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Watch List: July 8, 1999

8 July 1999, Volume 1, Number 25

FINLAND SEEKS TO HALT INFLUX OF ROMA REFUGEES FROM SLOVAKIA. From the end of June to 5 July, 1,609 Roma from Slovakia arrived in Finland and applied for political asylum, according to the Finnish government. In a letter dated 30 June to Finnish Interior Minister Kari Hakamies, the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center called for sympathetic consideration of the asylum requests and asked Finland to refrain from reimposing visa requirements for Slovak citizens. The ERRC asserted that Roma in Slovakia are "victims of discrimination and human rights abuses and the authorities have systematically failed to guarantee their rights." On 6 July, Finland suspended the visa exemption agreement with Slovakia until November, explaining that the suspension should "curb the accelerating influx of asylum seekers from Slovakia." While acknowledging "shortcomings in the living conditions of the Romany people," the Finnish government described Slovakia as "a democratic European country." A Finnish official told RFE/RL Watchlist that the authorities will study asylum applications "very carefully and on an individual basis," which means that responses may take a year, and some requests may be granted but by no means all. In the meantime, Finnish humanitarian organizations will assist in maintaining the Roma in a network of half-way houses set up for refugees. "Nobody is happy about the situation," the official concluded, "not Slovakia, not Finland, and not even the Roma."

ROMA EXODUS FROM KOSOVA CONTINUES. On 6 July, about 700 Roma from Kosova arrived in Italy on a barge escorted by Italy's navy, according to AP. Most of the refugees were from Pec where the Roma neighborhood was burned down, and some of them said the Kosova Liberation Army was responsible. Kosovar Albanians have charged that many Roma collaborated with the Serbs, which the Roma deny.

RIGHTS GROUP URGES HELP FOR REFUGEES NOT READY TO RETURN HOME. As thousands of refugees return to Kosova, either on their own or assisted by international organizations, refugee relief groups must pay special attention to the elderly, women and children, the disabled, the ill, and those who were tortured, Amnesty International (AI) said in a statement on 29 June. AI called on the international community to provide continued protection to refugees who are not ready to return to Kosova in the immediate future.

KOSOVAR ALBANIANS AND SERBS ISSUE JOINT APPEAL TO STOP THE VIOLENCE. Negotiating for the first time since NATO's bombing campaign began, Kosovar Albanian and Serb leaders issued a joint statement on 2 July calling on Kosovars "to refrain and to actively discourage others from any acts of violence against their neighbors." Those responsible for violence will be brought to justice, the leaders warned. "Peace can only be built on justice, not on revenge," they noted. The leaders denied that there was such a thing as natural hatred between Kosovar communities, and they condemned "the crimes of the Milosevic regime in Kosova." The statement was signed by leaders of an Albanian-led interim government, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Kosova Serbs' Democratic Movement opposed to Slobodan Milosevic.

SERB FORCES REMOVED BODIES AFTER NATO PHOTOS REVEALED MASS GRAVE. Serbian forces shot at least 106 men in the village of Pusto Selo (Postoselo) on 31 March, but after NATO released on 13 April satellite photos showing a freshly dug mass grave by the mosque, Serb forces returned on 24 April with a bulldozer, exhumed the bodies, and took them away on trucks, according to a 2 July Human Rights Watch report based on eyewitness testimony. The report quoted a survivor: "Not to know where the bodes are hidden is, for us, as if they've been killed again."

BOSNIAN SERB TO BE SENT TO HAGUE TRIBUNAL. On 6 July in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, British peacekeepers arrested Radoslav Brdjanin, one of the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb officials indicted for war crimes by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. A former deputy prime minister and associate of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, Brdjanin was responsible for concentration camps in northwest Bosnia, NATO officials told the press. His indictment was one of those not made public, and he is now "being processed for transfer" to The Hague.

LITHUANIA AND POLAND FAIL TO RESOLVE MOST DIFFERENCES ON MINORITIES. A two-day meeting in Warsaw ending on 30 June did not resolve the principal differences dividing Lithuania and Poland on issues affecting each other's ethnic minorities living on both sides of their common border. The head of the Lithuanian delegation, Remigijus Motuzas, told the Baltic News Service: "Issues of national minorities should be solved on the basis of parity, but the problem is that Poles seem to be more concerned for their nationals living outside the country than for the situation of national minorities inside Poland." Motuzas expressed dissatisfaction that no progress was made on the most contentious issues, such as the spelling of names in documents and the future of a building claimed by the Lithuanian community in the Polish town of Punsk, now used by the Polish border guard. Polish officials are troubled by the recent incorporation of several villages with ethnic Polish majorities into Vilnius--a move they say makes it hard for an ethnic Pole to win an election to a legislative body. But they deny that the meeting was a failure. Polish officials told RFE/RL Watchlist that progress was made in the area of education: Poland agreed that Lithuanian will be the language in all the classes at the Lithuanian school of Seinai in Poland, and Lithuania agreed to print more textbooks in Polish for Polish-language schools in Lithuania.

