Accessibility links

(Un)Civil Societies: January 19, 2007

CIS: Freedom House Sees Further Democracy Decline

By Nikola Krastev

Moscow demonstrators in June 2006 protest the government's "information blockade"

NEW YORK, January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Systematic efforts to control media in countries of the former Soviet Union have intensified in 2006 indicating further erosion of civil liberties. That's the conclusion of the new "Freedom In The World" report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes democracy.

The survey shows that the percentage of countries regarded as "free" has failed to increase for almost a decade, leading to a trend the authors label "freedom stagnation." The report notes the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, and gives moderately positive marks only to Georgia and Ukraine.

One of the troubling developments in 2006, the report says, is a "growing pushback against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedom."

A systematic effort to weaken or eliminate pro-democracy forces, the report says, is most prevalent among authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union.

'Cleaning the Media Slate'

Russia is a stark example. Christopher Walker, one of the report's authors, says Russian authorities are showing creativity in their approach to stifle whatever is left of independent media.

Walker says in 2006 the Kremlin turned its attention to the print media, an area that in previous years it didn't bother to deal with, deeming it not really significant for public opinion.

"Over the course of 2006, there was significant attention to the print media which in large measure had been the last remaining media, albeit the weakest, to have an opportunity to talk about issues in the alternative from the Kremlin's position," Walker said. "This was one of the features of the media landscape in Russia in 2006 where papers such as "Novaya gazeta", "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and "Kommersant" all came up against, in one fashion or another, either management or ownership takeovers with Kremlin-friendly entities."

With parliamentary elections coming late in 2007 and a presidential election in early 2008, the Russian government, Walker says, is "cleaning the media slate" and has made in the past year a number of preemptive strikes to limit the freedom of expression.

Targeting Cyberspace

"One of the worrying developments in one of the areas that had at least until recently been left unmolested, is in the cyber sphere," he says. "We saw in late 2006 a Kremlin-friendly company take over the Russian-language portion of 'Live Journal,' which was the most heavily used blogging platform in Russia. [This] has only had a negative impact on blogging activity in the country, which is very serious and very negative development."

Even blogs have come under Russian government scrutiny (ITAR-TASS file photo)

According to some reports blogging -- particularly blogging related to political issues -- has significantly decreased in Russia over the course of 2006 because bloggers are concerned that their activities may have been secretly monitored by authorities.

As the most formidable player from the former Soviet Union, Russia sets the tone for many of the CIS countries some of which are closely following in Moscow's footsteps to quash dissent, Walker says.

"The focus on the media sector in most of the former Soviet Union has been very systematic and very intense over the last cycle," Walker says. "They've really been fine-tuning the control using legal, economic, and political means to control the media. And this is one of the features of the current wave of control and denial of freedom in the region."

The survey ranks countries according to how free they are in terms of political rights and civil liberties, giving them a score of one -- the best -- to seven, the worst.

Central Asian Police States

At the bottom of the list, as in the last few years, are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which along with North Korea, Cuba, and Libya get the lowest possible marks for political rights and civil liberties.

The situation in Uzbekistan, Walker says, did not change significantly from 2005.

"Uzbekistan's trajectory over the last several years has eroded in large measure because the regime there has become much more repressive," he explains. "This is emblematic or at least symbolized by the 2005 events in Andijon. Uzbekistan is a highly repressive police state whose control has only increased and more negatively affected an already extremely difficult environment."

Flushed with oil money Kazakhstan fares relatively better than its more repressive neighbors in Central Asia, Walker says, but the country is clearly "not free" and has a long way to go.

"Kazakhstan certainly has the advantage of enormous energy wealth," Walker says. "Despite that energy wealth the country still is extremely restrictive in terms of political rights it affords its citizens, certainly in terms of the basic quality of the elections it holds and the opportunity for alternative political forces or voices to participate in a meaningful way, in terms of its control of the news media which is significant and also renders the news-media in the country to be not free."

The only country in Central Asia which holds the rank of "partly free" is Kyrgyzstan, but the country is going now through tumultuous political changes and the final outcome remain uncertain, Walker says.

