10 June 2005, Volume
STUDENTS WONDER WHETHER THEY SHOULD VOTE
By Bill Samii
As candidates for Iran's 17 June presidential election begin campaigning, some student activists are advocating an election boycott. This is not an irrelevant matter -- some two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 30 (46 million out of a total population of 69 million) and the voting age is 15. Plus, eight years ago young Iranians helped a relatively liberal dark horse win a landslide victory.
Although a boycott could show disaffection with the country's deeply flawed political system, it is unlikely to have any real effect.
The students have not been bashful. In mid-May students at several universities staged sit-ins to show their unhappiness with the country's stifling political climate. Leading members of the Office for Strengthening Unity, the country's most well-known student organization, met in Tehran on 19 May, "Eqbal" reported on 21 May. During this meeting they expressed unhappiness with the restrictions placed on them. They also suspended the branch from Saduqi University in Yazd because it has expressed support for the candidacy of Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The Office for Strengthening Unity leadership noted that this stance contradicts its ban on political involvement. Whether or not they boycott the election, opponents of the current set-up, including the students, face a no-win situation.
Soon thereafter, 35 university student associations issued a statement expressing concern about the course of political developments in the country. Their statement said, according to the reformist "Aftab-e Yazd" newspaper on 23 May, that students are questioning the effectiveness of elections given the authoritarian trend in the country. They warned of a social explosion and delays in the democratization of the country. They warned the hard-line political figures that sooner or later the people will realize that they have a right to choose and elect candidates freely. The students wrote that they see it as their duty to resist the country's authoritarians.
The students did not have to wait long to fulfill what they see as their duty. They spoke out after the Guardians Council, an unelected body that vets prospective candidates for elected office, rejected the eligibility of all but six out of 1,014 applicants for the presidential race. The students were particularly unhappy with the rejection of the reformist Mustafa Moin, who had served as Science, Research, and Technology Minister (effectively, the higher education minister) in President Mohammad Khatami's cabinet. At a 23 May protest meeting speakers asked how a man who served in three presidential cabinets and also served in the legislature could be deemed ineligible for the presidency. The next day, some 300 students staged a brief march, until police herded them back on campus. Coincidentally, the Guardians Council reinstated Moin's candidacy.
Abdullah Momeni, a representative of the Office for Strengthening Unity, told Radio Farda that many students have a negative view of the election because of the restrictions connected with the country's legal system. Momeni said the Guardians Council's rejection of presidential candidates is driving the country into crisis. Momeni went on to say that although the students intend to boycott the election it does not mean they are indifferent to the rejected candidates. Meanwhile, 1,500 people participated in a sit-in at Hamedan University.
At the medical university in Shahr-i Kurd, furthermore, there were several days of protests and students clashed with security personnel. The students are objecting to the rejection of nearly all the presidential candidates. Furthermore, activist Arsh Kuhi told Radio Farda on 27 May, the students are objecting to the on-campus presence of security personnel, which is illegal. Kuhi noted that the students at Shahr-i Kurd are backed by organizations at the country's other medical universities, as well as the Office for Strengthening Unity.
An unaffiliated student organization called the Republic Students of Yazd staged a sit-in to protest the university administration's restriction against the group, "Eqbal" reported on 29 May. The security forces broke up the protest.
This student activism is encouraging, but the numbers are not. The total university student population is 1.2 million, which seems like a small number of people when the total population is around 69 million. Other factors, such as tactical differences, state repression, and the resulting lack of leadership, also limit the students' potential.
Students are divided on the political role they should play. The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) is divided into two wings. The majority "Allameh" faction wants to withdraw from the political system and generally advocates an election boycott, whereas the minority "Shiraz" faction generally favors participation and operating within the current political framework. Another student organization, known as the Tabarzadi Group for its founder, the oft-imprisoned Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, advocates a more radical approach to politics. In the 1980s, furthermore, the regime created the University Jihad and the Student Basij, and 1998 legislation created a Basij unit in every university.
State repression also has dampened young people's political ardor. For example, police arrested some 4,000 people after June 2003 demonstrations over the possibility of paying tuition. Individuals associated with July 1999 demonstrations are still in jail. An ominous phenomenon that has emerged in the last few years is the detention of activists by unaccountable security agencies at undisclosed locations.
