28 February 2005, Volume
HOW SERIOUS IS DISCRIMINATION AGAINST GEORGIA'S ETHNIC MINORITIES?
By Liz Fuller
A four-day seminar on interethnic relations took place in Tbilisi recently, marking the launch of a two-year project sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities and intended primarily to improve the situation of the predominantly Armenian population of Georgia's southern region of Djavakheti, Caucasus Press reported on 15 February. A seminar on minority rights organized by the Council of Europe was held almost simultaneously. And on 15 February, Elene Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament Human Rights Committee, announced that that committee will establish a coordinating council on national minorities jointly with the Ministry for Civil Integration.
All these measures are clearly intended to address the perennial problem of perceived and actual discrimination in Georgia against members of other ethnic groups, who according to the findings of the census conducted in 2002 account for 16.5 percent of the country's 4.4 million population. By contrast, in 1989, at the time of the last Soviet census, non-Georgians accounted for almost 30 percent of the population. At that time, the largest minority groups were Armenians (8.1 percent), Russians (6.3 percent), and Azerbaijanis (5.7 percent.) But since the collapse of the USSR, Georgia's Russian minority has dwindled through out-migration to only 1.5 percent of the total, and Azerbaijanis have overtaken Armenians as the second-largest ethnic group (6.5 and 5.7 percent, respectively).
Those shifting proportions can be attributed to the overtly hostile attitude towards non-Georgians, epitomized by the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians!" promulgated by the regime of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the late 1980s; to out-migration following the collapse of the USSR; and to the fact that the Azerbaijanis in Georgia have for decades had a far higher rate of natural increase than the Georgians and Armenians. (Then Communist Party of Georgia First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze proposed in 1980 introducing a differentiated demographic policy, including financial incentives and other privileges aimed at encouraging Georgians to have more children.)
While Gamsakhurdia's short-lived regime signified a nadir in interethnic relations, it was followed by what can be at best described as a policy of benign neglect. Representatives of various ethnic minorities were unanimous in telling RFE/RL's Georgian Service earlier this month that their plight has not improved noticeably in the 14 months since Saakashvili forced Shevardnadze to resign in November 2003. Noyan Tapan on 31 January quoted Georgian analyst Ghia Nodia as saying that discontent among Georgia's national minorities has actually grown since the so-called Rose Revolution, because the incoming leadership promised to improve their plight but then failed to deliver on that promise.
One Armenian woman complained to RFE/RL's Georgian Service that while Georgian politicians pay lip service to the concept of integration of national minorities, it is impossible for non-Georgians to enter government service as applications are "sifted" to exclude them. (That allegation is not, strictly speaking, true: Saakashvili appointed an Ossetian woman last month as his spokesperson.) Mikhail Aidinov, who heads Georgia's Association of Russophone Journalists, pointed out that the Dukhobors -- the Russian sect whose members settled in Georgia in the 18th century -- plan to emigrate en masse within the next few months to Tula Oblast of the Russian Federation. And an Azerbaijani argued that "if we are citizens of this country, then we should be respected" and the government should make an effort to understand and meet their needs and concerns. He said that local and national authorities routinely ignore requests and complaints from members of ethnic minorities, and that politicians only ever focus on them in the run-up to an election.
Those complaints, while valid, do not take into account some very real differences between the situation in Tbilisi, where Armenians, Ossetians, and Kurds are more likely to speak Georgian in addition to their native language, and that in isolated regions of southern and southeastern Georgia where Armenians and Azerbaijanis, respectively, constitute an overwhelming majority. These regions lack Georgian-language schools, the opening of which Saakashvili singled out one year ago as a priority -- but such schools require teaching staff with the relevant linguistic abilities, and it takes time to train them. The OSCE program includes such a program for training language teachers, and also Georgian-language courses for aspiring civil servants.
Nor is education the only sector that requires improvement. RFE/RL's Georgian Service quoted Tevdoradze as enumerating other long-standing areas of neglect, including highways and infrastructure. She also noted the need to inform ethnic minorities more effectively what steps the government is taking to address their grievances. In December 2003 Georgian television launched a 15-minute program in Armenian and Azerbaijani three times a week; presumably this is to be expanded.