AZERBAIJANI POLITICIAN MAY GET SIX YEARS FOR INSULTING PRESIDENT ALIEV. Ashraf Mehdiev, chairman of the Azerbaijani party Geyrat, is accused of violating three articles in the criminal code by "insulting the honor and dignity of the president," according to the Azerbaijan National Democracy Foundation in Baku. If found guilty, he may be jailed for up to six years. According to one source, the insult had to do with an allegation that President Heydar Aliyev is of Kurdish rather than Azeri origin.

KAZAKHS TO GO TO POLLS EARLIER THAN EXPECTED; OPPOSITION SURPRISED. On 7 July, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that elections for the Upper House of parliament would be held on 17 September and for the Lower House on 10 October, according to Astana press service. The constitution calls for parliamentary elections every four years, and as the last one was in December 1995, most observers expected the next vote to be held in December 1999. Observers think that opposition parties may not be able to clear all the numerous bureaucratic hurdles of registration in time to field candidates.

TWO-THIRDS OF RUSSIA'S POLITICAL GROUPS TO CEASE TO EXIST? Up to two-thirds of Russia's 70,000 political parties and movements may lose their legal status by midnight 8 July, the deadline to register for official status, Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninikov told Moscow's NTV television. As of 1 July, the date of his statement, less than one-third of the existing parties and movements had registered, Krasheninikov said. The law requires all political groups to file with the Justice Ministry in order to field candidates for election. Parties have to apply a year in advance to qualify for the State Duma elections, scheduled for December.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Perhaps it's because of the record heat wave, or because of the embarrassment of backing the wrong side in Kosova, but the news out of Russia these days is becoming ever more incredible--and disturbing.

A Third Term for Yeltsin? President Boris Yeltsin may "trample on his constitution to keep himself in the Kremlin," wrote Fred Hiatt of "The Washington Post" in an op-ed page article on July 4. Hiatt reported "increasing speculation that Yeltsin will engineer a reunion between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Belarus" and argued that the new constitution of such a union "could give Yeltsin a constitutional fig leaf to extend his rule" beyond his current second and final term, due to expire next July.

The Post's correspondent in Moscow between 1991 and 1995, Hiatt noted that Yeltsin himself fed such a line of speculation when, in a recent interview with the German magazine "Der Spiegel," he hailed a possible union as "rooted in the community of the historic fates and the friendship between our peoples." Hiatt added: "Preposterously, given that Belarus is led by a Soviet-style strongman, Yeltsin also proclaimed that union as a step 'taken of their own free will by the states and peoples.'"

Funds Budgeted for Psychiatric Treatment Not Spent. The treatment of psychiatric illnesses is disastrously underfunded in Russia, with only 0.2 percent of the funds earmarked being disbursed, Interfax news agency reported on July 1, quoting a letter to state leaders by Oleg Mironov, Russia's human rights commissioner. In the Moscow region for instance, Mironov said, last year psychiatric hospitals got only 7 percent of the money due them for medicines and only 20 percent of the amount required to feed patients.

Given these facts, another recent report by ITAR-TASS is shocking but not surprising. Without supplying figures, the news agency states that over the last five years the number of psychiatric patients in Russia who "commit suicide out of a sense of abandonment" has doubled.

Indispensable Census Gets Indefinite Postponement. Experts in social and economic policies agree that Russia badly needs to conduct the census scheduled for 1999, as planned. But suddenly the government postponed the census indefinitely, on the grounds that at $120 million, the cost would be prohibitive.

In an editorial titled "Information Is a Pillar of Democracy" on 3 July, "Moscow Times" called the decision "an outrage." It wrote that the census "is not some debatable white elephant project, like a high-speed railway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, or a tunnel to the Sakhalin Islands (or, for that matter, a vanity contingent of Kosovo peacekeepers at $65 million a year, just so Yeltsin can attend G-7 meetings and pretend it is called the G-8)."

"Holding a regular census is a basic duty of the state," the English-language Russian newspaper declared. "It's not something the Kremlin can ignore on a whim."

Journalists Back to Rewriting History. During the war over Kosova, the Russian media bought into Serbian propaganda and barely mentioned ethnic Albanian refugees, and if it did, they were described as having been driven out by NATO. But now "many Russian journalists deny the charge of overall bias," reported Tara Warner of "The Russia Journal," an English-language weekly published in Moscow.

Warner quotes Maxim Yusin, who covered Yugoslav events for the daily "Izvestia," as saying that "the Russian media were no more or no less objective than their Western counterparts." Speaking of both East and West, Yusin said: "Yugoslavia was a test for the free press, and the free press failed it."

Gennadii Sysoyev of the premier financial daily "Kommersant" scores "the opposition press" in Russia but gives faint praise to "the quality papers, both here and in the West," for having "made an attempt to give a balanced portrayal of events."

Both Yusin and Sysoyev agree with Alexander Golts of the weekly magazine "Itogi," who rejects allegations that the Russian press showed only one side of the story, dwelling on civilian Serb casualties during the bombing but reporting little on the plight of Kosovo Albanian refugees. The picture, Golts told "The Russia Journal," was not "so black and white." But there is no point arguing about who was right or wrong, the three journalists agree. "The most important task," Sysoyev said, "is simply to have Russians and Westerners working together effectively in Kosovo."