16 December 2005, Volume 6, Number 17
CENTRAL ASIARFE/RL ROUNDTABLE: CENTRAL ASIAN ACTIVISTS DISCUSS HUMAN RIGHTS On 10 December, RFE/RL's Tajik Service hosted a roundtable discussion on human rights in Central Asia. Roundtable participants included Tursunbek Akun, chairman of the Kyrgyz Presidential Human Rights Commission; Yevgenii Zhovitis, a leading human rights activist in Kazakhstan; Surat Ikromov, a leading human rights activist in Uzbekistan; and Shokirjon Hakimov, a Tajik lawyer and parliamentarian from the Social-Democratic Party. The roundtable was moderated by RFE/RL Tajik Service Deputy Director Normohamad Kholov.
RFE/RL: The human rights situation in Central Asian countries is characterized by instability. Every year, these issues come up in reports by international human rights organizations. These reports particularly emphasize freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and limitations on the activity of opposition political parties. There are still reports of human trafficking.
To discuss these and other issues, we have in our studio, via telephone, several human rights activists from Almaty, Bishkek, Dushanbe, and Tashkent. I will now introduce the participants in today's discussion: Surat Ikromov, a human rights activist in Uzbekistan; Yevgenii Zhovitis, a human rights activist in Kazakhstan; Shokirjon Hakimov, a lawyer in Tajikistan; and Tursunbek Akun, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan.
Freedom of speech and freedom of press are some of the basic principles in a democratic society. Mr. Hakimov, let's start with Tajikistan. There is growing popularity of so-called "independent newspapers" in your country. However, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, the persecution of independent newspapers and opposition journalists remains a problem. There has been, however, a decline in the number of physical attacks compared with last year. Should we interpret this as an improvement in conditions? Or is this simply a more careful approach to limiting freedom of speech in Tajikistan?
Hakimov: Although we have some 200 media organizations � newspapers, magazines, and electronic media � there is still little real freedom. Despite the fact that there are about 10 independent sources of information, there are still no editorials. There is no mention of important issues like corruption. There is no investigative journalism. Political parties and representatives of political groups do not have the ability to express their opinions through the media � even the independent media. Every time important political changes or reforms approach -- referendums, constitutional reforms, elections to local representative bodies or higher legislative bodies, or presidential elections -- measures are taken by the executive powers to limit the freedom of speech as much as possible. As a result, the media are unable to fulfill their social task in the formation of new political thought, which is necessary for the establishment of democratic institutions and the formation of civil society in Tajikistan.
RFE/RL: This year some publishing houses have expressed the desire to print independent works.
Hakimov: Indeed, we are quite surprised. Although some independent printing houses have been created -- thanks to financial support from various international bodies -- they still refuse to publish certain popular newspapers and magazines. Censorship has been abolished in our country because it contradicts democratic values, but it still exists on an unofficial level. These independent publishers seek to make a profit, but collaborating with the independent press -- especially that which belongs to the opposition -- negatively impacts their state of affairs, so they try to not associate themselves with that press.
RFE/RL: Let's compare this with Uzbekistan. Mr. Ikromov, how would you characterize the situation with freedom of speech, or freedom of press in Uzbekistan?
Ikromov: Even if we only look at the recent period, we can see that some publications have been shut down. Literally, a few days ago, they closed the popular newspaper "Advokat press," which is considered a branch of the bar association. This happened only because serious issues were discussed there. Recently, they shut down the BBC office in Tashkent for six months. So, clearly, the situation is getting worse every day in terms of freedom of speech. Or let's look at the recent trials that took place. The government does not announce in the press who is being tried where in connection with the events in Andijon. Human Rights Watch has been trying to obtain access to these trials, as have other international organizations, including representatives from various embassies. They have all been denied access. The government doesn't even tell them where the trials are taking place.
RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, could one say that after the March events [in which the regime of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was overthrown], the human rights situation has changed in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of press?