The problems the Georgian government faces in winning the hearts and minds of non-Georgians who feel themselves to be second-class citizens are, in short, less cognitive than financial, insofar as all the measures mentioned above will require substantial investment or international development aid. And it is unlikely that European countries will be willing to provide such aid until Georgia ratifies the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The Georgian authorities are reluctant to do so as they consider the convention grants excessive privileges to minorities, Caucasus Press quoted Tevdoradze as explaining on 15 February.WILL MAYORAL ELECTIONS BE RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY'S LAST STAND?
By Robert Coalson
Almost as soon as President Vladimir Putin put forth his long-planned reform to eliminate the direct election of regional executive-branch heads last September, observers have been speculating that directly elected mayors would be the next to come into the Kremlin's sights.
After installing governors loyal to Putin, it would only seem logical to extend the bolstered "vertical of power" by allowing those governors to install city managers that are to their liking, many analysts argued. Some high-profile Moscow politicos such as Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) and Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) have gone on record as supporting such a reform. According to Yabloko, deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov is determined to find a way to effect this innovation, utro.ru reported on 1 February.
Yabloko, which has spearheaded grassroots efforts to defend the direct election of mayors in regions throughout the country, and other liberals argue that, unlike the abolition of directly elected governors, eliminating the election of mayors would require constitutional amendments. "The elimination of the election of mayors means eliminating the entire system of local self-government," said Saratov city legislature spokeswoman Galina Zaikina, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 October 2004. "And while the president could deal with the governors without changing the constitution, that won't work in the case of local self-government. In this case, they'll have to amend the constitution."
Specifically, liberals cite Article 32, Part 2, of the constitution, which reads: "Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to elect and to be elected to bodies of state governance and to organs of local self-government."
While amending the constitution is not an insuperable obstacle for a Kremlin that has secured a daunting majority in the Duma, it is certainly politically undesirable, as Putin, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, and others have all spoken out against changing the constitution. Moreover, it might not even be necessary, given the Kremlin's influence over the courts. The articles in the constitution on local self-government contain capacious statements such as "local self-government shall be exercised by the citizens through referendums, elections, and forms of expression of their will, through elected and other bodies of local self-government" (Article 130, Part 2) and "the structure of bodies of local self-government shall be determined by the population independently" (Article 131, Part 1).
On 29 December, Novyi region reported that Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Petr Sumin, speaking for the oblast administration, had asked Putin to hold a national referendum on eliminating the direct election of mayors. Sumin told Putin it is necessary to complete the process of establishing a strong vertical of power.
Despite the claims of liberals, the tradition of directly elected mayors is weak in post-Soviet Russia. Some activists argued that Putin's reform regarding the governors was unconstitutional because it affected the executive-branch heads of the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but these arguments never got off the ground. Across Russia, cities have adopted various methods of choosing mayors, including many that do not involve direct elections, and these have not been challenged in the courts. In 2000, the city of Chita eliminated mayoral elections and adopted a system under which the city legislature hired a manager on a competitive basis. The city restored direct elections in 2004, and held an election in January 2005 in which incumbent Mayor and local Unified Russia branch leader Anatolii Mikhalev won with nearly 82 percent of the vote.
Saratov has adopted a system under which city-council legislators elect the city's mayor from among their own number, with the mayor remaining a municipal deputy while also heading the executive branch. Oblast authorities are currently waging an all-out campaign to oust Mayor Yurii Aksenenko, who has been repeatedly accused of corruption. According to local prosecutor Anatolii Bondar, it has been impossible to prosecute Aksenenko because the city's charter is written in such a way that all executive-branch actions are considered to have been enacted collegially and no one individual bears responsibility for anything, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 6 October 2004.
As a result of this conflict, Saratov Oblast legislator Aleksei Poleshchikov initiated a referendum campaign in the city to ask residents if they would like a directly elected mayor. Despite the strict new laws on conducting referendums, Poleshchikov as able to collect more than the necessary 40,000 signatures (1/10th of the city's population) and the referendum will be held on 27 March. Poleshchikov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 February that if the referendum fails, he will run for a seat on the city council and seek the mayor's office from there under the old system.