"As a general matter what we've seen in Kyrgyzstan over the course of the last year has been a real wrestling to advance reforms," Walker says. "And on the heels of the events of spring 2005 [change of government] there's been a very unsteady effort to try to advance reform in the country. So, in a basic way the powers that have asserted themselves there have been looking to advance a host of reforms. They've met these challenges with very limited success."

Belarus is the lowest-rated country in Europe with a distinctively repressive regime, Walker says, that denies any political rights to its citizens.

"In Belarus, likewise, you have extremely difficult conditions for the citizens of the country, chiefly because they're denied any meaningful political participation," Walker says. "We've seen in response to the pushback from democratic reformers in that country, even more focused repression from the regime there, which in some ways signals their own sense of insecurity."

Afghanistan is unchanged in the listing compared to 2006, barely making the cut for a "partly free" country in the 2007 survey.

Both Iraq and Iran are considered "not free." But Iraq has fallen one step lower in 2007 -- from 5 to 6 -- in the ranking for civil liberties.

Georgia, unchanged from 2006, is ranked as "partly free," while Ukraine, also unchanged, is considered "free."

On a global scale, the report says, the state of freedom in 2006 changed little from 2005. The number of countries judged "free" in 2006 stood at 90 and represented 46 percent of the world's population.

There were 58 qualifying as "partly free" with 17 percent of the world's population. The number of countries considered "not free" stood at 45 with 37 percent of the world's population.

New Russian Laws Create Widespread Uncertainty For Migrants

Police checking the documents of a market worker in Ivanovo in October

MOSCOW, January 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- With Russia back to work after the holidays, new laws on migrants are going into force.

The new laws regulate the numbers of migrant workers and slap heavy fines on businesses that employ illegal workers. Most affected will be the millions of workers, mostly from the Caucasus and Central Asia, working in the country's outdoor markets and bazaars.

Qurbonali, a Tajik migrant working in the Cherkizovo market in Moscow, is one of millions of migrants working in Russia.

Unknown Consequences

"Most people in our market are illegals," he told RFE/RL. "We don't know what consequences of that will be."

"Sometimes laws are used as a sword of Damocles above the heads of Azeris in Russia. Russian police take bribes and use the laws to frighten," one activist for ethnic Azeris told RFE/RL.

His is a familiar refrain: uncertainty and fear. Workers like Qurbonali know the new laws are in place, but they don't know exactly how they will be affected.

A government decree went into effect on January 1, but with the holiday hiatus is only now being enforced. The decree restricts the number of non-Russians working in the retail trade in outside markets and kiosks. Now the quota is set at 40 percent. From April 1, it will incrementally decrease to zero by the end of the year.

Caught In A Squeeze

Already, the authorities are carrying out strict checks on markets for illegal workers. Employers face fines of up to 800,000 rubles ($30,100) for employing staff without proper documentation.

Another Tajik worker, Ilhomuddin Amriddinov, says the law is already making things more difficult.

"It will be more difficult for people who are working here," Amriddinov says. "Really, even employers say they can't give you any work. [As a result,] most people want to go home [back to Tajikistan]."

Racial Violence

The tighter laws come in the wake of incidents such as the race riots in northern Russia last year.

In the northwestern city of Kondopoga in September, a restaurant brawl between ethnic Russians and Chechens left two of the Russians dead.

Following the killings, angry mobs burned down the restaurant and ransacked local market stalls and stores owned by Chechens and others from the Caucasus.

Popular sentiment is growing against illegal immigrants. Race attacks and hate crimes are on the rise. Many Russians complain about the high number of foreigners in the country.

A Shift To The Right

Rights campaigners say the law represents a worrying shift to the right in Russia. They say the Kremlin has not done enough to clamp down on racist organizations targeting migrants and that comments from the Kremlin have partly encouraged a rise in popular nationalist sentiments.

Racist graffiti in Kondopoga in September 2006 (TASS)

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russians should be given more jobs in the country's markets.