A few brave students continue to come forward, occasionally to lead but at least to show solidarity. The overall lack of forceful and consistent leadership, nevertheless, hinders their ability to effectively express themselves or to oppose the system. Moreover, the Office for Strengthening Unity, specifically, and young voters, generally, are disappointed by the result of the elections. The individuals they voted for -- President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001, and reformist legislators in 2000 -- could not accomplish anything substantive because their efforts were countered by unelected but powerful institutions and individuals.
Under these circumstances, the student activists' tactical approach has changed. By early 2000 they had adopted the policy of "active calm" (aramesh-e faal), in order to avoid a violent crackdown by the security forces and their vigilante allies. By March 2005 there were calls for a boycott of the presidential election from a wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity. In early May, more than 500 critics and dissidents signed a letter saying they will not vote in the June polls. These calls have picked up steam, and at least one of the mainstream political parties, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, threatened to boycott the election if its preferred candidate, Mustafa Moin, was not allowed to run.
Most of the candidates have, at one time or another, met with student groups in an effort to gain their support. Moin is the only candidate who counts on student support, particularly from the majority faction of the Office for Strengthening Unity, according to an analysis in the 16 May "Etemad." The minority faction of the student organization tends to back another candidate, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi. It is noteworthy that after his candidacy was reinstated, Moin said the Guardians Council actions caused unhappiness in the country, "especially among the students," "Eqbal" reported on 25 May.
Moin will have to do more to earn the students' support. Hadi Kahalzadeh, a member of the central council of an organization that represents former Office for Strengthening Unity members, said on 1 June: "We are waiting for Moin to declare his sensitivities about the violation of human rights and democracy in a more tangible way, because merely issuing a statement cannot convey his sensitivities to society," ILNA reported. Kahalzadeh denied that his organization backs Moin and said, "We still believe in not taking part in the elections."
Whether or not they boycott the election, opponents of the current set-up, including the students, face a no-win situation. The victory of a hard-line candidate -- and this includes front-runner and former two-time President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- is almost certain if most Iranians do not vote, because the hard-liners have well-mobilized constituencies. In the absence of neutral election observers, furthermore, the regime can manipulate the figures to show a high turnout. The regime will describe a large turnout as popular support and a sign of its legitimacy. In the unlikely chance that a pro-reform candidate is elected, his ability to implement meaningful changes is sharply curtailed.
RUSSIAN YOUTH GROUP 'NASHI' GATHERS MOMENTUM
By Robert Coalson
The pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi continued to hog the media spotlight this week, following a 1 June report in "Izvestiya" that several of the organization's leaders met behind closed doors in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin the previous day. Although the Kremlin refused to confirm or deny the meeting, Nashi co-leader Vasilii Yakemenko, who says he attended the meeting, provided details to the daily and to other media outlets.
Yakemenko, 34, told "Izvestiya" that all four national commissars, as Nashi's central leaders are called, and Nashi regional coordinators from St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Tula, Bryansk, Tambov, and other cities participated in the meeting with Putin, at which Putin expressed surprise that Nashi was able to bring out 60,000 people to a Moscow rally on 15 May. Yakemenko told grani.ru on 2 June that 12 Nashi activists were at the meeting, which lasted about two hours.
"We discussed a wide circle of issues from within Russia and from beyond its borders," Yakemenko told the daily. "In part, we discussed Russia's position with respect to the Baltic states and Russia's relations with the European Union. Among domestic issues, we discussed issues of youth politics and relations between youth and the state. Of course we discussed the important question 'where are we going?'"
"The president of Russia did us a great honor and demonstrated his solidarity with 'our' [nashi, which means "our" in Russian] patriotic views," Yakemenko told grani.ru. "We hope very much that such contacts will become regular."
The meeting with Putin (and the media attention that accompanied it) and the massive 15 May rally, at which Nashi staged a symbolic passing of the torch from the World War II generation to the Nashi generation, are the latest manifestations of the movement's rapidly growing prominence.
In addition, Nashi announced last week a new program to train young managers at specially created Nashi academies, with the goal of replacing the current "defeatist generation" of bureaucrats over the next few years. "This year our unique educational program will train 3,000 of our commissars," Yakemenko told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 31 May. "In five years, we will have trained 10,000 and in eight, 100,000. These are the people who in reality will carry out the modernization of the country when they occupy key posts at all levels of power. It will be a revolution, not in form, but in content."
