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Watch List: January 6, 2000

6 January 2000, Volume 2, Number 1

'LIBERATED' CHECHNYA IS FAR FROM NORMAL. There is no gas, no electricity, no work, no pensions, and no open schools in the portion of Chechnya Moscow officials describe as "liberated" and "returning to normal," according to "The Moscow Times." Indeed, many residents told the paper that life for them has gone from "bad to far worse" since the Russian troops arrived. Reporting from a refugee camp in Ingushetia, David Filipov of the "Boston Globe" found that Chechens there remain fearful of returning to what is left of their homes. Many of them told Filipov that the Russian occupation forces are "often intent on punishing everyone, whether or not they are rebel fighters."

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS PROTEST WORLD BANK LOAN TO RUSSIA. Human rights groups condemned the World Bank's decision to extend a $100 million loan to Russia, arguing that such assistance only encourages Moscow to continue its war in Chechnya. The decision to go ahead with the loan "represents a lost opportunity to send a strong signal," said Elizabeth Andersen of Human Rights Watch. World Bank officials defended the loan as part of an $800 million package approved two years ago to help modernize Russia's coal sector. The loan was announced less than a week after the United States blocked a $500 million Export-Import Bank loan guarantee, earmarked for helping Russia's troubled oil industry. Disbursements from a $4.5 billion International Monetary Fund have also been frozen as the United States and the European Union urged Moscow to negotiate a political settlement in Chechnya.

A MIXED REPORT CARD FOR RUSSIAN DUMA ELECTIONS. The OSCE said in a preliminary report that the 19 December Russian parliamentary "marked significant progress for the consolidation of democracy" in that country but that the news media and government authorities in charge of the elections had behaved in ways that fall short of the standards of the OSCE. The report praised the election as "competitive and pluralistic" and the election laws as "improved" and providing "a significantly increased level of transparency." But it criticized the "most important segments of the media" for failing to provide "impartial and fair information about the political choices" and chided candidates and the media for attacking opponents in ways that often crossed the line to slander and libel. The report also criticized "interference by executive authorities in the election process," such as failure to allow opposition parties and candidates to arrange public meetings, dismissal from employment, initiation of "extraordinary tax inspections, administrative fines, and criminal investigations that were subsequently proven groundless." The report also noted that public support for the war on Chechnya "insulated the government from criticism on significant domestic issues, which had previously been at the forefront of the political debates." The OSCE will issue a final report in February.

NIKITIN ACQUITTED. After an investigation that had dragged on for more than four years and after an inconclusive first trial, Judge Sergei Golets of the St. Petersburg Court acquitted environmental whistleblower Aleksandr Nikitin. A former naval captain who became a journalist, Nikitin was arrested and charged with espionage because of his participation in the Bellona Foundation's report on illegal nuclear waste dumping by Russia's Northern Fleet. He has consistently maintained that he had disclosed no secrets and that all information he contributed was available in the public domain. Nikitin, who now heads the Environmental Rights Center in St. Petersburg, received the 1996 Goldman Prize for Environmental Heroism, often called the Nobel Prize for environmental achievement. The Sierra Club's Stephen Mills greeted the acquittal saying that "Russia cannot hide from the truth."

CIVIL LIBERTIES DETERIORATE IN RUSSIA. Freedom House's end-of-the-century global survey of human rights this year notes that the "dramatic gains for freedom registered in the 1980s and earlier in the 1990s did not continue in 1999." Incremental gains continue, Freedom House said, but in some countries, conditions deteriorated in the past year: The Russian Federation is the only former communist state among the 12 countries which registered "significant negative trends" in 1999, and Turkmenistan is the only former communist state which appears on the list of the 13 worst-rated countries.

AI DECRIES 'LAW AND ORDER VACUUM' IN KOSOVA. In a 23 December report, Amnesty International pointed to increases in the number of murders, abductions, and house-burning targeting Serbs, Roma, Muslim Slavs, and moderate Albanians as evidence of a failure by the UN mission to protect human rights. AI charged that a "law and order vacuum" has developed in Kosova, with the level of violence now almost as high as it was in June when the UN set up its civilian and security presence. Out of 6,000 international police officers promised several months ago by the UN, only 1,890 have arrived, AI stated, and the UN also failed to establish an independent and impartial judicial system.

** UPDATE ** The Belarusian government has launched a full-scale investigation of the 7 May disappearance of former interior minister and opposition leader, General Yury Zakharanka, Minister of Interior Yury Sivakov announced on 28 December. But not a word was said about the other two, Viktar Ganchar, deputy chairman of de jure Belarusian parliament, and his businessman friend Anatol Krasovsky, both of whom disappeared on 16 September. The whereabouts of the fourth missing Belarusian, former national bank chief Tamara Vinnikova, is still a mystery. In early December, she gave two telephone interviews to reporters, but refused to reveal where she was and how she escaped from house arrest in Minsk on 8 April.