But the situation is far from black and white. Some observers say the new laws could in some way help migrants. Part of the legislation that goes into effect today will actually ease the process of a migrant obtaining a work permit.

Hokimsho Muhabbatov is a Tajik analyst based in Moscow. He says the effects of the new legislation will be mixed.

"The new rules will have some positive and some negative effects for migrants," Muhabbatov says. "The positive effect is the simplification of registration rules for migrants in Russia. In the past, migrants could register for only three months, but now they can do so for six months or one year. But on the other hand, the rules have been tightened for employers who give work to Tajik migrants. Companies that use illegal migrants will be fined 800,000 rubles. Most employers, who employ Tajik migrants virtually for free, will employ fewer Tajik migrants after that."

What that means is more uncertainty and, in many cases, a scramble to get legal.

"Everybody is getting ready, collecting all the necessary documents, trying to find out how they can [legally] work, Janybek Kojomberdiev, a representative of the Kyrgyz diaspora in Rostov-na-Donu, says. "But 30 percent of our people working in two big markets have already received [Russian] passports. Some people applied [for Russian citizenship]. In two to three months, 50 percent [of Kyrgyz migrants] will hold [Russian] passports."

Many migrant workers are not worried about the law itself, but its implementation.

Elections Looming

"The law may be good, but we are talking about how the law is implemented in Russia," Mais Seferli, the chairman of Yurddash, a political party in Azerbaijan, told RFE/RL. "And this implementation is often very bad. Sometimes laws are used as a sword of Damocles above the heads of Azeris in Russia. Russian police take bribes and use the laws to frighten. The main problem for Azeris [working in Russia] is the unfair implementation of these laws."

The issue is not likely to go away anytime soon. With popular antimigrant sentiments growing and parliamentary elections in December, the Kremlin is unlikely to soften its approach.

For Russia's migrants, that means 2007 will probably not be the easiest of years.

(RFE/RL's Tajik, Azerbaijani, and Kyrgyz services provided material for this report.)

2006 A Hard Year In Human Rights

By Breffni O'Rourke

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova was killed while in detention in Turkmenistan (file photo)

PRAGUE, December 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- From the fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan to repression in Uzbekistan, Iran, and Belarus, the news on the human rights front in 2006 was often grim.

The observance of human rights deteriorated in 2006 as a result of conflicts and political repression. In Central Asia, human rights continued to come under attack.

Few Changes In Central Asia

Conditions in Uzbekistan did not improve, according to outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In a report, Annan said there is "ample evidence" that authorities there are still using torture.

The UN cited Belarus and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for numerous human rights abuses, including rigged elections, the jailing of protesters, and the use of government power against opposition election candidates.

Tom Porteous, a senior official with the Human Rights Watch organization in London, believes the international community has not been firm enough with Tashkent.

"Our main concern with Uzbekistan is that the European Union is not really following up on its actions, in the aftermath of the Andijon massacre, with a strong enough policy to really affect change in the country," he said. "As you know, the EU imposed fairly strict sanctions on Uzbekistan just over a year ago."

Turkmenistan continued its course under President Saparmurat Niyazov as one of the world's most authoritarian regimes.

Suspicious Deaths

September saw the death in custody of RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. She was serving a six-year jail sentence on what Western rights organizations had described as trumped-up charges. Family members who saw her body said she had a large wound on her head. The Turkmen Helsinki Foundation described Muradova's death as a "political assassination."

Kazakhstan suffered the suspicious murder of another senior opposition figure.

On February 13, the body of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was found on the outskirts of Almaty, along with the bodies of two of his aides. He was a cochairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party. A former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazakh journalists staged protests in June against a new media law that complicates the registration of media entities and increases the power of the authorities to shut down media.

Late in the year, Kazakhstan suffered a setback at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE put off until next year a decision on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the organization in 2009.

Kazakhstan And The OSCE

The bid was mainly opposed by the United States and Britain, who argued that Kazakhstan must do more to meet OSCE standards. However, in explaining the decision, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns took a conciliatory line.

