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Watch List: January 13, 2000

13 January 2000, Volume 2, Number 2

RUSSIA TO DETAIN, CHECK ALL CHECHEN MALES AGED 10 TO 60. As part of Moscow's new and self-described "tougher tactics" adopted to recoup from the severe setbacks in the war on Chechnya, Russian soldiers will detain all Chechen males between the ages of 10 and 60 for "thorough" checks of possible links with the rebels, the Russian command announced on 11 January. Local Human Rights Watch representative Peter Bouckaert said the new policy was not only unacceptable but counterproductive as well. He explained that a main reason many young men stay in combat areas is that they are afraid to go through checkpoints, but the new rule "will only reinforce that fear." The Russian military is understating its casualties in Chechnya, Russian soldiers in various locations have told reporters, and some Russian news organizations, including those that used to report only Russian victories, have begun to quote their sources. On 8 January, Interior Ministry soldiers told AP that the actual number of dead is twice or even three times higher than officially reported. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, as Russian forces retook the strategic town of Shali from the rebels, 250 residents, mostly civilians, died in two days of fighting which also destroyed much of the town. At the same time, 26 Russian soldiers died, Interior Ministry officials said.

EMIGRATION FROM RUSSIA TO ISRAEL UP DRAMATICALLY. In 1999 the number of Russian Jews emigrating to Israel more than doubled -- to 29,534 from 13,019 in 1998 -- because of anti-Semitism and the financial crisis, Interfax reported on 8 January, citing the Jewish Agency responsible for immigration. Aleksandr Osovtsov, vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, told Interfax that the increase reflected both the general political instability in Russia and the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents there. Meanwhile, the Association of Belarusian Jews on 6 January accused Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka of not doing enough to stem "the rising tide of anti-Semitism" and criticized Israel for letting him visit Jerusalem last week. In a briefing in Minsk reported by AFP, the association issued a statement citing vandalism of Jewish graves and fires set in synagogues, and asserted that "such acts have the tacit approval of the country's leadership."

TASHKENT EXECUTES SIX ALLEGED TERRORISTS. The authorities in Uzbekistan announced on 7 January the execution of six men who had been sentenced to death last summer on charges that they were behind the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 June 1999). Thirteen other defendants in the case are serving sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison. Several foreign journalists and diplomats were allowed to monitor the trial, but domestic human rights activists and relatives of the defendants were not allowed in the courtroom. Abdumannob Polat, an Uzbek dissident now in exile in Washington, told "Watchlist" that independent observers concluded that the prosecution had failed to make its case. After the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences, President Islam Karimov expressed his dissatisfaction with the verdict and permitted the state-controlled media to quote him that the defendants are "our children, and we have to treat them accordingly." Nevertheless, he did not grant clemency.

TURKMEN DISSIDENT ARRESTED. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the arrest on 5 January of Nurberdi Nurmamedov, one of the last Turkmen opposition leaders neither in jail nor in exile. "Turkmenistan has proved once again that it is one of the world's most repressive states," said Holly Cartner of HRW. When arresting Nurmamedov, the police told family members that they were looking for "weapons and narcotics." But a more likely reason may be the interviews Nurmamedov gave last month to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. At that time, he sharply criticized the 12 December parliamentary elections because no independent candidates were allowed to participate. He also described as unconstitutional the parliament's decision to make Saparmurat Niyazov president-for-life. Turkmen exile sources report that the Ashgabat authorities have also begun to seize apartments and houses owned by opposition figures now abroad.

OPERATION WHIRLWIND ENDS BUT NON-MUSCOVITES STILL LIVE IN FEAR. Operation Whirlwind -- the roundup and deportation of thousands of non-Muscovites, especially Caucasians, in the Russian capital -- ended in October, but dozens of people are still detained, and the police have resumed their previous level of harassment and extortion of non-permanent residents, according to Susan Brazier for Moscow's Memorial Human Rights Center. However, Whirlwind failed in its declared objective: tracking down the terrorists who blew up three apartment buildings and killing some 300 residents. Still, Moscow officials proudly cite the operation's statistics: 2,386 people arrested, 800 shipped out of the city, and more than 20,000 who applied to reregister as residents refused. Recently, the city opened a hotline for Chechens for complaints, and the police supposedly received an order to be sensitive to minority communities, Brazier reports. "The Moscow Times" quoted human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina of the NGO Civic Assistance as saying that lately the "madness" has decreased, but there is no "radical change." (Indeed, the expulsion of "persons of Caucasus nationality" from Moscow has been going on since October 1993. That decree, issued by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, has not been rescinded.) One crisis has passed, Brazier writes, but "migrants and refugees are still subject to the whims of a police force whose racism and brutality is well-documented and a government that refuses to bring it into line." Until those problems are addressed and while Russia wages war against Chechnya, "thousands of people wait in trepidation for the next time a new policy, a new terrorist act, or a political whim means another wave of ethnically targeted humiliation, arrest, and abuse."

