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Watch List: May 20, 1999

20 May 1999, Volume 1, Number 19

SERBIAN NGO MORAL EQUIVALENCE STANCE CRITICIZED. Since early April, Serbian NGOs have issued appeals to both NATO and Yugoslavia calling for a resumption of the peace process. Most recently, on May 10, 24 of them urged the Yugoslav, Serbian, and Montenegrin governments to move toward a solution of the Kosova problem and accept compromises. The signatories of this appeal included the Trade Union Confederation (Nezavisnost), the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and several women's groups. But on May 18, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights described themselves "deeply disturbed" by one aspect of the Serbian appeals. The Western rights groups said their staffers had interviewed Kosovar Albanians and found that they suffered "ethnic cleansing on a horrific scale" and that they were driven from their homes not by NATO but by Serbs -- a reality they pointed out that the Serbian NGOs had ignored. While expressing respect for the Serbian NGOs and their "lonely and courageous struggle for democratization," the Western rights groups stressed that it is "intellectually and morally unsound to equate" NATO's campaign and Serbia's "grave crimes of war and crimes against humanity in Kosovo."

U.S. ASKED NOT TO CUT YUGOSLAV INTERNET LINK. Help B92, a support group for independent broadcast media in Yugoslavia, expressed "deep concern" on May 13 about reports that the U.S. trade embargo might sever Yugoslavia's "vital Internet links to the outside world." The group fears that the U.S. government could order the American satellite carrier Loral Orion to drop a satellite uplink arrangement which supplies bandwidths to two of Yugoslavia's major Internet service providers, and BEOnet.yu. The loss of this link, Help B92 said, "would deal a fatal blow to freedom of expression in Yugoslavia," as Internet communications represent the last remaining routes to censorship-free information and unfettered communications with friends, family, and organizations around the world.

BELGRADE TARGETS MONTENEGRIN JOURNALISTS. Article 19, a London-based organization monitoring freedom of expression, condemned Yugoslavia's use of military courts to try Montenegrin journalists on criminal charges. In a statement on May 14, the group contended that the Belgrade authorities are targeting journalists working for Montenegro's independent media for call-ups to the Yugoslav army. Charges have been brought against Nebojsa Redzic, editor-in-chief of the independent Radio Free Montenegro, Miodrag Perovic, founder of the weekly magazine "Monitor," and "Monitor" staffer Beba Marusic.

INDEPENDENT AZERBAIJANI TV FED UP WITH RUSSIAN PROGRAMS. The independent Baku TV channel ANS has protested that Azerbaijanis find themselves "under the wheel of the Russian propaganda machine, and not without injury" when they have no alternative but to watch rebroadcasts of Russian TV programs critical of NATO and supportive of Yugoslavia, according to BBC's summary of world broadcasts on May 14. ANS argues that as Azerbaijan seeks to join NATO, the constant dissemination of Russian opinions is "not in our favor." ANS also criticized state TV for devoting half of its news programs to retrospectives of President Heidar Aliev's U.S. visit.

MOSCOW'S CHIEF RABBI SEES NO GAINS BY ANTI-SEMITES. Episodes such as the recent attacks on synagogues and the anti-Semitic outburst of General Albert Makashov do not indicate an increase in anti-Semitic feelings in Russia, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt told Keston News Service. In his opinion, according to a May 13 KNS release, the incidents instead showed that the efforts of the anti-Semites to attract support for their position have been in vain. Goldschmidt argued that the principal change in Russian Jewish life occurred at the end of the 1980s when official anti-Semitism died and freedom of the press was born. Yet to the disappointment of the anti-Semites, the rabbi concluded, the open venting of their hatred has received "practically no response" from the population.

CRIMEAN TATARS MARK ANNIVERSARY OF EXPULSION. To protest discrimination and to launch a "campaign of civil disobedience," the Mejlis, or parliament representing some 270,000 Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, organized seven marches starting on May 6. The marches converged on Simferopol, the region's capital, on May 18, "the Day of Sorrow" 55 years ago when the Soviet government began deporting the entire Crimean Tatar community to Siberia and Central Asia. As many as half of the 500,00 of those deported died during this process. Marchers this year also protested a series of hate crimes over the past few months: 30 Crimean Tatar gravestones destroyed in one cemetery, a village mosque set on fire, and the monument to expulsion victims vandalized.

AZERBAIJAN'S MUNICIPAL ELECTION LAW CRITICIZED. On May 14 Azerbaijan's Democratic Bloc, composed of 17 opposition members of parliament, issued a statement condemning as "reactionary" and "anti-democratic" draft legislation on the status of municipalities and on municipal elections endorsed by the parliament at the first reading on May 4. The statement says that the drafts differed significantly from the ones that Council of Europe experts had approved.

