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Watch List: August 5, 1999

5 August 1999, Volume 1, Number 29

ABUSE OF SERBS AND ROMA IN KOSOVO DECRIED... Ethnic Serbs and Roma now face "fear, uncertainty, and violence" in Kosova, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on August 3. In an 18-page report, the New York-based international human rights group documented what it called "systematic efforts," including arson, looting, and "severe beatings" to force the two minorities to leave their homes. Many of them have been detained and abducted, and while some have been released, "some of those abducted remain missing and are presumed dead." HRW blames the majority of the abuses on men dressed in Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) uniforms, but, the report cautions, "it remains unclear whether there is an organized UCK campaign against minorities." The main explanation for the abuses is "the desire of some ethnic Albanians to take revenge for atrocities committed by Serb security forces." HRW also criticizes the responses of the NATO-led peacekeepers and the UN mission as "belated and uneven" and urges "immediate corrective action to prevent further abuses."

...YUGOSLAV EFFORTS TO BLOCK REFUGEE ENTRY TO SERB SCHOOLS CRITICIZED... Addressing Serbian Minister of Education Jovo Todorovic, 56 Yugoslav non-governmental organizations signed a letter which deplores the ministry's order to refuse enrollment in public schools to children from familes that fled Kosova. "Not only has this decision worsened their desperate situation," the letter stated, "but it is directly against the constitution" which extends education to all students under equal conditions, regardless of nationality, creed, race, and political beliefs. Fear of being blamed for the lost war is said to be the main reason that prompts the Belgrade regime's hostility to ethnic Serb refugees from Kosovo.

...ITALY'S REFUSAL TO REGARD ROMA AS REFUGEES DENOUNCED. On August 4, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) sent a letter to Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema protesting his government's decision to cease regarding persons fleeing Yugoslavia as refugees but to treat them as illegal immigrants. According to Interior Ministry spokeswoman Daniela Pugliese published on July 20, the lives of Roma in Kosova are not at risk. ERRC noted that over the past six weeks thousands of Roma fled to Italy to save their lives and warned that their expulsion would be "morally repugnant" and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

CZECH PARLIAMENT PASSES LAW ENABLING ROMA TO ACQUIRE CITIZENSHIP. In a statement entered in "The Congressional Record" of July 29, Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), ranking member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, commended the Czech government for pushing through legislation last month that enables "thousands of Roma to apply for citizenship." Since 1993, following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, Hoyer's commission, including present Chairman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), have argued with Czech leaders that their citizenship law left tens of thousands of former Czechoslovaks, all of them Roma, stateless. In 1996, the law was revised "to placate international critics," Hoyer said, but it was still "not compatible with international norms." Though cautioning that the change was "all that was politically possible," the commission kept pressing. Last year the new government decided that it must take violations of Roma rights seriously and acted on that commitment, Hoyer concluded.

SWISS TURN BACK 85 ROMA TO SLOVAKIA. On July 31, Swiss police deported 85 Roma back to Slovakia. A spokesman explained to the press that Swiss law requires that all persons entering the country must demonstrate adequate financial resources which the Roma travelers lacked. None of the Roma had asked for asylum, the spokesman claimed. The Roma were detained after arriving at Zurich airport on three separate flights earlier in the week.

VOJVODINA AUTONOMY IN LIMBO. At the Sarajevo summit last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban argued that stabilizing the Balkans should include the restoration of the autonomous status of Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina. U.S. officials said that any change in Vojvodina's status should be part of a comprehensive settlement to be reached with a future democratic Serbia. The proposal Orban presented was authored by leaders of Vojvodina's 350-strong Hungarian minority who had submitted it to Belgrade in early July. Its aim is keeping the province's multiethnic, multiconfessional character and to enable the19 ethnic communities to maintain their linguistic, cultural, and political rights. President Slobodan Milosevic canceled Vojvodina's autonomy in 1989, at about the same time when he rescinded Kosova's autonomy. Ethnic Hungarians have been apprehensive that Serbs, now the largest group in most of the province and reinforced by tens of thousands of new Serbian refugees streaming in from Kosova, may dismantle whatever is left of Hungarian cultural autonomy.

KAZAKHSTAN AMNESTY BENEFITS TB PATIENTS. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed a decree freeing 13,000 prisoners, mainly those infected with tuberculosis (see "RFE/RL Watchlist," 22 July 1999). Kazakhstan interior officials told RFE/RL that Nazarbaev himself had intended his amnesty to include nearly twice that many prisoners, but the country's parliament had reduced the number. Upon his release earlier this year, Madel Ismailov, leader of the Workers' Movement of Kazakhstan, said that in Kostanay prison alone, 600 of 1,600 prisoners suffered from tuberculosis.

AZERBAIJAN CLOSES TV STATION, FINES NEWSPAPER. On July 31, Ruh, the association of independent Azerbaijani journalists, denounced government interference which has led to the closing of four of the country's eight TV stations, according to Turan news agency. At the same time a court fined the opposition newspaper "Sharg" for insulting the parliament's speaker, Murtuz Aleskerov.