At a time when most observers believe the state's persecution of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii has dried up funding for non-Kremlin-sponsored political initiatives, Nashi seems to be thriving financially as well. The meeting with Putin will almost certainly be seen as a signal by Kremlin-friendly businessmen that this is a project to be supported. So far, Nashi has relied heavily on state resources, including holding its founding congress in a facility owned by the Academy of Sciences. On 28 April, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Nashi has had particular support from Tver Oblast Governor Dmitrii Zelenin, who spoke at Nashi's founding congress together with Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko. The daily reported that Nashi activists are being trained at a police training facility in the oblast and are organizing street patrols in Tver.
The 15 May rally in Moscow, however, involved bringing in activists from at least 30 federation subjects, as well as considerable expenditures on promotional materials, signs, entertainment, and the like. Yakemenko has refused to disclose how much the demonstration cost, but he told "Novye izvestiya" on 27 May that it was "very expensive." He told kreml.org on 24 May that it cost "a great deal of money indeed" and "a monstrous amount." The creation of a national network of educational academies, the first of which is already operating in Moscow, will also demand considerable resources.
Some voices have been warning that the Nashi movement could ultimately prove dangerous and uncontrollable. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov sharply criticized the organization on 19 May and again on 31 May. He told RosBalt on 31 May that "grown-up men" stand behind Nashi. "We need to talk to these men and convince them that although this may seem like an easy path, it could turn out to be very difficult and absolutely incorrect," Mironov said. Instead of protecting Russia from a "colored" revolution, Nashi "could stand at the head of their own kind of revolution." In his earlier comments, Mironov called Nashi "ideological wolves that could become uncontrollable."
LUKASHENKA'S REPRESSION MACHINE TIGHTENS THE SCREWS
By Jan Maksymiuk
The convictions on 31 May of opposition leaders Mikalay Statkevich and Pavel Sevyarynets represent the latest episode of what appears to be a constantly expanding series of repressive steps the Belarusian regime has aimed at opponents in the wake of the October 2004 votes and ahead of the presidential election slated for 2006.
The regime has apparently decided that repression, including imprisonment and intimidation, is the best method to pave the way for yet another "elegant" victory by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Statkevich and Sevyarynets were punished for their roles in staging Belarus's largest antigovernment protests in recent years. On 18 October, the opposition drew thousands of people to downtown Minsk to protest the official tallies, which were widely believed to have been rigged in favor of Lukashenka (the referendum conferring on him the right to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times) and of pro-government candidates to the country's lower house, the Chamber of Representatives. Police on 18 October detained only a few people in an apparent effort to avoid using force in the presence of foreign journalists and election observers in the Belarusian capital that day. But a similar rally on 19 October was brutally dispersed by riot troops, who arrested some 50 people and beat United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka, who was hospitalized with broken ribs. Several smaller protests over the next few days were dispersed by the authorities, and those detained were immediately punished with jail terms of up to 15 days.
The Belarusian opposition has no other avenue for venting dissatisfaction with the government than leading people into the streets. No opposition politician was allowed into the country's bicameral National Assembly in 2004. No opposition politician is allowed to appear on state-controlled radio or television, while private radio stations remain silent over opposition activities as well as most political topics out of fear that they might lose their broadcast licenses. There are still several independent newspapers in which opposition views may be presented, but as a rule the circulation of such periodicals in small and limited to the capital and a few other major cities. The authorities' primary tactic now appears to be silencing and intimidating those who are not yet afraid to take to the streets and speak openly against the regime. That effort has intensified since Ukraine's Orange Revolution.
The regime closed the year 2004 by sentencing opposition politician Mikhail Marynich to five years in prison after finding him guilty of stealing computers and other office equipment that was leased to his organization by the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. Marynich claimed the bizarre case against him was fabricated by the KGB in order to prevent him from participation in the 2006 presidential election. (He was prevented from taking part in the 2001 presidential election after the Central Election Commission refused to register him as a candidate, arguing that he failed to collect the required number of 100,000 signatures -- a claim that Marynich denied.) The Statkevich verdict -- and Statkevich had already announced plans to compete in the 2006 presidential election -- eliminates him as a potential challenger to Lukashenka in 2006 or as an organizer of the opposition's election campaign.
In March, Belarusian retailers protested for more than a week against an 18 percent import duty on goods from Russia by staging rallies and refusing to work at their stalls and kiosks. It is noteworthy that the government declined to take any retaliatory measures against those vendors, whose demands were of a purely economic character, apart from jailing their leader for several weeks. The only other person punished severely in connection with those protests was Maryna Bahdanovich of the opposition United Civic Party, who was fined $2,200 for political statements made at a vendors' rally in Minsk. Bahdanovich was also fined some $1,800 for organizing and participating in an antigovernment demonstration in Minsk on 26 April. Court officers have already confiscated a dozen household items from Bahdanovich in lieu of payment of the fines. "Anyone who wants to engage in politics, especially in this country, must be aware of the potential consequences," Bahdanovich commented. It is evident that the authorities do their utmost to instill fear of political dissent.
