Why Putin Is Going To The Vatican
By Victor Yasmann
President Putin is an Orthodox Christian
March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On a recent trip to Jordan, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked his host, King Abdullah II, if he could pray on the banks of the Jordan River.
The king, seeing that Putin didn't have a decent place to pray, granted him a hectare of land on the river bank. Upon his return to Moscow, Putin handed over the land to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksy II.
Putin may well be hoping for a similar gesture as he visits the Vatican today amid improving relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The Russian president has already visited the Vatican three times, but this will be his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
As a Vatican cardinal, Benedict was responsible for helping to set up a meeting of John Paul II and Aleksy. The meeting never took place due to "insurmountable differences" between the two sides.
Historical animosity between the two churches runs deep. The Orthodox Church has accused the Vatican of aggressive proselytizing in Russia. The Catholic Church has denied the accusations and has expressed concern over the treatment of Russia's Catholic minority. The two churches have also argued over ecclesiastical property in Ukraine.
"Moscow is the 'third Rome,' and due to the lack of a 'second Rome,' relations with the 'first Rome' are very important to us."
Putin, as a devout believer, has followed the Orthodox Church's line. The Russian president did not invite former Pope John Paul to visit Russia, as his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had done.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with the help of its supporters in the Kremlin and Duma, has managed to codify legislation that denoted Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as Russia's national confessions. Catholicism received the status of a "guest confession."
Something In Common
But some observers have suggested that there is a greater chance for reconciliation with Pope Benedict.
First, Russia enjoys better relations with Germany, the country of the new pope's birth, than it does with the Poland of John Paul.
President Putin praying at the Jordan River on February 13 (TASS)
Second, Putin, who lived in East Germany in the 1980s, speaks fluent German. Today's talks will reportedly be conducted in German.
The meeting is expected to concentrate on global issues, such as the Middle East, religious extremism, and global terrorism. Putin is also expected to discuss with the pope the possible return of a historic Russian church in the southern Italian city of Bari. Putin plans to pray in the church, which was built by Russia in 1913, on March 14.
Also up for discussion will be a possible meeting between Benedict and the Russian patriarch. Such a meeting, most likely on neutral territory, has been on the agenda for years, but, because of poor relations, has never been finalized.
Despite the churches' differences, they have a lot in common. Both feel threatened by what they see as rampant secularism and the spread of the Islamic faith.
Commenting recently on Putin's visit, the Russian Orthodox Church's envoy to European institutions, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria said: "There is growing understanding that Catholics and Russian Orthodox [believers] face common challenges like militant secularism and relativism, atheism, and moral dissipation."
Putin has been adept at using the Orthodox Church for his own political ends. Some observers have suggested that he sees the Orthodox Church as the ideological arm of the Kremlin.
Using The Church
The Orthodox Church has often touted the Kremlin's line, for example attacking the European Union's Energy Charter.
And with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad expected to officially reunite on May 17 after decades of schism, Putin is being seen as the "unifier of the church."
In the last year, Putin has also made efforts to mobilize the international religious community to support his political line.
In July 2006, ahead of Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg, Putin convened the World Religious Summit in Moscow, which brought together hundreds of clerics from around the world.
Or as Channel One commentator Pyotr Tolstoy said recently, "Moscow is the 'third Rome'" and due to the lack of a "second Rome," "relations with the 'first Rome' are very important to us."
Reviving The Army, Revising Military Doctrine
By Victor Yasmann
Russian tanks during an exercise in the Far East last year
March 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the Russian military can no longer accuse the Kremlin of neglect.
Over the past several weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of his potential successors, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and members of the Russian Security Council have laid out an ambitious new plan for revitalizing the Russian military and revising its military doctrine. While this is not the first time a revival of the Russian military has been proposed, this project has attracted the support and close attention of President Putin himself.
'Modernization Is Not Reform'
Speaking at a security conference in Munich last month, Putin laid out his vision for a strengthened Russian presence in the international arena -- a presence that requires the modernization of the Russian Army, centralization of the defense industry under the more direct control of the Kremlin, and the adoption of a new military doctrine in response to NATO expansion.