UKRAINIAN POLICE SURROUND CRIMEAN TATAR ASSEMBLY. On 11 January, some 200 officers of Ukraine's special forces surrounded the office of the Mejlis (or assembly) of the Crimean Tatar People in Simferopol, detained Mejlis member Riza Shevkiev, and searched the premises for documents relating to the charitable foundation established by a Mejlis leader, according to an email message from a Crimean Tatar activist. On 29 December, Mejlis member Abmedzhit Suleymanos was arrested and charged with financial improprieties. Crimean Tatars have been preparing meetings for the latter part of January to discuss pressing for official recognition of the Mejlis as the representative of the Crimean Tatar people and persuading European institutions to recognize Crimean Tatars as "an indigenous people" rather than a national minority.

SERBIAN COURT ACQUITS FOUR KOSOVAR ALBANIANS... Citing lack of evidence, Judge Nikola Vazura of the Pozarevac Court acquitted four Kosovo Albanians charged with participating in an attack on police vehicles at the village of Donje Krusice. After 17 months in custody, Ekrem Veselaj, Hazis Krueziu, Eshref Mazreku, and Hilmi Perteshi were released to the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which returned them to their homes. The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center welcomed the ruling and urged other Serbian courts to "demonstrate equal professionalism in adhering to the law" and disregard political interference.

...RUSSIAN PROSECUTOR DEMANDS ANNULLING NIKITIN'S ACQUITTAL. St. Petersburg Prosecutor Aleksandr Gutsan has appealed to Russia's Supreme Court to annul the 29 December acquittal of environmental writer Aleksandr Nikitin and to transfer the case, which has dragged on for more than four years, to another judge of the city court. According to the Norwegian Bellona Foundation, which had employed Nikitin to research illegal nuclear waste dumping by Russia's Northern Fleet, Gutsan demanded that Nikitin get 12 years in a labor camp for espionage. The acquittal stunned Gutsan who "stormed" into the judge's office and demanded to know why he had not been informed of the judgment beforehand. According to Bellona, the judge replied that he had not told the defense either. Yuri Schmidt, Nikitin's lawyer, said he hoped that "no politics will interfere" and the appeal will be dismissed. But the Supreme Court has the power to accept the appeal or to forward the case for yet more investigation by the Security Police..

** UPDATE ** Though the Belarusian government at last announced on 28 December that a full-scale investigation of the case of former interior minister and opposition leader General Yury Zakharanka, who disappeared on 7 May, the authorities have said nothing. Similarly, there is not a word about the other two opposition figures, Viktor Ganchar, deputy chairman of the de jure Belarusian parliament, and businessman Anatol Krasovsky, both of whom disappeared on 16 September.

BRIEFS BELARUS. At the end of December, the justice ministry warned two organizations of Belarusian Poles against using "unregistered symbols." The authorities gave the Poles ten days to eliminate "the irregularities" or face administrative actions which may lead to closure of the associations. CROATIA. On 3 January the democratic opposition to the late President Franjo Tudjman's coalition of radical nationalists won an upset victory in parliamentary elections. According to analysts such as the independent Balkan news service AIM, Croatians voted against the Tudjman dictatorship's persecution of oppositionists and widespread violations of human rights and democratic norms, which had also led to the country's isolation in the international community. INGUSHETIA. Formed in 1992 after the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, the Ingush Red Crescent Society now assists the more than 200,000 refugees from neighboring Chechnya who have nearly doubled the population of the Ingush Republic. At the moment, the organization delivers directly to the refugees clothing donated by the Russian and the international Red Cross societies. Planned for the near future are mobile medical aid centers. ISRAEL. Once a dissident in the Soviet Union and now Israeli interior minister, Natan Sharansky told a 6 January luncheon in honor of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin that the two countries both faced the threat of Islamic fundamentalism but the war on Chechnya is inflicting unacceptable suffering on civilians. While Yeltsin pledged that "two more months and we will plant our Russian flag in Chechnya," Sharansky warned that "it is very dangerous to turn the struggle against terrorism into a struggle against a whole people." MOLDOVA. During the night of 7 January, the offices of the Russian-language daily "Novy Poriadok" in Chisinau were vandalized. In addition to swastikas, the intruders painted nationalist-minded threats on the walls. Reporters Sans Frontieres protested, asking the authorities to take measures to protect the security of journalists. RUSSIA. Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov told "Ekho Moskvy" radio on 7 January that in last month's elections at least 7 percent of the votes were illegally "stolen" from his party. He called the ratings in the upcoming presidential race fraudulent and predicted a second round.