In what appears to have been another effort to demoralize the opposition, police on 15 May arrested former dissident lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets, charging him with attempted bribery of a regional official. Skrabets and two other lawmakers staged a hunger strike in June 2004, demanding liberalization of the country's Election Code. In April, Belarusian Television aired a report alleging that law-enforcement agencies have detained a Lithuanian citizen who reportedly delivered $200,000 to finance Skrabets' political activities. Skrabets commented that the report was stage-managed by the KGB to embroil him in a trumped-up criminal case. The story relating to Skrabets' alleged foreign funds appears to have waned, presumably because authorities in the meantime managed to build a bribery case against him.
The opposition's access to print media, however insignificant and ineffective, seems to be a thorn in the regime's side as well. In mid-May, the Information Ministry issued the second warning this year to the only opposition daily, "Narodnaya volya." (Two official warnings in one year can be sufficient grounds for authorities to close it.) The ministry said the daily released false information by publishing the names of five people under a manifesto of the opposition movement Will of the People, which was launched in February. Simultaneously, the five people in question have sued the daily for libel, saying they did not sign the manifesto and demanding an exorbitant sum of 250 million Belarusian rubles ($116,000) in damages. Will of the People leader Alyaksandr Kazulin suggested that the authorities might have used pressure to make the five people revoke their signatures. "People supporting [our manifesto] are pressured to withdraw their signatures by way of threats and blackmail," he said. Irrespective of the reasons behind the suit, if "Narodnaya volya" loses, it will likely have to close down because it will not be able to pay the damages.
"We do not expect that what is to take place in Belarus in 2006 will be an election -- it is going to be a political campaign with no rules," Lyabedzka, who is among the prospective challengers to Lukashenka from the opposition camp, told Ukrainian journalists in Kyiv last week. "We have strong political will, and we are determined to fight until we win. If the election proves undemocratic, we are ready to take to the streets." That the 2006 election might prove undemocratic comes as no surprise to most observers of the Belarusian political scene; but few of those pundits would argue that Belarusians are likely to take to the streets en masse following an undemocratic vote.
On 29 May, some 100 representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia who wanted to propose their own presidential hopeful were forced to gather in a forest outside Minsk because no one in Minsk dared provide them a venue for the forum out of fear of official retaliation.
Belarusians are still a long way from being prepared for any Orange Revolution of their own making.PLANNING THE NEXT REVOLUTION?
By Julie A. Corwin
Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev's recent suggestion that foreign intelligence services are seeking ways to overthrow the current Belarusian government has focused new attention on Belarus's political opposition, particularly its youngest members, since youths were at the forefront of recent colored revolutions in the region.
Judging by the comments of Belarusian opposition members who spoke recently at RFE/RL's Washington, D.C., bureau, the FSB might have reason to be concerned about the stability of Alyasandr Lukashenka's regime. Siarhei Salash, chairman of Skryzhavanne (Crossroads), an independent NGO dedicated to educating and training political active youth, declared that he is "absolutely sure our Belarusian youth will be very active in [Belarus's 2006 presidential] elections. They will be just as passionate as the youth in Georgia and Ukraine were and other countries of the former Soviet bloc. I am very hopeful that 2006 will be the year of great changes in our country."
Asked whether Belarus has some of the key elements that made the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine possible, Olha Stuzhinskaya, coordinator of We Remember!, an independent NGO dedicated to informing the Belarusian and international community about the course of investigations into disappearances, noted that Ukraine was already a lot more democratic than Belarus: it had opposition members in the parliament and at least one independent television station. "We do not expect the same scenario in Belarus," Stuzhinskaya said. "Probably there will be much more blood."
Salash, for his part, agreed that Belarus "will not have the same kind of revolution as happened in Ukraine and Georgia." He continued, "Concerning the security forces, Lukashenka has a full circle of people who are funded from an undisclosed budget. I am absolutely convinced that nothing will stop these people." He concluded that the Belarusian opposition would need to get much more than even 50,000 people out on the street. "I think hundreds of thousands will have to go out into the streets, and then the opposite process will take place," he said "Those [people] who are protecting Lukashenka right now will be protecting the people from Lukashenka."
