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Watch List: December 28, 2000

28 December 2000, Volume 2, Number 4

STEPASHIN SAYS MOSCOW PLANNED TO INVADE CHECHNYA... In an interview with Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said that Moscow secretly planned to invade Chechnya months before the Chechen incursion in Daghestan and the apartment building bombings many have blamed the Chechens for. His statement contradicts the line put out by acting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government. According to Stepashin, Russian leaders, including then FSB chief Putin, planned a full-scale invasion to take place in August-September 1999. As prime minister at that time, Stepashin said that he had favored the occupation of northern Chechnya only.

...BUT THE REVELATION PASSES ALMOST UNNOTICED IN RUSSIA. Stepashin's revelation has been largely ignored by the Russian news media. Only one prominent writer, the Moscow-based independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, has called attention to its importance, in the English-language "St. Petersburg Times." In that article, Felgenhauer called Putin "an irrational warmonger--a leader who is ready to commit war crimes but cannot evaluate the consequences of his actions." Felgenhauer compared Putin to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, men who "also incited wars they could not win."

RUSSIA GUILTY OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY, RIGHTS GROUP SAYS. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHFHR) said on 25 January that Russian forces in Chechnya are guilty of "crimes against humanity, including the shooting and bombing of civilians, rape, plunder, and displacement of populations." The war in Chechnya threatens to destabilize the region, the group said, and it is "no internal matter" as it violates international humanitarian standards, said Ludmila Alexeeva, who heads both the IHFHR and its Russian affiliate, the Moscow Helsinki Group. Both organizations called on Moscow to accept the OSCE's offer to mediate the conflict and to respond positively to the call by Lord Russell-Johnston, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for negotiations, free movement of refugees, and access to humanitarian aid.

CRIMEAN TATARS SEEK SUPPORT FROM COUNCIL OF EUROPE. Inci Bowman of the International Committee for Crimea charged in a 20 January letter to Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer that the Slavic majority and local authorities in Crimea were pursuing a policy of comprehensive discrimination against Crimean Tatars. Bowman cited an 11 January incident when 200 armed militiamen surrounded the Crimean Tatar Mejlis building in Simferopol (see "RFE/RL Watchlist," 13 January 2000) to confiscate some records, for which the Ukrainian Interior Ministry later apologized. Bowman said that "the current political and social conditions in Crimea are not conducive to maintaining a pluralistic and democratic society where the cultural, linguistic, and religious identity of ethnic groups is respected."

HELSINKI FEDERATIONS URGE ACTION ON TURKMEN DICTATORSHIP. By declaring Saparmurat Niyazov president-for-life on 28 December, Aaron Rhodes of the International Helsinki Federation charged on 22 January that Turkmenistan has established a dictatorship in violation of the Helsinki Accords and its treaty obligations as a member state of the OSCE. In effect, Rhodes said, this action abolishes presidential elections there.... "Without choice, the population is in captivity," Rhodes said. "But international reaction to this outrageous development has been muted or nonexistent." And he warned that unless the OSCE and the UN take appropriate actions, "the principle of democracy will be eroded and other leaders may follow the example of Turkmenistan."

THE NEW ORTHODOXY IN RUSSIAN CHURCH AFFAIRS... In ten years, Russia's Orthodox Church has gone "from persecuted victim to bullying aggressor," "The Guardian" said on 22 January. Filed from the island monastery of Valaam in Lake Lagoda, the article reports that the monks there are "smoldering with a conviction of spiritual superiority." Brother Alexander, 23, is quoted as saying: "If Russia does not become an Orthodox nation, then there is no hope for its survival." "The Guardian" also reports "tacit collusion between the state and repressive elements of the Orthodox Church" concerning the interpretation and application of the controversial 1997 law on religion. As the deadline for the reregistration of all religious organizations--"designed to exclude minority faiths," the article notes--passed on 31 December, about half of Russia's religious bodies are now stripped of their legal status, thus losing their right to worship in public, to own property, or to pursue missionary work. "So far," the article states, "even the Catholic Jesuits and the Baptists have had applications to local authorities turned down, many on arbitrary technicalities."