A few days earlier, Ivanov gave one of his last speeches as defense minister before the State Duma. In it, he laid out an ambitious program for rearmament of the Russian Army over the next decade. According to Ivanov, in 2007, Russia's defense budget will reach 821 billion rubles ($31.6 billion), a fourfold increase since 2002.
In the last several months, Putin has attended on an almost weekly basis various defense sector events, such as missile launchings, military base inspections, and meetings with visiting defense contractors.
If one adds the funds allotted in the 2007 budget for the security and law-enforcement agencies to the total defense expenditures, total budget spending on defense reaches around $58 billion. While this amount is a pittance compared to U.S. or NATO defense spending, weapon procurement costs are considerably lower on the Russian domestic market.
By 2017, according to Ivanov, Russia will spend 5 trillion rubles ($200 billion) on defense. Fifty percent of this sum will cover the procurement of a new system of intercontinental ballistic missiles and tactical rockets, strategic bombers, state-of-the-art air-defense systems, and advanced tanks.
A Russian ICBM being tested in November 2006 (TASS)
In addition, by 2009, Russian political and military leaders will make a decision on whether to launch a national program to build new Russian aircraft carriers. Under this plan, about 45 percent of Russia's current stock of military hardware will be renewed by 2015. The aim of the program is to restore strategic parity with the West. Presenting his plan to the Duma, Ivanov warned that he prefers to talk "about modernization, but not reform of the army." "Because the word 'reform' gives us an allergic reaction," he explained..
Perhaps, Ivanov is hedging his bets for the future: because of the length of his projections, maybe he is not planning to leave the political scene any time soon.
A week after Ivanov's presentation, Putin reorganized his cabinet. He promoted his long-time loyalist Ivanov to first deputy prime minister. Ivanov will now preside over the most advanced military and civil industries. The latter includes the military-industrial complex, the communications, space, and nuclear sectors, along with innovative scientific and technological firms.
One of Ivanov's first moves in his new role was to announce the revitalization of Glonass, the Russian global navigation satellite system. This project is designed to provide Russian troops with modern communications for 21st century conflicts. Glonass, on which Moscow spent over $220 million in 2006 and 2007, will comprise a system of 24 satellites and will be ready by 2009.
In addition to promoting Ivanov, Putin named Anatoly Serdyukov, the former head of the Federal Tax Service, in his place. The appointment of Serdyukov, a man with no military or diplomatic experience, has bewildered Western defense officials, who are privately wondering how they will be able to discuss strategic issues with a person of his background.
At the same time, Russian military officials have reportedly felt humiliated to be placed under the command of a man who once ran a furniture company in St. Petersburg.
However, Serdyukov's appointment might be better understood as the expansion of Putin's own portfolio than as the promotion of Serdyukov. With the appointment of such a neophyte, Putin has in fact assumed some of the functions of defense minister himself -- at least as far as strategic and political decisions are concerned.
Former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (NATO)
This personnel shift coincides with Putin's increasing attention to the military. In the last several months, Putin has attended on an almost weekly basis various defense sector events, such as missile launchings, military base inspections, and meetings with visiting defense contractors.
And this attention is showing no signs of abating. Late last month, Putin signed a decree creating the United Aviation Corporation, which combines all national civilian and military aircraft companies, including MiG, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Ilyushin. First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov will chair the new corporation. Aviation experts believe that Ivanov is trying to save the floundering civilian aircraft sector by putting it together with advanced military aircraft building.
A similar merger plan was announced for Russia's shipbuilding industry. According to the plan, Russia will combine all of its 160 shipyards and shipbuilding facilities into three big holding companies, the biggest of which will be the United Industrial Company, chaired by Ivanov. Military ship producers currently make up 77 percent of the Russian shipbuilding sector.
Revision Of Military Doctrine
At the same time, the Russian Security Council is retooling the country's military doctrine to match the efforts of Putin and Ivanov to revitalize the country's armed forces. The council announced early this month that Russia's military doctrine, which was adopted in 1993 and amended in 2000, will also be revised in order to reflect the "strengthening of military blocs, especially NATO" as well as changes in world geopolitical forces and demographic trends.
