November 7, 2006, Volume 7, Number 16
BELARUSMILINKEVICH SAYS COUNTRY MUST COMBAT 'TOTAL FEAR.' October 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For many, Alyaksandr Milinkevich has become the face of the Belarusian opposition. The leading challenger to incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the country's March 19 presidential poll, Milinkevich came away with just 6 percent of the vote. But he succeeded in rallying the Belarusian public to an unprecedented degree, with as many as 10,000 people gathering in central Minsk to challenge Lukashenka's win on the night of the ballot.
RFE/RL: You have said the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka cannot be deposed through elections, but only with the help of street protests like those in Ukraine in 2004. What conditions are needed in order for Belarusians to take to the street on a mass scale?
Alyaksandr Milinkevich: There are no longer any elections in our country. As in any dictatorship, elections can't bring about a change of power. Only the street -- people at meetings and in demonstrations -- can make things change. Our country is not Ukraine and not Serbia. In Ukraine, apathy had to be overcome to take to the streets. In our country, we had to combat fear, total fear.
RFE/RL: Thousands of people protested in Minsk immediately after the March presidential election. But those numbers quickly dwindled, and since then, the opposition has been unable to mobilize more than a few hundred, mostly young people, for street protests. Have you been disappointed by the failure to build a big protest movement?
Milinkevich: It's true, what happened was a little surprising, even for me -- and I didn't think there would be many people. But dictatorship is not defeated with the first blow. We must work. But I'm not fighting Lukashenka -- he doesn't interest me. What I'm fighting for are ideas, because everything is distorted by the ever-present propaganda. Even today, without demonstrations, we carry on this work on a daily basis; we distribute information, we mobilize people, we travel to towns and villages.
RFE/RL: You're often criticized for spending your time meeting with European politicians abroad, rather than with your compatriots at home. How do you intend to communicate with ordinary voters in Belarus, especially given the fact that such contacts are often officially prohibited?
Milinkevich: After the elections, I met with many foreign leaders, but this was not political tourism. If we want to think about our future, we must be in touch with people who are influential in Europe. In addition, we are in danger because it is not only democracy we are fighting for -- we are also fighting for our independence [from Russia]. And here, Europe's help and understanding are absolutely essential.
RFE/RL: In March you announced the creation of a broad democratic movement For Freedom in Belarus. Has this initiative progressed beyond its declaration? Quite recently you said you're taking personal responsibility for the establishment of this movement. Does this means that parties united in the Political Council of Democratic Forces have ceased to see you as the leader of the united opposition and refused to cooperate in setting up the new movement?
Milinkevich: After the elections, we understood that many new people not belonging to parties and NGOs came to help us during the elections. I wanted the dozens of parties forming the coalition to start uniting all these people. Unfortunately, the parties failed to do this and people are now displeased. I am still the leader of this union of parties, but it is progressing very slowly. It's not that easy. After the elections, or even before, this movement will break up into parties. There are social democrats, Christians, liberals. But now we all need to be together.
RFE/RL: Should the Belarusian opposition seek support from Moscow to oust Lukashenka?
Milinkevich: Freedom is above all our own affair. But our movement needs support in Brussels, in Moscow, and in Washington. I don't think Moscow will decide everything, but I am always seeking contact with decision-makers there. This is necessary, because our leader has been saying for years that [the opposition] are Russophobic, that we are anti-Russian, and this is not true. Of course I'm pro-Belarusian, but I would like to have the best of relations with Russia.
CENTRAL ASIA'FATHERS ARE CRYING THERE, CHILDREN ARE CRYING HERE.' October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Turkmenistan has for years practiced a domestic policy that can only be described as "Turkmenization."
Most non-ethnic Turkmen officials have been purged, and authorities have gone further in insisting, unofficially, that residents speak Turkmen and dress in what is regarded as a Turkmen fashion.
Even schoolchildren are subject to the unwritten policies, which have led to the emigration of ethnic Russians, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks.
The latest manifestation is the arrival in neighboring Uzbekistan of young women who married Turkmen citizens but were rejected registration and tossed out of the country, along with their children.
Ziyoda Ruzimova lived in Turkmenistan for more than a decade. All four of her children were born there, and her husband is still there.
But that was not enough to prevent her from being dumped on the Turkmen-Uzbek border earlier this year -- seemingly because she is an ethnic Uzbek. Other Uzbek women have suffered similar fates, according to people who inhabit the area.