BRIEFS: BELARUS. Criminal charges against prominent civil rights lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya were dropped for lack of evidence. She was sued for libel by Anatoly Smolentsev, chief investigator in a corruption case against Stremkovskaya's client, collective farm director Vasily Starovoitov. The investigator claimed Stremkovskaya defamed him in a court hearing by asking what had happened to 40 bottles of French cognac confiscated during a search of Starovoitov's house. KYRGYZSTAN. On 3 January a Bishkek court rejected an appeal by the opposition Ar-Namys (Conscience) Party against a ruling by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) that the party does not qualify to nominate candidates for the party-list seats in the 20 February election to the lower chamber, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The Justice Ministry had advised the CEC not to register the party, arguing that the law requires parties to be registered at least one year in advance of an election. Ar-Namys was registered in August 1999. Ar-Namys countered that the law was based on the 1991 Law on Public Associations, and that the Law on Political Parties adopted in 1999 does not impose any comparable restrictions on election participation. LITHUANIA. On 1 January, the Vilnius-based Baltic Wave Radio began broadcasting in Belarusian and will soon provide eight hours of air time a day, combining original programming with broadcasts from Radio Liberty in Prague, Radio Polonia in Warsaw, Lithuanian Radio in Vilnius, and Radio Racja in Bialystok. Baltic Waves is an independent radio funded by Western NGOs to offer uncensored news in Belarusian. The Minsk regime has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the venture. TAJIKISTAN. Three men were sentenced to death at year's end for crimes including terrorism, murder, and arms smuggling, Amnesty International reports. According to AI's sources, two additional men have also been sentenced to death. Apparently most of the men are followers of the outlawed opposition leader Makhmud Khudoyberdiyev, and they are being tried for involvement in political violence in November 1998, with the intent to seize power. AI, which objects to capital punishment regardless of the crime, says that Tajik authorities handed down at least 15 death sentences in 1999 and executed two people, but the real number "may be much higher." TURKMENISTAN. In December, Turkmen authorities arrested two Baptist ministers and their wives, then put them on planes bound for Kyiv, according to the religious news service Compass Direct. One of the couples, Vladimir and Olga Chernov, had residency in the country since 1993. Yet they were refused permission to go home and collect their possessions. YUGOSLAVIA. Reporters Sans Frontieres protested the fines totalling the equivalent of $70,000 imposed on Publisher and Chief Editor Vukasin Obradovic of the independent daily "Novine Vranjske" in southern Serbia. The paper published a Helsinki Committee on Human Rights report on ethnic Albanians who fled Serbia during the NATO bombing. According to the Yugoslav army, which filed the complaint, the report "incited religious and racial hatred." RSF noted that the fines may lead to the daily's closure and "represent a form of censorship."


By Charles Fenyvesi

While Boris Yeltsin started out as a supporter of human rights and resigned after two wars against Chechnya stained his reputation, his heir Vladimir Putin rose from the shadows of the KGB to sudden popularity as the champion of what some of his allies do not hesitate to call "the final solution" of the Chechen problem.

Human rights activists are especially apprehensive because of Putin's close ties with hawkish military officers and his penchant for intimidating the news media. In his better days, Yeltsin sometimes sounded like a visceral democrat. But Putin, despite his frequent pledges not to return to the Soviet past, gives the impression that he is an authoritarian who believes in the use of force and the primacy of state control.

Under Prime Minister Putin's aggressive media management, most Russian news organizations were threatened or coaxed into fighting a patriotic war against "Chechen bandits and terrorists." As acting president, Putin changed his line; he has redefined the war's aim as defending Russia from disintegration and chaos. As for foreign news organizations, they received the kind of treatment familiar from Soviet days. For instance, after correspondents for Reuters and the Associated Press reported last month that Chechen fighters had attacked a Russian armored column in Grozny, killing scores of soldiers, Russian officials first denied that any clashes had taken place at all in the locality. Then FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich charged that Western news organizations were trying to whip up "anti-Russian sentiments." He characterized Western news coverage as "an active operation carried out by foreign special services."

Denial was again the official strategy when on 25 December Moscow's NTV showed footage from the flattened Chechen village of Alkhan-Yurt of an open-top trailer which Russian soldiers had loaded with domestic items such as electronic equipment, carpets, and homemade jelly. Unmistakably, the film captured an instance of looting. NTV also showed Russian officers squabbling with Moscow's principal civilian envoy to Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, who went to Alkhan-Yurt to investigate allegations of killing and looting. The film was provided by village native Malik Saidullayev, head of the pro-Moscow State Council of Chechnya, who nevertheless accused Russian soldiers of killing 41 civilians in Alkhan-Yurt and looting their homes.

Lt.-Gen. Vladimir Shamanov had a ready answer to questions about the conduct of his troops. "Don't you dare to touch Russian soldiers with your dirty hands," he warned NTV in a televised interview. "They are defending Russia." According to ITAR-TASS, Shamanov attributed "the fuss about Alkhan-Yurt to the fact that the Russian army has taken over the town, thus putting rebels in Grozny 'on the brink of catastrophe.' " When asked who was responsible for the charges of killing and looting, Shamanov charged "unscrupulous people," some of them in official circles.

A day earlier, Russia's prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, announced that a preliminary investigation found no proof that the soldiers exceeded their authority in Alkhan-Yurt.

Decades of Soviet routine conditioned the public: The authorities are always right, and in the rare case that they make a mistake, letting the enemy take advantage of that mistake is far worse than acknowledging the mistake. And there is always an enemy.

Visiting the troops in the Russian-held Chechen city of Gudermes, the day after Yeltsin named him acting president, Putin declared: "We are going to do everything in an optimal way. Optimal means the fewest possible casualties among our troops and the absence of casualties among civilians." The Defense Ministry reports 404 soldiers killed between 2 August, when Russia attacked guerrillas in Daghestan, and 16 December, and the number of wounded at 1,033. "But that is an underestimate," a front page "New York Times" dispatch on rising casualties stated flatly on 5 January. "Our estimate of 1,000 already dead and 3,000 wounded is a bare minimum," "The Moscow Times" of 24 December quoted Valentina Melnikova of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers' Committees. She accused the Russian authorities of "lying like mad." The organization's appeal to the military to publish a weekly log of soldiers killed and wounded has gone unanswered.

In contrast to Putin's hyperbolae, Mikhail Gorbachev was realistic in an interview with the Italian daily "La Stampa," published on 3 January. Putin's position would quickly deteriorate in the event of defeat, or even of no victory, the last Soviet head of state argued. "So he will do everything to win, at any cost, and regardless of the number of deaths."