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Russia: Putin Appoints New Ombudsman For Chechnya

Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin has appointed a new ombudsman to safeguard human rights in Chechnya. In this report from Moscow, correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talks to human rights activists who doubt whether the appointment will be more than an empty gesture.

Moscow, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL -- International human rights organizations have been accusing Russian forces of rape, executions of civilians, and other abuses during the past months of the military operation in Chechnya. Acting President Vladimir Putin has responded to this criticism by appointing a special representative to safeguard human rights in Chechnya. He named Vladimir Kalamanov, former head of the Migration Service, to the post yesterday (Thursday).

Oleg Orlov, head of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, says the creation of the new ombudsman should be seen as an encouraging signal. He says it indicates at least that Putin feels he can no longer ignore international criticism of the toll the Chechen campaign has taken on civilians. If Kalamanov manages to resist political pressure, Orlov says, he could establish a very valuable information channel to top authorities.

"This is an extremely difficult office. It is clear that he will be under fantastic and horrible pressure from the military, from other state structures. It seems to me he will be in a very complex position. In any case human rights organizations in Russia, foreign ones, should now try to find contact to him and to try to use what looks like an opening, a channel to affect the situation for the better."

But other human rights groups note that ombudsmen positions in Russia have had very little effect in the past. Malcolm Hawkes of Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL that Kalamanov will have to demonstrate his willingness to act.

"This does appear to us as rather a cosmetic move, and we will judge him according to his actions. There are very specific steps that Kalamanov must take immediately: permitting international monitors into Ingushetia and Chechnya for the documentation specifically on war crimes. Allowing international monitors into detention facilities, the filtration camps. And also encouraging the procurator's office to investigate the war crimes that we've been documenting to bring prosecution."

Russia already has one post of human rights commissioner, currently filled by Oleg Mironov, a former Communist deputy who has rarely spoken out on human rights issues. In the last few weeks, he h-a-s made several statements on Chechnya. But last month he said he was in favor of continuing the war. And just two months ago, Mironov gave the highly repressive Belarus regime his blessing, declaring after a trip to Minsk that he had not noted any human rights violations.

The presidential human rights commissioner has no direct powers and can only speak out and request information from state structures. Human rights organizations say that the position has been largely ineffective since Sergei Kovalyov left it four years ago.

Kovalyov, a human rights activist since 1967 and a prominent dissident who spent several years in Soviet jails, had used the post as a platform to denounce human rights abuses during the first war in Chechnya.

Hawkes of Human Rights Watch points out that even Kovalyov, with his impressive moral stature, could not affect the Kremlin's policy during the first Chechen war.

"I think it's clear with Kovalyov that despite his very vigorous protesting of the Russian military conduct in Chechnya in the first war that his findings, his statements were ignored. And I think that that is indicative that it is largely a symbolic position."

Hawkes says the new Chechnya ombudsman will probably be as ineffective as the presidential ombudsman.

But Memorial's Orlov says that while Mironov is a nonentity as federal ombudsman, Kalamanov's track record gives reason for hope that he will try to act independently. Orlov said that Kalamanov proved himself to be a good ombudsman as special presidential representative to Northern Ossetia a few years ago during the Ingush-Ossetian conflict.

While working as head of the Migration Service last fall, Kalamanov was directly confronted with Chechen issues, as he struggled with the flow of some 270,000 refugees from Chechnya. Orlov:

"It depends a lot on how much the person is ready to expose himself in such a post. Kalamanov [was subjected] to heavy criticism both during his first and second offices from all kinds of directions. Nevertheless, in my opinion, he then acted in a positive way. He showed himself to be a person ready to work but also a person ready to go for tension, for conflict if the cause demands it, and ready to risk his post. So at least there's hope that he will show himself in a positive way."

The new appointee himself has said little so far. Kalamanov told reporters that the creation of the post means that the president considers the issue important, and said he intends to start by consulting with the heads of the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry.