8 April 2005, Volume 6, Number 6
IN FOCUSKYRGYZ YOUTH GROUP SAYS FIGHT NOT OVER
By Jean-Christophe Peuch
In the weeks that preceded the Kyrgyz revolution, many believed the KelKel youth organization would spearhead political changes in the country, just as similar groups had done in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. It isn't clear to what extent KelKel was ultimately responsible for the 24 March upheaval. But KelKel did claim a significant role in helping Kyrgyzstan's new authorities restore order in Bishkek
On 24 March, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Alatoo Square, in front of Bishkek's Historical Museum, to demand the resignation of President Askar Akaev and his government. A few minutes later, clashes erupted between the protesters and alleged government-hired agitators. The incident infuriated the crowd, which started confronting police forces and Interior Ministry troops deployed around the nearby White House.
Thirty minutes later, the White House that had once housed Akaev and his ministers was already under the control of street crowds. Scores of looters immediately began to plunder the building, throwing furniture through windows and bewildering opposition activists gathered below, such as Cholpon Bakieva.
"Everything happened in a flash," she said. "It happened so quickly that at first I didn't feel anything. I was in a state of shock. For approximately half an hour, I lost all sense of reality. Then people started pulling themselves together, started understanding what had happened. Then I felt joy. Radical thoughts came into my mind -- the people's power had come. Then I had more sober thoughts. What will happen now? Who will assume power? What should we do now, after all this?"
Bakieva, who is in her early 20s, is a member of the organizational committee of KelKel (New Epoch), Kyrgyzstan's main youth organization. She joined dozens of other group activists on 24 March on Alatoo Square -- to help control the crowd, but also to participate in the demonstration.
KelKel's national coordinator, Alisher Mamasaliev, was also on the square when the angry crowd assaulted security forces. He told RFE/RL that activists thought opposition leaders were failing to respond quickly to the rising chaos.
"When the looting started, we expected that the opposition leadership would order us to form a cordon and take the whole perimeter under control," Mamasaliev said. "We waited, waited, and started collecting a few things. Then we understood that we didn't have to wait for an order."
Mamasaliev said KelKel members decided to take the perimeter under control themselves, and started telling people to stop plundering the White House. The 30-year-old KelKel coordinator also said his group had to protect soldiers and policemen from the wrath of the crowd.
"As I understood, there were agitators on our side who wanted to fight," Mamasaliev said. "We had to intervene between our guys, the protesters, and those young soldiers. They were all around 18 and had fear in their eyes. They didn't know what to do. Their commanding officer didn't know either. So we suggested they should leave, simply leave."
Following the looting that took place overnight throughout Bishkek, KelKel heeded the appeal launched by Feliks Kulov, the former interior minister who had been released from jail in the hours that followed the taking over of the White House, and undertook to recruit volunteers to help police restore some kind of public order.
Unlike what happened in Georgia in November 2003, when opposition leaders led protesters into the parliament's building and forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to flee, the Bishkek events look more like a spontaneous uprising. Mamasaliev said he had expected the protests to build up slowly in an organized fashion.
"We thought we would follow a Ukrainian scenario and organize pickets during four or five days," he said. "We thought we would organize pickets, strikes, and that eventually the international community would exert pressure on [Akaev] so that he would agree to enter into talks with the opposition."
Yet, as KelKel activist Damira Ulukbaeva remembers, there were a few group activists among those people who took over the government headquarters. She said most of them were from those Kyrgyz cities that had come under opposition control in the days preceding the Bishkek events.
"In all these cities -- Osh, Jalal-Abad, Talas, Kochkor, Aksy -- we had our representatives, and we were already conducting work," she said. "Those representatives of ours took part in the [Bishkek] demonstrations and in the storming of the White House."
Mamasaliev also said that, in the hours that followed the ousting of Akaev's government, it did not occur to the opposition leaders congregated in parliament that the situation might get out of control.
"On the 24th, I spoke before the [new] parliament. I was still in a state of great excitement, and I simply yelled at them. I went there and was appalled," Mamasaliev said. "There was chaos in the streets and these people were sitting quietly, all neatly dressed. They were smiling, congratulating each other, discussing unimportant things. I was incensed, and I yelled at them: 'Do you guys realize that every 30 minutes something big is happening in the city? Come on, take action!'"
KelKel was set up in January with a view to inciting the Kyrgyz youth to be more politically active. During the run-up to 27 February and 13 March legislative polls, the group appealed to youth across the country to vote against a government they accused of corruption and authoritarian practices.
In the longer run, KelKel wanted to make sure that Akaev would not be a candidate in the next presidential polls, originally scheduled for 30 October. Although the Kyrgyz leader was forbidden by law to seek a third term, critics feared he would press a more compliant parliament to amend the constitution so that he would be able to run again.
Unlike Kmara! (Enough), the youth organization that took an active part in Georgia's Rose Revolution, KelKel claims it has no formal links with the Kyrgyz opposition figures now making up the interim leadership.
Moreover, KelKel -- which has 1,000 members and claims to be growing -- warns it will keep the country's new leaders under a watchful eye.
Mamasaliev said KelKel already has questions regarding the composition of the new government and an attempt by the country's new leadership to impose control over national television. He said his group has a responsibility to "defend the achievements" of the revolution.
"If the policy conducted by [prime minister and interim president Kurmanbek] Bakiev runs counter to our expectations -- and this is not only my personal opinion, I think this is also the opinion of all the members of our organization -- we will remain an alternative for civil society," he said. "We would like to exert control on the government and, if we are unhappy [with political developments], we will again stage rallies."
Despite their queries, KelKel leaders say they are optimistic for Kyrgyzstan's future. Asked whether he believes his and other civic groups will be able to influence political developments in the country, Mamasaliev said: "Of course, we will. What do you think the people rose up for?"
UZBEK OPPOSITION LEADER TELLS RFE/RL ABOUT 'FARMERS' REVOLUTION'
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Nigora Hidoyatova is one of the harshest critics in Uzbekistan of President Islam Karimov. Hidoyatova is the leader of the Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) opposition party. The party was formed in late 2003, but has failed to receive official registration and thus could not participate in December's parliamentary polls. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Hidoyatova spoke about her personal security, her party's new political program, and the importance of the youth movement in Uzbekistan.
Nigora Hidoyatova said the question she is asked most often by ordinary citizens is whether she is afraid to confront Uzbek officials. She said she's not afraid and that she does receive a lot of support. But she noted it is important for people in her position in Uzbekistan to be careful. A number of opposition figures, human rights activists, and independent journalists in Uzbekistan have been beaten or jailed in recent years.
Hidoyatova asked to meet with RFE/RL in a public place in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, not in the radio's bureau there, nor in her own office. She said she is followed by Uzbek security officers everywhere she goes.
Most Uzbeks first heard of Hidoyatova and her Ozod Dehqonlar political party last year, as the country was preparing to hold parliamentary elections in December. Ozod Dehqonlar first declared its opposition to the government of President Karimov at its first party congress in December 2003. It joined Uzbekistan's two more established opposition parties -- Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom).
All three parties attempted, unsuccessfully, to register with the Uzbek Justice Ministry ahead of the December parliamentary polls. None of the parties was allowed to participate. All five parties that did compete for seats had publicly expressed support for Karimov.
All have continued their activities after the polls, and Ozod Dehqonlar has been particularly vocal.
In her RFE/RL interview, Hidoyatova said her party is now focused on developing a clear strategy. She said it plans to issue a manifesto by the end of March. She claimed the party has 30,000 supporters and 200 activists at its core.
She said the party's main goal is to privatize land. "Because it is an agricultural country, the first issue to be solved is land privatization," Hidoyatova said. "But privatization isn't possible without liberalization, democratization, and overall openness."
Hidoyatova said the Uzbek government has ignored the country's farmers and peasants, despite the fact that 65 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. She said Uzbek farmers need a party that will defend their rights and lobby for their interests.
Hidoyatova spoke of the importance of collaborating with the country's other opposition groups and parties. But she said her party's manifesto is unlikely to mention similar collaboration with the authorities. Hidoyatova believes the Uzbek government has exhausted all of its political capital. She sees no opportunity to start liberalization under Karimov's rule.
Hidoyatova's opponents, including Karimov, say she's not qualified to lead the country's farmers and peasants. They say she wouldn't know the difference between a ketmon -- an Uzbek spade -- and a plough and has never planted anything herself.
The accusations make Hidoyatova laugh: "No, I have planted. [Laughing.] By the way, I set up a farm called Ozod Dehqon in the Ferghana Valley recently. I am going to work there with a ketmon and a plough. [President] Islam Abduganievich [Karimov] brought us to the state in which we have to distinguish a ketmon from a plough, not a tractor from a combine machine. [In better days,] we were used to differentiating a tractor from a combine. "
In December, Karimov asked, "How can a woman who doesn't speak Uzbek lead a peasants party?" Hidoyatova does not speak fluent Uzbek and preferred to conduct her interview with RFE/RL in Russian.
Hidoyatova believes a "farmers' revolution" in Uzbekistan is just a matter of time. "Change is unavoidable," she said.
Ozod Dehqonlar plans to publish its own newspaper, called "Our Tribune," in a neighboring country. The party is also collaborating with an opposition youth organization called Shiddat, which has been operating underground for some time:
"Shiddat means 'breakthrough,'" Hidoyatova said. "Members of this organization work actively now. It's very hard to work with youth because there should be some ideas to attract [young people]. Youth needs hope about tomorrow. Today, the only goal of our youth is to go abroad. The difference between rural youth and youth in Tashkent is that rural youth want to live in Tashkent, while Tashkent's youth want to live abroad. Young people need an idea that will give them hope for tomorrow and hope that they will be able to be proud of their country, to live here, and be proud of it."
Hidoyatova believes Shiddat could evolve into an organization similar to Kmara or Pora, and play the same kind of role in Uzbekistan as those groups played in the recent "velvet revolutions " in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively.