Makhmut Gareev, a leading Russian military theoretician and president of the Military Sciences Academy, believes that the amended doctrine will reassess the character of the threats to Russian national security and adopt many tougher attitudes toward the West.
Gareev, who leads an expert group that is revising amendments to the doctrine, told "Krasnaya zvezda" on January 26 that the new document will also drop the stipulation about Moscow's right for a preemptive nuclear strike in order to prevent large-scale aggression. Russia's insistence on the right to a first strike had been based on the assumption that the Russian Army would not be able to effectively defend Russia against NATO troops.
Different Type Of War
However, Russian military officials now believe that war in the 21st century will probably not be conducted with conventional forces. Gareev explained that Russia instead wants to prepare its armed forces for guerilla-type warfare. The revised doctrine will also drop as "politically unenforceable" a basic provision proclaiming Russia's opposition to the expansion of military blocs, a veiled reference to NATO. Instead, the Russian military proposes to incorporate a statement about how "U.S. efforts to push Russia away from the post-Soviet space [poses] a threat to Russia's national security."
Russia's "Oryol" strategic nuclear submarine (TASS file photo)
But probably the most important revision is the rewording of a current provision declaring that in view of the economic and social challenges facing Russia, the development of its armed forces has to be limited by national economic capacity.
The new version will declare that the Russian economy should provide for the army's growth at any cost. Objections have already been raised. Andrei Neshchadin, deputy director of the Social-Conservative Club, a think tank connected to the pro-Putin Unified Russia party, said that oil revenues may not be sufficient to finance the defense modernization program.
He notes that while Russia produces a large amount of oil relative to other countries, it is also a much larger country with a much larger population to take care of: "We produce only 3 tons of oil per capita, while Norway produces 20." In other words, Russia, despite its abundant energy reserves, will never be wealthy enough to modernize the army on petrodollars alone.
Neshchadin, however, provided Moscow policymakers with a way to manage this challenge. He noted that "in order to make the population ready for such a sacrifice, state propaganda would need to publicize external threats such as the [U.S.] deployment of a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic or the prospect of uncontrolled immigration from [Russia's southern and eastern borders]."
Opposition Voices Stifled In Regional Polls, Critics Say
By Chloe Arnold
Pro-Kremlin Unified Russia is set to dominate the polls
MOSCOW, March 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russians in 14 regions go to the polls
on March 11 in legislative elections that are being seen as a dress rehearsal for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in the next year.
In addition, by-elections and municipal elections will be held this weekend in a number of other regions, along with several referendums.
Two parties, Unified Russia and A Just Russia, are likely to dominate the polls. But opposition groups say both parties are fiercely loyal to the Kremlin, and complain that any real opponents have been sidelined.
Critics say any real opposition has been pushed out of the vote to ensure that parliamentary elections later this year and the presidential election in 2008 go smoothly. An unusually high number of parties has been barred from running in the regional elections on technical grounds.
In St. Petersburg, the local election commission ruled that the opposition Yabloko party could not run in the city's Legislative Assembly elections after 10.5 percent of the signatures gathered for registration were declared invalid. Electoral law allows up to 10 percent of the signatures not to be valid. Yabloko is popular in St. Petersburg, usually receiving between 10 and 20 percent of the vote.
On March 6, Russia's Supreme Court rejected the party's appeal to be reinstated. A senior member of Yabloko in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Amosov, reportedly called the court ruling a "political decision."
St. Petersburg Boycott
Prior to the decision, Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy, said that the party was considering boycotting the vote in St. Petersburg.
"We will do this if the court decides against reinstating Yabloko in the polls. We consider that our candidature was removed unlawfully, under the instruction of the [St. Petersburg] governor, [Valentina] Matviyenko, who has a personal grudge against the opposition," Mitrokhin said.
"Political parties in a lot of cases just look like electoral projects."
But the Central Election Commission, headed by Aleksandr Veshnyakov, argued ahead of today's Supreme Court decision that excluding Yabloko from the ballot in St. Petersburg was justified.
In a number of other regions the Communist Party and the Union of Rightist Forces have been barred from running, although in a few cases they have appealed successfully to be put back on the ballot.
Some commentators say the Kremlin is hoping the March 11 vote will establish two solid, loyal parties before the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and sideline any real opposition.