MENTAL ILLNESS, POVERTY RISING IN RUSSIA. The number of Russian citizens afflicted by mental illness has more than tripled in the last decade, according to a new report submitted to Russia's human rights commission, Interfax news agency reported on August 2. The report's author, Human Rights Commissioner Oleg Mironov, says that 4 million Russians registered at outpatient clinics are suffering from mental disorders which includes 4.5 percent of Russia's children. The Russian Statistics Agency also reported on July 30 that during the first half of 1999, 35 percent of Russians were living below the minimum subsistence level of 872 rubles a month ($36). During the same period last year, 22 percent of the population earned what was then considered the minimum subsistence level of 429 rubles a month.

CHINA EXTENDS BUDDHIST NUN'S JAIL TERM TO 21 YEARS. First jailed in 1992 after her conviction for "subversive and separatist activities," Ngawang Sangdrol, then 15 and a Tibetan Buddhist nun, has recently had her sentence extended for the third time by a Lhasa court, according to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. She is the longest serving female prisoner in Tibet, the organization says, and her total sentence, which now stands at 21 years, is in violation of the Chinese Penal Code which stipulates that the maximum sentence of fixed-term imprisonment cannot exceed 20 years. According to a source cited by the Tibetan Centre, the most recent extension of Sangdrol's sentence was to punish her for participating in prisoner protests at Drapchi Prison last May in which 11 prisoners were reported to have died.


by Charles Fenyvesi

Established only a month ago, the new Russian Ministry for Press, Broadcast, and News Media may soon become a major political player--particularly if it becomes involved in an ongoing slugging match between two rival tycoons and their respective media empires.

In one corner of that fight is Vladimir Gusinskii, a former theater producer who built Media-Most into what Russians rate as their country's largest and possibly most liberal independent media organization. Facing him is Boris Berezovskii, Kremlin adviser and at least sometime intimate of Yeltsin, who has close ties to ORT television channel, which is 51 percent owned by the state. In the past, ORT has featured Berezovskii's views and sided with his friends in the cabinet.

"The animosity between Mr. Berezovsky and Mr. Gusinsky is intensifying by the day," writes John Thornhill of "The Financial Times." He reports that "many Russians fear Mr. Gusinsky will be the loser because his finances, unlike Mr. Berezovsky's, would appear to be particularly vulnerable."

Recently the tax police raided the offices of Gusinskii's flagship, Media-Most. The raid coincided with ORT reports on the shaky state of Gusinskii's NTV's finances, zeroing in on dependence on soft credits and loan guarantees from the mammoth Gazprom gas company.

Next, in what Moscow observers call an act of revenge, Gusinskii's NTV attacked Aleksandr Voloshin, Yeltsin's chief of staff and the government representative on ORT's board. "We consider that the activities of A. Voloshin compromise the Kremlin, the president, and the authorities in Russia," said anchorman Yevgenii Kisilyov of "Itogi," NTV's feisty, popular current affairs program.

Largely on the basis of the biography of the man who was named to head the ministry, many believe the new media ministry is likely to intervene in this power struggle one way or the other--despite solemn pledges that it will not get involved in ideological disputes.

The new minister chosen by President Yeltsin is Mikhail Lesin, the presidential public relations chief who quit in 1997 for reasons still undisclosed. But perhaps more significant is the fact that Lesin worked for Yeltsin's reelection campaign in 1996, when strong media support helped him roll back a Communist challenge. Lesin's performance was good enough to earn the top public relations post--and now his promotion to the cabinet. Not so coincidentally, in his most recent job he served as deputy chairman of the state television channel RTR.

In announcing his appointment, the Kremlin defined Lesin's task as working out and implementing state policy on mass media, information technology, and advertising. Lesin promptly denied reports that plans are afoot to nationalize NTV. He pointed out that ORT and NTV "still exist," even though they "discredit the media" with their analytical programs.

In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" published on July 22, Lesin announced that his ministry had already drafted amendments to the law on media and on political advertisements. When asked to describe the amendments, Lesin said that they "concern the rights of the media and the rights of control over them."

In his comments on this new ministry, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin insisted that far from imposing a new censorship, the ministry is to make relations between the state and independent media as transparent as possible. Then he defined the job of the ministry by coining a new slogan for the news media: "Election campaigns in accordance with the law." But close observers of the Russian news media predict that the new ministry is almost certain to have vast powers over such technicalities as license regulation, advertising, satellite broadcasting, and press distribution, technicalities that it may exploit to defend those in power.

On August 2, the chief editors of 14 newspapers and magazines, including some controlled by Berezovskii and others by Gusinskii, asked Yeltsin for a meeting to discuss what they called an "abnormal situation." The editors charged that "high-ranking officials are putting pressure on the mass media and on journalists" and using "even the president's name" during the runup to the State Duma election campaign. The letter does not mention names, so it is unclear if Leshin is involved.

Upon his appointment, Leshin made a comment that may offer an insight into his approach: "The media currently have more opportunities to influence the state than vice versa. Therefore, protection of the state from the 'free media' is a more vital problem today."

Such an attitude does not necessarily bode well for the way in which the government may seek to regulate the press, particularly as the parliamentary campaign season officially opens later this month.