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Watch List: October 28, 1999

28 October 1999, Volume 1, Number 40

OSCE BLAMES BELARUS POLICE FOR CLASHES... The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has charged the Belarusian government with provoking opposition demonstrators into clashes with the police in the course of the 17 October Freedom March. On 21 October, Knut Vollebaek, OSCE's current chair and Norway's foreign minister, called the lack of the rule of law in Belarus and the disappearance of several opposition politicians "unacceptable." He said that at the OSCE biennial summit in Istanbul next month, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would have to explain police violence during the march and the jailing of opposition members. Dmitry Bondarenka, coordinator of Charter 97 and an organizer of the march, told reporters in Minsk: "The authorities started the battle, and we could do nothing but defend ourselves." When the crowd reached the police cordons, Bondarenka said, march leader Nikola Statkevich called on them to go back to Yakub Kolas Square where the march began. But as the demonstrators turned around, police attacked them from behind and began beating up people. "The demonstrators responded with a torrent of rocks," Bondarenka said. Nevertheless, police chief Stanislau Kurel declared that "there was no police violence during the march. It is impossible to imagine more courteous behavior than that exhibited by the police."

...DEMONSTRATORS SPEAK UP ON POLICE BRUTALITY... At a 22 October press conference arranged by Viasna 96, a group providing legal aid, and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, victims told the press about the beatings and threats administered by the police to those rounded up during and after the march. After the demonstrators were taken to police stations, the police kicked and beat them up, and threw one detainee on top of another. "[The police] did not let us look at them and ordered everybody to keep their faces down," a mother of three children testified. "Girls were threatened with rape," said another demonstrator. "Then they were ordered to sing while the boys were beaten. Those who didn't know the words were beaten heavily." Police chief Stanislau Kurel denied the beatings, and asserted that in chasing demonstrators, the police "targeted criminals, not ordinary people." Five police officers wounded during the march received awards.

...U.S. CONDEMNS 'VIOLENT SUPPRESSION.' Belarusian state television quoted Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose original presidential term expired on 20 July, as ordering the security forces "to find the true organizers and active participants in the mass disorder that threatened people's lives." He also promised to oversee the investigation himself. The day after the march, on 18 October, opposition leader Anatol Lebedka told reporters in Minsk that the protests will continue. The same day, U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley on 18 October condemned the "violent suppression" of the march as "yet another violation by Belarus of its OSCE commitments" and "a further demonstration of the constitutional and political crisis." According to a letter of protest addressed to Lukashenka by the New York-based International League for Human Rights, 200 marchers have been arrested, fined or jailed on administrative or criminal charges.

MORE WALLS TO BE BUILT IN CZECH REPUBLIC, ROMA SAY. Three Czech villages are preparing to build their own walls to separate themselves from Roma, according to Romany sources, but the villagers are waiting to see what happens to the concrete wall erected on 13 October in the town of Usti nad Labem and protected by police since then. New details about the wall have emerged from eyewitness accounts: Construction by about a dozen workers began at 3 am and, in addition to the uniformed local police numbering up to a hundred, more than a score of powerfully-built young strangers in civilian clothing appeared and mingled with the locals, Roma and non-Roma, who began to gather after dawn. Some Roma from other parts of the country identified the strangers as members of groups hostile to Roma. In and out of the Czech Republic, Roma are unhappy with the low level of support they say they have received from Czech national leaders since the wall was built. "Some politicians exploit the Roma issue to get votes," a Czech Roma leader told RFE/RL. "Others are afraid to show sympathy for the Roma for fear of losing votes." Sources close to the Czech government say that the cabinet is considering the use of the military to tear down the wall.

HRW REPORT IDENTIFIES MEMBERS OF SERBIAN UNIT IN KOSOVA. Eyewitnesses have named and identified from photographs five members of the Serbian security force which executed 41 ethnic Albanians in the village of Cuska on 14 May 1999, Human Rights Watch announced on 26 October. In a report titled "A Village Destroyed: War Crimes in Kosovo," HRW details the grisly events in Cuska, as well as in the two neighboring villages of Zahac and Pavljan, where Serbian forces killed another 25 ethnic Albanians the same day. According to HRW, its report is the first human rights document which identifies people who may be responsible for or have first-hand knowledge of war crimes in Kosova.