A local court in Miass on 23 February rejected a case filed by Yabloko activists claiming that a system similar to the one used in Saratov was unconstitutional and seeking the restoration of direct mayoral elections, uralnep.ru reported. Yabloko argued in court that the elimination of elections in December was motivated by a desire "to promote the interests of a small circle of bureaucrats who feared losing the election in March." Yabloko issued a statement saying they would appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
The Omsk 'Trial Balloon'
The story of mayoral elections is also taking an interesting twist in Omsk. That city has registered 27 candidates for its 27 March mayoral election, including 22 workers from the local Popov Radio Factory who all registered together on 15 February, the last day of registration, "Novaya gazeta," No. 17, reported. All 22 workers paid the 150,000-ruble ($5,000) deposit rather than submitting signatures. A statement released by the 22 factory workers on 15 February applauded the efforts nationally and locally to strengthen executive-branch authority and argued that the ongoing demonstrations nationally prove the need for further steps in that direction. "We consider that a vote for any one of us is an indication that the citizens of Omsk support a referendum on appointing the mayor of Omsk," the statement said.
"Novaya gazeta" called the move "a Kremlin trial balloon," citing an unnamed source close to Omsk Governor Leonid Polezhaev as saying that Polezhaev recently received a phone call from Moscow ordering him to support the efforts of Popov Radio Factory General Director Ivan Polyakov. Polyakov, who is just 25 years old, apparently was transferred to Omsk from St. Petersburg just a few months ago and is considered to be connected to the Kremlin's so-called St. Petersburg clan. Last October, just weeks after Putin proposed appointing governors, Polezhaev pushed through his oblast legislature a declaration urging the president to end the direct election of mayors as well, "Vremya novostei" reported on 13 October 2004. According to the daily, he said that in 13 years as governor he had not been satisfied with the work of single mayor in the oblast.
The most serious trial balloon came in December. Utro.ru on 1 February quoted local Yabloko activists in Kaluga Oblast as saying that in late December deputy presidential-administration head Surkov visited the oblast to talk to newly elected Unified Russia Governor Anatolii Artamonov and to order him "to use the region as a sort of testing ground for the switch to appointed mayors." Artamonov is a Kremlin favorite since November 2004, when he was able to install his hand-chosen candidate as mayor of Kaluga and was able to secure 40 percent of the vote for Unified Russia in the oblast's legislative elections. According to politcom.ru on 19 March 2004, Artamonov won election in the oblast by running in close coordination with Putin's reelection campaign and that both campaigns in the oblast were headed by oblast Federal Security Service (FSB) head Valerii Loginov.
According to polit.ru on 22 December, Artamonov personally traveled to Obninsk, the oblast's second city, on 17 December and oversaw a session of the Obninsk city council during which deputies voted to eliminate the direct election of the city's mayor. The move has run into unusually stiff opposition so far, although the battle is far from over. Obninsk Mayor Igor Mironov promptly resigned over the move and a group of oblast and city legislators filed a court case against the new law. Again, Yabloko headed the resistance, arguing that the move violated the constitution and Russia's obligations as a member of the Council of Europe. On 8 February, an Obninsk court agreed with Yabloko and struck down the law eliminating the direct election of mayors. Artamonov's office commented only that the administration would decide what to do further after reviewing the court's decision.
The struggle over mayoral elections is likely to continue for some time in various forms at the local level, at least until a decision is made on a national strategy on the question. However, the conflicting court decisions and actions such as the mass registration of candidates in Omsk can only discredit the election process and prepare public opinion for changes, analysts believe. But liberals see the matter as something of a last stand for democratic mechanisms in Russia. As Omsk-based political scientist Vadim Dryagin told "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 February: The direct appointment of mayors will not happen "as long as Russia is considered a democratic state. As soon as we eliminate local self-government, we push ourselves from all European organizations, since Russia, according to UNESCO standards, will be considered an authoritarian country."KYRGYZ WOMEN SAY THEIR OPPORTUNITIES ARE SHRINKING AHEAD OF POLLS
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Observers say women in Kyrgyzstan have traditionally enjoyed more freedom than those in neighboring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Post-Soviet independence brought them even more rights and opportunities. Although ordinary Kyrgyz are still reluctant to see a woman rise to prominence in either politics or business, Kyrgyzstan is the first post-independence Central Asian state to have appointed a woman as a foreign minister and ambassador. But recent amendments to the country's electoral law means women may have little chance of being elected in this month's parliamentary ballot.
Some voters in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh think a female lawmaker is better than a male one. They are supporters of Achakhon Turgunbaeva, who was recently dealt a political setback when she was barred from running in the 27 February parliamentary elections.
