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Watch List: October 21, 1999

21 October 1999, Volume 1, Number 39

WALLING OFF ROMA IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC. Two racist incidents have stained the reputation of the Czech Republic as it celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Velvet Revolution--which ended five decades of communist rule.

The first is the construction last week of a 2- meter-tall concrete wall, designed to separate Roma from "white" Czechs in the town of Usti nad Labem. After the wall was built, despite a cabinet vote of disapproval, Premier Milos Zeman called it "a shame." He and other politicians expressed apprehension that the wall will prove a serious obstacle for Czech entry to the European Union. Czech President Vaclav Havel and human rights activists worldwide have long condemned the fence as an outrage.

During the same year and a half that the wall project in Usti divided Czech public opinion and the cabinet in Prague and the Usti government debated its legality, the state-owned Czech Airlines quietly kept a record of passengers who looked like Roma and added to the ticket the letter "G," for Gypsy. According to the Czech weekly "Respekt," the mark of "G" was part of a deal struck by the airline and British immigration officers so as to avoid reimposing visa requirements for Czech citizens. This way the Czechs tipped off the British as to the ethnic affiliation of potential asylum seekers. Britain has been the country of preference for Roma trying to escape what they say is rampant discrimination against them in the Czech Republic, even though London authorities have declined the asylum requests of all but a handful of applicants.

Observers predict that sooner or later the Usti wall will be levelled, probably by sledgehammer-wielding human rights protesters. One question is whether Usti authorities will prosecute the person or persons for destruction of property. Another question is whether at least some of the police force of 80--which local accounts say protected the workers erecting the wall--will stay around and keep a watch.

As for the mark of "G," airline officials say that they stopped using it once the press exposed its existence.

RUSSIAN ARMY WIPES OUT CHECHEN VILLAGES. Russian bombs and artillery are wiping out peaceful Chechen villages, killing hundreds of civilians and stoking fury against Russia, human rights activists told AP on 18 October. Russian officials deny killing civilians, saying the attacks target Islamic militants who twice invaded Daghestan this summer and who, they claim without proof, are responsible for bombings in Russia that killed 300 people. But several Chechen villages that appear to have no connection with the militants have been bombed by Russia, AP adds, and scores of civilians reportedly have been killed. "Our military has never said what it considers a rebel base,'' said Andrei Mironov, a member of the human rights group Memorial, who visited Chechnya earlier this month. "This vague term can cover just about anything.''

RUSSIA FIGHTS AN INVISIBLE WAR... Five years ago much of the Russian public turned against the first Chechen war because of the gruesome film footage carried by a young independent station, NTV. But in the current war, Russian news organizations send no reporters or cameramen to the front because they are not prepared to pay ransom, as much as $2 million, demanded by Chechens who turn a profit kidnapping people, according to Igor Malashenko of Media Most, a Russian media conglomerate that includes what is now NTV-Plus satellite television. Speaking on 13 October at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the former aide to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that this war, too, could turn out to be "disastrous" because "there is no such thing as a miracle" which is what victory would require. On 9 October, "The Washington Post" noted that the Russian military has launched an "information war," set up a new "information center" headed by Valerii Manilov, senior deputy army chief of staff, and clamped a tight lid on information about casualties. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the leaders of all major TV channels and asked for their help. "Once dovish new media are now all hawks, hammering home Moscow's message that its fight is with 'terrorists,' not a national liberation movement," Reuters reported on 20 October.

...BUT NEWS OF CHECHEN REFUGEE PLIGHT IS GETTING THROUGH. However, NTV was the first to report that the Russian government has been turning back ethnic Chechens who flee the fighting and try to enter Russia's North Ossetia. On 14 October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the Russian government for closing down one stretch of its border with Chechnya to ethnic Chechen civilians. At the same time, ethnic Russians were allowed to cross the border. HRW called the Russian policy "a gross violation of Russian and international law." A Dutch journalist who visited a border town reported that the police at Russian checkpoints solicit a bribe of $40 for each male and $20 for each female refugee they would allow to sneak across.

'ILLEGALS OF MOSCOW' UNITE. As Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov again defended his policy of expelling non-Muscovites against charges of violating the Russian Constitution and international treaties, a new association called the Organization of the Illegals in Moscow announced its formation last week. In an open letter in the "Weekly Bulletin" of the Agency for Social Information in Moscow, the illegals identified themselves as "people who are compelled, for different reasons, to live unregistered in Moscow through no fault of their own. We are therefore deprived of our human rights." The letter claimed that as many as 3 million illegals now live in the Russian capital, including "doctors of science and simple workers, painters and poets." Luzhkov defended his residential permit system as something that "any civilized country" could adopt.