MEDIA UNDER ATTACK IN FORMER YUGOSLAVIA. Reporters Sans Frontieres is protesting three attacks on the press in the former Yugoslavia. On 22 October in Bosnia's Serbian entity, Zeljko Kopanja, editor of the Bosnian Serb independent newspaper "Nezavisne Novine," lost both his legs and suffered serious injuries to his abdomen when a bomb exploded in his car. His newspaper, banned in Serbia since June, had published a series of articles on war crimes committed by Serbs against Muslims in the Bosnian war. On 20 October, the Montenegrin government banned broadcasting by Free Montenegro, which is close to the opposition Liberal Party and was threatened with reprisals by the Serbian military for its programs during NATO bombing. Editor Nebojsa Redzic called the ban "strictly political," a result of broadcasts critical of some ministers of President Milo Djukanovic's government. RSF has also urged Yugoslav Minister of Information Ivan Markovic to reconsider the exorbitant fine, the equivalent of $28,000, demanded of the independent daily "Danas," for attributing a statement to Vice President Vojislav Seselj that he claims he did not make. A fine of such magnitude shuts down the publication, RSF argued, and is a form of censorship.

OSCE FINDS KAZAKH VOTE FAR BELOW INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS. In a press conference in Almaty on 25 October, Hrair Balian, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), sharply reminded the Kazakh government that it "failed to meet its obligations and promises given to OSCE" in the course of the elections held on 10 and 24 October. As reported by RFE/RL, Balian called the elections far from living up to international standards, but added that at the same time the elections might be called "a step towards democracy." The chairman of the Kazakh Local Observers Center, Dos Koshim, told RFE/RL that local authorities interfered both with the voting and the vote counts. He called the elections a step backward rather than toward democracy.

RUSSIAN REGIONS SEEN AS UNFAVORABLE TO FREE PRESS. A three-month investigation by media and human rights groups concludes that not a single one of Russia's 89 regions promotes a climate favorable to a free and pluralistic press. Run by the Russian Union of Journalists in collaboration with other groups, the project graded each region based on freedom of access to information, freedom to produce information, and freedom to distribute information. Out of a maximum of 100 points, Moscow scored the highest, 63, and Bashkortostan the lowest, 10.

U.S. AWARDS FOR RUSSIAN WHISTLEBLOWERS. The PEN Center USA has given its 1999 "Freedom to Write" awards to Russian journalists Grigorii Pasko and Aleksandr Nikitin for "their heroic determination to inform the world" about Russia's nuclear contamination of the seas. Both have spent time in jail for their coverage of the Soviet Navy's responsibility in dumping nuclear waste. In July a court dismissed charges of espionage against Pasko but sentenced the former career naval captain to three years of prison for "improper military conduct." He was released under an amnesty but is appealing the verdict to clear his name. Following the publication of his book on nuclear submarines dumping spent fuel, Nikitin was charged with treason and jailed, but released after the charges against him were sent back for reconsideration. Last year his case was reopened, and he is not allowed to leave St. Petersburg. PEN noted that "the treatment of Nikitin and Pasko has highlighted what many international observers regard as a disturbing trend in Russia."


By Charles Fenyvesi

Facing a steadily falling public approval rate, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared on a 27 October television address his intention to crush Chechnya "once and for all," and his government takes the carefully calibrated criticisms by Western governments as endorsements in disguise. Moscow keeps the world guessing how far it will go in eliminating what it calls "the Chechen threat," but there are ominous indications that its military campaign will expand and may take on the dimensions of genocide.

The U.S. reaction has been subdued, and senior officials are reported to be examining their options. Reacting to the attack on the Grozny market 21 October that reportedly left at least 60 dead--the estimated number has risen to at least 100 since then--White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that the U.S. government had told the Russians that "a constructive political dialogue is the only way to end" the crisis and reminded them not to repeat the errors of their 1994-96 war which left tens of thousands dead. At the same time, one U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, was quoted by Reuters as voicing fear of the Russians "further escalating their approach in Chechnya" and engaging in "a full-fledged ground war to flush out all the insurgents and bring a permanent solution to Chechnya." In that case, the official added, "the Russians have to recognize that both bilaterally and multilaterally this would have serious effects on the rest of the world."

On 23 October the English-language newspaper "Moscow Times" ran an editorial under the title "Reno's Quiet Gave War a Green Light," referring to Attorney General Janet Reno's recent Moscow visit focused on fighting crime and terrorism. But, the newspaper continued, when asked about the war in Chechnya, she was "evasive," and instead talked about the "good working relationship" she had developed with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The editorial concluded: "That's good enough for the Russian authorities, who cry victory and insist the war has Western support."