Ozod Dehqonlar also has established contacts with opposition parties in the Commonwealth of Independent States, particularly in Ukraine.
"The head of a faction of [then Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor] Yushchenko's bloc, Our Ukraine, Lyubov Mayborda, [visited Uzbekistan last May and November] and provided us with technical support," Hidoyatova said. "I'd like to mention that they are very strong, competent in politics, and very assertive. She gave training [on electoral campaigns], and we got more members, because many people were interested in that training. We have very good contacts with her. "
Hidoyatova said her party has as yet had no contacts with the West. Nor, she said, has it received money from abroad.
But the activities of any political party require significant financial support, all the more so if a party plans to bring radical change to a country. Where does Ozod Dehqonlar get its financial support?
A historian by education, Hidoyatova, who is in her 40s, became an entrepreneur in the early days of Uzbek independence. She became successful in the cotton business, one of the country's most profitable spheres. The cotton business requires connections with the authorities, as the state controls the entire industry.
Hidoyatova said she made many friends in the cotton industry, who now support her party financially. She said many involved in state-run enterprises in Uzbekistan are unhappy with what they believe is the government's draconian tax and legal measures. She said they are willing to support an opposition party that calls for political and economic changes.
Hidoyatova would speak about many of her party's plans only off the record. She said she doesn't want to reveal them because of the government's possible interference.
But Hidoyatova is clear about her political ambitions. When asked if she will run for the presidency in 2007, she replied, "Why not?"
MARKET PROTESTS SHOW BELARUSIAN REGIME'S WEAK SPOTS
By Jan Maksymiuk
Since the beginning of March, Belarusian market traders have been protesting about a new tax they must pay on goods imported from Russia. The protests have shown the soft underbelly of Lukashenka's regime and are a harbinger of hope for an ineffectual opposition.
On 1 March, small retail traders went on an open-ended strike, protesting a new taxation rule requiring that they pay an 18 percent value-added tax (VAT) on goods imported from Russia. Beginning 1 January, Belarus switched to the country-of-destination principle in VAT collection in trade with Russia. The protesters, operators of stalls and kiosks at outdoor markets throughout Belarus, want the government to abolish VAT for individual entrepreneurs who pay the so-called single tax (a fixed sum of some $150 per month). According to organizers of the strike, some 80,000 vendors have refused to pay VAT on Russian imports.
Three weeks later, the strike is continuing, although on a considerably lesser scale than during its first days. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka took an unprecedented step on 10 March when he visited a market in Minsk and promised vendors that the government will soon address their concerns regarding the VAT payment on commodities imported from Russia. Lukashenka said the government may negotiate only the VAT payment system, not whether or not the tax should be paid. "The transition to the new principle of VAT collection in trade with Russia should be made as painlessly as possible for sole entrepreneurs," he added.
A week later Lukashenka vowed to issue a decree in the near future to improve conditions for the operation of vendors. The decree will reportedly allow market vendors to continue until 1 July to pay VAT on Russian imports without producing documents confirming the amount of their purchases and prices. Lukashenka instructed the government to work out a new mechanism for VAT payment after 1 July. Lukashenka also suggested that local administrations lower rents for outdoor market stalls and kiosks, effectively compensating vendors for losses brought on by VAT payments.
Will these steps by the government mollify the protesting vendors? This will largely depends on what mechanism for VAT payment the government will propose after 1 July. The essential problem seems to be that Belarus has no customs border with Russia. Belarusian vendors, who buy goods at big outdoor markets in Moscow or other Russian cities -- where as a rule nobody wants to give them any purchase documentation -- practically do not have any reliable records confirming what they ship to Belarus. If the government unveils a very rigorous proposal regarding the purchase documentation for Russian exports, the protest may not die out soon.
The behavior of the authorities toward the protesting vendors has already been surprising. When some 3,000 vendors gathered in front of the government building in Minsk on 10 February with a petition signed by some 30,000 against the VAT payment on Russian imports, police did not intervene, even though it was an unauthorized rally. What's more, the rally was addressed by Deputy Prime Minister Anatol Kabyakou -- a situation that nobody can remember having happened in Belarus in the last five or six years. So far, the authorities have been used to ignore opposition rallies if they were sanctioned or use police forces to deal with unauthorized ones. And by the end of February Lukashenka amazed everybody even more by issuing a decree that lowered VAT for foodstuffs and goods for children to 10 percent.
Carrots aside, Lukashenka has also used the stick. The authorities have twice jailed Anatol Shumchanka, a leader of the striking vendors, for calling for unsanctioned protests. Shumchanka was not released after his second jail term but placed in a pre-trial detention center on hooliganism charges for allegedly beating his cellmate. The new charge -- which Shumchanka claims to be a provocation -- may carry punishment of up to two years in prison. Shumchanka, who repeatedly called on vendors to limit themselves to economic demands and not to make the strike political, may now want to reconsider his stance, as it is widely believed that if his colleagues remain silent on his lot, he may indeed get a prison term significantly longer than the two previous jail terms.
Importantly, the vendors' protest has shown the vulnerability of Lukashenka's regime. First, the protest has shown that the regime is really afraid of large-scale social unrest. As long as the regime has to deal with several dozen oppositionists on the street, it routinely sends riot police to respond. But when a protest involves a wider social group, police methods are deemed inadvisable. Apart from some 100,000 market vendors, the problem of VAT payments on Russian imports affects also hundreds of thousands of customers -- essentially Lukashenka's bread-and-butter supporters -- who are too poor to buy foodstuffs or other basics in shops and purchase them at outdoor markets. Police batons won't do much good in such a situation.
Second, the vendors' protest obviously calls into question Lukashenka's boast that Belarus under his leadership is, politically and economically, the happiest and most stable country in the former Soviet area. Therefore, while making some small concessions to the protesters, the government is also trying to avoid creating the impression that it may bend to the protesters' will. For this reason, Lukashenka will never exempt vendors from paying VAT altogether, even though the economic gain for the state from this tax is quite insignificant. According to estimates by independent experts, the state budget can expect hardly much more than $0.5 million per year in VAT on Russian imports by small retail traders.
The vendors' protest should also serve as a fingerpost for the Belarusian political opposition, which has repeatedly failed to mobilize any significant groups of voters for its agenda in recent years. Belarusians have turned out to be largely deaf and blind to such issues as democratic governance, civil society, media freedom, and human rights in their country. But when it comes to economic issues, Belarusians' patience and forbearance seem to have a limit. The opposition might well take note on how to use such outbreaks of economic discontent to its advantage in the run-up to the 2006 presidential election.
RUSSIAN POLICE CLEAN-UP OPERATIONS EXTEND BEYOND CHECHNYA?
By Julie A. Corwin
Allegations of police brutality against law-abiding citizens during clean-up operations are no longer confined to Chechnya and are being recorded across the Russian Federation. Following reports of a four-day rampage by police in Blagoveshchensk, Bashkortostan, in December, three more Russian cities have reported similar incidents involving police round-ups of large numbers of citizens, many of whom were allegedly beaten -- and even tortured -- while in police custody.
On 17 March, REN-TV reported that several young people wound up in a hospital following an Interior Ministry special forces' "preventive" action at a disco in the village of Rozhdesteveno in Tver Oblast on 5 February. A witness said that a group of police officers wearing masks entered the club and started beating people "indiscriminately." Some local residents believe the action was carried out in response to an earlier attempt by some young men to free an acquaintance who had been taken into custody for "hooliganism. Earlier this month, a street in downtown Krasnoyarsk was the setting for a massive round-up of teenagers, whose main offense appears to have been being suspected of planning "some kind of action." So far the only account of the incident in the Krasnoyarsk appeared in the 13 March edition of the newspaper "Gazeta."
More information has surfaced about police actions in Bezhetsk, a small industrial city also located in Tver Oblast. That city has reportedly experienced more than one incident involving abuse of dozens of citizens in the last six months. The Bezhetsk incidents came to light only on 14 March during an Ekho Moskvy interview with Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anticorruption Committee. According to Kabanov, about two busloads of police officers from the Federal Antinarcotics Service stormed cafes and other public places late on the night of 3 March. They allegedly forced male patrons to undress in front of women. Several customers were allegedly beaten with rifle butts.
After Ekho Moskvy broke the story, Marat Khairullin, a journalist with "Novaya gazeta" and a member of the Public Council for the Investigation of Blagoveshchensk Police Raids, gave interviews to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, gazeta.ru, REN-TV, and the Regnum news agency providing more details of the "zachistki." Khairullin said that police stormed a local cafe called Charodeika and everyone there, including women, was forced to lie on the floor. Those who objected were beaten. He told REN-TV on 15 March that a police officer struck an elderly woman who cleans tables at the establishment with such force that she was thrown to the opposite end of the cafe. The men were forced to take off all of their clothing as the police looked for drugs. Those who were taken into custody told Khairullin that the men were laid out on the floor of a police office handcuffed behind their backs for several hours. The officers reportedly demanded that they admit they were selling drugs. When those in custody were finally released, they allege that their cars and apartments appeared to have been searched and several valuable items were taken. Khairullin told RFE/RL that some 12-15 people were detained, while around 50 people were allegedly assaulted.
In an interview with strana.ru on 16 March, Maksim Sidorenko, deputy director of a local market in Bezhetsk, gave a detailed account of a similar police raid that took place on 24 November 2004. He said the incident started with a small conflict with some men who came to their market trying to sell furniture. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Charodeika cafe is located inside this market, according to Regnum on 16 March. The men had tried to sell their furniture at the market on previous occasions but had left after Sidorenko explained to them the market is for clothing only and is legally prohibited from selling furniture.
This time, however, they refused to leave, and Sidorenko called the police. But instead of carting away the furniture sellers, the police allegedly rounded up market workers, including Sidorenko, along with some people who happened to be in the market at the time and forced them to lie down outside in the snow for up to 90 minutes. According to Sidorenko, police removed his clothing, hit him in the head with a rifle butt, and kicked him. At the station house, they beat him so hard that one of his ribs fractured into three pieces and pierced his lung. One officer stuck a sharp pencil in his nose and pressed his fingers into Sidorenko's eye. "They kicked and beat me with their automatic rifles, demanding that I confess that I had created a crime group with the goal of monopolizing the furniture trade in the city," Sidorenko alleges. According to strana.ru, there are five furniture stores in Bezhetsk, and Maksim is neither a director, founder, nor partial owner of any of them, nor are any of his relatives. As a result of his encounter with the police, Maksim, 33, has been registered as disabled and speaks with a stutter.
So far, the mayor of Bezhetsk denies that any incident has taken place in his city, Marat Khairullin told REN-TV. Eduard Arsenev, head of the Bezhetsk department of the Federal Antinarcotics Service's Tver directorate, told gazeta.ru in an interview published on 15 March that the service did conduct an operation in Bezhetsk that was completed on 8 March. He said that the Federal Antinarcotics Service received a tip that a group of residents there were selling drugs. Several people were detained, and criminal cases have been opened. He said during the course of the raid, the alleged drug dealers offered some resistance, which was met with force. However, no one touched "ordinary citizens," forced them to undress, or hit them with rifle butts. He added that no weapons were used and no shots were fired.
In an interview with strana.ru on 16 March, a Federal Antinarcotics Service officer in Tver who wished to remain anonymous was more forthcoming than Arsenev. "If people defy us, what do you want us to do?" the officer asked. "You see on television how the Federal Security Service [FSB] works when they conduct a raid. They also do not stand on ceremony if they meet resistance. We acted in Bezhetsk within the framework of the law. Indeed, those people we picked up have already given us depositions. They even cried, asked us to let them go because they understood that the evidence [against them] was overwhelming. Drugs and weapons were seized. How do you think that the court would have given us approvals for searches, detentions, and arrests if we did something illegally? Who would take such responsibility? This whole uproar is because someone is [trying to] take care of their fate. This is [their] best defense -- we were attacked."
Meanwhile, representatives of various human rights organizations in Moscow left on 15 March to investigate the incidents in Tver, according to gazeta.ru. On 21 March, State Duma deputies opened a reception area for citizens of Bezhetsk. Kirill Kabanov told strana.ru: "We possess the facts of the physical coercion and not simply with regard to those persons for whom a criminal case has been launched, but also concerning those persons who happened to located next to these people -- chance visitors to the cafe."
How local or national-level prosecutors choose to handle this evidence is anybody's guess. Recently, two more police officers were charged with abuse of authority, but human rights workers in the Bashkortostan report that witnesses are being threatened with compromising materials and the possibility of being charged with crimes themselves.
Already, the Blagoveshchensk events have had an impact on public perception of the police in Russia. The Public Opinion Foundation conducted a survey before news of the incidents in Bezhetsk were reported and found that 41 percent of respondents are afraid of becoming victims of police violence, the foundation's website (http://www.fom.ru) reported on 17 March. Forty-six percent of young respondents said they are afraid, compared with 31 percent of the elderly. Respondents who knew about the police raids in December in Blagoveshchensk were more afraid than those who didn't; some 17 percent of respondents knew about the alleged police violence there. Fifty-six percent of those who had heard about the incident believe that similar events could take place in their regions.
AFGHANISTANCRASH VICTIMS' RELATIVES DEMAND REMAINS. Families of crash victims who perished in an airline disaster last month demanded their remains in a demonstration outside the airline's Kabul offices, AP reported on 17 March. Roughly 40 protesters gathered at the Kam Air office. "I have no more patience to wait for my son's body," said Pashtun Gul, whose 28-year-old son was among those killed. The Kam Air 737 slammed into a snowy mountainside east of Kabul in bad weather on 3 February, killing all 204 aboard. Afghan authorities launched a search effort to identify and recover the bodies, but weather conditions and land mines scattered in the area have hindered the operation. "They tell me to come today, come tomorrow," said shop owner Haji Khan Ali, who also lost a son in the crash. "What kind of government is this?" Authorities have so far recovered the remains of 16 victims and returned them to their families. An Afghan soldier who was part of the recovery effort was killed on 15 March when he triggered a land mine. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)
AZERBAIJANFREED OPPOSITIONISTS VOW TO RESUME POLITICAL ACTIVITY. Six of the seven prominent Azerbaijani oppositionists sentenced last October for their role in the clashes in Baku following the October 2003 presidential election told journalists in Baku on 22 March, one day after being pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev and released from confinement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2005) that they will resume their political activity and plan to participate in the parliamentary elections due in October, Turan reported. The seven were among 38 people jailed in the wake of the 2003 presidential ballot and released earlier this week. Similarly pardoned was former Defense Minister Rahim Kaziev, regarded by the Council of Europe as a political prisoner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June and 26 August 2003). Parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov told Interfax on 22 March that as a result of the pardons, there is no longer any reason to accuse Azerbaijan of holding political prisoners. But the opposition paper "Yeni Musavat" on 23 March quoted Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Malcolm Bruce as saying that there are indeed still political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March)