For Salash, a key to getting large numbers of Belarusians to act publicly is finding a single presidential candidate from the democratic opposition around whom people can unite. Salash said the process of selecting a joint democratic candidate is ongoing, although it has been "somewhat dragged out." Stuzhinskaya, however, suggested that delay is not necessarily bad because the "danger exists to a very high degree" that once a single candidate is identified, he or she will become a target for the authorities. United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka told Belapan on 18 May that eight presidential hopefuls are going to participate in an effort to select a single candidate, and they plan to hold a congress by 1 October.
In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 19 May, Alyaksandr Kazulin, the leader of the unregistered Will of the People movement, echoed these youths' sentiments. He declared that Lukashenka would no longer be president next year.
The wild card, however, in all of the calculations of Belarus's opposition is what role Russia would play. Kazulin believes that "Russian will not come to Lukashenka's aid and will not allow blood to be spilled" in the event that the current authorities in Belarus find themselves in a crisis. "Moscow's attitude to the Belarusian people will always remain positive, friendly, and sincere," Kazulin told Ekho Moskvy, "but its attitude to Lukashenka is different -- a fact demonstrated by the Belarusian leader's absence at the Victory parade [in Moscow]." He concluded, "I have no doubts that Russia will come to the aid of the Belarusian people, not President Lukashenka, and will play a key role in Belarus's civilized, democratic return to its true path."
Salash, however, was less hopeful. "Unfortunately, Russia is conducting a very imperialistic policy toward Russia," Salash said. "Of course, again, talks of the union have been renewed. Of course, Putin has to pay attention to his political rating. He lost Ukraine. He lost Georgia. He doesn't know what is happening in Kyrgyzstan.... Putin will not have any kind of political future if Russia loses Belarus. And right now Russia is going to do everything in its power to support the regime. I do not believe that Russia will or can change the situation in Belarus. Of course, sometimes you can hear Putin criticize Lukashenka; however, it is very arbitrary and not part of a unified policy. However, when the time comes to realistically change something in Belarus, Putin's Russia provides all possible support to Lukashenka. It doesn't matter what kind of violations took place during the elections. The next day, Russia recognized them."
Speaking to Ekho Moskvy on 19 May, political analyst Alyaksandr Feduta suggested that Moscow would stop short of providing military assistance to the Lukashenka regime in the event of a crisis. Feduta told the station that Moscow "has made enough slip-ups and mistakes not to make this one as well."
In the meantime, Russia's FSB is paying close attention to financial and technical assistance to Belarus from the United States. In contrast to Patrushev's impression, Stuzhinskaya said the opposition is hardly awash with cash. "For the last two or three years, all of the Western donors pulled out of Belarus completely," Stuzhinskaya said. "It has had a very negative effect on civil society and on political parties." The Belarusian public has heard for the last several years from the Lukashenka regime that "the opposition is just swimming in money and being bought from special services in the U.S. and Europe, but it doesn't have the same effect anymore," she said. "The only picture that many people have of the Belarusian opposition is what they get on television; but in the last several years, people are tired of hearing the same thing and don't believe it as much as they used to.... In a complete vacuum of information, people understand that they are
being lied to."
REPORT CITES EVIDENCE OF GOVERNMENT 'MASSACRE' IN ANDIJON
By Robert McMahon
A prominent U.S.-based human rights monitor says the Uzbek government crackdown last month in Andijon amounted to a massacre of innocent civilians. In a new report titled "Bullets Were Falling Like Rain: The Andijon Massacre," Human Rights Watch says the government had the right to stop the armed group that engineered a prison break and took control of government buildings. But it says interviews with witnesses and victims indicate the government's use of force was excessive and caused far higher deaths than the government has reported.
Human Rights Watch says many unanswered questions remain about the events last month in Andijon, including the number of casualties.
But it says interviews it conducted with 50 eyewitnesses and victims corroborate earlier reports that the Uzbek government used indiscriminate force against large numbers of unarmed people.
The witness accounts describe the circumstances of a massacre, says Allison Gill, a Human Rights Watch expert on Uzbekistan who helped with the report.
"We tried to provide as clear a picture as we could establish of what happened -- and I think it's probably the most comprehensive picture to date of what happened -- to show that there were very serious crimes committed by the government and a lot of unanswered questions still," Gill says. "There has to be transparency and accountability around the government's use of force on civilians."