The decision came after Alisher Sabirov, a male rival running in the same Osh district, accused Turgunbaeva of violating electoral law on media campaigns. On 10 February, the Osh city court supported Sabirov's claim and suspended Turgunbaeva's candidacy.
Speaking from Osh, Turgunbaeva told RFE/RL that for her, Sabirov's move was a triumph of sorts. His accusation meant he considered her a serious contender and a threat to his own ambitions.
"I believe Alisher Sabirov did not even think that women can be so strong and fight for their rights," she said. "But I think right now he perceives me as a powerful rival, not a woman."
Some 500 protesters blocked Osh's main thoroughfare following the decision to bar Turgunbaeva's candidacy. A second demonstration was held when the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld the ruling on 14 February.
One female demonstrator told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that female deputies are better because they are more attentive to the needs of their electorate.
"We have gathered here because we want to have Achakhon Turgunbaeva as a candidate in our constituency. The reason is that a woman can listen to the complaints of other women," she said. "We learned about her platform and think that she will be willing to listen to us. Those men [previous deputies] never did so. Now we are standing here with the hope that a woman could hear us and listen to us."
Turgunbaeva is not the only woman who has been barred from the Kyrgyz elections. Roza Otunbaeva, the co-chairwoman of the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition party, was denied the right to register as a candidate.
Opposition and rights activists criticized election officials, saying the decision was politically motivated. Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of the country's president, Askar Akaev, is running in the same district -- and may have stood little chance against Otunbaeva, an experienced and powerful politician who has held ambassadorial posts and served as foreign minister.
Zamira Sydykova is the editor in chief of the independent "Res Publica" newspaper and a member of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan opposition bloc. She told RFE/RL the Otunbaeva and Turgunbaeva cases prove the issue is not only about gender discrimination.
"I know the constituency [where Turgunbaeva was nominated], I know all the candidates. I believe what happened was simply rivalry," she said. "It did not matter if a candidate was a woman or not, Russian or not. It was not a gender issue."
But not everyone agrees. Ogiloy Mirbabaeva, an independent Kyrgyz journalist, told RFE/RL she believes the ruling against Turgunbaeva showed clear signs of gender bias and was tantamount to a threat against all women candidates. "This is a big mistake on the part of the judges," she said. "What upsets me most is that a woman is suffering from this situation."
Observers say it has become more difficult for women to win parliamentary seats since the Kyrgyz Electoral Code was changed two years ago. The new legislation eliminated the use of party lists and proportional systems in selecting parliamentary deputies. Now, candidates are elected only from single-mandate districts. With women making up less than 10 percent of the 421 candidates registered for this month's vote, Turgunbaeva said at best only a handful of women will end up in parliament.
"It's very difficult for women -- especially Uzbek women, [as an ethnic minority] -- to be elected to parliament," she said. "There must be either a quota for women or a proportional system of elections. But nowadays, under current legislation, it is very difficult for women. We predict that very few women will be elected."
Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country to have introduced a gender quota, ahead of parliamentary elections there last December. Observers praised the move as a sign of democratic reform, but noted it was unlikely to mean any real change as long as the Uzbek legislature remains subservient to the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov.
Kyrgyzstan has seen initiatives to introduce a quota system for women, but a law has yet to be adopted.
The amended electoral law is one obstacle for women. Another one, according to Sydykova, are the lingering stereotypes about the role of women in society.
"Despite all the initiative that women have shown, when it comes to elections, our voters, our people, prefer men," she said. "They think only men should hold positions of authority. Women can be involved in election preparations, in various election activities, but when it comes to who should be a parliamentarian or a government official like a minister or, of course, the president, people have the absolute opposite attitude."
Bermet Akaeva is not the only female presidential relative with political ambitions. The president's sister-in-law is also running for parliament. And the country's first lady, Mayram Akaeva, is considered one of Kyrgyzstan's most influential politicians and a potential successor to her husband.
Sydykova said Akaev will try to anoint a successor from within his own clan, but that his wife is an unlikely choice. Bermet Akaeva's parliamentary run has already raised considerable resentment among the Kyrgyz public, she said. Seeing Mayram Akaeva rise to the presidency would likely spark even deeper anger.
RESEARCH GROUP CALLS FOR GETTING DDR BACK ON TRACK.