ELECTION IRREGULARITIES SPARK PROTESTS IN KARACHAI-CHERKESSIA. On May 17, 15,000 supporters of Cherkessk Mayor Stanislav Derev assembled in the town's central square to protest what they said had been falsification of the results of the second round of voting for the president of the Republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. While 40 percent of voters backed Derev in the first round, his support dropped to half of that in the second round.

BASHKIR BROADCASTER CONDITIONALLY RELEASED. On April 30, Altaf Galeev, director of the independent radio station Titan in Ufa, in Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan, was released for the duration of his judicial investigation, according to the Glasnost Defence Foundation in Moscow. Galeev agreed not to leave his residence in Ufa and to testify. He had been in custody since May 27, 1998, when Interior Ministry officers stormed his office and charged him with "armed hoologanism." His real offense, says Glasnost, was that his radio station provided equal air time to alternative candidates for the presidency.

TAIWAN LEADER URGES BEIJING TO GRANT REGIONS AUTONOMY. In a new book, Taiwan's first native-born president, Lee Teng-hui, calls on Beijing to abandon its ideology of "Great China" and offer autonomy to Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and northeast China. As for Taiwan, Lee argues that its de facto independence is sufficient and that Chinese communists "have no right to make any claims" as "Taiwan's democracy and economic achievement were the sole efforts of the Taiwanese." Excerpts from the book appeared in the "United Daily News" on May 15, AP reported.

SHEVARDNADZE CALLS MINORITIES 'OUR ASSETS.' "We will continue to be attentive towards ethnic minorities residing in Georgia, for we perceive them as our assets and our achievement," Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze wrote in a May 15 letter addressed to an international conference in Tbilisi on the subject of ethnic minorities in the Caucasus.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Observers in and out of Belarus had thought the presidential election there sponsored by the democratic opposition but declared illegal by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would fail either because its organizers would give up or because few Belarusians would take part. But in the event, some 15,000 volunteers defied these predictions and collected ballots from four million people -- some 53 percent of eligible voters.

These results stunned virtually everyone, especially since one of the two presidential candidates, Zenon Poznyak, had quit the race because of the unconventional voting methods, and the head of the opposition's Central Electoral Commission, Viktar Hanchar, afterwards declared the election "invalid" because of "irregularities." Whether or not the volunteers and more than half of the adult Belarusian population followed all the rules fastidiously crafted by that commission, these results suggest that Belarusians have voted against Lukashenka.

"This is an extraordinary feat," declared Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, director of the New York-based International League for Human Rights and active in Belarusian affairs for many years. "The election should force European leaders to ask themselves: What else should it take to recognize the opposition as the legitimate government?"

Also impressed with the turnout, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement on May 18 which said that the involvement of many citizens in the balloting "deserve the respect of democratically governed states within the family of all OSCE states." The OSCE also noted that the elections "were not expected to meet OSCE standards" and called for "a meaningful dialogue" between the government and the opposition to create conditions for free parliamentary and presidential elections in the future.

The OSCE envoy there, former Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin, did not mince words in calling the detention of presidential candidate Mikhail Chyhir, a former prime minister, "highly questionable," adding that this action "should be terminated immediately."

But perhaps most important: the vote suggests that the Belarusian people are not nearly as apathetic as some observers have suggested or as supportive of Lukashenka as others have claimed. And this vote may also mean that the long list of failures by the democratic opposition is now coming to an end: the failure to block the introduction of a strong presidency in the constitution of 1993, the defeat of democratic candidates in the 1994 presidential election, Lukashenka's victory in changing the constitution and dissolving the parliament called the Supreme Soviet, and the fizzling out of the massive street demonstrations held between 1996 and 1998.

However that may be, there is no sign that Lukashenka will respect the results or moderate his disregard for the law and human rights. Even worse, some observers fear that his failure to intimidate people by threats may lead him and his minions to adopt tougher measures. That possibility has been suggested by the recent "disappearance" of two well-known public figures, the imprisonment of Chyhir, the beating up of several opposition leaders, and the arrest of several hundred activists for organizing the election.

Moreover, these election results may lead to some rethinking by the international community. Before the vote, Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck -- the head of the OSCE's permanent mission in Minsk, the Advisory and Monitoring Group -- had counseled against holding the election and called it "invalid." Opposition leaders did not appreciate his attitude. Stubbornly, they insisted on making what Andrey Sannikau, former deputy foreign minister, had characterized as "a salient ideological point": Lukashenka's constitution and parliament are illegal, and for democracy to function, the status quo ante should be restored.