Turkmen authorities rounded up Ruzimova and her children in February.
"They brought us to the Shovat border post and handed us over to the Uzbek border guards," Ruzimova recounts. "We had no money. The Uzbek militia helped us; they said, 'Don't cry, you are home. Be happy.' I asked how I could feed my four children, and the militia said, 'Don't cry, here's 1,000 soms' [roughly $0.85 at the official rate]. Then they called a taxi to take us [to my grandmother's home]."
Judging from Ruzimova's description, their arrival in Uzbekistan was in some ways an improvement over the limbo they endured in a Turkmen detention area.
"They kept us on a grate. I slept on the ground, on the cement," she says. "For the children, they provided a piece of fabric; the children got a mattress, but I slept on the cement."
Ruzimova was born in an area along the Turkmen-Uzbek border and married a Turkmen citizen in 1994. At that time, it was fairly easy to travel between the two countries, both former Soviet republics. Many people had family on either side of the border, and conversations are often a mixture of the Uzbek and Turkmen languages.
But crossing the border became more difficult after a purported assassination attempt on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002. Despite their efforts to keep up with the bureaucracy, Ruzimova says her marriage and her children's births were never officially registered with the proper Turkmen authorities.
Her children were denied enrollment in school as a result. But then came the deportation of all four children and their mother.
Ruzimova now lives with her grandmother in the Uzbek village of Shavat, and her children are finally attending school.
The grandmother, Aisha Khojaniyazova, laments her granddaughter's decision to marry and live in Turkmenistan: "I am sorry she got married in Turkmenistan. They threw her out with nothing but the dress she was wearing."
A man from the same village, who does not want to give his name, says Ruzimova's plight is not unique, not even to the village of Shavat.
"This is not an isolated incident. Our girls are returning," he says. "They started coming back at the beginning of 2006. We feel sorry for them. The fathers are crying in Turkmenistan, and the children are crying here. We do what we can to help them. We have five families here that are in that situation."
Mahmud Tangriberganov heads the local council in the border village of Gozovot, where other young Uzbek women arrived with their children earlier this year after being expelled from Turkmenistan. Tangriberganov says he finds Turkmenistan's policies toward these Uzbek mothers and their children -- who are half-Turkmen -- unbelievable.
"We are against these policies. We don't agree with Turkmenistan's policies," Tangriberganov says. "These are our relatives; these are Uzbeks. And they say that because you are Uzbek, you must leave. Why didn't [the authorities] register their marriages, the births of their children? They could have asked them to pay fines and that way they could have kept the families together, but they didn't do that."
Blood And Roots
Turkmenistan's officials have for years sought to emphasize the heritage of the Turkmen nation, sometimes going to absurd lengths to do it. State officials must undergo background checks -- going back three generations -- to verify their lineage.
Under Niyazov, history has been revised to give the Turkmen people a more prominent role in world events. Texts that disagree are increasingly hard to find in Turkmenistan, particularly after the closure of most of the country's libraries.
Critics say the policy appears to imply that other peoples are inferior to Turkmen. And there have already been documented cases of Uzbek children at Turkmen schools being ordered to dress in Turkmen garb or be thrown out.
Turkmen officials have remained silent on the issue of such expulsions, and the seemingly low number of cases means Uzbek officials are likely to continue to avoid the problem. But for broken families like Ziyoda Ruzimova's, the issue can hardly be underestimated. (Bruce Pannier; Shukrat Babajanov and Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
IRANTEHRAN LAUNCHES BID TO EXPEL AFGHAN WORKERS. November 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has begun a new plan to expel illegal Afghan workers from the country. Officials have said that the plan will help solve the country's unemployment problem.
Press reports say the first phase of the plan -- identifying illegal workers -- began on October 28. Iran has hosted more than 2 million refugees from Afghanistan for more than three decades.
But since the fall of the Taliban, Iranian officials have repeatedly said that it is time for Afghans to return home. The repatriation plan comes amid increased restrictions aimed at forcing Afghans in Iran to return to their country.
Iranian officials say that along with the 960,000 Afghans who are registered as refugees in Iran, between 1-2 million Afghans are in the country illegally.
Few Legal Afghans
According to Iran, only some 1,000 Afghans living in Iran have a valid work permit. The rest are considered illegal workers.
