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Watch List: November 11, 1999

11 November 1999, Volume 1, Number 42

RUSSIANS BOMB CHECHNYA, BLOCK REFUGEES ON THE BORDER. Russian planes and artillery pound Chechnya as well as Chechnya's border with Georgia, as crowds of refugees queue on the border with Ingushetia, hoping to flee the fighting, Reuters reported on 8 November. (The day before, Reuters said that the line of stranded refugees stretched for 4 miles.) Though the flatlands in northern Chechnya now belong to the Russians, the same dispatch quoted Chechen military leader Shamil Basaev on a Grozny street saying "the real battles have not yet begun." Russian generals deny reports of heavy civilian casualties, Reuters noted, they vow that they "will not stop until the whole region is under their control." The dispatch ended with a quote from a Chechen woman at a Grozny bazaar who said that the Russians bomb schools and hospitals so that "people will run away.... They don't look where they are bombing--they just want to kill us all, women, children, everyone."

HAVEL CONDEMNS RUSSIAN ARROGANCE IN CAUCASUS. "Russian oppression down the years is the main cause of fundamentalism and terrorism in the Caucasus," Czech President Vaclav Havel told the German weekly "Der Spiegel." Discussing Russia's war against Chechnya, Havel said that for a long time Russia conducted itself in an arrogant manner with the people of the Caucasus. "I am extremely concerned by Russia's actions in Chechnya," he added, emphasizing that human rights are "universal and must be respected everywhere."

CLINTON CALLS FOR PARTNERSHIP WITH RUSSIA, REGRETS CHECHNYA WAR. Speaking on 8 November, the tenth anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that the U.S. must build "the right kind of partnership with Russia, a Russia that is stable, democratic, and cooperatively engaged with the West." But, he noted, Russia "has mired itself again in a cruel cycle of violence in Chechnya that is claiming innocent lives."

HELSINKI COMMISSION CHAIRMAN SMITH CRITICIZES CLINTON'S RESTRAINT. At a Congressional hearing on Chechnya on 3 November, Helsinki Commission chairman Rep Christopher Smith (Republican-New Jersey) criticized the Clinton administration for failing to challenge President Boris Yeltsin "in the fragile hope" that restraint will enhance the prospect of democracy. "Unfortunately," Smith added, "strains of democracy and civil society have been drowned out by the sound of tank treads moving over the countryside of Chechnya...The Russian government is applying indiscriminate force far out of proportion to its stated objectives."

PUTIN SAYS RUSSIAN PEOPLE BACK HIM ON CHECHNYA. In a Russian television program on 6 November, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that the rise in his ratings in opinion polls was because he "simply hit the nail on the head" with his actions in Chechnya, doing what people had been wanting to do for a long time. Russia has been in a state of transition for ten years, he said. "But we cannot remain in that state forever," he declared, and no one could turn the country back into the past. On 9 November, Russia announced it was closing Russia's southern borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan to foreigners and curb all traffic between southern Russia and most of the Middle East, including Turkey. According to Britain's "Guardian," the curbs are intended to punish Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who reportedly rejected the Russian demand that crack Russian troops seal the border and attack Chechen strongholds in the mountains. But restrictions will also make life harder for Chechen refugees in Georgia who number 20,000.

JUST LIKE SOVIET TIMES. On 26 October Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Czech journalist Petra Prochazkova, correspondent in Russia of "Epicentrum," to express official disapproval of an interview she conducted with Chechen military leader Shamil Basaev. According to an account by the Glasnost Foundation, she was told that there was a problem with her accreditation, as the Russian ambassador in Slovakia complained about the anti-Russian sentiments incited by her article. The Foreign Ministry official recommended that to avoid further problems and to make up for the damage she caused, Prochazkova should interview a top official at the Russian press center dealing with Chechnya.