Gill tells RFE/RL that the report does not provide an estimate of casualties or the size of the crowd that gathered in a main Andijon square ahead of the arrival of government troops. But the report suggests the death toll is far higher than the official government figure of 173 dead. For example, numerous witnesses told the organization that one group of fleeing protesters numbering close to 400 people was almost completely mowed down by gunfire from government forces.
Human Rights Watch researchers combined eyewitness accounts with numerous photographs of the protest in Bobur Square taken by journalists. The photos confirmed there was a large civilian crowd in the square, including many women and children.
Gill says the photographs also show a small number of gunmen outside the crowd and away from protesters.
"The mass of people that had gathered in the square were, in fact, peaceful demonstrators -- not part of the original group of attackers, who committed a crime, to be sure, but I think [they] were a small group, relative to the mass number of people that had gathered," Gill says.
The Uzbek government blames the incident on Islamic radicals after gunmen raided government installations and overran a prison, releasing inmates. It says the gunmen used civilians as human shields, placing their fighters amidst a crowd of elderly citizens, women, and children.
The Human Rights Watch report confirms the raid on government facilities. But it disputes the government charge that Muslim extremists were behind the uprising.
The report says the events appear to have been sparked by the trial of 23 businessmen accused of Islamic extremism. But researcher Gill says the charges lacked evidence and that the protest in Andijon grew into a large rally of people voicing anger about poverty and government repression: "There is no evidence of an Islamic agenda of the people that we talked to," Gill says. "There is no evidence of an Islamic agenda witnessed by any of the many eyewitnesses of the events. And it's a very, very convenient excuse for the government, and we've seen the government use it many times before."
The Uzbek Embassy in Washington was closed when the HRW report was issued, so no comment was available. But Kamran Aliyev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, says the government never responds to such reports.
"The Uzbek government has never reacted to critical conclusions of any international organizations, be it Transparency International, Amnesty International, or other democratic nongovernmental organizations," Aliyev says. "The Uzbek government has never reacted to their reports. In this case [of the HRW report], the Uzbek government is going to follow the same pattern and ignore the report completely, or it may criticize HRW and their conclusions through other means, [such as the Uzbek media]."
The Uzbek parliament has formed a commission tasked with thoroughly investigating the tragedy in Andijon.
Human Rights Watch is calling for an independent international inquiry into the killings, a request that has already been rejected by the Uzbek authorities.
(NCA's Gulnoza Saidazimova contributed to this report.)
OSCE, COUNCIL OF EUROPE CALL FOR CHANGES TO ARMENIAN LAW ON PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS.
Addressing a seminar in Yerevan on 3 June, legal experts from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights urged the Armenian authorities to make further changes to the controversial law on the conduct of meetings, demonstrations, and other mass gatherings, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Armenian parliament made some amendments to that law last month, but failed to rescind the ban on holding demonstrations within 150 meters of the presidential palace and other "strategic" buildings. Venice Commission head Gianni Buquicchio specifically called on 3 June for removing that restriction. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2005)
THOUSANDS PARTICIPATE IN AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION DEMONSTRATION.
During talks late on 3 June with representatives of the three opposition parties aligned in the Ugur (Success) election bloc, the Baku municipal authorities finally granted permission to stage an opposition rally and march in Baku the following day, Azerbaijani media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June 2005). The authorities originally rejected four proposed venues and said the only acceptable site was the motorcycle-racing track on the city outskirts, which the opposition turned down as too remote and inaccessible. Between 4,000 and 15,000 people gathered on 4 June at the Qelebe metro station bearing placards demanding free elections, freedom of assembly, and that the authorities arrest and bring to trial the persons responsible for the 2 March murder of opposition journalist Elmar Huseinov. In addition to the three parties aligned in the Ugur bloc, members of the small Umid (Hope) party and the youth movement Yeni Fikir participated in the rally, according to day.az. Addressing the demonstrators, opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar accused President Ilham Aliyev of presiding over a corrupt regime, and he urged opposition parties to unite and force the present leadership to resign, Turan reported. Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, predicted that there will be a popular insurrection if the authorities do not take steps to guarantee that the parliamentary ballot in November is free and fair. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2005)AZERBAIJANI YOUTH MOVEMENT MEMBERS DETAINED.