In sharp contrast, human rights organizations around the world have roundly condemned Moscow's campaign.

On 22 October the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) strengthened its 13 October call on Moscow to stop its war on Chechnya by appealing to the European Union to make Russia's ending the conflict a condition of economic cooperation with that country. In reacting to the attack on Grozny's market, IHF urged the international community to "demand an end to the slaughter of innocent civilians by Russian forces" and expressed its fear that Moscow's present course "could even lead to genocide."

IHF President Ludmila Alexeeva, who also chairs the Moscow Helsinki Group, said: "Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, a real war is being waged against Chechnya, with tragic consequences for the civilian population." She added that in several Russian cities the authorities are conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing. "These events are no less dangerous for European security than the Kosovo crisis caused by the Milosevic regime last spring." She concluded that the international community is paying little attention to the "humanitarian catastrophe in and around Chechnya."

Her colleague and fellow founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Dr. Yuri Orlov said: "Repeated humiliation caused by poverty, social inequalities, and NATO's demonstration of force in Yugoslavia, have pushed Russian collective consciousness to the brink of fascism. Recent terrorist acts have only acted as a trigger. The current war in Chechnya consolidates that sentiment. The ongoing ethnic cleansing in certain cities, public support for the bombings, and the anti-Chechen and anti-western rhetoric carried even in otherwise democratic media, have become commonplace in Russia. Human rights defenders are at present the only opposition to this mass pychosis."

In contrast to the strong anti-war views expressed by at least part of the Russian news media in the previous Chechen war, the Russian media now are almost unanimous in support of the military campaign in Chechnya. The military now spoon-feeds the press. On 25 October ITAR-TASS cited "reconnaissance reports" about "unusual works" carried out by Chechen fighters "on routes likely to be taken by federal forces on the attack," such as trenches dug alongside bridges and barrels filled "with an unknown liquid" placed on roadsides. The Chechens wear "protective suits" and gas masks, the intelligence reports claim.

According to Chechen sources, Chechen fighters, regulars or irregulars, have no protective equipment, and the news report has prompted fear that the Russians may use chemical or biological weapons and then put the blame on the Chechens.

In a statement that reached Central Asian sympathizers on 25 October, Aslan Maskhadov, president of the Chechen Republic, quoted Russian POWs as identifying their war aim as the eradication of two thirds of Chechnya's population. According to Maskhadov, 3,000 civilians have been killed so far and the number of refugees fleeing the republic long is some 200,000.

On 23 October, Ruslan Aushev, president of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, told "The New York Times" and RFE/RL's Russian Service that Russia's "imperial thinking" should be blamed for a situation that is growing more desperate each day. Speaking of Russian leaders, Aushev was quoted as saying: "They don't understand one thing. Even if we stamp out the bandits, dunk them, destroy them--and here too I have my doubts--what will happen after that? Who will come and run the Chechen republic?"

A former battalion commander in the Soviet Army and a decorated veteran of the Afghan war, Aushev acknowledged that he tried but failed to persuade Moscow authorities to resume the dialogue with the Chechen president. "This is not the way to fight terrorism," Aushev said. "There are other ways."

Aushev said the Chechens have 26,000 guerrillas "armed to the teeth" but the number will increase after the rocket attacks on Grozny. He believes that Moscow ought to demonstrate in Ingushetia, flooded with Chechen refugees who are mostly women and children, that its war is against the guerrillas, not the people.

But so far Russia has not moved to provide significant help. Last weekend, Russian troops blocked the highway from Chechnya to Ingushetia.

According to Lecha Ilyasov, a professor of linguistics and a member of the Chechen non-governmental organization called LAM, two urgent tasks face local and international authorities. The first is to help the refugees, most of whom live in tents, hastily-built shacks, and earthen dugouts, and lack elementary sanitation facilities. The luckiest live with relatives or in rented lodgings, up to 30 of them in 1-to-2 room apartments. But few refugees have any money, and the rations of bread, flour, and sugar distributed by the Ingush government are insufficient and hard to get to. The second task proposed by Ilyasov is to evacuate Grozny in advance of a Russian assault, which requires coordination with the Russian command, and Chechen and Ingush authorities.

Written far from the battle and with an eye on a capital that is even farther, the "Moscow News" editorial concluded: "Let's hope Washington keeps the pressure on, without any more backsliding into a full-scale ground war."