GROWTH OF EXTREMIST GROUPS IN EUROPE THREATEN DEMOCRACY. Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader in Lithuania's recovery of its independence and now speaker of its parliament, believes that extremism is growing both in Eastern and Western Europe and could become a threat to democracy. He told an RFE/RL press briefing on 5 November that extremist groups include all those "chauvinist and xenophobic in slogan and ideology" and advocating the use of force instead of what they see as the "slow and ineffective" parliamentary process. Central and Eastern Europe has become "fertile ground" for such groups because of the combination of powerful interests who resist the move to the market and societies who have become impatient with economic dislocations and the failure of post-communist governments to correct them. "In practice," he said, such groups are "small" in Lithuania and its neighbors but "not so small and marginal" in Russia and elsewhere. But even small groups, as in Lithuania, are often "strongly financed" both domestically and from abroad, and "linked with criminal wealth on one side, and the former communist and KGB heritage from another." Landsbergis added that evidence exists that the expertise of former KGB officers is put at the disposal of some extremist groups, thus amplifying their impact.

UZBEK TORTURE OF POLITICAL PRISONERS NOW SAID TO BE ROUTINE. This past year in Uzbekistan 38 political prisoners died in one detention camp near Jaslik and about 6,000 were arrested on trumped-up charges of religious extremism, according to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. The prisons are filled with activists and members of the now banned opposition parties of Birlik and Erk. "It has become a criminal act to have a different opinion in Uzbekistan," says the report, which also details the many forms of torture the authorities have been using to extract confessions of guilt. The report states that "There is no one among the former prisoners who hadn't been exposed to torture."

DESPITE VIOLATIONS, KAZAKH VOTE HELPED OPPOSITION, EDITOR SAYS. Parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan strengthened the opposition, even though the government violated its own electoral law and kept the opposition from making gains, according to Bigeldin Gabdullin, editor of the country's only independent newspaper, "XXIst Century." Last week he told an RFE/RL audience that before the vote, there was only one serious opposition figure; now there are 500 who are angry with the way in which the election was stolen and want to cooperate in bringing democracy to Kazakhstan. Fraud was so massive, he said, that the West should declare the elections void. Moreover, he argued, the West and international financial institutions should stop providing credits to Kazakhstan until President Nursultan Nazarbaev agrees to hold free and democratic elections. The authorities restrict media freedom, he added, noting that an opposition newspaper like his survives only because of assistance from international organizations. He recounted how officials tried to bribe him before the elections and that in September 1998, after a trip to the U.S., his paper's office was firebombed.

SERBS TO TRY KOSOVAR ALBANIAN PHYSICIAN FOR TERRORISM. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on diplomats and the news media to monitor the trial of Dr. Flora Brovina, 50, in the Serbian city of Nis, scheduled to begin on 11 November. Serbian police arrested her in her home in Pristina in April, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and charged her with "terrorist acts against the Yugoslav state." HRW is concerned that Kosovar Albanian Brovina, a pediatrician and poet, will not get a fair trial. The Belgrade government has acknowledged that it holds 1,900 Kosovar Albanians its forces transferred from Kosovo to 13 detention centers in Serbia. According to Kosovo-based human rights groups, in addition to those known to be detained in Serbia, more than 5,000 Kosovar Albanians are still missing.


By Charles Fenyvesi

The brutal expulsion of thousands of Moscow's dark-skinned residents, especially Chechens and others from the Caucasus, and the blatant extortion of money from those able to buy their way back to the Russian capital were amply documented earlier this fall. Much less is known about similar events that routinely take place throughout Russia, in places few foreign correspondents ever get to. The villains are provincial officials who do not need the excuse of terrorist bombings to turn the screws on newcomers whose skin is usually darker than the locals and who take bottom-end jobs in the labor market.

Bureaucrats outside Moscow care even less about violating their own regulations--in addition to the Russian Constitution and UN conventions. They routinely harass newcomers and demand exorbitant fees and bribes from members of migrant and minority communities by abusing the residence registration system, according to a shocking 2 November report prepared by Susan Brazier for the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow.