"We're Kazakhstan's strategic partner," he said. "We're a close friend. We admire the fact that Kazakhstan wants to lead this organization. You need a consensus in this organization for that to happen, and I think the decision by all of us is that it's better to wait until 2007, have the OSCE look again in 2007 at the request from Kazakhstan to take a leadership role, and make a decision then."

November saw a presidential election in Tajikistan that was boycotted by opposition parties, who alleged that a result in favor of incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov had been fixed long before the voting.

Turning to Russia, fighting continued in Chechnya despite Moscow's assertion that the war against separatist Muslim insurgents has been won.


"The situation in Chechnya is clearly poisoning the political atmosphere in the whole of the Russian Federation," Porteous said. "The Russian government says the war in Chechnya is over. This is not really true. The war has been pushed underground and has become a very dirty war, and we have evidence that the authorities in Chechnya are engaged in very repressive practices, including the use of torture."

It was also revealed in 2006 that Chechen security forces loyal to pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov have been using cell phones to record videos of themselves torturing and humiliating ordinary Chechens accused of crimes.

But the practices in Chechnya are not the only alleged Russian infringements of freedom. In 2006, as in previous years, President Vladimir Putin presided over a tightening of state control over independent media and foreign nongovernmental organizations.

"We are also worried about the suppression of civil society in the Russian Federation, particularly this year," Porteous said. "There is a requirement for NGOs to reregister, including Human Rights Watch, and we do feel this is an attack on the last [free] bastion in the Russian Federation."

Media Repression In Azerbaijan

In the Caucasus, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's government came under criticism. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has denounced what it calls the systematic targeting of press freedom in that country. It referred to the eviction of the independent Turan news agency and two opposition newspapers from their Baku offices.

That followed the decision to revoke the license, for alleged violations of broadcasting regulations, of the ANS independent television station, which was retransmitting BBC, RFE/RL, and Voice of America broadcasts. Elsa Vidal is a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders. He told RFE/RL that "The fact is that for over a month we have seen a real worsening of the situation in Azerbaijan, and the most worrying aspect was the closure of the ANS private TV channel and the relocation of many media, including the most read daily paper, 'Azadliq.' "

ANS was back on the air almost three weeks later, on December 12. The National Radio and Television Council says ANS will have to bid for a broadcasting license next year.

In Iraq, the fighting goes on, with scores of casualties daily, many of them being Shi'ite civilians targeted in suicide bomb attacks. Others are sometimes caught up in air strikes or ground fighting.

On November 29, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, described the Iraqi violence as worse than ever, and she called on the government to ensure the rule of law.

Also in Iraq, the UN Human Rights Council and Human Rights Watch declared the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as having fallen far short of international legal standards. Hussein was found guilty and condemned to death on charges of mass killings.

"We feel there was a huge opportunity with the trial to establish a legal and factual record of the crimes under Saddam Hussein's regime," Porteous said. "And the fact that the trial has been so deeply flawed means that the losers are really the victims of the Saddam Hussein regime."

Worse Situation In Iran

Iran had a dark year in terms of human rights. Right groups said state censorship increased significantly, leading to an increased restriction on freedom of expression. More newspapers were closed down and journalists were intimidated.

Tehran also increased its censorship of the Internet by blocking websites, including sites belonging to domestic and foreign news organizations, political organizations, and those with information about human rights and women's issues.

Dozens of student activists were barred from classes, and a number of liberal professors were forced into early retirement or dismissed. Students reacted by organizing several protests denouncing the growing pressure on universities.

On December 11, students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University disrupted a speech by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and called him a dictator.

Bijan Pouryoussefi, a student who witnessed the unusual incident, told Radio Farda that "Polytechnic University students started to chant against the president and against the policies of the new government in universities. They chanted 'Death to the dictator! Down with oppression! Ahmadinejad is the cause of poverty and corruption,' and similar things."