In a report published on 23 February, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recommends that the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program needs to be revamped in order to give Kabul the ability to extend its authority throughout Afghanistan and establish the rule of law (http://www.crisisgroup.org). The report, titled "Afghanistan: Getting Disarmament Back on Track," says that while the DDR process has managed to decommission or reduce most of the "officially recognized militia units" in the country and has collected the bulk of their heavy weapons, it has failed to "make significant inroads in disarming the powerful Tajik-dominated units in" Kabul and Panjsher provinces. The report also warns that the DDR process has failed to "tackle the threat posed by unofficial militias" which are maintained by most "contending regional and local forces, including registered political parties." ICG estimates that 850 militias with "an excess of 65,000 members" remain outside the scope of the current DDR process. The often-lethargic DDR process has been cited as one reason for not holding Afghanistan's parliamentary elections alongside presidential polls in October 2004. (RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)SELLERS OF 'IMMORAL' DVDS ARRESTED.
Kabul police on 14 February arrested five people for reproducing DVDs containing scenes exhibiting naked or semi-naked people, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 15 February. Abdul Latif Ahmadi, head of Afghan Films, said the DVDs contained "immoral films" that are counter to Afghan culture. In addition to the five suspects, police also confiscated recording devices and DVD players. The son of one of the arrestees claimed that the police searched his father's shop and found nothing incriminating, but they nevertheless arrested his father, whom he said was innocent. Kabul police recently launched a crackdown on immoral behavior or practices (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 February 2005). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February)
PROTEST AT JAIL SUPPRESSED.
Some 100 of the total 842 inmates at high-security prison No. 11 near Baku escaped from their cells and congregated on the roof of the three-story building on 15 February to demand the resignation of prison governor Oktai Gasymov, whom they accused of brutality, Turan and Western news agencies reported. Having initially ruled out the use of force against the protesters, the Azerbaijani authorities deployed some 100 Interior Ministry troops and riot police to the prison. Journalists reported gunfire and explosions during the early morning hours of 16 February, after which fire hoses were trained on the protesters, who finally capitulated several hours later. Turan reported that an unspecified number of prisoners and Interior Ministry troops were injured, and that pools of blood were visible in front of the prison building. The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case in connection with the protest, which triggered similar demands at prisons No. 12 and No. 13. The standoff in those jails ended without confrontation or armed intervention, Turan reported on 16 February. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February)
STUDENTS IN SOUTH PROTEST RECTOR'S DISMISSAL, ARREST.
Several students and faculty members were arrested on 18 February in Akhaltsikhe after staging a protest against the dismissal two days earlier and arrest on charges of embezzlement of Merab Beridze, rector of the local branch of Tbilisi State University, Caucasus Press reported. A police spokesman denied on 18 February that the detainees were beaten; they were later released. A local court sentenced Beridze on 18 February to three months' pretrial detention, and students staged further protests on 19 and 21 February, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 21 February, the Georgian Association of Young Lawyers told journalists that Beridze was arrested on political grounds and there is no evidence to corroborate the charges of embezzlement he faces. Georgian Ombudsman Sozar Subeliani argued on 21 February that if Beridze is held criminally responsible, then the former rector of Tbilisi State University Roin Metrevili should share that responsibility, Caucasus Press reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February)
IRANIAN CHRISTIAN SENT TO PRISON.
Hamid Purmand, a pastor in the Assemblies of God and a former officer in the Iranian army, has received a three year jail sentence, bosnewslife.com reported on 17 February. Purmand was tried by a military court and found guilty of "deceiving the armed forces" because he did not declare that he is a convert to Christianity. Not only are Muslims considered apostates if they leave the faith, but Purmand also faced allegations of espionage. Purmand reportedly presented documents that showed his military superiors knew of his Christian beliefs, but the court rejected these documents as forgeries. Not only will Purmand be jailed, he will be discharged from the military and lose his pension and housing for his family, bosnewslie.com reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)TEHRAN DOWN ON LOVE.