END NOTE: Latvia Completes Language Law Trek

By Mel Huang and Martins Zvaners

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga signed a new set of amendments to the language law on 20 December 1999, thereby ending many months of controversy over the issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 1999). The desire of most politicians there to protect the Latvian language threatened to become an obstacle on Riga's effort to join European structures. But after overcoming a variety of obstacles, the pro-European wing of Latvian politicians won in the tug-of-war.

Since Latvia regained its independence in 1991, providing legal guarantees for the primacy of the Latvian language has been a major priority for the country's political class. It has also been a source of anger and worry for the many Soviet Army officers and factory workers brought to Latvia during the Soviet occupation who felt neither any compelling need or desire to learn the national language.

As the Latvian parliament began deliberations in early 1999 over a new language law, pressure from domestic opponents and international organizations mounted. The law, which establishes Latvian as the official language, also places restrictions on the use of other languages in certain circumstances. As these restrictions touch on private sector activities and public events, the level and volume of criticism by the European Commission and EU member states increased. Officials from the OSCE, Council of Europe, and other organizations warned that the draft law failed to conform to European norms in its regulation of private sector language use and other provisions in the law. In other words, the passage of the law threatened Latvia's chances to join the EU. Nevertheless, the parliament easily passed the law by a lopsided vote of 73 to 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July 1999) on 8 July 1999 -- the same day Vike-Freiberga was inaugurated as president.

Within a week of her inauguration, Vike-Freiberga won universal praise for her decision on 14 July to veto the law, even though the law had passed by a large majority. She sent the bill back to the parliament with a list of concerns, taking into account the recommendations and criticisms levelled against it from international organizations, such as the OSCE. Immediately, positive reaction flowed in from the EU, OSCE, and others, while new Prime Minister Andris Skele accepted her decision and set a later date to deal with amending the law.

Skele's reaction was a key indicator of the half-hearted support of the law by two of the three parties making up the new governing coalition. Skele's People's Party and Latvia's Way clearly did not consider the language law, in its then-current form, as immutable as did the more nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom. At the time, voting for the law was a prerequisite for pulling together a majority governing coalition under Skele.

On 9 December, after several reviews in committee and among the political factions, the parliament passed amendments watering down the law passed in June by a margin of 52 to 26. Prior to its passage, the latest version of the language law received nods from nearly all international observers, such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the European Commission. The new version loosens some of the language restrictions, such as those placed on language usage in the private sphere.

An analysis of the parliamentary vote clearly reaffirms the political calculations made by various parts of the ruling coalition. The nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom, which criticized the watered-down version, abstained in the roll call. Voting against the bill would have been a breach of the coalition agreement and would have jeopardized the government's future, therefore the party's only option was to abstain. The pro-European People's Party and Latvia's Way carried the day by crafting a language law acceptable to international organizations and tolerable to their disappointed coalition partner.

Passage of the language law amendments was largely driven by the opening, on 10 December, of the Helsinki European Union ministerial session which decided to begin formal accession talks with Latvia and five other candidate states. Most of the ruling coalition felt that the language law needed to be significantly modified. They clearly remembered their disappointment in late 1998 when the European Commission decided not to "promote" any of the "second-tier" countries, and they did all they could to make sure Latvia's aspirations to European integration would not be derailed again.

The only individual to carry out her duties with firm conviction during this entire episode was Vike-Freiberga. Barely inaugurated as president, she saw the difficulties presented by the original language of the June law, from the point of view of domestic integration as well as Latvia's international obligations and European integration, and acted to alleviate these problems. Her actions gave Latvia -- and Prime Minister Skele -- a way back from the brink at which Latvia's EU aspirations had been situated since June. The new president also earned a reputation as someone with whom both international organizations and Latvian politicians of various stripes could work, a reputation likely to serve both her and Latvia well in the coming years.

Talinn-based Mel Huang covers Baltic issues for "RFE/RL Newsline" and Martins Zvaners is assistant director of RFE/RL's Communications Division.