BRIEFS BELARUS. The democratic opposition announced on 18 January that it will conduct mass rallies in March to press for a dialogue with the Lukashenka regime and to denounce the merger with Russia even if the authorities do not give them official permission. Ivan Pashkevich of de facto President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's staff told Reuters that Lukashenka has no intention of taking part in talks with the opposition. KAZAKHSTAN. The city court in Ust-Kamenogorsk found the local newspaper "NBC-Press" guilty of inciting a rebellion and suspended the publication for three months, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The newspaper's guilt stemmed from publishing an appeal by an ethnic Russian community leader who allegedly had called for the secession of areas of Kazakhstan where ethnic Russians are predominant. TURKMENISTAN. Murat Nurmamedov has been placed under house arrest and faces criminal charges of armed hooliganism, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 20 January. His father Nurberdy, who heads the unregistered Agzybirlik opposition party, was arrested in Ashgabat earlier this month.

**UPDATE ON BELARUS' MISSING THREE ** The Minsk regime has provided no information about its investigations of the whereabouts of former Belarusian Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, who disappeared 262 days ago; or Viktar Ganchar, deputy chairman of the de jure Belarusian parliament, and his businessman friend Anatol Krasovsky, who have been missing for 116 days. All three had been subject to around-the-clock police surveillance at the time of their disappearances.


By Charles Fenyvesi

The Russian government has launched a new offensive against the country's independent media and those who dissent from Moscow's positions, even as its drive toward Grozny appears to have stalled.

One target has been NTV television, the only one of Russia's three main television networks not linked directly to the state and often described as independent. NTV is widely credited for helping to turn public opinion against the 1994-96 Chechnya war by debunking optimistic official propaganda. But this time around it began by taking a more cooperative position, even though it did carry more programs on refugees and the plight of other civilians.

But on 23 January, NTV was told that its reporters and crews will be excluded from trips to Russian positions in the field as punishment for broadcasting an interview with a Russian army officer talking about "significant losses" in Chechnya. NTV correspondent Yurii Lipatov said military spokesmen had accused him of spreading lies and told him that they would no longer provide his network with information. Lipatov charged "censorship." In his broadcast, he explained: "If you can hide one incident in which a column was struck and tens were killed and others missing in action, then you can hide a similar incident with a second column as well."

In another move widely seen as a sign of a new and tougher line to counter an increasingly restive news media, Putin on 20 January named Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, in charge of overseeing information on the war. "The media should take into account the challenges the nation is facing now," Yastrzhembsky told "Kommersant-Daily" the next day. "When the nation mobilizes its forces to solve some task, that imposes obligations on everyone including the media."

Even more ominous is the case of Aleksandr Khinshtein, a popular reporter with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets." Khinshtein has accused Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo of illegal activities and charged tycoon and Yeltsin confidant Boris Berezovsky with giving money to Chechen warlords and Islamic militants.

In a tactic which has not been used since Soviet times, police raided Khinshtein's Moscow apartment, armed with a warrant saying that they must take him for an examination at the psychiatric clinic in Vladimir. The plan failed when Khinshtein's lawyer arrived with film crews sent by the television station where Khinshtein works.

Interior Ministry spokesman Vladimir Martynov told the British newspaper "Independent" that police investigators had decided to give Khinshtein, 25, a psychiatric examination because he had been treated in special clinics and disqualified from military service. As for the specific charge against Khinshtein, Martynov said it had something to do with "a driving license offense" in 1997. According to Khinshtein's mother, he was disqualified from military service because of a spinal injury, and that the hospital in Vladimir was chosen for an examination because it is controlled by the Interior Ministry.

Khinshtein's attorney, Andrei Muratov, said that he could not think of a case in the past ten years when a journalist was taken to a psychiatric hospital. He suggested that the attempt qualifies as the first police use of a psychiatric clinic since the time of the Soviet repression of dissidents.

Khinshtein is now described as being "in hiding."