Accessibility links

Breaking News

Watch List: July 22, 1999

22 July 1999, Volume 1, Number 27

RIGHTS GROUPS URGE GORE TO DISCUSS BELARUS VIOLATIONS WITH RUSSIAN PREMIER. In a rare instance of joint protest, eight human rights groups called on Vice President Al Gore to raise the subject of the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus during his meeting with Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin scheduled for July 27. The list of violations included President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's "defiance of the rule of law and wholesale crackdown on civic and opposition groups and the independent media," the jailing and harassment of dissenters, threats to journalists, and "harsh restrictions on freedom of association." The eight protesters are Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the International League for Human Rights, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights. They urged the U.S. to "send a clear signal to Russian leaders that tolerance of a mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, its close neighbor, is ultimately a threat to the level of democracy and human rights which Russia itself has achieved, and a threat to the human rights and security of the entire post-Soviet region of countries in transition, in which the U.S. has a vested interest." The last time rights groups joined forces in a single statement of protest was in October 1998, when seven organizations criticized Ambassador Richard Holbrooke for failing to address human rights issues in the Kosova accord he negotiated with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

MOSCOW REAFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR LUKASHENKA, DENIES SERBS' ETHNIC CLEANSING. On July 20, the day President Lukashenka's five-year term expired, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia supports Lukashenka staying in power beyond that date. The West does not recognize the two-year extension of the term and the sweeping extra powers Lukashenka gave himself after a controversial referendum in 1996. The European Union has been urging Belarus to hold free and fair elections, warning that there was no other way the West will help the country's collapsing economy. In a July 20 interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov denied that Serbia engaged in ethnic cleansing in Kosova, though "of course there were incidents."

LUKASHENKA CURBS ACADEMIC FREEDOMS. The Belarus government is stifling academic life in its "Soviet-style attack on civil society," Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged on July 15. A 49-page HRW report details how the Lukashenka regime has maintained a ban on campus political activity and suppressed research on controversial topics such as Belarusian nationalism during the Soviet era. History textbooks written in the post-Soviet period have been removed from the classroom and replaced with Soviet-era editions. Students and lecturers are threatened with expulsion for off-campus political activities. "Lukashenka is strangling intellectual life," said Holly Cartner, director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division. "This drive for political control on campuses mirrors what he has done to the rest of society."

MOST RUSSIANS OPPOSE BAN ON COMMUNISTS BUT WON'T PROTEST IT. Most Russians do not believe that the Communist Party should be banned but few would participate in street protests were that to happen, according to a poll carried by Russian NTV "Itogi" on 11 July. The poll, conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, shows that 57 percent of those interviewed oppose such a ban, 19 percent would approve, and 25 percent are neutral. But if President Boris Yeltsin decrees the ban, 70 percent said they would not get involved in protests such as rallies.

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX PRIEST MURDERED, CHAPEL BURNED. On July 16, unknown assailants strangled Archpriest Boris Ponomaryov, rector of the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet in the Mozhaisk district and stole icons, books, and money. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II suggested that a satanist sect might have been responsible. He also speculated that a recent fire that destroyed a wooden chapel commemorating Prelate Filaret in Zelenograd might have been arson. In his statement, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad called for "resolute action" against "political extremism and interreligious enmity."

MORE JEWS NOW LEAVING RUSSIA. The exodus of Jews from Russia has increased dramatically and may bring the largest number of Russian Jews to Israel this year since the early 1990s, AP quotes Israeli immigration officials as saying on July 14. In the first six months of 1999, 12,188 Russian Jews arrived in Israel, an increase of 129 percent from the same period last year. If the trend continues, the number of Russian Jewish immigrants may reach 30,000, the highest figure since 1992. The emigration is driven by concerns about the economy, political fears, and anti-Semitism, officials said. But they discounted the impact of incidents, such as the knifing on July 13 of community leader Leopold Kaymonovskii in his office in Moscow's Choral Synagogue by a suspect who is a neo-Nazi activist.

CZECH EXTREMISTS GAINING STRENGTH; RACE CRIMES UP. The number of extremist movements is increasing, as are race-motivated crimes which are most often committed by skinheads against Roma, says a Czech government report released on July 14. Last year the Czech Republic recorded 133 race-motivated crimes, 100 of which were prosecuted. The Czech news agency CTK quoted Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich as saying that Roma who leave the country are "right when justifying applications for asylum by saying they are persecuted by skinheads."

