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Watch List: April 1, 1999

1 April 1999, Volume 1, Number 12

KOSOVA: EUROPE'S LARGEST REFUGEE CRISIS SINCE WORLD WAR II. American and European news reports agree that the massacres by Serbian troops in Kosova and the refugee exodus they prompted exceed the intensity of earlier conflicts in the wars of Yugoslav succession. The emerging consensus is that the tragedy unleashed by Slobodan Milosevic in Kosova is approaching the dimensions of ethnic cleansings ordered by Stalin and Hitler. On March 30, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that the Serbian campaign "was well on its way to being executed before the first NATO bomb" hit and compared it to Stalin's Great Terror in the 1930s. On March 28, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping declared: "Genocide has begun."

* * * The refugee crisis in Kosova was "totally predictable," American migration specialist Demetrios Papademetriou of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told RFE/RL, yet it caught European governments "totally unprepared," and they may now be facing an exodus greater than the one during the Bosnian war, which was called the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. "There will be emergency airlifts of supplies," he predicts, "but all that will be too little, too late, as the task will be enormous."

The European Community approved plans prepared in the early 1990s for storage depots and professional teams ready to fly in to help refugee emergencies, but the plans were never implemented, Papademetriou says, and "the Europeans, who recently lost their management experts with the dismissal of the European Commission, are now flat-footed." The burden will fall directly on Italy, Greece, Britain, France, and, above all, Germany. "Germany has a triple role to play," Papademetriou says, "as the lead power on the continent, as a country now heavily engaged in the Balkans, and as the current president of EU." But he is not convinced that the Germans will do a good job.

As a frequent visitor to the Balkans and a native of Greece, Papademetriou fears that, "ultimately," all of Kosova's 1,800,000 ethnic Albanians are "potential refugees." He recalls that in Bosnia, the number of refugees "totaled half a million, plus-minus 50-75,000, but plus rather than minus." He thinks it is "likely" that the Kosova outflow will be greater, or at least as large as the Bosnian. "If the Kosovars will continue to feel threatened," he warns, "there will be no change in the current momentum, which is to flee right away."

Papademetriou hopes that perhaps the Serbian military will leave alone areas in Kosova which were not politicized by the Kosova Liberation Army. But he is not expecting such a turn of events. "Kosovo is clearly a case of ethnic cleansing," he says, "and Slobodan Milosevic is both extremely brutal and extremely sophisticated." He noted reports asserting that Serbian units systematically tear up birth certificates, driver's licenses, and other types of identity documents carried by refugees. "That means that those ethnic Albanians crossing this or that border have never lived in Kosovo," he says. "They are stripped of their identities. Once outside Kosovo, they will reach the status of ultimate statelessness. They will not be able to prove in any future inquiry where they came from."

DEATH CAMP COMMANDANT MAY GET LIGHT SENTENCE. Dinko Sakic, commandant of the World War II death camp in Jasenovac, Croatia, is being tried in a Zagreb court for his role in the massacre of tens of thousands of Serbs, Roma, and Jews. If convicted, the maximum sentence is 20 years in jail, but he could get off with only five years and be released soon on medical grounds. Extradited from Argentina last July, Sakic, 76, has been unrepentant, arguing that the punishment he was in charge of was just. Western observers in Zagreb point out that during the trial, the Croatian government declared that it will not extradite its citizens accused of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The observers are also concerned that in the present super-heated Balkan atmosphere, Sakic may attract sympathy and even be romanticized as Croatia's champion ethnic cleanser.

SOFIA AGREES TO ROMA PLAN FOR EQUALITY. The Bulgarian government has agreed to implement over the next ten years a far-reaching social contract, the National Program for the Roma People, which aims to improve the life of the Romany community and to bring about its equality. The plan was drafted by the country's Roma organizations. It includes a commitment to legislation to counteract discrimination and racism and setting up a state body for that purpose; the establishment of a state fund for supporting businesses which employ Roma; and the introduction of Romany history and culture in all school textbooks. "The program is significant because it is the first in the region drafted by grassroots Romany NGOs rather than a government," says Erika Schlager of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, "and because it retains a core emphasis on human rights concepts."

NEO-NAZIS HOST GATHERINGS ACROSS RUSSIA. After an unsuccessful attempt to hold a national convention in Moscow, the neo-Nazi group Russian National Unity has staged smaller meetings in ten Russian cities, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on March 23. Attendance ranged from 30 persons in St. Petersburg to 300 in Stavropol.