Authorities detained two members of the youth movement Yokh! (No!) in Baku on 31 May, the last day of the school year, for distributing among high-school students leaflets urging them to join the movement for democratization and to reject official corruption, according to a Yokh press release received by e-mail the same day. The website day.az gave the number of arrested activists as four, without naming them. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 June 2005)
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT RESTRICTS VOCABULARY FOR NAMES OF ORGANIZATIONS.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 31 May. The word "national" may be used only in the names of government agencies, organizations whose property is owned by the state, and media outlets founded by the government. Political parties, national nongovernmental organizations, national trade unions, and banks are allowed to include the word "Belarusian" in their names, but not the word "national." Private media outlets are not allowed to use either the word "national" or the word "Belarusian" in their names. The decree orders the organizations and companies that do not meet the new requirements to apply for re-registration within three months. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 1 June 2005)
WOMEN PROTEST IN TEHRAN OVER DISQUALIFICATIONS.
The Islamic Women's Society demonstrated in front of the presidential office in Tehran on 1 June to protest the disqualification of all 89 females who applied to compete in the presidential election, Radio Farda reported. In an interview with Radio Farda, women's rights activist Mahbubeh Abbasqoli said that because of the way the Guardians Council interprets the word "rejal" in the phrase "rejal-i mazhabi-siasi" (religious-political individual), women are excluded from bids for the presidency. As long as this situation persists, Abbasqoli told Radio Farda, one should not expect women to participate fully in elections. She said many prominent female activists, such as Azam Taleqani, Fatemeh Rakei, and Shadi Sadr, spoke at the demonstration. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 2005)
KYRGYZ FOREIGN MINISTER DENIES REFUGEES FORCIBLY RETURNED TO UZBEKISTAN.
Addressing a conference in Bishkek on 26 May, acting Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva denied reports that Kyrgyzstan has repatriated 84 Uzbek refugees, Tribune.uz reported. She said, "Our government has taken on itself the care of all 497 Uzbek citizens who fled to us after the events of 13-14 May in Andijon." She added, "At present, we are looking for a more appropriate place for the refugee camp" -- currently located near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in Kyrgyzstan's Suzak District -- "where people's living conditions will be more appropriate." Otunbaeva said that Kyrgyzstan has offered to hold talks with the Uzbek government on the refugee issue. Zafar Hakimov, head of the Migration Department in Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry, also stated that Kyrgyzstan is seeking a different location to house the refugees, Kyrgyzinfo reported on 26 May. Hakimov said that none of the refugees will be repatriated against their will. New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement released 27 May on its website (www.hrw.org), called on the Kyrgyz government to ensure that Uzbek refugees are not forced to return to their country. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2005)
MACEDONIAN CHURCH DISPUTE HEATS UP…
In an open letter, Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski has called on Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, who is the spiritual head of the Orthodox Churches, to support a dialogue between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC), Makfax news agency reported on 30 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January and 6 August 2004). Buckovski said the SPC's latest decision to recognize only the pro-SPC Archbishopric of Ohrid as canonical not only fails to resolve the church question in Macedonia, but could also increase religious tensions. The MPC, which split from SPC in 1967 with the support of the communist authorities, is not recognized by any other Orthodox Church....AS THE FOREIGN MINISTRY SLAMS THE SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH.
The Macedonian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 30 May that the decision of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) to recognize only the pro-SPC Archbishopric of Ohrid as canonical is an attempt to create parallel institutions aimed at undermining the autocephalous status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC), RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The statement added that the SPC's latest move is a "throwback to the past" that does not serve the interests of the Macedonian or Serbian nations and could hurt the development of relations between the two countries. The ministry called on the authorities of Serbia and Montenegro to do whatever they can to prevent "moves aimed at denying [the identity of] the Macedonian people, state, and institutions," regardless of where such threats may originate. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2005)
SOROS DECLARES NEW ASSISTANCE STRATEGY FOR MOLDOVA.
U.S. philanthropist George Soros met with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin in Chisinau on 3 June, Flux reported. Soros told Voronin that he intends to formulate a new strategy for the Soros Foundation in Moldova. "I see the role of the Soros Foundation in the Republic of Moldova in supporting the development of governmental institutional capacity [and] in implementing some programs in education and health," Soros said. "I also consider it appropriate for the foundation to contribute to activities of the Republic of Moldova toward integration with the European Union, as well as in attracting foreign financing for the implementation of different strategies and programs meant to get your country closer to EU standards." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2005)
SOLZHENITSYN SAYS THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY.