Akun: I should say that after the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, we started seeing more and more events like the takeover of coalfields, civil unrest, pickets, demonstrations, and so on. Many negative things came out of it. After the revolution, the peoples' consciousness awoke, and they began to experience a sense of freedom and, consequently, the capacity for various excesses. The only positive achievement of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan is freedom of speech. Before, many journalists underwent "peoples' trials" and many newspapers were being shut down. These problems no longer exist in Kyrgyzstan. We want to show that the revolution in Kyrgyzstan should be the impulse for other countries to strive toward the freedoms that we have been able to achieve.
RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, on 5 December, after his victory in the elections, [Kazakh President] Nursultan Nazarbaev, declared that there are no restrictions on the rights of opposition parties in Kazakhstan, and he wants to have what he calls an opposition. Does this mean that there is actual democracy in Kazakhstan?
Zhovitis: We should look at the situation concerning freedom of speech in the context of the opposition. Freedom of speech, per se, exists. People are not persecuted for what they say, for the speeches that they deliver at conferences, and for what they write. These things are not prohibited or persecuted.
There is a far greater problem with the media. First of all, in my opinion, Kazakhstan has no independent television or radio. There is, of course, private television and radio � 80 percent of all networks, actually � but the fact that they are private does not mean that they are independent. All these channels either are controlled by the government in some way or another, or take their cues from the government, or indulge in self-censorship. As for the press, the situation here is different. There are, indeed, several newspapers of an oppositional nature that publish very critical materials and don't indulge in self-censorship. But these newspapers are under constant pressure. They are shut down and they have to reopen under different name. Their offices are burned, and their print runs are confiscated. In other words, there is significant pressure exerted on them.
RFE/RL: What is the reason?
Zhovitis: The reason is political. The government sees independent media as an instrument of propaganda and fears that the emergence of independent television channels, like Channel 5 in Ukraine or Rustavi-2 in Georgia, will provoke some sort of revolution or will work to somehow influence the voters. It's a means of control, just like they control the post and the telegraph.
RFE/RL: Mr. Hakimov, after the Tajik parliament adopted an amendment to the constitution concerning presidential elections, the deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, Rakhmatulo Valiev, said on multiple occasions that the president always uses amendments to the constitution and to the to law codes to his own advantage. What do you think of this? What is your reaction to the words of Mr. Valiev?
Hakimov: Indeed, the chairman of the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan disseminated this statement. He was then joined by the Democratic and Socialist parties and later the Islamic Party. These four parties demanded that a new constitutional law be passed concerning the election of the president of the Republic of Tajikistan.
In addition, they demanded that laws be passed permitting � and making it necessary � to have elections monitored and to ensure that the Central Election Commission remains independent on all levels. They also called for laws specifying the process of putting forth nominees for the post of president, because according to our current laws, not only parties, but also trade unions have this right, which is nonsense. In our current political system, we have eight parties, and our trade unions are very pro-government and are not concerned with any reform. They are completely under the control of the government and support anything it initiates, including its socioeconomic policy.
Although the Justice Ministry officially recognizes about 90 youth organizations, only one of has the right to nominate a candidate, because the leader of this organization is, at the same time, the chairman of the Committee for Youth Affairs of the Republic of Tajikistan.
After the candidates are selected, they have to gather signatures of support from at least 5 percent of the population. According to our estimates, this makes approximately 170,000 people. These signatures must be approved by local administrators, who are the president's nomenclature.
Since 1994, we have passed two constitutional reforms, and every time, the parliament had one year to accordingly modify and create laws. This did not happen. There are other important issues in the process by which the president of the republic is elected, but they are not taken into account. Therefore, we cannot be sure that our next elections will be free, democratic and fair; that they will respect the current principles of international law, particularly those adopted by the UN and by OSCE, and which Tajikistan has ratified.
RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, do you think that following the end of the new term of Mr. Nazarbaev's presidency, he will also change the election law, or do you think he will take another path?