Valentine's Day coincided this year with the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the most important events on the Shi'a Muslim calendar. Nevertheless, stores in Iran were selling items connected to the romantic holiday, Radio Farda reported on 14 February. An unnamed shopkeeper told Radio Farda that the Public Establishments Office (Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi), which is affiliated with the police, banned the sale of heart-shaped goods. A young man in Tehran, who was shopping with his girlfriend, told Radio Farda it has become traditional to exchange romantic gifts on this day, although Valentine's Day is not part of the country's culture and traditions. Tehran-based journalist Ebrahim Suleimani said the event took hold in Iran six years ago. At one point, Ebrahimi said, an Iranian cleric proposed organizing an Islamic Valentine's Day that would commemorate the anniversary of the marriage of the first Shi'a imam with the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing came of the idea. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February)
HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP CALLS FOR PROTECTION OF WOMEN.
Amnesty International said in a report issued on 22 February that the Iraqi government must take steps to protect women and change discriminatory legislation that encourages violence against them, according to the group's website (http://www.amnesty.org). The human rights organization said that the unstable security situation in Iraq has driven many women away from public life; the report also documents the targeting of female political leaders and rights activists. It further contends that gender discrimination in Iraqi law contributes to continuing violence against women. "Iraqi authorities must introduce concrete measures to protect women," Abdel Salam Sidahmed, the organization's director of the Middle East and North Africa Program said in a press release. "They must send a clear message that violence against women will not be tolerated by investigating all allegations of abuse against women and by bringing those responsible to justice, no matter what their affiliation." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February)EU AGREES TO TRAIN JUDGES, POLICE, AND PRISON OFFICIALS.
The European Union Council announced in a 21 February statement posted to its website (http://ue.eu.int) that it will undertake an integrated training program in Iraq in the fields of management and criminal investigation for Iraqi judges, police, and penitentiary officials. The training will reportedly take place either in the EU or in the region, but not necessarily inside Iraq. The statement said, however, that security conditions permitting, the council would consider opening a liaison office in Baghdad. On the first day of the U.S.-EU summit in Brussels on 21 February, U.S. President George W. Bush urged EU member states to provide "tangible political, economic and security assistance" to Iraq. AFP reported on the same day. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February)
PROTESTS CONTINUE AS SUPREME COURT AFFIRMS CANDIDATE EXCLUSIONS.
Supporters of Beishenbek Bolotbekov and Akylbek Japarov took over the regional administration in the city of Kochkor after the Supreme Court let stand on 24 February an earlier decision rescinding the two men's candidacies, akipress.org reported. The two had been pulled from the 27 February parliamentary elections for vote buying on 21 February, sparking large-scale demonstrations in Kochkor district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). Popular dissatisfaction over late-breaking decisions to remove a number of candidates from parliamentary races has led to large demonstrations in other areas as well, including Talas and Issyk-Kul. In the Tong district of Issyk-Kul Oblast, 2,000 supporters of Arslan Maliev demonstrated on 24 February, demanding the reinstatement of his candidacy and the resignation of Tong district head Nurbek Aliev, akipress.org reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)PRIME MINISTER ADDRESSES PROTESTS.
Against a backdrop of large demonstrations in the lead-up to 27 February parliamentary elections, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told journalists on 24 February that the protests could harm the investment climate in the country, Kabar news agency reported. "I would like to appeal to the candidates to be patriots," Tanaev said. "Compete honestly, and don't blame everything on the authorities. The flow of investments into the country depends directly on this." Tanaev suggested that the standoff over the removal of candidates Bolotbekov and Japarov was a dispute among vying candidates and said they should not blame the authorities for their troubles. Tanaev also charged that demonstrators impeded a group of Chinese businessmen in Naryn Oblast. Also on 24 February, the Interior Ministry placed police throughout the country on heightened alert to maintain order in the run-up to elections, akipress.org reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)MEDIA PRESSURE CONTINUES.
An independent printing house in Bishkek resumed operations on 24 February with the help of a generator after a two-day power outage, akipress.org reported. The printing house, which is supported by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, had lost power on 22 February, and earlier reports had indicated that power was restored on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2005). The printing house prints a number of opposition newspapers. Also on 24 February, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service was taken off the air by the state-run broadcasting authority on the grounds that it would hold a tender for the frequencies. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH VOICES CONCERN FOR DEMOCRACY.