Nobel Prize for literature laureate and former Soviet political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on 5 June gave his first interview in three years to RTR television. Solzhenitsyn said that he does not understand why people are talking about a so-called "assault on democracy in Russia." "I have said many times that we have never had anything like democracy since the day that Gorbachev came to power, to say nothing about before that," Solzhenitsyn said. He sharply criticized the country's political institutions and its policies over the last 15 years, saying that the government "robbed the people of their savings" and then rushed through privatization. "[Privatization architect] Chubais said the world had never seen such a rapid privatization program," Solzhenitsyn said. "But we also established a cult of billionaires who were always asking how to make things better for themselves, rather than for all of us." He added that democracy is a slow process that cannot be imposed from above but goes from the bottom to the top. He criticized the United States for "attempting to impose its vision of democracy" on the world. He concluded by saying that Russia's national idea should be "to save the nation." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2005)RADIO LISTENERS SKEPTICAL ABOUT EXISTENCE OF RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY.
An informal, self-selected survey of Ekho Moskvy listeners on 6 June found that 75 percent of respondents agree with a 5 June statement by Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that there has been no assault on Russian democracy because Russia has no democracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2005). Several observers commented that President Putin has used a similar argument on several occasions to reject charges that his policies represent a threat to democracy in Russia. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 June 2005)SURKOV HOLDS MEETING WITH TATARSTAN PRESIDENT, YOUTH LEADERS.
Deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov met behind closed doors on 31 May in Kazan with Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and local youth activists, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 June. Local journalists speculated that Surkov was in town to urge the formation of a local chapter of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi. Ildar Berkheev, head of the Young Unity organization in Kazan, participated in the meeting and told the daily that the issue of Nashi was not raised during the talks. He said that Surkov recognized that youth organizations in the republic "live in agreement and friendship with the authorities just like fish in an aquarium." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 3 June 2005)
RIGHTS GROUP ALLEGES 'MASSACRE' IN REPORT ON UZBEKISTAN...
Human Rights Watch charged in a 7 June report available on the organization's website (http://www.hrw.org) that Uzbek government forces perpetrated a "massacre" in Andijon on 13 May. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth told a news conference in Moscow on 7 June that "the scale of the killing and the deliberateness of the slaughter means that this can only be fairly classified as a massacre," RFE/RL reported. "The cover story that the Uzbek government has offered to explain the events of May 13th is completely false," Roth said. "It claims that only 170 people were killed when in fact hundreds were murdered. It claims that all the killing was done by nongovernmental gunmen when in fact it was governmental troops that were responsible for the vast, vast majority of the slaughter."...AS RED CROSS ASKS FOR ACCESS TO THE INJURED...
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated in a 7 June press release on the organization's website (http://www.icrc.org) that it "still has no access to people injured or arrested in connection with the events [in Andijon], nor has it been able to establish contact with the regional authorities." While noting that ICRC representatives have been able to travel in the Ferghana Valley, the statement stressed that "access to the injured and detained, to morgues and to the regional authorities themselves has not been possible despite repeated requests from the organization." Reto Meister, ICRC delegate-general for Asia and the Pacific, said the organization aims not to conduct an investigation, but to perform a humanitarian mission....AND WORLD BANK, PEACE CORPS SUSPEND ACTIVITIES.
A World Bank spokeswoman stated on 7 June that the organization has suspended planned missions to Uzbekistan in light of possible terrorist attacks, Reuters reported. "We have not cancelled [World Bank missions]," she said. "They have just been postponed." The U.S. Peace Corps announced in a 6 June press release on the organization's website (http://www.peacecorps.gov) that it has suspended its program in Uzbekistan. The statement noted that "the visas of 52 Peace Corps volunteers and the Peace Corps country director [recently] expired and were not renewed." Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez commented that "it is with regret that I make this announcement, but the Peace Corps only operates its programs in countries where it is invited by the host government and [that are] able to provide proper documentation for each volunteer." ("RFE/RL Newsline," 8 June 2005)EVIDENCE OF MASS GRAVE DISCOVERED IN UZBEKISTAN.
RFE/RL visited what appeared to be a mass grave in Andijon containing 37 gravesites on 27 May. Isroiljon Kholdorov, the regional leader of the banned Erk opposition party, told RFE/RL that local gravediggers said bodies were brought in trucks to the site, located in a district of Andijon called Bogishamol, after violence on 13 May. He said, "[The gravediggers] say there are 37 graves with two corpses in each. So, there must be  bodies altogether." RFE/RL later learned that the guide who led the correspondent to the site, a man in his late 50s named Juraboy, was stabbed to death by two unknown assailants. No further details were available. Andijon residents said that the mass grave in Bogishamol is only one of several such sites that appeared after 13 May. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2005)