Zhovitis: It is difficult to say, because the technologies of power maintenance used in post-Soviet countries vary. Some change the constitution and so prolong their term. Some change election laws. Others say that according to changes made in the constitution, the previous term does not count, so everything starts over again. I still hope the president's current term will, in accordance with the constitution, be his last and that no steps will be taken in imitation of Turkmenbashi [Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov] to instate life-long presidency. I don't think the constitution will be amended in this regard, but instead "Operation Heir" will take place, like it did with [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin. Therefore, we will not have Mr. Nazarbaev, but rather his heir, if the elections take place in 2013.
RFE/RL: What about Uzbekistan, Mr. Ikromov?
Ikromov: As far as I know, we are supposed to hold elections toward the end of 2007. Concerning whether the president will run again, no statement has been made yet, so we cannot know. I think President [Islam] Karimov will run again for another seven years.
RFE/RL: You know, this year the events in Andijon were an example of the brutal violation of human rights in Uzbekistan. The government used force against the demonstrators and the international community condemned this approach. What do you think of government's approach concerning the investigation?
Ikromov: After 13 May, when all this happened, they used force, there were executions, and many died. The government greatly underreports the number of dead. They say that 180 people were killed, but in reality, eyewitnesses, journalists, and human rights activists who were there report thousands of casualties. In this number, they also include people gone missing. This means that it is necessary to have an international, independent investigation.
Unfortunately, from the start, the government said there would be no investigation. This very fact shows that the government doesn't want the global community to know what really happened there. I hope that eventually we will be able to investigate. The way things stand now, many politicians, democratic countries, and organizations are demanding an investigation. This is good, but only if the pressure is maintained.
It is also necessary to demand punishment for these crimes. I say crimes because the fact in itself that weapons and force were used against peaceful demonstrators is criminal. There were other means of stopping the demonstrators, like spraying them with water hoses. There were also theaters and other buildings burning, which the government didn't bother to extinguish. So many questions will remain unanswered until an international investigation has taken place. I must emphasize how necessary this is.
RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, after the May events in Andijon, many sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan. What is the situation in the refugee camps right now? Are there still refugees there or has the UN immigration service sent them to other countries?
Akun: More than 400 refugees were held for some 4 months in our country. We are grateful to international organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for their enormous help. It was very difficult for us to take care of these people. We had to feed, clothe, and shelter them. In accordance with our international agreements, we provided them with aid and, through the assistance of the UN refugee committee, they were sent to Romania. However, 15 refugees remained. Some officials wanted to send them back to Uzbekistan, but our Presidential Human Rights Committee issued a categorical statement, in which it dismissed any further discussion of this. Several officials spoke out, refusing to turn over the individuals to the Uzbek president.
Kyrgyzstan strictly followed its obligations concerning refugees. Our president listened to us and supported our refusal to turn over the refugees. Nevertheless, we failed in one case, and four of the refugees were turned over. This was a harsh move on the part of Kyrgyzstan. The prime minister of the republic spoke out about this, condemning these actions and saying he did not know how it happened. He underwent serious scrutiny.
RFE/RL: Was there an opportunity to return these refugees to Uzbekistan?
Akun: Of course. There not only was the opportunity, there was an outright attack. Uzbekistan's legal authorities came. They worked in several regions in the country, making threats and trying to influence our government and local officials. However, our political parties did not want Kyrgyzstan to lose the respect of the international community and we strictly followed our obligations toward the refugees.
RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, do you think that Islam Karimov used the events in Andijon to attack his political opponents?
Akun: The actions of President Karimov are not supported by our organization. I believe that the events in Andijon were indeed a peaceful demonstration, based on the constitutional right to hold public meetings. I believe that the demonstrators wanted, just like people in other regions, to come out and put forth their constitutional demands, but unfortunately, they were violently put down. This tells that there is no real democracy in Uzbekistan; that there is no freedom of speech; and that the peaceful demonstration received a harsh punishment. This shows that Islam Karimov and his entourage are trying to sustain their authoritarian regime for years to come.
