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Watch List: October 14, 1999

14 October 1999, Volume 1, Number 38

BELARUS TAKES ANOTHER LEAP BACKWARD * KGB SWOOPS DOWN ON OPPOSITION PARTY, TAX AUTHORITIES BLACKMAIL ADVERTISERS. On 12 October, Alyaksandr Lukashenka's Belarus took yet another step back into the past. As reported by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, agents of what is still called the KGB surrounded the offices of the opposition Civic Party. But opposition supporters spotted plainclothes police gathering outside the building and formed a human barricade, blocking the KGB's entry. When asked for a search warrant, the KGB was not able to present one and left the premises. Earlier in the week, owners of numerous businesses reported calls by tax inspectors asking if they will continue to place advertisements in independent newspapers and periodicals. Unmistakably, the message was to stop patronizing forces opposed to the regime. RFE/RL's Belarusian Service also reports that more and more Belarusians believe that the three oppositionists who disappeared this year--Viktar Hanchar, Yuriy Zakharenko, and Tamara Vinnikova--are no longer alive.

* EUROPE'S PARLIAMENT AND COUNCIL DEMAND REFORMS... In a blunt resolution on Belarus adopted on 7 October, the European Parliament called upon the Minsk authorities to locate the three disappeared opposition officials; release immediately all political prisoners; respect human rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of association; and allow free and fair presidential elections in 1999 and parliamentary elections in 2000. The same day in Minsk, Wolfgang Behrendt, the rapporteur for Belarus for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, urged the government to release former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and other "political prisoners" to help create "a climate of confidence" necessary for negotiations between the government and the opposition. Behrendt characterized that dialogue as "the only way to overcome the current political crisis as well as the country's isolation." Since 1997, the European Assembly suspended special guest status for the Belarusian parliament, and the following year the Council of Europe also suspended consideration of Belarus's application for membership.

* ...HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP PROTESTS ADDITIONAL VIOLATIONS. In an 11 October letter to Lukashenka, whose original presidential term ended in July, the New York-based International League for Human Rights urged the reinstatement of the nine independent periodicals recently shut down by the authorities and protested the raid by 10 police officers on the office of Viasna-96, a human rights organization. The letter pointed to Lukashenka's 16 September speech to law enforcement officials threatening retaliation against the press as responsible for the "punitive actions" against the periodicals. Listing numerous other searches and detentions, the letter noted that the police officers, acting without a search warrant, used the pretext of a bomb threat to ransack the Viasna-96 office on 4 October and to confiscate some publications, as well as computers and other electronic equipment which happened to be on loan from the U.S. embassy.

OSCE CRITICIZES KAZAKH ELECTIONS. "Kazakhstan failed to meet democratic standards during the parliamentary elections" on 10 October, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared at a press conference held the following day in Almaty, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice Chairman Igor Ostash said: "If Kazakhstan is to make further progress in its transition [to democracy], interference by executive authorities in a broader electoral process must be halted, and their resistance too international standards must be overcome."

HELSINKI FEDERATIONS URGE ARMENIA TO PROBE SUSPICIOUS DEATHS. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) appealed to Armenian President Robert Kocharian to investigate the deaths of Oleg Arishin and Stepan Gevorkyan, who died last April while serving prison sentences, as well as the case of Arsen Stepanyan, who died in July at his home after returning from the Arabkir police station where he had been interrogated. IHF cited "strong evidence" that all three men died as the result of beatings by police officers. IHF added that as Armenia moves toward admission into the Council of Europe, it should show its "commitment to justice" and "help instill more confidence in the judicial system among the people by supporting an objective inquiry." The charges against Arishin and Gevorkyan, who were both 20, were robbery and "assaulting the authorities."

BELGRADE RIGHTS GROUP CALLS ON SERBIA TO FREE ETHNIC ALBANIANS. The Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) demands that Serbia release immediately, "on humanitarian grounds and not subject to political debate," some 25 minors, 11 women, about 200 wounded, and about 50 ill prisoners--all of them ethnic Albanians--held in Sremska Mitrovica, Zabela, and Nis. According to HLC, Serbia still holds 2,000 ethnic Albanian convicts and detainees. Headed by Natasha Kandic, HLC was the only Serbian non-governmental organization reporting from Kosova during the war.

IMF ASKED TO HOLD BACK CREDITS FOR RUSSIA AS LONG AS IT FIGHTS CHECHNYA. Addressing International Monetary Fund Director Michel Camdessus in a letter dated 8 October, the Society for Threatened Peoples International (STP) praised the IMF for publicly expressing concern with Russia's war on Chechnya, on the basis that its cost could undermine progress in improving Russia's financial status. However, STP, based in Goettingen, Germany, pleaded that the IMF withhold any disbursements of the $4.5 billion credit to Russia as long as it wages a war in the Caucasus. Interviewed on French radio on 13 October, Camdessus said IMF would suspend aid to Russia if its military spending surges.

