsk, signed by 75 deputies. A 19th-century synagogue was demolished in 2001, and a parking lot was slated to pave over the ruins of a 17th-century synagogue.

In September, Yakov Hutman of the World Association of Belarusian Jews protested a gas-pipeline excavation in Mozyr at the site of a house where about 40 Jews, including Hutman's grandfather, were said to have committed self-immolation in 1941 to avoid surrender to the Nazis. City officials deny the story, saying they have no documents to prove the allegations. No international Holocaust memorial sites make mention of the Mozyr events, although the language barrier and lack of access to the area have made it difficult for outside researchers to investigate such events. Relatives say the KGB archives contain reports of the fire. Indirectly, the Belarusian Culture Ministry acknowledged the story by putting the Mozyr site on a list of places for historical preservation, but local officials overrode the efforts to protect the site.

As has often been the case in Belarus, officials invoke the equality of suffering of Jews and non-Jews in World War II as a way of downplaying the Holocaust. "Must we leave the city without gas because of Jews? I am not an anti-Semite, but Belarusians suffered no less than the Jews," Syarhey Kostyan, a parliamentary deputy from Mozyr, was quoted as saying by the "St. Petersburg Times" on 23 September. "Haaratz" quoted Kostyan as saying, "We live in a Slavic country, not a Jewish-Masonic one," on 20 November 2002, when he dissented from the appeal against the destruction of the historical synagogue sites signed by 75 of his fellow parliamentarians.

Mozyr reportedly had a prewar population of 7,000 Jews, reduced to 1,000 today. Local activists have signed a petition to halt and reroute the pipeline and also stop construction of another building on a historic Jewish grave site. They had some success, in getting construction to stop, but the disposition of the remains of victims still remains at issue. In Hrodno, a similar story played out as local activists protested renovation of a soccer stadium which disturbed a Jewish cemetery, but then were unable to get authorities to abide by their pledge for a proper reburial.

In another incident that rankled Jewish leaders, official commemoration of the anniversary of the hanging of anti-Nazi resistance members on 26 October 1941 once again failed to mention that Masha Bruskina, a 17-year-old resident of the Minsk ghetto, was Jewish. The plaque at the site of her execution does not indicate her name or her heritage. "The authorities have decided that it is better not to have any heroines than to have Jewish heroines," Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations Deputy Director Basin told AP.

Jewish organizations were alarmed at official tolerance of hate literature and speech at the All-Belarusian Union of Cossacks, blessed by the Orthodox leadership, Belapan reported 28 October, such as "Russkii vestnik," a conservative Russian Orthodox newspaper notorious for promoting such anti-Semitic myths as the "blood libel" claim of ritualistic murders of children. A brochure called for prayer to "save our Russian Orthodox Fatherland and our people from the Yid yoke that struggles against God." Jewish leaders called on the Belarusian Orthodox Church to condemn the distribution of hate literature at the Cossacks' conference. A Russian Orthodox Church spokesman told Belapan that he had no ties to the Cossacks, who were known historically to attack Jews and have continued to be associated with hate crimes to the present day.

A week prior to the incident, President Lukashenka had gone on record as saying there was no enmity between denominations, although he implied with a comment about the "strong Orthodox community" and the "smaller denominations" that non-Orthodox groups had to fall into line. Jewish groups had tried to get the distribution of "Russkii vestnik" stopped in April of this year, and appealed to Prosecutor-General Viktar Sheiman to stop the publication in view of the Criminal Code's penalty for incitement of ethnic or religious enmity.

This year, the Israeli Embassy in Belarus closed its doors, a move that the ambassador from Israel said was strictly related to cost-cutting measures that had led to embassy closures in a number of countries. Jewish groups were sorry to see Israel leave, because the embassy had provided some protection for them and had also encouraged and supported educational and cultural programs. The departure was unfortunate, Nikolai Butkevich of the Union of Councils of Jews in the Former Soviet Union told "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies." "The government in Belarus has by far made the least progress of any post-Soviet state in ridding itself of the ideology of state-sponsored anti-Semitism," Butkevich said. While Lukashenka has recently made a few positive rhetorical gestures to the Jewish community and to Israel, he has not disavowed his anti-Semitic comments of the past, he said. And actions belie the rhetoric, as the Belarusian government has targeted Jewish educational facilities for closure. "There has been very little effort on the part of officials to protect the Jewish community and its communal property from attacks by neo-Nazis," Butkevich said.

Activists declared at least a small victory this week in getting Minsk city authorities to reverse a decision to discontinue the lease of a Jewish Sunday school that had rented space from a school for the deaf on weekends. After vocal protests from Jewish and human rights groups, officials said the school could continue using the space but there was some uncertainty about the decision because it had not yet been produced in writing. Already six other Sunday schools have been closed, and groups that meet informally and receive international support feel they are in jeopardy.

AFGHANISTAN. "Powers Outlined in Draft Constitution Stirring Debate." The release of Afghanistan's draft constitution is stirring debate both within and outside the country. As RFE/RL reports, some of the key issues include the stronger-than-expected presidential powers enshrined in the document and the lack of specific powers for an independent commission to deal with violations of human rights.

BELARUS. Several sites tell the story of Masha Bruskina, a Jewish resistance fighter in Belarus executed on 26 October 1941, whose name and heritage have been suppressed by the Soviet and now Belarusian governments in commemorations of the Holocaust. The Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance:
Richard Clarke, Capital Punishment U.K.:

"The Future of Belarus-U.S. Relations." Belarus's new ambassador to the United States says Belarus would like to see an improvement, or "normalization," in Belarus-U.S. relations. Mikhail Khvostov said that he believes the problems between Belarus and the United States are based on a "problem of perception." Khvostov reminded the audience that Belarusians, in a 1996 referendum, "approved of strong state power" being used to "introduce all the principles" for transforming that country's socioeconomic system and civic society.

GEORGIA. Claiming victory in the 2 November parliamentary elections, Georgia's main opposition leaders are calling on their supporters to take to the streets to protest an election they say was fraudulent. But the movement is already running out of steam, as other opposition groups seem unwilling to endorse such charges.

RUSSIA. The Institute for the Development of Electoral Systems (IRIS) was founded in 1999 with the help of the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Information about the poll on civic participation cited above is on the Russian-language edition of the site, which also contains English summaries and materials on elections and democratic education in Russia.

The Agency for Social Information website contains numerous background files on topics ranging from family and children to health, the environment, civil rights, labor, and religion. The agency has a daily news service and free subscriptions available for a frequent e-mail summary of the news. Recent news items include stories about activists fighting AIDS in Kuzbass; finding jobs for unemployed; promoting tolerance in Kaluga; clothing drives in Severodvinsk for soldiers serving in Chechnya; a young voters' club in Vladimir; the battle against alcoholism, crime, and suppression of press freedom in Arkhangelsk Oblast; teachers training volunteers in Novoaltaisk; efforts to affect amendments to the draft law on adoption and foster children in Moscow; and reflections by human rights activists on the work of the State Duma.