In an open letter on 14 February to Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev from Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Europe and Central Asia division, the rights organization expressed concern over government actions in the lead-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan. Noting that Kyrgyz officials have warned repeatedly of the danger of a "Ukraine scenario" in Kyrgyzstan, the letter drew attention to harassment of opposition political figures and limitations on freedom of assembly. The letter stated: "The question is whether the Kyrgyz government will meet public demands for responsive government and fair elections, or resort to violating fundamental rights to avoid a repeat of Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution.'" The letter, which is posted on the HRW website (http: //www.hrw.org), closed with recommendations "to improve the protection of basic rights in Kyrgyzstan." They include legislative changes to ensure basic freedoms, the removal of in-residency restrictions that effectively prevent former diplomats from running for office, and an end to the harassment of the political opposition. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February)
CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO SUPERVISE APPLIANCE OF HUMAN RIGHTS.
The Moldovan government approved a legislative initiative on 16 February aimed at making the Constitutional Court the primary mechanism to supervise the observance of human rights in the country, Infotag reported. According to Justice Minister Victoria Iftodi, the Constitutional Court will hear appeals by citizens against decisions of the lower courts that would otherwise have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Iftodi added the initiative follows a recommendation by the Council of Europe that countries should establish intermediary institutions between national courts and the ECHR. Iftodi said Moldovan citizens have filed some 1,500 complaints with the ECHR, only 88 of which have been admitted by the court. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February)
JUSTICE MINISTER ACCUSED OF INTERFERING WITH PROSECUTORS.
Romanian Prosecutor-General Ilie Botos has reportedly filed a complaint with President Traian Basescu's office, accusing Justice Minister Monica Macovei of interfering in the work of the Prosecutor's Office, "Ziua" and the BBC's Romanian Service reported on 24 February. Macovei denied the charges. Macovei had ordered a legal investigation against two prosecutors involved in a probe into the son of Ion Tiriac, who is a wealthy and influential businessman. Macovei's move was triggered by reports that evidence had been removed from the files following political pressure from the previous government. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)
EUROPEAN COURT RULES AGAINST RUSSIA IN CHECHNYA CASES.
Russia's representative to the European Court of Human Rights Pavel Laptev said on 25 February that the government is likely to appeal a 24 February court decision awarding compensation in three separate cases to six residents of Chechnya whose relatives died at the hands of Russian troops or who suffered as a result of Russian military action in 1999 and 2000, polit.ru reported. The court ruled that the Russian government had violated the human rights of the plaintiffs and that Russian forces in Chechnya had killed innocent Chechen civilians without being prosecuted, "Vremya novostei" reported on 25 February. The court ordered Russia to pay a total of 135,000 euros ($178,000) to the six plaintiffs, who said their relatives had been killed by federal troops. "The main thing for us is that the European court has acknowledged that the Russian government actually has violated human rights in Chechnya," Oleg Orlov, a lawyer for the Memorial human rights organization who helped the plaintiffs file the case, told the daily. He said there are currently about 150 analogous appeals pending at the court. The court the same day awarded 3,000 euros each to the families of two Russian servicemen killed in Chechnya and one serviceman who was wounded there, ruling that the Russian government had failed to pay them the benefits for which they are eligible, "Vremya novostei" reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February)VETERANS AND MILITARY PROTESTS CONTINUE.
Opposition, human rights, and veterans' organizations held demonstrations on 23 February in several Russian cities against the deteriorating social status of servicemen, social-benefits reforms, the decay of the armed forces, and the war in Chechnya, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. According to the Interior Ministry, about 40,000 people took part in demonstrations in Moscow. A military veteran told RFE/RL in Moscow that as a veteran he "feels absurd celebrating the 60th anniversary of victory [in World War II] this year, as we are living in conditions of defeat." Speaking at a demonstration in Krasnodar, Duma Deputy Oleg Mashchenko (Motherland) said that the present social unrest "is a sign of forthcoming public wrath that will lead to massive civil disobedience." And Duma Deputy and retired Colonel Viktor Alksnis (Motherland) told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "Never, even in the hardest years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, was there such frustration within the military ranks as now." Officers are resigning from the service in the thousands and blaming their situation on the authorities, starting with President Putin, Alksnis added. Meanwhile, independent military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer told RFE/RL that it would be naive to think that unhappiness within the military will lead to an "armed rebellion." However, if there is the same sort of civil disobedience as there was recently in Ukraine, the Russian military, like the Ukrainian, will not move to defend the authorities, he added. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February)MILITARY OFFICERS JOIN SOCIAL PROTESTS.