Under the new initiative, those Afghans workers who are illegally residing in Iran will be deported. Iranian employers will face fines if they don't lay off illegal workers.
Illegal Afghans workers that have a valid residence permit will not be expelled from Iran. They will, however, not be allowed to work. But their employers could apply for six-month work permits for three sectors: brick-making plants, construction, and agriculture.
Mohammad Yussef Etebar is the first consul at the Afghan Embassy in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, which has a large Afghan population. He tells RFE/RL that Iranian officials have begun screening for illegal Afghan workers.
"Through my contacts with [Iranian] officials I know that for now there is no problem for refugees with documents," he said. "But assessments have begun on those who don't have documents in factories, workplaces, or with their employers. We have to wait and see the results."
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is monitoring the situation. Astrid van Genderen, the UNHCR's spokesperson in Geneva, told RFE/RL that her agency wants to ensure that refugees are not among those who are expelled.
"We are, of course, concerned about the people who are refugees and who cannot, at this stage, return to Afghanistan," he said. "Regarding illegal workers who are not refugees, it's very difficult for UNHCR -- it's not our mandate, we cannot control it -- it's a sovereign action [by] a government. But over the past few years when such actions happened, we always monitored if there were no refugees or people who sought asylum and we've not come across such cases."
Iranian officials say Afghan workers are taking job opportunities away from Iranians. They claim the new initiative will revive some 300,000-400,000 jobs that are currently held by Afghans. Iran's official unemployment rate is about 10 percent. But the real rate is thought to be at least 20 percent.
Many Afghans living in Iran resort to hard labor in construction and at factories to support their families. Afghans and some Iranian observers say Afghans tend to be paid less and Iranian workers are not willing to take those jobs with the same wages.
An Afghan woman living in Iran who wanted to remain anonymous told RFE/RL that many of the illegal workers are Afghans who had previously returned to Afghanistan.
Afghans Returning To Iran
"They say that we couldn't stay there; there was no education, our children were becoming illiterate, there was no security, and the houses are expensive," she said. "These are people who lived in Iran for some 20 years -- they didn't have a house there. So they were forced to return to Iran with lots of problems. They're here [illegally]. I don't know what will be the fate of this generation that is wandering here. Who is responsible?"
She says Afghans living in Iran are facing increasing pressure, including educational restrictions for their children. Nevertheless she says few Afghans are willing to return to their home country.
The UN agency says that while more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the number of those returning voluntarily has almost dried up.
UNHCR's van Genderen says there are different reasons why Afghans living in Iran do not want to return home.
The Time Is Not Right For Returning
"They come either from areas where security is not right or they come from areas where the economy has not properly developed and it's very, very difficult to reintegrate into the community and into the labor market," he said. "There are also other Afghans who lived all their life in Iran and have substantially contributed to the economy there; there are Afghans that were even born in Iran."
Etebar, the chief Afghan consul, says neighboring countries should be patient until the time is right for Afghans to return home.
"We are still facing many problems with respect to the economy, reconstruction, and providing them with jobs and a means of making a living," he said. "Our request and our expectation is that countries cooperate as they did in the past and be patient until the time when we can remove all the problems in Afghanistan."
Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi urged the international community on October 11 to live up to its promise of investing in Afghanistan's reconstruction, which he said would enhance the prospects for higher return figures.
The Iranian press has reported that by the end of the Iranian year, on March 20, 2007, some 500,000 Afghans are due to be expelled from the country. (Golnaz Esfandiari)
WRITERS COMPLAIN ABOUT CENSORSHIP GUIDELINES. October 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Writers and publishers in Iran complain that new guidelines on censorship are preventing them from issuing new books.
They say Iran's Culture Ministry is dragging its feet or blocking new titles, and even demanding that previously published books be resubmitted for approval.
The tight grip of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration marks a notable departure from its predecessor.
Fierce critics of authorities' campaign to rein in authors and publishers warn that the moves could destroy Iran's book industry.
Dozens of authors and publishers say they have been waiting months for their new books, novels, or political essays to be published.
Sooner Or Later, Banned
Farkhondeh Hajizadeh, an Iranian writer and an award-winning publisher, tells RFE/RL that the licensing process for new titles has become "a monster."
Over the past year, she claims, many of her books have gone unpublished.