RFE/RL: Mr. Ikromov, what is your opinion on this matter?
Ikromov: I would like to use this occasion to express my gratitude to the human rights activists of Kyrgyzstan, including Tursunbek Akun. We have reports that there were many refugees, especially in May and June. Mr. Akun and his colleagues worked hard to defend their rights. Unfortunately, at the present moment the UN has to deal with many refugees. Half an hour before this program, I met with five of them. They recently received citizenship in other countries and were getting ready to leave. I also know that there are many refugees, both in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The majority of them are in the regions of Jalal-Abad and Osh. As far as I know, their number is constantly increasing, but Uzbek forces are going around capturing or arresting them, even though they already have political asylum granted by the UN. This is still happening.
In general, I think the flow of refugees from Uzbekistan is growing. Some groups are still arriving, looking for asylum through the UN in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Some groups are being persecuted. Uzbek special forces are pursuing them, capturing some. You may have heard that nine Muslims, who were forced to immigrate to Kazakhstan, were recently arrested. The same is happening in Kyrgyzstan.
RFE/RL: Mr. Zhovitis, on 26 November, on the eve of the election day, a large number of foreigners were deported from Kazakhstan. Among them were 43 citizens of Tajikistan, citizens of Kyrgyzstan, and six Ukrainians. How do you interpret this measure taken by the government?
Zhovitis: Our government periodically conducts these operations, capturing so-called 'illegal immigrants' or 'illegal work immigrants' who work in Kazakhstan. It is no secret that a number of citizens from neighboring countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan come to Kazakhstan to make money. The economic situation here is slightly better. There are more job opportunities compared to those countries, and they have an opportunity to make money and feed their families back home. Periodically, the government turns a blind eye to this, and sometimes it performs these operations.
So far, unfortunately, in terms of intergovernmental agreements, these issues have not been discussed. Most commonly, these deportations take place without any prior judicial proceedings, which is unfortunate, because some of those deported are actually legitimate businesspeople. For example, some of the Kyrgyz citizens who were recently deported were not illegal immigrants, but businesspeople who traded legally imported goods. Their registration periods were shortened and thus they were kicked out.
For the most part, this concerns citizens of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and is part of a policy of immigration 'cleansing,' by which the government tries to avoid the spreading of the 'Orange Revolution virus'. Allegedly, an employee of the Interior Ministry told a Ukrainian citizen that he had received an order to deport citizens of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In the case of three Ukrainians, their five-day visas were reduced to one day and they were expelled. As the basis for shortening their period of stay in Kazakhstan, they were told that they were collecting information about the elections without being registered with the Central Election Committee. Obviously, this was not a legitimate reason, because, in fact, no registration is necessary for this kind of activity.
RFE/RL: Citizens of Tajikistan are not only being deported from Central Asian countries, but often from Russia as well. Mr. Hakimov, how do you interpret this situation? Is it the lack of knowledge of laws on the part of Tajik immigrants or is there some other issue?
Hakimov: There are several reasons. First of all, our citizens have a fairly low level of legal awareness. Another reason is our low living standards and the inefficacy of socioeconomic reforms that are being conducted in the Republic of Tajikistan, resulting in high unemployment. All this forms a whole complex of reasons why our citizens leave the country as work immigrants. At the same time, it is important to note that as part of Commonwealth of Independent States and the Central Asian commonwealth, we strive toward integration. As part of this process, there must be mutual legal consensus and understanding on all sides.
RFE/RL: Mr. Akun, for a long time laws permitting capital punishment in Kyrgyzstan have been a subject of concern in the international community. This has been discussed by the UN human rights committee as a potential violation of the International Pact concerning civil and political rights. What is the new Kyrgyz government doing in order to remedy this situation?