They believe that President Vladimir Putin, who is due to step down in 2008, is counting on a smooth handover to a successor he has not yet named.
Police detain a marcher in St. Petersburg on March 3 (TASS)
Nikolai Petrov, a political commentator at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center, says there is clear change in the Kremlin's standing.
"It can be described as a refusal from cooperation with loyal opposition, represented by semi-independent political parties like, say, Yabloko and SPS as liberal parties, like, say, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation," Petrov said.
"Instead of continuing cooperation with them, the Kremlin now is dealing with those political parties that were established by itself, and which are totally controlled by the Kremlin."
St. Petersburg Rally
On March 3, a group of loosely connected opposition parties rallied in St. Petersburg to protest against their being pushed aside. In a rare show of defiance in a country largely loyal to the president, more than 3,000 demonstrators took to the city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, accompanied by a robust police force. More than 100 people were arrested and many suffered injuries in clashes with riot police.
But analyst Petrov says that whether the small, but vocal, opposition is taken into account or not, the vote is unlikely to bring any changes to the way the country is run.
"The possibility for political parties to influence decision making is negligible and, if in the majority of countries political parties are forming the government, in the case of Russia it's vice versa. The government is forming political parties to provide dominance in the State Duma [Russia's lower house of parliament] and political parties in a lot of cases look like just electoral projects. They are appearing on the eve of elections, they are very important players at the time of elections, but nobody is looking at them after elections," Petrov said.
Kremlin 'Parties Of Power' Sweep Regional Ballots
By Jonas Bernstein
Unified Russia dominated the polls
March 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While the final results are not yet in for the legislative elections that took place on March 11 in 14 Russian regions, the preliminary results point to the outcome most observers expected: an overwhelming victory for Unified Russia.
Indeed, the country's main "party of power," headed by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, came in first place in 13 of 14 of those contests, averaging 46 percent of the vote, and was outpaced only in Stavropol Krai, where A Just Russia, the newly created second "party of power" headed by Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, came in first among the parties.
It should be noted, however, that the Unified Russia candidates who won in single-mandate districts in Stavropol give the party a total of 15 of the 50 seats in the regional legislature; A Just Russia has a total of only 12 seats.
Unified Russia will be the only party with representation in all 14 regional legislatures.
That the main Kremlin-backed "party of power" dominated the regional elections is hardly a surprise, especially given the changes in Russian election law that increased the minimum share of votes required for a party to win parliamentary representation from 5 percent to 7 percent, scrapped minimum turnout requirements, and barred voters from voting "against all" candidates.
Unified Russia also enjoyed a monopoly on so-called "administrative resources." In just one example, Unified Russia won the right to appear first on ballots in eight of the 14 regions despite the fact that the ballot order was supposed to be determined by chance, the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on February 22.
"Under the absolute domination by the main 'party of power,' the presence of other parties is allowed, but only loyal ones."
In addition, some political parties charged that the refusal by regional election commissions to register them for the elections was politically motivated: in perhaps the most controversial case, Yabloko was kept off the ballots in its erstwhile stronghold, St. Petersburg.
In the end, just four parties -- Unified Russia, A Just Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) -- were registered for all 14 regional elections.
In what cynical observers might see as an attempt by the Kremlin to create the appearance of genuine political competition where little actually exists, Unified Russia and A Just Russia -- both backed by the Kremlin and unswervingly loyal to President Vladimir Putin -- fought each other bitterly, with A Just Russia declaring its adherence to "socialism" and attacking Unified Russia for monopolizing power and representing corrupt entrenched interests.
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky (file photo)
According to "The Moscow Times" on March 13, Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, pointed to the competition between Unified Russia and A Just Russia -- and the March 11 elections more generally -- as evidence that political pluralism is alive and well in Russia.
"A Just Russia competed confidently in these elections, showing that the ferocity of political battle is not waning in this country," RIA Novosti quoted Surkov as saying. "Any democracy is characterized by a steady list of primary players in the political field.... The fact that four parties ran successfully shows that the political playing field has basically been formed."