BELARUSPOLITICIANS COMMENT ON KYRGYZ DEVELOPMENTS. Alluding to the mass protests in Kyrgyzstan that culminated in the flight of President Askar Akaev on 24 March, prominent Belarusian opposition politician Andrey Klimaw warned Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to resign and "give up his intention to run in the 2006 election," Belapan reported on 24 March. Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, noted that people in Kyrgyzstan were just defending their choice. "The same thing may happen not only in Belarus, but also in any other post-Soviet country," Lyabedzka told Belapan. "Something that two years ago was thought to be impossible has become a reality." "Everybody expected a revolution in Moldova, but it happened in Kyrgyzstan instead," said Uladzimir Nistsyuk of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People's Hramada). House of Representatives member Vasil Khrol ruled out the possibility of a Kyrgyz-style revolution in Belarus, saying he does not expect any revolution to occur in Belarus in the next 20 years, Belapan reported on 24 March. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March)
MINSK SLAMS UN HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT, DEMANDS APOLOGIES... Romanian diplomat Adrian Severin, UN special rapporteur on Belarus, presented a report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on 29 March, in which he severely criticized Belarus's human rights record, noting that the country represents "a threat to regional security and stability," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Belarus's permanent representative to the UN, Syarhey Aleynik, blasted the report as biased and demanded that its author offer public apologies to the country. "We were well aware that the politically motivated [UN] resolution [on human rights in Belarus in 2004] ruled out any impartiality in the preparation of the report, but what we saw in the document is shockingly unprecedented, even in comparison with other country reports," Aleynik reportedly said in Geneva. According to Aleynik, the report's allegation that the Belarusian people lack a sense of national identity is "treated by the Belarusian side as a harsh and unambiguous insult to Belarus and the Belarusian people." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March)
...AS WASHINGTON BACKS UP UN'S CONCLUSIONS. In a report on U.S. efforts in 2004 to advance human rights and freedom worldwide, released on 28 March, the U.S. State Department accused the Belarusian authorities of continuing "to deny citizens the right to change their government," Belapan reported on 29 March. The document slams the Belarusian government for restricting "freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association" and working to "intimidate, harass, and close virtually all independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations." The report specifies that the Belarusian authorities punished critical journalists on libel charges and shut down or suspended 25 independent newspapers in 2004. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March)
GEORGIAEDUCATION MINISTER AGAIN RULES OUT CONCESSIONS TO HUNGER STRIKING STUDENTS. Kakha Lomaya reaffirmed on 22 March that the authorities will not cave in to demands by students of the private Georgian Medical College to be admitted to the state-run Georgian Medical University without sitting the routine entrance examinations, Caucasus Press reported. He reasoned that acceding to the medical students' demands would encourage similar demands by students at other private universities, of which Georgia has some 223. Meanwhile Georgian Medical University Rector Ramaz Khetsuriani was hospitalized on 22 March after suffering a heart attack, one day after Lomaya accused him of corruption and asked President Saakashvili to dismiss him. Five students from a medical college in Kutaisi have traveled to Tbilisi to join the 19 Georgian Medical College students who embarked on a hunger strike last week, Caucasus Press reported on 23 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 14, and 21 March 2005). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March)
IRANHOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS IN KURDISTAN PROVINCE TURN POLITICAL... Norouz celebrants in Kurdistan Province were arrested on 20 March after the activities turned political, Baztab website reported. About 1,000 people had gathered in the city of Mahabad when some began to display Kurdish flags and pictures of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, Abdullah Ocalan, while also chanting separatist slogans. Security forces arrested the leaders and dispersed the rest of the crowd. Disturbances in Baneh, Qorveh, and Sanandaj also got out of hand, although Baztab did not report any political activities in these cases. The situation calmed down after some of the rowdier celebrants were arrested. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March)
...AND VIOLENCE MARS CELEBRATIONS IN OTHER CITIES. The celebration called Chaharshanbeh Suri, which has Zorastrian origins, takes place on the Wednesday before Norouz, and international news agencies reported that the celebrations turned violent in several Iranian cities. During this event, people jump over or through bonfires to purify themselves symbolically, but this year, "The Guardian" reported on 21 March, there were "political undercurrents." A bystander at celebrations in Tehran named Reza, before warning about lurking security forces, said, "This is a way for people to use their national traditions to show their opposition to the regime." "The Guardian" reported that police in Tehran attacked crowds using batons and tear gas, and IRNA reported on 16 March that police did this in more than four locations. ISNA reported that some 50 people were arrested in Tehran. In Isfahan, Reuters reported on 16 March, vigilantes beat up boys and young men who were playing with firecrackers. More than 100 people were detained by vigilantes in Tabriz, Iran Press Service reported on 15 March. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March)
