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Watch List: March 4, 1999

4 March 1999, Volume 1, Number 8

U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT GIVES RUSSIA POOR MARKS... The State Department's annual human rights report found few signs of progress in Russia. It described prison conditions as "extremely harsh," with law enforcement officials engaging in torture and severe beatings. As a result, between 10,000 and 20,000 inmates died last year. In the military, the report noted an increase in the number of soldiers abusing soldiers, a development that has led to deaths and suicides. Arbitrary arrest and detention remain a problem, and, according to the report, the government has not implemented the constitutional provisions for due process, fair trial, and humane punishment. As for religious freedom, the government's promise to develop a liberal interpretation of the admittedly restrictive 1997 law "did not resolve many of the law's inherent ambiguities." The report cited "numerous" instances of religious groups denied registration or facing long delays in getting registered.

...BUT CHINA'S MARKS FOR XINJIANG ARE EVEN POORER... The State Department's human rights report noted that racial discrimination is "the source of deep resentment" among China's minorities, and it singled out Xinjiang and Tibet as the regions where "serious human rights abuses persisted" and "restrictions on religion and other fundamental freedoms intensified." The report also took China to task for failing to recognize Han racism against these and other minorities. During Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to China, a Xinjiang court official told Agence France Presse that 10 Muslims had been executed in late January for involvement in Uighur separatist unrest. Albright called on Beijing to end its crackdown on dissidents but signaled that disagreements over human rights will not affect trade links.

...WHILE REPORT FINDS MIXED PICTURE IN CENTRAL ASIA. In the five Central Asian republics, the State Department report found the human rights records of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to be poor, with serious violations in many areas including the repression of opposition forces, discrimination against women and minorities, and denial of privacy and freedom of the press. In Tajikistan, members of the security forces were responsible for beatings and killings of detainees, and prison conditions remain life-threatening. But at the same time, the report notes, two new opposition papers began publishing. In Uzbekistan, the police and security forces continued the use of torture, and arrested opposition activists on false charges. In Turkmenistan, arbitrary arrests and unfair trials remain serious problems, while prisons are unsafe; but the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights did complete its second year of monitoring. In Kazakhstan, the government infringed on the right of its citizenry to change its rulers by preventing the opposition from participating in elections. The legal structure does not protect human rights, and government tolerance of the independent news media has deteriorated. In Kyrgyzstan, the State Department saw some improvement in the government's respect for human rights, but police brutality and prison conditions still constitute serious problems.

POLL SUGGESTS RUSSIANS FAVOR BANNING NAZIS. Moscow's chief prosecutor proposed a tough new city law to circumvent judges by allowing police chiefs to impose hefty fines of up to $363 on people who wear or sell Nazi or Nazi-like symbols. On Feb. 25 the "Moscow Times" described the initiative as part of Mayor Yury Luzhkov's battle against the Russian National Unity party (RNE), whose members wear black uniforms and display swastika-like symbols. At the same time, the All-Russian Public Opinion Center released its survey conducted in late February which found that 78 percent of Russians favor banning Nazi-like organizations, newspapers, and symbols. While only 1 percent of those polled said they supported RNE, 35 percent called for a ban.Those over 55 and under 25 were most likely to sympathize with RNE, and people who in 1996 voted for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov were three times as likely to favor RNE as those who backed Boris Yeltsin.

MURDER OF TWO REPORTERS UNSOLVED AFTER FOUR YEARS. Ten people have confessed to shooting Russian television journalist Vladislav Listyev in Moscow on March 1, 1995, said Pyotr Tribuy, head of the prosecutor general's investigating team on the anniversary of the assassination. But, he added, none of the confessions is credible. At the time, public outcry prompted President Boris Yeltsin to take personal control of the investigation, which also covered the murder of another reporter, Dmitry Kholodov. More than 2,000 people have been questioned, Tribuy said.

UPDATES. Last week's "RFE/RL Watchlist" reported the Kazakh government's delay in registering the Orleu movement and the People's Republican Party. The Justice Ministry registered both opposition groups this week, according to their spokespersons and cited by RFE/RL.

On March 2, "The St.Petersburg Times" reported that Oleg Syrov of Volgograd was missing. He was the lone Internet service provider "Watchlist" had reported last week as having rejected the FSB's demand for surveillance of Internet traffic. "The Times" quoted Yury Vdovin of the Citizens' Watch human rights group as telling a St. Petersburg conference on privacy that for the previous two weeks Syrov had not responded to attempts to contact him. Vdovin said: "We fear that something terrible has happened to him."


By Charles Fenyvesi

This is a time to be outraged and a time to praise.

Under the tenure of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1990s, Slovakia's intelligence service instructed its agents to stoke the fires of ethnic hatred in neighboring countries, with top priority given to anti-Roma and anti-foreigner feelings among Czech nationalists. At the same time, extremists received financial support. The purpose was to create the impression that the Czech Republic was an unworthy applicant to membership in NATO and other Euro-Atlantic institutions. Agents were also told to run operations to encourage Austrian distrust of Germany and to sow resentment in the Czech Republic and Poland by suggesting that the U.S. favors Hungary over other Central European states.

Meciar's mischief had the blessings of his closest ally, Russia.

These revelations were contained in a lengthy report delivered on Feb. 19 to a closed session of the Slovak parliament by Vladimir Mitro, the new director of the country's intelligence service. Mitro was appointed by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, the pro-Western centrist who defeated last September the communist-turned-nationalist Meciar. Following front-page stories in the Slovak and Czech press based on leaks from members of parliament, on Feb. 24 the Foreign Ministry in Bratislava formally apologized to neighboring governments and condemned the defamation campaigns. The Slovak government also announced that it would not prosecute the newspapers which broke the law in publishing parts of Mitro's secret report; to the contrary, the text will be released, though not all of it.

Journalists in Bratislava learned that the paragraphs withheld are those dealing with Moscow's role. These, they say, are deemed too explosive for publication.

Cynics shrug and say, "So what else is new?" Everyone knows that Meciar is an unreconstructed communist, so why should anyone expect him to conduct himself like a democrat? Experts, such as Prof. Andrzej Kaminski, who teaches Central European history at Washington's Georgetown University, caution that most Slovaks are not troubled because they think that such undercover operations are standard operating procedure; besides, many nationalists approve of creating problems for the Czechs. Still other observers point out that the American news media did not think that yet another scandal demonstrating the persistence of KGB mentality merited attention.

However, the salient point is that a decade after The Wall tumbled, the KGB's dirty tricks need not be accepted as normal, and the rejection of that tradition was advertised by a fledgling democratic government in a country for long put down as Russia's backyard. Perhaps Dzurinda's domestic approval rate showed no immediate gains, but in Central Europe and further West he earned respect for boldly releasing the data instead of whispering them into select ears. For once, the persistent yet unconfirmable rumors about the survival of KGB methods rose to the level of a detailed, formal government document.

Dzurinda set a precedent in the region by sharing the outrageous facts with parliament. He might have been shooting from the hip when he pledged a release of the report following the leaks in the press. But public print does make a point in a neighborhood which is inured to grassroots racism and permissive about its occasional manipulation by the authorities, within or across national borders. His next steps also deserve praise: apologizing to neighboring countries and firing agents who carried out the orders of former spy chief Ivan Lexa, whose own parliamentary immunity is now in danger.

The collective memory of Central Europeans contains plenty of episodes on how Nazi Germans and communist Russians both delighted in playing with the fires of ethnic animosities.The routine depravities of the century's two brutal dictatorships will end only if successor democracies expose them to local scrutiny and international condemnation.