Sergei Mironov, for his part, praised his party, A Just Russia, for "having returned real competition to politics," ITAR-TASS reported on March 12. A Just Russia, it should be noted, placed second in St. Petersburg, Leningrad and Vologda oblasts, the Komi Republic and Daghestan.
Opposition leaders, needless to say, saw the elections in a much different light. "Putin's regime needs rigged elections to keep their democratic window, pretending that it still [is] a member of the civilized nations," AP on March 11 quoted Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who leads the Other Russia opposition movement, as saying.
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said in a statement posted on the party's website (yabloko.ru), on March 12: "In the system of sham democracy that has consolidated in Russia, elections occupy a far from central place; the multiparty system is restricted. Under the absolute domination by the main 'party of power,' the presence of other parties is allowed, but only loyal ones."
According to some observers, the Kremlin wants A Just Russia to succeed, but within certain limits. The daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 13 that while Mironov has vowed that his party will defeat Unified Russia in December's State Duma elections, that goal is not shared by the presidential administration.
"According to a source in the Kremlin, the danger in the A Just Russia project is that it will, with populist slogans, stimulate opposition and criticism of the authorities and this could turn into a problem for the election of a new president," the newspaper noted. "Moreover, the next president could confront 'a swampy and hard-to-traverse parliament.'"
For that reason, the Kremlin may actually be happy that despite the relatively good showing of A Just Russia in the March 11 elections, it was apparently unable to supplant the KPRF as Russia's main left-wing party.
The preliminary results announced on March 12 by Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov showed that the KPRF won 16 percent -- coming in second place in seven regions -- while A Just Russia won 11.7 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR came in fourth with an average of 10 percent of the vote in each region.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the March 11 elections was the showing of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). In contrast to Yabloko, which failed to finish in the top five in any of the four regions where it was on the ballot, the SPS, according to preliminary results, broke the 7 percent barrier to win representation in the legislatures of the Komi Republic, Stavropol Krai, and Leningrad, Samara, and Tomsk oblasts, and came close to breaking the 7 percent barrier in Moscow and Oryol oblasts.
Offering a possible explanation for the SPS's relative success, the daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on March 13 that shortly before election day, SPS leader Nikita Belykh appeared on the federal television channels "noticeably more often than usual."
"Observers tend toward the opinion that access to air time was a kind of payment from the Kremlin for the SPS's loyalty," the newspaper added. "We recall that the SPS, unlike Yabloko, did not take part in the March of Dissent that took place at the beginning of March in St. Petersburg, although the rightists condemned the harsh actions of the law-enforcers against the participants in the action."
The newspaper noted that Boris Gryzlov, the State Duma speaker and Unified Russia leader, said on March 12 that he is certain the SPS will win representation in the next Duma.
(Jonas Bernstein is a Russia analyst based in Washington, D.C.)
U.S. Official Discusses Rights Issues In Russia, Caucasus
Human rights activists in Azerbaijan conducting a hunger strike in November 2006
WASHINGTON, March 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department has issued its annual report on human rights around the globe. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Jeff Krilla, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, about the report's conclusions in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the former Yugoslavia.
RFE/RL: U.S. President George W. Bush often speaks highly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. How did Putin's Russia stand on human rights last year?
Jeff Krilla: 2006 was a bad year for Russia in terms of human rights. One of the things we do in our human rights report is not only talk about the human rights conditions in each country on the planet, but we talk about trajectory. And unfortunately, when we talk about trajectory, one of the biggest backsliders we've seen -- certainly in terms of Europe -- has been Russia. And it's very disconcerting to those of us who follow human rights issues.
We see government accountability to the people decreasing through a continued concentration of power in the Kremlin. We see increased restrictions on NGOs, declined media freedoms, and certainly the harassment and killing of journalists has been particularly troubling to those of us that continue to promote media freedoms as fundamental to any democratic society.
RFE/RL: What about Russia's record in Chechnya -- and the record of those who oppose Russia there?
Krilla: One of the things that we have done, as U.S. officials, has been to stress to Russian officials our support for a political rather than a military solution in Chechnya. We've urged an end to human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, and accountability for abuses that occur and that have occurred. We've urged cooperation with the international community on humanitarian, economic, and stability issues. So we've worked very hard on the Chechnya issue and certainly met frequently with human rights NGOs to discuss the situation on the ground in Chechnya and to show support for their very hard work.