STUDENT GROUP SAYS MORE PROTESTS TO COME. The Islamic Association of Amir-Kabir University has announced that its recent sit-in was only an initial step, "Iran News" reported on 16 March. The association explained that it is protesting "the antistudent establishments at this university." Mehdi Habibi, a spokesman for the association, said on 12 March that the sit-in is a reaction to "the imposition of a security climate by paramilitary groups" and the failure of university managers to stand up to this phenomenon, ILNA reported. Habibi said management should reflect the students' interests. Habibi criticized the mass media for not reporting on the students' grievances. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March)
HOOVER FELLOW OPTIMISTIC ABOUT 'DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT'... Hoover Institution research fellow Abbas Milani asserted at a 15 March symposium in Washington that Iran's "democratic movement" is very much alive. Milani explained that he was not talking about the reformist political organizations associated with President Mohammad Khatami's 1997 election, and he suggested that these are a spent force. The real democratic movement, he said, includes women, who have been forceful defenders of their rights since the 1979 revolution. He noted that women are active in all spheres and in the early 1980s they rejected the government's generous offer of early retirement. The prevalence of NGOs, Milani said, is another sign of a democratic movement. Milani said the Iranian diaspora can make a contribution to democratic efforts, and he saw cleavages within the regime as a hopeful sign. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March)
...BUT COLLEAGUE LESS SANGUINE. Speaking at the same symposium on 15 March, Hoover Institution fellow Michael McFaul said that Iran has some things in common with Georgia and Ukraine, which recently underwent relatively peaceful revolutions. However, McFaul noted that a number of important factors that existed in these post-Soviet states are absent in Iran. He said there is no economic crisis in Iran, and the Iranian regime is more ruthless. He dismissed the political cleavages as disputes between, for example, hard-liners and semi-hard-liners. There are political disputes, but not about the state or the system. McFaul noted that Iran does not have an independent media, and there are no independent election monitors to report on malfeasances. In Georgia and Ukraine, there was anger over violations of the constitution, and people and the media wanted their leaders to adhere to the constitution. In Iran, the constitution itself is the problem. McFaul also said Iran does not have a united or mobilized opposition. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March)
IRAQISLAMISTS TARGETING BARBERS WHO CUT MEN'S HAIR, BEARDS IN BAGHDAD. Islamic militants seeking to impose hard-line religious rule in parts of the Iraqi capital are suspected in the deaths of at least 12 barbers in recent months after forbidding them to shave men's beards or give Western-style haircuts, nytimes.com reported on 18 March. The threats have prompted many barbers to comply with the demands, rather than risk death. One barber told the website that he received a handwritten threat with a bullet about three months ago. The note warned that it was forbidden to shave men's beards or to give facial massages, or the French-style haircuts known as "carre" and the "spiky." The targeting of barbers is the latest attempt by Islamists to impose their ideology on the population, nytimes.com reported, pointing to the earlier targeting of liquor stores and Taliban-style control over Al-Fallujah before U.S. forces entered the city last year. Police in the Al-Durah neighborhood in Baghdad, where the killings have been concentrated, told the website that they are poorly equipped to deal with the threats and attacks. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)
POWER WORKERS PROTEST IN BAGHDAD. Hundreds of power workers demonstrated in the Iraqi capital on 24 March in protest of attacks that have killed dozens of their colleagues, latimes.com reported on 25 March. The demonstrators shouted "No, no to terror!" as they carried a black banner listing the names of their slain colleagues, and demanded an end to attacks on electricity stations and oil pipelines. Repeated insurgent attacks on infrastructure projects have slowed the reconstruction process in Iraq. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March)
RUSSIANEW PROTESTS OF SOCIAL REFORMS HELD IN MOSCOW, TOLYATTI. The Motherland party held a rally in central Moscow on 19 March to protest various social reforms, including the monetization of in-kind benefits and the introduction of compulsory car insurance, lenta.ru reported. Party organizers claimed that some 9,000 people, mostly pensioners and youths, took part. Interfax put the total participants at 3,500, while Moscow police said 2,000. Motherland leader Dmitrii Rogozin told the crowd that the "main problem facing Russia is not [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden or [radical Chechen field commander] Shamil Basaev, but a corrupt bureaucracy." Also on 19 March, some 2,000 people gathered in Tolyatti in Samara Oblast to protest the monetization policy. That protest was organized by the "national-patriotic movement" National Alliance, VolgaInform reported. Similar protests were held in Tolyatti and Samara in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2005). ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March)
COMPETING YOUTH GROUPS MIX IT UP ON MOSCOW STREETS. About 30 activists from Avant-Garde Red Youth group tried on 23 March to disrupt a protest by the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together, which has been picketing the Bolshoi Theater over the alleged pornographic content of a new opera called "Rosenthal's Children," AKM reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). The 30 activists unfurled two large posters and handed out leaflets saying, "Pornography is not in books -- it is in the Kremlin!" The police arrived within 10 minutes and the leftist youths left the scene. According to Interfax, about 100-150 people were gathered in front of the theater. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March)