Akun: First of all, I would like to add to the words of my colleague from Tajikistan. We consider the deportation of the citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan a severe violation of the international agreement on civil rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the constitution of our republic. Every citizen has the right to move freely from one place to another, including the crossing of borders.
As far as capital punishment is concerned, human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are against it. Reforms are currently being discussed, including an amendment to the constitution. Under influence from the Presidential Human Rights Committee, as well as the country's highest human rights authority, the president has agreed to abolish capital punishment, and this will be reflected in the new draft of the constitution. If this constitution is adopted, we will become the first country in Central Asia to abolish capital punishment, which will be a big step forward.
RUSSIAPUTIN BACKTRACKS ON NGO BILL By Robert Parsons
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his chief of staff to draft amendments to a controversial bill on nongovernmental organizations after the Council of Europe expressed reservations about its content. The bill, which last month passed its first reading in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, has been criticized by civil-rights activists. Foreign NGOs have warned that they might have to close their offices if the legislation is enacted. Although President Putin said the concerns of the Council of Europe should be taken into account, he defended the bill as necessary to the fight against terrorism.
Putin appears to have taken a step back from a bill on nongovernmental organizations that has been severely criticized both inside and outside Russia.
He told cabinet ministers on 5 December that the government should take into account the concerns expressed by the Council of Europe and Russia's own Public Chamber. Accordingly, he said he was asking his chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, to draft amendments to the bill by the end of the week.
At the same time, however, Putin defended the bill as necessary to ensure the country's security. "This bill is needed only to safeguard our political system against external interference and to protect our society and citizens from any terrorist or misanthropic ideology that could be spreading under this or that sign," Putin said.
Putin emphasized that the democratic process and the achievements of Russian civil society were the country's main asset. He said that in protecting itself against harmful influences, Russia should be careful not "to throw the baby out with the bath water."
The reaction from local nongovernmental organizations has been skeptical. Aleksandr Petrov, head of Human Rights Watch Russia, said he's seen it all before. "This is a favorite tactic of the government: two steps forward, one step back," Petrov said. "This has happened several times with other bills, when the government tables completely draconian bills and then Putin comes along and says it should be amended. That's what's happened again and again, and this is just one more episode."
The State Duma passed the bill on its first reading on 23 November by the overwhelming margin of 370 to 18 -- despite concerns raised by the United States and the European Union.
If passed in its current form, the new legislation would prevent international organizations from having representatives or branch offices in Russia. To operate in Russia, they would have to register as Russian NGOs and be financially independent of their head offices. It would also make them ineligible for most sources of foreign funding.
Among those threatened with closure by the bill are international human rights organizations, think tanks, foundations, and social-welfare and humanitarian-aid organizations.
Petrov of Human Rights Watch Russia sees the bill as an attempt to destroy the NGO community. "That goes well in line with all recent developments in Russia," Petrov said. "After all, TV stations were taken under control by the state and the political opposition was largely marginalized. The last independent sector of Russian society remains the noncommercial and general public organizations, and it seems it doesn't go in line with Putin's perception of how the state should be controlled."
Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is another who believes Putin's invocation of the security threat is a smoke screen to hide other intentions. "Any attempts by Putin or any other government official to say that extremist or terrorist organizations are operating under the guise of NGOs -- well, excuse me, but laws already exist for this," Panfilov said. "There's the Criminal Code and there's the Law on the Fight against Terrorism. If an NGO really does propagandize extremism or terrorism, then ways exist to pursue it by legal means."
Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society.
Panfilov said it's not security but politics that really lie at the heart of the bill. Like Petrov of Human Rights Watch, he argued that Putin fears the independence of civil society.
"Most of all, the authorities are alarmed by what happened in Georgia and Ukraine, where it's clear nongovernmental organizations played a major role in the revolutions there," Panfilov said. "So the Russian authorities are trying, two years ahead of the parliamentary elections, to in some way clean up the nongovernmental space, in order to protect themselves."