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS PROTEST RUSSIA'S WAR IN CHECHNYA. Twenty-two prominent Russian human rights activists from 15 organizations appealed to their government to stop the escalation of the war in the North Caucasus and to start immediate negotiations with "the legitimate Chechen authorities" on the basis of the 1997 agreement signed in Moscow. "The new war will be long-lasting and bloody," declared a joint statement issued on 30 September, "and it is clear that it will not be confined to Chechen territory." The letter also focused on the "humanitarian catastrophe" of "displaced people from ruined Chechnya filling Ingushetia." On 8 October, the Czech Helsinki Committee sent a similar appeal to Moscow, arguing that "group terrorism must not be punished by indiscriminate military action against the civilian population of any country." On 13 October, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which represents 39 independent organizations in OSCE countries, endorsed the appeal of the Russian human rights activists. IHF called the war in Chechnya a violation of international humanitarian law and the OSCE Code of Conduct, to which Russia is a signatory.

CHECHEN REFUGEE FLOW UNABATED, THE NUMBER IS NOW 155,000. The war in Chechnya is creating "a major refugee crisis--but almost no international humanitarian response," reported "The Christian Science Monitor" of 12 October. According to Russian officials, by 10 October the war drove 155,000 refugees to neighboring Ingushetia and Daghestan. After a string of kidnappings and murders of outsiders, not a single expatriate aid worker is left in Chechnya, the paper wrote, and humanitarian agencies do not intend to send their staffers to a region where their lives would be at risk.


By Charles Fenyvesi

Under the cover of the military campaign against Chechnya, the Russian government has expanded its attack on some of the foundations of media freedom in that country.

Mikhail Lesin, who was named in July to head the new Ministry for Press, Broadcast, and News Media, has been issuing a series of statements that have gone largely unnoticed outside Russia. First, he stressed the need "to protect the state from the press." Then he implied that the freewheeling news media was a threat to the well-being and the security of the Russian Federation as a whole. In response to concerns in both Russia and the West, Kremlin officials declared that President Boris Yeltsin is a staunch champion of media freedom.

But as the crisis deepened in the North Caucasus, Lesin's pronouncements have struck progressively more ominous notes, and Yeltsin has not given any indication about whether he disagrees with what his media chief is doing.

"There is much aggression in the activities of the mass media now," Lesin told ITAR-TASS on 6 October. His statement happened to coincide with the massive entry of ground troops into Chechnya. The word "aggression" seemed to have been borrowed from the official vocabulary defining the terrorist threat from the Caucasus, and it implied that the government needed to contain press aggression as well. And Lesin followed with an even more curious expression. He said that all this "is the result of ill-considered policy toward the mass media."

Might he have been implicitly blaming the government for allowing the news media to pursue its aggressive behavior?

Not quite. According to AP's parsing, Lesin's reference to aggression "appeared to refer to the Kremlin being exposed to the mudslinging." The Western agency noted that the Russian news media, owned by powerful business leaders with a strong interest in gaining political influence, have been publishing various charges against the political enemies of their owners. "The Kremlin has an equally strong interest in seeing that some of these forces do not gain power in the new elections, and in bolstering others more favorable to the presidential entourage," AP said.

Lesin has not specified what the new policy of Russia's youngest ministry might be. But he let it be known what he thinks: There are too many media outlets. (One need not be paranoid to conclude that it is hard to control many outlets and that some of those hardest to control need to be eliminated.) He even invited a meeting of regional governors, some of whom have their own complaints about independent journalists in their regions, to "set the ball rolling" in coping with what he calls "the problem of the press."

Contributing to the nervousness in media circles is Lesin's further remark that once the government works out a new policy on the media, it may ask the parliament to codify those policies in new laws. Clearly, Lesin's media ministry is moving into the offensive. Its objective is to intimidate the press as well as to woo a public uneasy with the power of the news media. In Russia, as in many other countries, attacking the media can win some political leaders support--especially during times of political crisis. Lesin may be counting on getting just such a bounce, because his statements suggest that he and the Russian government of which he is a part is moving, step by step, to stifle press freedom. But he is proceeding in a way that ensures at least some public support even from those who normally care about media freedom. His argument is that the state will crack down on journalists who violate the rules, as it did last month with one St. Petersburg news outlet, but also be supportive to those who stay within them--and even show mercy to sinners who repent. Lesin and his supporters clearly believe that what they are doing is for the common good, even if it means that some media freedoms can and will be sacrificed in the process.