CHAIRMAN VOLLEBAEK LISTS THREE OSCE PRIORITIES. On July 6 in St. Petersburg, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, identified his three priorities at the annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly: freedom of religion with emphasis on conflict prevention via interfaith dialogue, the need for gender mainstreaming within OSCE bodies, and the examination of steps "to alleviate the difficult situation for the Roma/Sinti people throughout Europe." He disclosed that the plight of the Roma will be the subject of a supplementary meeting in Vienna on 6 September and that the High Commissioner on National Minorities is preparing a report on the issue. East European countries vying to join the European Union must take action to end discrimination of their Romany minorities.

FINNISH PREMIER CALLS ON EAST EUROPEANS TO IMPROVE LIFE FOR ROMA. In a speech to European parliamentarians released on July 21, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen said that Central and Eastern Europeans applying for EU membership need to improve the living conditions of Roma and stop discrimination in education, housing, health care, and employment. He said discussions with Romany representatives should be on the agenda of the EU summit in Finland in October.

ALBRIGHT ASKED TO HELP KOSOVAR ROMA. In a July 14 letter signed by the full leadership of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked if the U.S. is taking measures to ensure the safety of Roma in Kosova and in refugee camps, threatened by revenge attacks. The letter also asked if provisions have been made to bring to the U.S. Kosovar Roma who are being turned away from UN-run refugee camps in Macedonia.

SERB REFUGEES FROM KOSOVA FACE CRITICAL SITUATION IN SERBIA... Serbian refugees from Kosova have been given "completely unsuitable" accommodations in Serbia, declared the UN refugee agency's Belgrade office on July 20. Spokeswoman Vesna Petkovic said that Serbian refugees from Kosova number 150,000 in Serbia and 22,000 in Montenegro. In Geneva, the UN agency announced that as most of the ethnic Albanian Kosovars are back in the province, it will close four of the remaining six refugee camps in Albania. In Vienna on July 20 the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Helsinki Committees in Kosova, Montenegro, and Serbia expressed "deep concern" with "the slow establishment of an international police force" in Kosova and "the manipulation by the Serbian government" contributing to the Serbian exodus from Kosova.

...UN'S ANNAN WARNS ABOUT SERBIAN EXODUS FROM YUGOSLAVIA. Addressing the OSCE in Vienna, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that high unemployment and the international community's failure to help restore water supplies and other basic services in Yugoslavia may lead to an exodus of Serbs. "It is in our own self-interest to try and do whatever we can do to create the minimum conditions that will make it possible for them to stay at home," he said. But, he stressed, the focus should be on Kosova, where reconstruction will take at least ten years. On a visit to Prague, Annan praised President Vaclav Havel's trip to Kosova in June, criticized by Czech cabinet members and the Belgrade regime. In Annan's view, such an expression of solidarity with people in difficult situations is most welcome.

CROATIAN JOURNALISTS AND THEIR SOURCES FACE CRIMINAL CHARGES. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about Orlanda Obad, a Croatian journalist with the independent daily "Jutarnji List", charged with violating the Penal Code by revealing business secrets about President Franjo Tudjman's family's holdings. In an article published on 17 October 1998, Obad reported that the president's wife had $150,000 in an account in the Zagrebacka Bank. CPJ is also troubled that the bank fired two employees who acknowledged to have provided the information. In another pending case, the government sued Ratko Boskovic of the independent weekly "Globus" for using bank documents in describing alleged financial improprieties of the Viktor Lenac shipyard in Rijeka. If convicted, the jounalists and their sources could face five years in prison.

**UPDATE** On July 20 a Vladivostok military court cleared a Russian journalist and former naval captain, Grigorii Pasko, of treason but sentenced him to 3 years in prison for "abuse of power" in writing for a Japanese television station about the dumping of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean. However, he was released immediately as a recipient of a presidential amnesty. Pasko, who spent 20 months in jail following his arrest, criticized the judgment. "When the KGB takes up a case," he told AFP, "there is never an acquittal."


By Charles Fenyvesi

Four opposition leaders from Kazakhstan speaking at a July 16 RFE/RL breakfast meeting in Washington evoked memories of similar encounters with Soviet dissidents 15 years ago. The country's human rights situation is "catastrophic," each of them declared, and the elections this fall are bound to be falsified, just as the last presidential race was.

The Street of Slaves. "All our hopes for freedom and democracy remain unfulfilled," said Irina Savostina, chair of the Pensioners Association of Kazakhstan and a founder of the civic movement called For Honest Elections. "In Kazakhstan it is more difficult now than before the Soviet system collapsed." A dynamic woman speaking forcefully, Savostina cited the unemployment rate that keeps getting higher, the spread of crime, and the omnipresence of corruption. "Our treasury is depleted," she said. "Only the president and his family are getting richer and richer." The prisons are full, and TB and syphillis is the norm," she said, "people wait for one year to get a trial."