RFE/RL: Westerners watched the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine with great optimism a little more than two years ago. How is Ukraine faring now?
Krilla: One of the things that I do want to stress is that we have seen the situation in Ukraine improve. The fact that the March 2006 parliamentary elections were the most open and honest in Ukraine's history is a huge step forward for the country. And Ukraine has continued to show improvement in press freedom, freedom of association, and development of civil society.
Pro-Moscow Chechen security forces caught on film abusing a civilian (courtesy photo)
For those that would argue that the luster has worn off of the Orange Revolution, I would argue that a lot of the lasting effects of the Orange Revolution are in place and, in fact, have been consolidated. We're not in the business of picking winners and losers in terms of these elections. The fact that elections are up to internationally recognized standards is what's critical to us and to other democratic countries that work to promote human rights and democracy.
RFE/RL: And what of Georgia?
Krilla: Georgia's another country that we see having a very positive trajectory, although for all the improvement that we've seen recently, there are serious problems that remain in certain areas. There [are] reports of deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuses of prisoners, overuse of pretrial detention, and certainly concerns about worsening conditions in detention facilities.
But we still have seen a lot of progress, the last couple of years have been very positive in Georgia overall, but I think we continue -- in these human rights reports -- to focus on the conditions across the society, across all the institutions. And certainly I noted a number of areas that Georgia could show increased improvement that we're focused on, in our bilateral relations with the Georgians.
RFE/RL: How is the human rights situation in Armenia, which has tilted more to Moscow than the West since the breakup of the Soviet Union?
Krilla: We've got an election coming up in Armenia this year in April, but I think the human rights conditions continue to remain poor. There are credible reports that law enforcement officials engaged in arbitrary arrests [and] detention and abuse of detainees. There's a lot of concern, from our perspective, of rule-of-law issues in Armenia. And certainly media freedom is not what it could be. The government has restricted freedom of speech and the press, and I might even note -- through a very unusual move -- lawmakers rejected a government-sponsored bill that would have further restricted media activities.
There is still an opposition, in that we see having some sort of force to try and keep the checks and balances in the government in place. But overall media freedom and rule-of-law issues are of concern to us.
I will also add two other areas of concern. Religious freedom. Government and overall Armenian society continue to view minority religious groups with suspicion. Although they are allowed to operate, I think this is something that bears watching. And secondly, trafficking in persons. Trafficking in persons for purposes of sexual and labor exploitation continued to be a problem in 2006, although the government did pass legislation that toughened penalties for trafficking -- something else that bears attention, I think, in the future.
RFE/RL: And what of Armenia's neighbor, Azerbaijan?
Krilla: The human rights conditions in Azerbaijan remained poor in 2006. The government continued to imprison persons for politically motivated reasons, and restrictions on freedom of media, freedom of assembly and political participation worsened. Now, there were some improvements in the period leading up to the November 2005 parliamentary elections, but the May 13 partial reruns in 10 of the races in Azerbaijan failed to meet a number of international standards. So I think we're going to keep an eye on the situation there.
Squalid conditions in a Georgian prison in March 2006 (Interpressnews)
Our report is very comprehensive for the conditions in 2006, but certainly elections have been troubling in recent years in Azerbaijan. And we've seen restrictions on freedom of the press increase, and harassment and violence against journalists have continued. Freedom of assembly has been a problem in Azerbaijan. Restrictions on freedom of assembly have worsened, [the] government has often denied opposition parties' requests simply to hold political rallies.
And then on the issues of religious freedom and trafficking in persons. Religious freedom issues: [the] government of Azerbaijan generally respected religious freedom but did restrict it for some Muslim groups on grounds that these groups were radical or fundamentalist -- something else that I think bears attention. And then in terms of trafficking in persons, I'd actually say this is a bright spot for the government of Azerbaijan. The government's taken several important steps to combat trafficking in persons, and I think we'd like to see that trend continue as well.
RFE/RL: Finally the former Yugoslavia -- specifically Serbia. How has it fared since breaking with Montenegro?