An estimated 1,000 officers from the Russian armed forces participated in a sanctioned demonstration near the Civil Service Academy in Moscow on 19 February to protest the situation in the army, the deteriorating social status for servicemen, and the recent monetization of social benefits, Ekho Moskvy and NTV reported. The demonstration was reportedly organized by veterans' and Cossack organizations, which initially wanted to convene in an officers' facility but were forced to gather on the street after the facility's owners backed out of the contract, NTV reported. Former Defense Minister and retired Army General Igor Rodionov told the group that officers from 54 regions were present at the demonstration. The Defense Ministry commented officially by saying that the officers were exercising their "constitutional rights," Ekho Moskvy reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February)RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN CRITICIZES GOVERNMENT ON SUPPLY OF MEDICINES.
Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on 18 February warned Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov that the country faces serious problems with the provision of necessary medicines as a result of the reform to replace in-kind benefits with cash payments, ITAR-TASS reported. Lukin said that his office has studied the situations in Altai Krai and Perm Oblast and found that medicines are being sold at inflated prices -- in some cases nearly three times the ordinary price -- and that both regions face serious supply problems. In Altai, stores currently stock only 80 percent of the medicines for which benefits-recipients are eligible. Lukin said that the inflated prices are "a violation of the rights of socially unprotected citizens." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February)
MINORITY LEADER SAYS SERBIA 'SINKING' IN NATIONALISM.
Jozef Kasza, who heads the League of Vojvodina Hungarians, told representatives of the OSCE in Novi Sad on 16 February that Serbia is "sinking in nationalist euphoria," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He blamed Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and some unnamed political parties for the resurgence of Serbian nationalism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 September 2004, and "Serbian President Pays Controversial Visit To Kosova," rferl.org, 16 February 2005). Many politicians have sought to play the nationalist card in the run-up to general elections that are widely expected to be held later in 2005. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February)NGOS CALL FOR INFORMATION ON ARMY SCANDAL.
Seven Serbian NGOs issued a statement on 12 February calling on the officials of Serbia and of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro to confirm whether one Branislav Puhalo is still on active duty in the army, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vladimir Popovic (aka Beba), who was a press spokesman in the government of the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently charged that some high government officials knew about Djindjic's killing in advance. Popovic also said Puhalo had personally protected leading war crimes indictee and former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic on Serbian territory. Popovic's statements have received a mixed reception because he is a controversial figure who filed lawsuits against several journalists during his time in the government. On 5 October 2004, two conscripts were killed under mysterious circumstances at Belgrade's large Topcider military facility. Some critics have suggested the soldiers were shot because they had discovered the presence of one or more indicted war criminals on the base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June and 7 July 2004, and 10 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). A new public opinion poll released on 13 February suggests that Serbs' confidence in the army is at an all-time low, with only 38 percent of respondents having a favorable attitude toward the military. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February)
REPORT SAYS PRESIDENT ORDERS CLOSURE OF HOSPITALS, LIBRARIES.
A number of Turkmen opposition sites on 15 February posted a report attributed to PRIMA-News and dated 11 February claiming that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered the closure of libraries and hospitals. The president's remarks came at a meeting with employees of provincial and regional administrations, according to the report. He said that libraries should be closed, with the exception of the Central Library and libraries at educational institutions. He also said that each provincial center should have a diagnostic center, but people should travel to the capital for treatment and all other hospitals should be closed. Moreover, Niyazov said that nature reserves should be opened to the public so that "people can graze their livestock there." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February)
PROTESTERS DECRY ILL EFFECTS OF TAJIK ALUMINUM PLANT.
A group of residents from Uzbekistan's Surkhandarya Province held a demonstration outside the Tajik Embassy in Tashkent on 18 February to protest the ill effects that emissions from the Tajik Aluminum Plant are having on their region, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The protesters stated that the emissions are causing increased rates of illness and birth defects. In a written appeal to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov signed by more than 3,000 Surkhandarya residents, they expressed concern at plans to increase production at the plant, which is located near the Tajik-Uzbek border, and to construct additional production facilities. Tajik Ambassador to Uzbekistan Ghulomjon Mirzaev met with protesters and promised to deliver the appeal to the competent authorities. Mirzaev said that modern equipment will be installed to minimize harmful emissions, adding that the issue should be resolved through bilateral agreements, not demonstrations. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February)