URALS POLICE ACCUSED OF BEATING UP RUSSIAN ORTHODOX PRIEST... The Sverdlovsk Oblast prosecutor has opened a criminal case against an unspecified number of police officers in Yekaterinburg for alleged illegal use of force and the unlawful detention of the Russian Orthodox scholar Aleksandr Dvorkin and Father Vladimir Zaitsev, the director of the missionary department of the Russian Orthodox Eparchy in Yekaterinburg, "Pravoslavnaya gazeta" and gazeta.ru reported on 24 March. The alleged beating took place on 23 March. Dvorkin, who is an expert on religious sects, was supposed to lecture to locals about a "Pentecostal sect" called New Life. Father Vladimir said that about 15 police officers, including a captain who was drunk, arrived at the school where the lecture was supposed to take place, "Pravoslavnaya gazeta" reported. The police then allegedly twisted the men's' arms, dragged them to the ground, and beat them without any explanation. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March)
...AS CONFLICT BETWEEN ORTHODOX CHURCH AND PENTECOSTALS LOOMS IN BACKGROUND. According to gazeta.ru, the director of the school where the talk was to be held called at the last minute to cancel it. Local police charge that they were called to the scene by the school director. When they arrived, they told people to disperse and detained those who refused. According to gazeta.ru, the 1,000 member New Life church has long been in conflict with Russian Orthodox Church authorities, who complained when city authorities transferred a building on the outskirts of town to the group free of charge. Father Vladimir told "Pravoslavnaya gazeta" that "bribability of some among the raion police's leadership has flourished with the Pentecostals." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March)
SERBIAKOSOVA AND SERBIA REMEMBER VIOLENT RIOTS. Speaking on the first anniversary of violent protests in Kosova in which 11 Albanians and eight Serbs were killed, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 17 March that the date should not be forgotten, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, and 19 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2004). Kostunica suggested the incidents were carefully organized rather than spontaneous, adding that none of those purported organizers has been held accountable. The Kosovar government issued a statement saying the events of 17-18 March 2004 were a "serious challenge" on Kosova's road to independence. The violence seriously complicated interethnic relations in Kosova and the province's relations with the international community, according to the statement. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March)
TAJIKISTANDUSHANBE SHORES UP BORDER WITH KYRGYZSTAN. Tajikistan has tightened control of its border with Kyrgyzstan in light of the unstable situation in nearby regions of the neighboring country, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. A spokesman for the Tajik Border Protection Committee told the news agency that it has stepped up patrols in mountainous regions along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The spokesman added that the measures are intended to "avert attempts of possible infiltration across the border of political and armed extremists to the eastern Murgab and Jirgital districts of Tajikistan, where a large diaspora of ethnic Kyrgyz lives." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March)
TURKMENISTANRIGHTS GROUPS ASK UN TO APPOINT SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR ON TURKMENISTAN. In a 17 March letter, a group of NGOs asked Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn to introduce a resolution to the 61st session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemning Turkmenistan's human rights record and calling for the appointment of a special rapporteur. The letter, which was published on the website of Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org), was signed by representatives of Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation, the International League for Human Rights, Memorial Human Rights Center, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, and other NGOs. Stating that the "extent of Turkmenistan's noncompliance with the international human rights instruments to which it is party is appalling," the letter concludes: "With no significant positive response by Turkmenistan to the series of resolutions already passed, and developments such as the hospital closure announcement opening up new areas for grave concern, the international community must show that it is now prepared to step up the pressure." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March)
UKRAINEPOLITICAL FIGURES COMMENT ON TULIP REVOLUTION. Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of the Regions and the loser of the 2004 presidential election, told Interfax on 24 March that the "scenario in Kyrgyzstan was similar to that in other post-Soviet states," except that the Ukrainian revolution was nonviolent. "The election observers from the CIS came to one conclusion [in Kyrgyzstan] and those from the OSCE came to a different one, and in this way duplicated the Ukrainian example," Yanukovych told Interfax. Communist leader Petro Symonenko told Interfax on 24 March that in Kyrgyzstan, as in other post-Communist countries, "authoritarian regimes allowed for the enrichment of small segments of society, enraging many citizens." Symonenko blamed the United States for the unrest in Central Asia. "I am convinced that the hand of the Americans is visible in Kyrgyzstan. The Americans are defining their strategic interests and surrounding Russia as if it were a bear caught in a trap, and placing little flags denoting that this geopolitical territory belongs to them," he said. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March)
UZBEKISTANREPORTS INDICATE TASHKENT REFUSES U.S. INSTITUTE ACCREDITATION. Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry has denied accreditation to the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 18 March. Although there has been no official announcement, a Justice Ministry spokesperson did not deny the report when contacted by RFE/RL. If confirmed, the denial of accreditation would add IRI to a list of international organizations no longer active in Uzbekistan. In 2004, the Soros Foundation and Internews were also denied registration in Uzbekistan. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March)