But the issue that outraged her was the rise of prostitution, which she said was once rare in Kazakh society where women were "fearless and proud," "great riders of horses," and "powerful mistresses of their houses," "Teenage prostitution is now the norm," she said. "It is the shame of the nation that an entire family relies on the earnings of a 14-year-old prostitute." Where they ply their trade is called "the street of slaves," but many of them disappear. Their faces appear on the television screen as "missing people," and their families look for them, but they are never found.

Speaking about her constituency, the pensioners, Savostina called her association "the most numerous civic organization," as well as the feistiest. The reason, she said, is simple: "We have nothing to lose. We pensioners have an animal instinct to to preserve ourselves. We are powerless, tossed onto the garbage heap. The state owes us millions in back pensions."

Second-Class Citizens. The next speaker was slight, soft-spoken, and philosophical Gennady Belyakov who heads an organization called the Russian, Slavic, and Cossack Movement of Kazakhstan. He listed the measures that are gradually pushing back his fellow Slavs to second-class citizenship: a 30 percent cut in the number of schools with Russian as the primary language of instruction; severe restrictions, as per a new presidential decree, on texbooks from abroad, meaning Russia; "a reduction to the minimum" of radio and television programs in Russian; and fines for Cossacks wearing their ethnic garb.

The history of the Russian community in Kazakhstan goes back 400 years, Belyakov said. "We are 30 percent of the population." He said that his organization is asking for "some sort of an ethnic-national autonomy," not for a piece of land, as Slavs and Cossacks live throughout Kazakhstan, but for some sort of status that would be applicable anywhere in the country. What Belyakov seemed to be after was some kind of proportional representation, which he said is a principle ignored in Kazakhstan.

His organization has been having problems getting itself properly registered. But, he explained, the problem is probably connected with the upcoming elections: The government is is attempting to stop leaders of civic associations and opposition candidates from running for office. And as a presidential ukaz disqualifies any citizen convicted of a crime to run for office, people who do not ally themselves with the government find themselves detained and sentenced for a few days in jail for ridiculous offenses. For instance, last year a former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhageldin, was not allowed to enter the presidential race because he was detained and found guilty of taking part in the meeting that founded an organization, For Honest Elections, then as yet unregistered and thus illegal.

A Very Special Delivery. A tall, distinguished-looking man who declined to identify his profession, Mikhail Vasilenko offered what he called "a simple story."

Last fall he flew from the old capital Almaty to the new capital Astana with a carton of documents which his lawyer friends prepared and which contained recommendations for constitutional reforms. At the airport he rented a car with a chauffeur and delivered copies of the documents at various ministries. By the time he got to the parliament building, guards seemed to know what he was doing and will not accept the papers he tried to hand over. Then traffic police stopped the car, which they said had been stolen. He was taken to police headquarters, interrogated, and charged with hooliganism. A judge found him guilty and sent him to jail for three days.

Vasilenko is now a man with a criminal record.

Of course, the documents he tried to deliver were confiscated. No, he had nothing to do with the documents, he told his questioners, they represented the work of "an independent lawyers' association in Almaty." What happened to him, he shrugged, is "the sort of thing that could happen to anybody in Kazakhstan. Anybody."

The President Sets the Rules to Win. The final speaker, Gaziz Aldamzharov, was a politician, the deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Kazakhstan, which was founded last year and is considered by some the principal opposition party. An ethnic Kazakh with quiet dignity, he explained what he called "the basic facts of political life" in the Republic of Kazakhstan: In the equivalent of the House of Representatives, out of 67 members only one is allowed to represent the opposition - but none in the 13-member Senate. When visiting Washington, President Nursultan Nazarbayev presented himself as a champion of democracy, but upon his return home, he said that the establishment of democracy would take many years, maybe 50, maybe more. He did not want elections this year despite the law, but the International Monetary Fund and Western businessmen convinced him that investors would be reluctant to do business with a country which did not hold elections, so he gave in.

But, Aldamzharov continued, Nazarbayev set the rules to make sure he will win. There are 10,000 committees nationwide that oversee the elections and count the ballots, and their members are appointed by Nazarbayev and his officials. And, of course, the only candidates allowed to run are those he selects. The media is in the hands of the authorities, many of them controlled by the president's daughter. "His victory is fully guaranteed," Aldamzharov concluded.

Yes, he told a reporter, OSCE and the U.S. State Department have advised Nazarbayev to hold free and fair elections and to have opposition parties represented on the local election commissions. "Nazarbayev promised he would do that," Aldamzharov said. " And he did lower the registration fees that candidates must pay to run. But he will ignore the rest of his promises."

Nevertheless, Aldamzharov and his friends continue the struggle.