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Watch List: February 25, 1999

25 February 1999, Volume 1, Number 7

SLOVAK GOVERNMENT SAYS PREVIOUS REGIME INCITED ETHNIC HATRED. Under former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, Slovak intelligence chief Ivan Lexa tasked agents to provide logistical support to neo-Nazi groups in the Czech Republic and to stir anti-Roma feeling.This effort was intended to defame Prague�s reputation and thus reduce its chances of being integrated into NATO and other Western institutions. These operations, and others like them against Austria, Hungary, and Poland, had Russian approval.These revelations were in a confidential report to parliament delivered on Feb. 19 by Vladimir Mitro, the new director of intelligence appointed by pro-Western Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, who defeated former communist Meciar in last year's elections. Details of the report were published in Bratislava�s daily "SME." On Feb. 24, Bratislava formally apologized to four of its neighbors.

CZECHS ARREST SKINHEADS. In the Czech Republic, police have arrested leaders of two right-wing extremist groups near Prague, according to the news agency CTK. The roundup led to the cancelation of an international meeting of radical skinheads, the police said. Those arrested are charged with supporting a movement seeking to suppress civil rights, a violation of Czech law. But Stanislav Penc of the local Documentation Center for Human Rights questioned the police claim of having delivered a crushing blow to the skinheads. He told CTK that over the past eight years his group recorded 1,500 racially motivated attacks, 21 of which resulted in death. Prime Minister Milos Zeman rewarded three of the police officers leading one raid and announced plans to make extreme-right groups illegal.

BELARUSIAN NEWSPAPERS DEFY CENSORSHIP. Editors of four Belarusian independent newspapers based in Minsk told RFE/RL on Feb. 17 that they will continue reporting on the opposition's plan to hold presidential elections in May, despite a stern warning on Feb. 15 by the State Committee for the Press. "Narodnaya Volya" editor Josif Seredych said that his newspaper is preparing for "most unfavorable developments," such as a shutdown which may force publication of the paper from abroad. According to the New York-based International League for Human Rights, the seven independent papers warned by the government have kept up their reporting on the opposition.

KAZAKH GOVERNMENT DELAYS REGISTRATION OF OPPOSITION PARTIES. Kazakhstan's recently established Orleu movement and the People's Republican Party blame the Justice Department for delaying their registration for several months, RFE/RL reports. Both opposition groups suspect that the delay is intended to block their participation in the parliamentary elections that may be held in advance of the originally scheduled date in the fall.

GORE WELCOMES TURKMEN PIPELINE BUT ADVISES FREE ELECTIONS. In a message to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov reported by ITAR-TASS on Feb. 21, U.S. Vice President Al Gore welcomed the choice of an American company to lead the consortium that will build the trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Georgia. The U.S. supports Turkmen efforts to develop an independent energy industry, Gore's message said, and he identified the pipeline, which is to carry natural gas, as a key component of that independence. But, according to the Russian news agency, Gore also reminded Niyazov that holding free elections constitutes a significant element in building long-term stability in any country.

ORTHODOX EPISCOPATE TO OPEN IN BAKU. A Russian Orthodox center, called the Baku and Caspian Episcopate, will soon open in the Azerbaijani capital, reports the newspaper "Millat." Shaykh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Transcaucasus, explained to "Millat" that his consent to having such a center is linked to the opening of a Transcaucasus Muslim mission in Moscow.

MAGADAN CHURCH UNDER SIEGE. In December and January, Russian police and tax officials searched the Word of Life Pentecostal church in Magadan in Russia�s Far East, removing computers and financial records, reports the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom. Police claim to have found 15 grams of industrial gold which individuals are not permitted to own. On Feb. 5, the police conducted a night-time search of the church under the pretext of hunting for drug dealers and then combed through the homes of the pastor and two church officials. Following the raids, 326 members of the 800-strong church filed for political asylum with the U.S. consul in Vladivostok. Pastor Nikolai Voskoboinikov told Keston that the authorities planted the gold to embarrass the church.

END NOTE: RUSSIAN FSB SURVEILLANCE OF INTERNET CHALLENGED (By Charles Fenyvesi) -- A Russian human rights group has launched a court challenge to secret police surveillance of Internet communications, and those who have brought the case expect the courts to rule in their favor.

As Internet has spread to the Russian Federation, the Federal Security Service (FSB) has taken steps to monitor all Internet traffic. It has demanded that each service provider give the FSB, without charge, a separate room in its headquarters with the computer and software necessary to monitor all Internet traffic carried by that service.

Boris Pustintsev, a longtime dissident who is now the internationally respected director of Citizens' Watch, a St. Petersburg NGO, is leading a group of human rights activists in challenging this practice.

According to Pustintsev, the FSB�s Internet arrangement is "illegal" and the FSB uses illegal intimidation to achieve its goals. Whenever a service provider raises objections, he notes, an FSB officer threatens the cancelation of his license, and the service provider caves in. The Russian activist described this situation and his challenge to it during a Feb. 18 seminar organized by American University's Center for the Study of Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption.

Pustintsev told RFE/RL during his visit to Washington that his Citizens' Watch is filing a lawsuit, on the basis of a complaint by a new Internet service provider, Oleg Syrov, whom Pustintsev called "a rebel." Based in Volgograd, Syrov recently refused to bend to the FSB's demand for the usual accommodations, and he is now in danger of losing his license.

Pustintsev suggested that there is "a very good chance" that Syrov, backed by Citizens' Watch attorneys, will win the case. He said that Russian statutes and the constitution itself are clearly on the side of honoring the privacy of personal communications such as Internet's e-mail service. And he indicated that he hopes that the court will condemn the FSB method of blackmailing service providers.

Many Western experts think Pustintsev may succeed. American University�s Louise Shelley, a leading authority on crime in the Russian Federation, has noted that Pustintsev has an �unusual ability to build bridges, both to other NGOs and to different sections of the government."

Pustintsev believes that the court action may also block a technologically more sophisticated new regulation now being developed. It is known as SORM-2 -- System for Ensuring Investigated Activity � and was recently described in detail in the "St. Petersburg Times" of Feb. 16. According to that paper, SORM-2 is based on a complex new piece of computer equipment which incorporates both hardware and software, and it is now in the offices of the Justice Ministry, "awaiting minor tweaks before its final enactment." SORM-2 is designed "to instigate real-time monitoring of every e-mail message and Web page sent or received in Russia." Such an arrangement would allow the FSB "to play fast and loose with the official presentation of warrants, which, last time we checked, were still required by law."

"The St. Petersburg Times" cites experts who estimate that if put in use, SORM-2 will cost service providers several thousand dollars a month for "technical upgrades required to establish 'hotlines' automatically bouncing information directly to FSB computers." Such costs will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher monthly fees, which may then "decimate" the number of users, which in turn will ultimately lead to fewer service providers. "It's a vicious cycle that stifles freedom," the editorial concludes.

"SORM-2 is a clear violation of the European convention on human rights, to which Russia is a signatory," according to James Dempsey, the head of a Washington-based NGO that seeks to defend Internet privacy, "What's more, the European Court recognizes that laws on electronic surveillance must be extra precise because of the great advances in technology." Dempsey is concerned that SORM-2 will enable FSB to activate surveillance at will and that there would be no way for the service provider to know if the government had provided a warrant for surveillance or even if the FSB intercepted communications at all.

If the court indeed rules against the FSB, and if the FSB obeys the court, it will be a breakthrough for the cause of privacy. But if Pustintsev is optimistic about the outcome of this case, he is pessimistic about the immediate prospects for democracy in Russia. Building it, he told RFE/RL, is likely to be a task for "our grandchildren."