Krilla: I think we did note in our human rights report for 2006 that the government [of Serbia] generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but we did note numerous problems that persisted. Corruption in the police and the judiciary [was] a problem in 2006, there still continues to be inefficient and lengthy trials. There's been a failure to cooperate with the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] in apprehending war crimes suspects.
There's ongoing harassment of journalists, human rights workers, and others critical of the government, and we've seen arbitrary arrests and selective enforcement of the law for political purposes. Following the May 21 referendum of last year, we did see a very peaceful dissolution of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, and I think the Serbians -- and the Montenegrins -- can be praised for that peaceful transition that we saw there.
Russian Rights Group Promoted For Nobel Prize
March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A group of lawmakers from the European Parliament say they have nominated the Russian human rights organization Memorial for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported.
Bogdan Klich, a European Parliament member representing Poland, told RFE/RL that he first discussed the idea of nominating Memorial with lawmakers in Warsaw. Klich then won support from other members of the European Parliament.
"This year my colleagues from the European Parliament and I decided to support an organization that stands for European values and democratic standards and defends human rights," Klich said.
Gunnar Hokmark, who represents Sweden in the European Parliament, said supporting pluralism and independent groups like Memorial "contributes to a better Russia."
Hokmark said European lawmakers from Britain, Sweden, Estonia, Poland, Lithuania, and France support the nomination.
The Nobel Prize Committee keeps its official list of nominees secret and refuses to give any hint who is under consideration. Those making nominations, however, sometimes announce them.
The committee is due to announce the winner in October.
(with material from Interfax)
First Female Cosmonaut Turns 70
March 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova -- who turns 70 today -- became the first woman to enter space.
On the Vostok 6, she orbited the Earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. While some questions have been raised about the mission, Tereshkova's star has never dimmed.
Born in Yaroslavl Oblast on March 6, 1937, Tereshkova worked in a textile factory after leaving school. Her first taste of flying was going down rather than up, when she joined a local parachutist club. And it was her hobby of jumping out of planes that got her involved in the Soviet Union's space program.
After Yury Gagarin's space flight in 1961, the Soviet leadership sought a woman to fly into space as well. They wanted a parachutist, under 30, under 170 centimeters tall, and under 70 kilograms.
"I am ready to fly there and never come back."
Tereshkova fit the bill perfectly. After a rigorous selection and training process she blasted off into orbit on June 16, 1963.
The mission was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union -- both at home and abroad. From factory worker to cosmonaut -- a local Komsomol head whose father had died a tank hero on the Finnish front.
President Putin met with Tereshkova on her birthday (TASS)
And in the Cold War-era space race, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States once again, this time by being the first to send a woman in space.
Behind the propaganda, though, there were always lingering questions. Rumors circulated that there were doubts about Tereshkova's abilities, and that she hadn't been allowed to take the controls of Vostok 6 as a result.
In a recent interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Tereshkova revealed what she called the secrets of her mission.
At one point in the flight, she said, there was an error in the control program and the spacecraft was ascending rather than descending from orbit. Tereshkova said she noticed the mistake and the head of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, repaired it.
But none of that mattered in 1963. Back on Earth, Tereshkova was a celebrity -- feted in pop songs, her face appearing on postage stamps.
After months of rumors -- and bawdy jokes about sex in space -- she married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in November 1963. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attended their wedding.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Tereshkova led a high-profile political career, for a while as a member of the Supreme Soviet. She also worked as an ambassador for the Soviet Union abroad, serving as a member of the World Peace Council in 1966.
At home, she remains a hero, awarded a chestfull of medals, including the highest Hero of the Soviet Union. She even has a moon crater and asteroid named after her.
Russian journalist and writer Vladimir Gubarev told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Tereshkova is second only to Yury Gagarin.
"When they [Gagarin and Tereshkova] flew, and were preparing to fly, we had the impression of being first. It is a feeling that we regretfully have lost," Gubarev said.
There was another "first" Tereshkova never did get to achieve: flying to Mars.
Speaking at a news conference on the eve of her birthday, the former cosmonaut said going to the red planet had been a long-time dream of hers.
"I am ready to fly there and never come back," she said.