Her case study focuses on a group of Kurds who number up to 170 and live in the southeastern agrarian districts of Knyaginiskyi and Bolshemyrashkinskyi of the Nizhni Novgorod region. Part of the mass migrations between 1991 and 1994 during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Kurds were at first welcomed in Nizhni because of the jobs they were ready to take.

But "for no clear or defensible reasons," Brazier writes, Nizhni authorities have refused to grant permanent residency status to close to one-fifth of the Kurds; nor do Kurdish children born in Nizhni receive proper documents. Officials give out minimal written documentation on the registration procedure and respond only verbally to many of the applications. The practice, Brazier asserts, "shrouds the entire matter still further in administrative confusion and ensures that no official record is maintained of the ongoing bureaucratic harassment."

It is quite likely, Brazier notes, that under Russia's 1992 Citizenship Act, some of the Kurds are Russian citizens. However, she adds, "the lack of documentation prevents authorities from establishing who was present on Russian territory at the time the [Citizenship] Act came into force."

A favorite bureaucratic excuse for denial is the claim that Kurds who do not have a stamped document releasing them from military service in their original residence cannot obtain permanent residency status. Passport officials are not moved by the common sense argument that people fleeing unrest cannot make sure that their documents are properly cleared with the authorities. Nor can refugees be expected to return to the country they fled and obtain documents.

Moreover, proof of release from military duty does not apply to women who are exempt from the draft. Yet women too are denied registration.

Unfortunately for the Kurds, instructions from the all-important Ministry of Internal Affairs call for a document of release from the military. However, local officials pay no attention to the fact that those instructions conflict with federal registration regulations as well as with federal laws governing freedom of movement. They pay no heed to the 2 February 1998 Constitutional Court decision that declared many of the practices, regulations, and restrictions of the nation's registration system to be unconstitutional.

And there is now a Kafkaesque twist. Nizhni authorities fine the Kurds for not returning to their original residences to obtain that stamped document of release from military service. The fine can be in the neighborhood of 700 rubles ($28) and it may be imposed every three months, Brazier reports, which is far in excess of the limits that the Code of Administrative Offenses envisages for infractions. The fine is also a lot of money for cattle herders such as the Kurds who earn between 400 and 500 rubles a month.

Sometimes the fine is imposed on the employer, which in turn creates tension between the employee and the employer. As a result, unregistered Kurdish adults have difficulties getting work. Many children do not go to school because it is risky to walk about without proper documentation.

In May 1999 a lawsuit challenged the registration system. But ignoring federal regulations and the Constitutional Court, the local court ruled against the Kurds, insisting that they must deregister from their military service in Armenia before they can obtain residency in Russia.

Brazier's analysis is that "local laws and official regulations are issued that add conditions to federal legislation, change its essential purpose, or are in blatant conflict with it. The results are local-level legal confusion and opportunities for underpaid administrators to extort money from those in even weaker positions than they--so often minorities, migrants, and others are similarly dispossessed."

Brazier reports another outrage. After they won in court, the authorities magnanimously offered a compromise. Still refusing to give the Kurds permanent residency, they agreed to temporary registration. At the same time, they granted permanent registration to four families. "This is a classic tactic," Brazier observes. "Provide enough concessions to appear conciliatory without in fact relinquishing the upper hand."

Her conclusion is dispiriting: "a type of equilibrium" has emerged, but one "based on falsehood and one that perpetuates the insecurity of the Kurdish community. Status that is not permanent can be revoked, and the Kurds are left at the mercy of any future legislative or regulatory machinations that legislators or administrators may devise."

Since the bombings in Moscow and the subsequent Chechnya war, the Nizhni Duma amended registration procedures. The fine for being in violation of the registration regulations was raised from 10 to 20 times the minimum wage. Brazier quotes an official to the effect that the changes were necessary to ensure that the authorities can mount an effective campaign against terrorists.