RUSSIAN REGISTRATION OF RELIGIOUS GROUPS A NIGHTMARE. The number of religious groups and institutions required by Russian law to reregister with government authorities by December 31, 1999 is about 17,000, but only 300 were processed between 1997 and the end of February 1999, a prominent Russian expert recently revealed at a background briefing for American diplomats, religious leaders, and Russian officials at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The expert characterized the reregistration as "a logistical nightmare" for the bureaucracy and predicted that the task will not be completed and that most of the religious groups will be left in legal limbo.

BELARUS LEADER ARRESTED, RFE/RL STRINGER DETAINED. Following the detentions of dozens of Belarusian opposition activists charged with collecting signatures for presidential candidate Zyanon Paznyak, on March 30 police arrested another presidential candidate, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir. The previous day police detained RFE/RL stringer Ales Serdziukou of Mahileu. He was body-searched, and some of his papers were confiscated. After several hours, he was released. No specific charges have been brought against him.

** UPDATE ** Amnesty International has received official word that Ukraine extradited four Uzbeks citizens arrested in their apartments on March 15 in Kyiv and charged with complicity in the February 16 bombing in Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Watchlist," 25 March 1999). The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that the four men were deported because they had not asked for asylum.


By Charles Fenyvesi

The trial of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow, which began as a criminal probe three years ago, has reached a new stage. "We are now in the midst of a theological debate," says Judah Schroeder of Brooklyn, New York, who served as the movement's observer at the proceedings. But he is not optimistic about the eventual outcome of the trial which other minority religious groups and human rights advocates regard as a test case for Russia's repressive 1997 religion law. Schroeder blames the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The key legal issue is whether the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses incite religious discord threatening social peace. A closely related accusation is that the church uses coercion and destroys families. After conducting four separate criminal probes, the prosecution switched tactics and filed a civil case. But it fumbled in presenting its evidence in court last September. Adjournment came after only half a day.

Following a two-day trial last November, Judge Yelena Prokhorycheva again adjourned to allow the prosecution more time to collect evidence and prepare the case.

On March 12, after a five-week trial, Prokhorycheva announced that she will appoint a committee to study the teachings of the church and report back to her. She asked that both the prosecution and the defense submit its list of five individuals, specialists in one of three fields -- religious studies, linguistics, and psychology -- to serve on the committee. A few days later, she said that she had selected three of the prosecution's candidates and two from the defense list.

On March 19, Jehovah's Witnesses appealed her ruling at the Moscow City Court, the capital's highest court. The response may take several weeks. Arguing that the prosecution failed to present a credible case, church officials asked for a dismissal. They also point out that the prosecution has a 3 to 2 advantage in the experts' committee, which has no deadline for its report. "That study can be dragged out for months, a year, or more," says Schroeder, "while we remain under a cloud. We cannot rent facilities. Our people throughout the country are told by the authorities that their reregistration is held up because the court in Moscow might ban Jehovah's Witnesses. Nobody in the provinces wants to take a step before the trial is over." He adds that in Moscow the landlord recently canceled a congregation's lease. "Obviously, someone talked to our landlord," he says.

According to Schroeder, there are about 900 Witness congregations throughout Russia, and so far only 29 have been able to reregister. "We have about 250,000 believers and others who attend our services," he says. "We are in all of Russia's 89 oblasts. We are not one of 'the new religions' the law singles out for discrimination."

Schroeder says that Jehovah's Witnesses have been in Russia for about 100 years. Believers were brutally persecuted under Stalin, who exiled 5,000 families to Siberia, some to labor camps, others to localities they were not permitted to leave. Many hundreds perished under the harsh conditions. "Our people who were exiled were not exonerated until 1993," he says.

Unlike other spokesmen for minority religions, Schroeder does not hesitate to identify "the driving force" behind the legal problems of his church. "We are convinced that the Russian Orthodox Church is behind our persecution," he says. "They have their ties to politicians, and we believe they help to finance the anti-cult group called the Committee to Rescue Youth from Totalitarian Sects which is openly pushing the case against us." The lead witness for the prosecution, Aleksandr Dvorkin, works for the Moscow Patriarchate, he adds.

Schroeder is pleased with the support from the American embassy in Moscow which sent an observer to the trial. He also spotted representatives from the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the European Union, as well as from other religious communities in Russia. "People know that ours is a test case," he says. "If we lose, we will appeal, and we are prepared to go to the European court in Strasbourg. The Russian people should be allowed to choose for themselves how they want to worship God."