Putin's claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Russia's human-rights organizations see the bill as the latest stage in a long campaign by the government to emasculate civil society.
They point out the elimination of most independent media, the subordination of regional elites to the center, and the weakness of parliament and the judiciary. Nongovernmental organizations, rights watchers say, are almost all that is left of the checks and balances to presidential power in Russia.
This week may show how the Russian president really regards what he himself describes as the "achievements of our civil society."
RIGHTS GROUP SUSPENDS OPERATIONS OVER TOUGH NGO BILL By Claire Bigg
The Forum of Migrants Organizations, a leading umbrella NGO that promotes the rights of migrants across Russia, has announced it is suspending its operations. The organization says its foreign sponsors have retracted after a controversial bill that would place NGOs under strict state control passed its first reading on 23 November. The bill's authors say the changes would help the government curtail the financing of terrorist groups in Russia, but NGOs have cautioned that the bill may be used by the government to crack down on organizations its deems unwelcome.
When the draft law was introduced into the State Duma in early November, many NGOs warned the proposed restrictions would force them to close down.
And although the bill still has a long way to go before being signed into law, it seems to be already taking its toll on NGOs.
Lydia Grafova, the head of the Forum of Migrants' Organizations executive committee, says the draft law has scared off the group's foreign sponsors. As a result, she told RFE/RL her organization will have to close down as soon as 1 January 2006.
"From the beginning of next year, we have no funding whatsoever -- we don't have a single kopeck, for example, to pay the rent. When we started discussing this law on nongovernmental organizations, and when doubt fell on absolutely all sponsors working in Russia, our potential sponsors fell mysteriously silent. We have indeed been forced to close down, we have no other option," Grafova said.
The Forum of Migrants' Organizations was founded in 1996 and supervises almost 200 migrant rights groups in 47 Russian regions. It was instrumental in lobbying for a softer immigration policy, including the government's recent decision to amnesty large numbers of migrants working illegally in Russia.
Grafova said growing xenophobic sentiments in Russia make the forum's closure particularly tragic. "The Federal Migration Service, which consists largely of people in epaulettes, will not be able to implement this migration amnesty without the participation of civil organizations. It is very tragic that we have to leave, when the phobia of migrants is being used by the darkest of forces of our society. It is very, very worrying," Grafova said.
The bill follows a series of declarations by top-ranking officials that foreign-funded NGOs had allegedly played a key role in the popular protests that overthrew the governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
President Vladimir Putin in July said he would not allow foreign-funded NGOs to carry out what he said were "political activities."
If passed into law, the bill would force all NGOs in Russia to re-register with a state commission and would allow authorities to closely scrutinize their finances.
The initiative, however, has drawn stinging criticism both in Russia and abroad, leading Putin on 5 December to order his administration to work out amendments.
So far, the Forum of Migrants' Organizations is the first leading NGO to announce its closure since the new bill passed its first reading. Grafova predicts many more NGOs will meet the same fate as her organization.
But not all other rights activists are as pessimistic. Tatyana Kasatkina, the executive director of Russia's prominent human rights group Memorial, said the controversial bill has so far failed to dent her group's funding.
Kasatkina is even hopeful that the outrage caused by the bill will compel authorities to ditch it. "In fact, Putin has now introduced a few changes. It is clear that the draft will not be considered right now because precise amendments have not yet been introduced into this law, and it will probably be a little postponed," Kasatkina said. "It will probably be considered next year, and, as many hope, they may even forget about this project for good, because it has had great repercussions both abroad and in Russia."
White House officials said U.S. President George W. Bush had expressed concern over the bill during a meeting with Putin in South Korea on 18 November.
On 22 November, NGO leaders called on parliament to reject the bill in a collective appeal signed by some 1,300 people, branding it "the most odious decision in the past 15 years."
INTERVIEW: RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST SERGEI KOVALEV Sergei Kovalev is a biophysicist who is credited with founding the first human rights organization in the Soviet Union in 1969. His work as an activist eventually got him into trouble with the authorities, and he was arrested and tried in Lithuania in 1974 on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda."