In Afghanistan, many civilians fell victim to the insurgency and terrorist attacks, while others were killed during counterterrorist operations by U.S.- and NATO-led forces. Many schools were torched by the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Concerns over the situation of women in Afghanistan also remained. In November, a conference on self-immolation was held in Kabul to bring attention to the plight of Afghan women who -- five years after the fall of the Taliban -- still face violence and discrimination.

In Europe, the UN cited Belarus and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for numerous human rights abuses, including rigged elections, the jailing of protesters, and the use of government power against opposition election candidates.

(RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this article.)

New Report Says EU's Muslims Face Broad Discrimination

By Jeffrey Donovan

A French Muslim participating in a demonstration for head scarves in January

December 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Muslims in Europe, amid a worsening climate of "Islamophobia," face discrimination in education, housing, and employment.

That's the conclusion of a report issued today by the European Union's European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). The study is the first of its kind because it examines the conditions of Muslims across the 25-nation EU.

The 117-page report comes as Europeans increasingly link Islam with terrorism and intolerance toward Western values. It says these concerns have joined preexisting xenophobia to create a climate of Islamophobia in many areas of European life.

On The Margins Of Society

But the report also notes that Muslims need to do more to counter negative perceptions driven by terrorism and upheavals in the Islamic world, such as the violent response at the beginning of the year to cartoons published in the West depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

"It is clear that integration is a two-way process," EUMA Director Beate Winkler told RFE/RL. "Many members of the Muslim community should be more engaged in public life -- they should do more. But at the same time, they also need encouragement. All of us should move in order that we have an inclusive society."

Entitled "Muslims In The European Union -- Discrimination And Islamophobia," the report includes many interviews with mainly young Muslims. They describe their experiences living on the margins of European life, even as native EU citizens.

Many Muslims interviewed for the report also say they could do more to help themselves, such as making greater efforts to engage with the wider European society.

Presenting polls and case studies across the EU, the report says numerous social barriers prevent many, mainly young, Muslims from advancing socially. "Feelings of hopelessness and exclusion," the report says, are often the result.

Europe's 15 million Muslims account for 3.5 percent of the EU population. Yet, Winkler says they are disproportionately represented at the bottom of EU society.

"Many Muslims in the European Union are discriminated against. Their educational achievement falls below average," she says. "They are living in poorer housing conditions. Their unemployment rate is higher than average, too. And Muslims are often employed in jobs that require lower qualifications."

Patterns Of Segregation

Many see these ills as being at the root of recent social tensions in Europe, including last year's massive rioting in France by mostly Muslim youths and sporadic violence in Berlin schools.

Those interviewed said women with head scarves faced the biggest obstacles getting jobs. Many European employers fear that women with scarves, when employed in the service sectors, will drive away customers.

Winkler says discrimination starts in the recruitment process.

"For example, in France, people with a Maghrebi [North African] name have a five times less chance to be invited for an nterview than people with a purely French name," she says. "So it starts with the recruitment process. Applications should be dealt with in a much more anonymous way."

The report notes that in the Netherlands, some Muslim students have been placed in classes segregated along ethnic lines and that they had been labeled as foreigners, even though they were Dutch-born.

The survey urges EU policymakers to implement fully antidiscrimination directives, mandate diversity training for police, ensure that school classes are ethnically integrated, and encourage balanced media coverage to avoid unfair and inaccurate portrayals of Muslims.

Many Europeans see Muslims as intolerant of Western values, such as women's rights and freedom of speech.

Winkler says such rights must be defended, but not at the cost of racism.

"There are, in the end, no contradictions between freedom of speech and the fight against racism," Winkler says. "We make it very clear in our report: equal opportunities for all, but also fundamental rights for all. These must be respected by everybody."

Many Muslims interviewed for the report also say they could do more to help themselves, such as making greater efforts to engage with the wider European society.

Some Muslims also said their local religious leaders are not addressing important problems they face in secular Europe, such as sexuality and drugs.

"The imams are not capable of giving us the right answers," said on young Muslim man in the Netherlands. "They say, 'No, according to our tradition and culture you should not even think about joining a dinner or party.' But they don't realize that when you don't do this, you are becoming a solo person not joining the group, so you will never join the group."