"It would be better for you to ask how many of my books have been given a license these days," Hajizadeh says when asked about the number of books she has seen held up by censors. "In the past, none of our books was granted permission without modifications. It seems the publishing industry is being devastated, or independent publishers cannot exist anymore. We specialize in art and literature -- that's exactly the area that's problematic for [officials], not physics and chemistry. Our books have been either banned, or they have faced censorship after a year, or they remain suspended."
The publication and distribution of books in the Islamic republic have always required permits from the Culture Ministry.
Such permits were granted following scrutiny by officials who might also demand the removal of materials deemed anti-Islamic, immoral, or politically unacceptable.
Restrictions were eased under reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) -- particularly under his first culture minister, Attaollah Mohajerani. Mohajerani was eventually forced out amid heavy criticism from conservatives.
When Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, he appointed a former editor of the hard-line daily "Kayhan" as his minister of culture. Minister Hussein Saffar Harandi -- a former member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps -- has vowed to purge the country's cultural scene of "unhealthy products" and revive the values of Islamic revolution.
Saffar Harandi dismisses the notion that Iran's publishing industry faces a crisis and notes that new titles increased by 10,000 in the Iranian year ending on March 20, 2005.
Ahmadinejad has also said that his government supports books and reading.
But critics say independent authors and writers whose views are not in line with the government's are facing de facto bans.
Author Hajizadeh says that publishers previously could foresee which books were likely to face official obstacles. But she says that is no longer the case.
"There was a time when one could predict that [a certain] book would not get a permit or that they would ask for some parts of it to be removed," Hajizadeh says. "But now, you see that even books by professors, or books related to religion, or books that do not oppose anyone or don't include anything erotic or political -- even very ordinary books -- cannot obtain a permit."
A Tehran-based publisher who asks not to be named tells RFE/RL that those who are now in charge of censoring books lack general knowledge and expertise.
Hajizadeh describes the current situation as hopeless.
"We have always faced censorship, but before one could go and discuss it logically," Hajizadeh says. "The situation is such that one sometimes becomes desperate. For example, they have sent a book by Samad Behrangi to the Culture Ministry, [and] in one of the copies it says that 'two years ago the situation was better than now.' [Officials] have said that [such a passage] should be removed. And there is no way to explain to them that the meaning of 'two years ago' is 'two years ago, 40 years ago,' when Behrangi was still alive."
Censors are reportedly blocking the publication of a book by a giant of Iranian literature, novelist Sadegh Hedayat.
Renowned Iranian novelist Mahmud Dolatabadi said in late October that publishers should respond to the pressure by asking to be excused from publishing. He said writers should withhold their works, rather than seek publication.
Fellow novelist Ali Ashraf Darvishian says that he and many others have decided not to submit their books to the Culture Ministry for review.
"I can name the titles of 4,000 books that are currently awaiting permits," Darvishian says. "Some of the writers and poets publish their books outside Iran or on websites. This has put a lot of pressure on the publishing industry; some [publishers] are facing bankruptcy or have gone bankrupt. Many booksellers have changed jobs."
Journalist Emadeddin Baghi recently complained in an open letter to Culture Minister Saffar Harandi that about six of his books have been banned. Most of them deal with human rights issues, such as the situation inside Iranian prisons or the death penalty.
Baghi tells Radio Farda that he thinks the ban is retaliation for his investigation into dissident killings in the 1990s, or his association with dissident Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri.
"They have prepared a list of writers whose books should not be published -- some because they are laical and [officials] believe their books could lead to the propagation of secularism, some because of their antiestablishment stances," Baghi says. "The truth is that I'm neither known as being laical nor have I taken antiestablishment stances. The main cause of sensitivity could be over the issue of chain killings of intellectuals, which was covered in the press; I wrote the first article about it. Another reason could be my old ties with Ayatollah Montazeri."
The publishing restrictions have coincided with what writers charge is a government crackdown on freedom of speech in Iran.
Iran's writers association said earlier this week that censorship has reached a new peak in Iran. The association warned that that Iran's cultural community will not remain silent.
Darvishian says intellectuals should protest the restrictions: "I think that if the protests become more widespread in the form of a gathering or letters with many signatures, then I think there would be some results. Because a country cannot continue its life without art, without writers and poets and poetry." (Golnaz Esfandiari; Radio Farda correspondents Bahman Bastani and Mossadegh Katouzian contributed to this report.)