He was convicted and served seven years in labor camps and three years of internal exile.
Kovalev was allowed to return to Moscow during Perestroika. During that time he participated in a number of human rights initiatives, including the founding of the Russian rights group Memorial, which focuses on the rehabilitation of victims of severe political persecution during the Soviet era.
He subsequently delved into politics, serving as a member of the Presidential Council in 1992. After being elected to the State Duma in 1993, and served as its human rights commissioner before being dismissed in 1995 due to his staunch criticism of the Chechen war.
He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on two occasions, in 1995 and 1996. Today Kovalev continues his activism, making the headlines as recently as November, when he was detained for participating in a demonstration against fascism.
Kovalev currently resides in Moscow, where RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Anna Kolchina caught up with him for an interview.
RFE/RL: Could you tell us how you started your human rights career?
Kovalev: There were many impulses that pushed me. To put it bluntly, the main impulse was shame, the desire to consider oneself a decent person. Everyone wants to have some basis for self-respect. This is what [writer and dissident Andrei] Amalrik called "to be a free person in a non-free country." This was an important discovery by the Soviet dissidents. Some of us believed that they formed a political opposition. This was a naive belief. It was the ethical incompatibility with the regime, with the horrors that surrounded us, and with the constant lies. In 1966, it was the trial of [writers Andrei] Sinyavskii and [Yulii] Daniel. My first participation in a public campaign of protest had to do with this trial. Actually, not long before, in a conversation with a friend, I said: "What can you do in this country? You can't do anything! All you can do is gather some TNT and blow up their stinking building where they have their stinking congresses. But in that case, I would sink down to their level. This is why I will study science." But then they had the trial of Sinyavskii and Daniel and I wrote my first letter of protest.
RFE/RL: In 1974, what were you accused of?
Kovalev: Oh, there were many things. My sentence contained 17 clauses. There was also an amusing allegation, concerning the "Gulag Archipelago." It was amusing because I was accused of disseminating this book, but really, I just gave it to a friend to read. The main clause in the sentence was about the "Chronicle Of Current Events." At the time when they arrested me, I was the editor in chief of the "Chronicle." It was a marvelous publication and it is not surprising that Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov considered it the most important phenomenon that came out of our country in that time. During the investigation, of course, I gave no testimony. I didn't want to participate in anything of the sort. In 1990, when I became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of what was still the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic], I had already visited many prisons, including those where I myself was detained. It was then that we sat down to make amendments to the Penal Code concerning correctional facilities.
RFE/RL: Please tell us about your work in Chechnya.
Kovalev: This is what human rights activists these days call "monitoring." I became the first plenipotentiary representative of human rights in the Russian Federation, and when the first war in Chechnya was nearing, I thought, "Can there be a more appropriate place for a human rights plenipotentiary?" So a small group called the Mission of the Plenipotentiaries went to Chechnya. We reported a lot to what was then a society and press that was active and wanted accurate information about that horrible war. We reported what we saw with our own eyes, and did so in the most meticulous fashion. On 10 March 1995, the State Duma removed me from my post for my opposition to the war. As far as our successes in Chechnya are concerned, we cannot truly measure the value of our work. There is one definite result, however: Budennovsk. I don't know how many lives we saved when Shamil Basaev seized a hospital there, but I can say one thing, there were many. When Russian forces first stormed the building, some 80 hostages were killed. It is scary to imagine how many more would have died if they had continued to storm.
RFE/RL: Being a human rights activist must be a calling.
Kovalev: My destiny, embodied by the Soviet regime, bestowed upon me a curious and somewhat surprising profession. I was a fairly successful scientist and, perhaps, would have earned a Ph.D. or something like that. But the regime said, "No, you're going to be a human rights activist." So that's what I became, and that's what I am to this day. I like this profession just as much.