AZERBAIJAN GOVERNMENT SHUTS DOWN INDEPENDENT TV STATION. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has protested the Azerbaijan government's decision to close Sara TV, one of the country's three independent channels. The shutdown is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right, which was ratified by Azerbaijan, RSF said. The Justice Ministry justified its action by claiming that the channel deviated from its schedule of entertainment and culture. Sara TV has recently criticized President Heidar Aliev's son, Ilham, and made mention of opposition calls for anti-government rallies. The shutdown was assured by 15 policemen with Kalashnikov rifles who burst into the channel's offices.

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE FOR HUMANITARIAN GROUP. Doctors Sans Frontieres received the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for its humanitarian work. Since its foundation in the early 1970s, the organization has upheld the principle that whether the disasters are caused by nature or humans, all disaster victims have a right to professional help, given as quickly as possible. The speed with which doctors have arrived has helped focus world attention on a catastrophe. The organization was also formed out of frustration at the rules of the game, which do not allow humanitarian aid groups to discuss broader political or other reasons for such disasters.


By Charles Fenyvesi

With Turkmenistan its nearest competitor, Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan may qualify as the worst dictatorship in former Soviet Central Asia. Testimony at a Helsinki Commission hearing on 18 October bore out that view.

After listing U.S. policy objectives in Uzbekistan, the State Department's representative, John Beyrle, stated: "Frankly, however, our success has been uneven." While commending government interest in developing "a close strategic relationship" with the U.S., Beyrle, a special advisor to the Secretary of State, carefully balanced his criticism with praise. He described Uzbekistan as "reluctant to engage constructively on core issues of democracy, human rights, and economic reform." Then he referred to "significant accomplishments" in "security and global issues," and he singled out counterterrorist operations for which the U.S. has provided the Uzbeks with "both training and equipment." Nevertheless, Beyrle's conclusion stressed negatives, such as Uzbekistan silencing "individuals who try to exercise human rights and political freedom" as well as freedom of religion. "Truly independent human rights NGOs," he pointed out, "face difficulty registering and suffer harassment and obstruction."

Paul Goble of RFE/RL told the commission that "one of the most ominous features of the post-Soviet landscape" is the current construction of two prison camps for Uzbek dissidents which, he suggested, "will resemble the gulag of the Soviet past" and "will cast a chilling shadow over the population." Goble called "the repression of media, of dissidents, and of intellectual intense that to a superficial outsider, Uzbekistan looks genuinely stable." He warned that as the most populous Central Asian country, Uzbekistan presents a challenge to its neighbors and the West, especially as the unintended result is Karimov's attempt to transform Islam "from a religion to a political force of enormous and potentially destabilizing force."

Lawrence Uzzell of the Keston Institute called Uzbekistan's 1998 law on religion "the most repressive in all of the former Soviet Union. Only in Uzbekistan has the state formally criminalized religious dissent, by formally amending its criminal code to impose prison terms of up to five years for unauthorized religious activity." Uzzell noted that Uzbekistan bans all missionary activity and prohibits all unauthorized communal religious activities such as a Bible study in an apartment.

In his testimony, Uzbek Ambassador Sodyq Safaev called the avoidance of "the disintegration of society, economic collapse, and chaos" his country's "main achievement" since independence. He devoted much of his presentation to attacking Islamic fundamentalists whom he sought to link to the banned democratic opposition parties Erk and Birlik.

Addressing an open letter to the Helsinki Commission, Erk Chairman Muhammed Salih described Uzbekistan as "on a threshold of civil war" comparable to Afghanistan's. Salih criticized Western democracies for caving in to Karimov's threats that if they requested progress toward democracy they would "lose a strategic partnership in Eurasia." He called Western countries, the United States, and Russia "equally accountable for the revival of totalitarianism in Central Asia" and for the present threat of "regional civil war."

Abdurahim Polat, chairman of Birlik, pointed out to the congressional panel that the opposition is not allowed to take part in the elections for parliament in December and for president in January. He predicted that the elections "may have a negative effect and destabilize the situation." He called on the international community and especially the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "to stop the bloodshed."

Both Salih and Polat now live in exile, as do thousands of their followers and sympathizers. Though the regime has presented no credible evidence, Karimov accuses the opposition of responsibility for the 16 February bombings in Tashkent which left some 15 people dead. In the months that followed, the secret police rounded up hundreds of suspects throughout the country. The subsequent show trials, complete with torture, forced confessions, and executions, have prompted sharp protests from human rights organizations.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) summed it up: "Since mid-1992, Uzbekistan has been one of the most repressive New Independent States."

Karimov's politics of paranoia could bring about a victory by those he claims to fear the most: those he calls Islamic extremists as well as lawless bandits eager to wrap themselves in the green flag of Islam. Indeed, Karimov's anti-Islamic sweep, resulting in the arbitrary imprisonment of thousands, may well give rise to the fundamentalist spectre he says he is acting against.