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Watch List: December 23, 1999

23 December 1999, Volume 1, Number 48

CHECHEN FIGHTERS WILL BE BACK, RL REPORTER OUT OF GROZNY ... Armed Chechens have no serious trouble getting in and out of Grozny, at any time of day or night, nor do correspondents holed up in the capital, according to Andrei Babitsky, RFE/RL's special correspondent in Grozny who left his cellar hideout with other journalists earlier this week. He was speaking on Radio Liberty's "Liberty Live" program on 21 December. The Russians will probably take the city of Grozny soon, he said, but "that won't make much of a difference. The Chechen fighters will be back, as they are conducting partisan warfare." Asked about the difference between now and the previous war, Babitsky said that Chechen civilians are in a much worse situation now but that the fighters have become more effective in avoiding losses.

... REFUGEES FROM GROZNY GET HELP FROM FIGHTERS AND VILLAGERS... Chechen fighters routinely inform civilians about the least dangerous routes to take from Grozny and help residents by transporting their belongings to the outskirts, according to information from a team dispatched to Chechnya and Ingushetia by the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center. The team also picked up reports of isolated instances of armed people looting abandoned apartments. The number of refugees is now growing more slowly than after the first Russian attacks. In Nadterechny District, there are now 20,000 people who have fled their homes. While waiting for their turn to move into tent camps set up by Russia's Emergency Ministry, they huddle in sheds unfit for habitation. In Sernovodsk, some refugees have been put up in a school unsuitable for living, as there are no beds, stoves or food. But local villagers are letting the refugees stay with them at night.

... BUT FOR MANY IN GROZNY, THERE IS NO WAY OUT. Many of those still in Grozny are physically incapable of moving, the Memorial report adds. Among this group are the residents in a home for the blind and the deaf. Most other Grozny residents, trapped in cellars with dwindling supplies of food and firewood, are afraid to leave because of the heavy Russian shelling. And some who have tried to leave have been forced back. One observer on the scene, Peter Bouckaert of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "These poor people have the brutal choice of either returning to a war zone or ending up in the cold. Russia is trying to remove the evidence of its abusive campaign in Chechnya." Over the weekend, officials attempted to send back to Chechnya another, longer train of 130 carriages, Reuters reported, but relented after refugees blocked the tracks. According to Bouckaert, roughly 10,000 of the 200,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia now live in train carriages. Conditions are difficult but refugees consider it safer than occupied Chechen villages where Russian solders have been looting and killing. Russian officials deny such excesses.

MOSCOW POLICE EXPEL RESIDENT CHECHENS. Moscow police continue to harass Chechens and others from the Caucasus on the streets and police stations, according to an Amnesty International report of 22 December. Codenamed "Operation Whirlwind," the roundup has resulted in the detention of close to 20,000 non-Russians living in Moscow and the expulsion of half of these since August 1999. "The situation for Chechens is very grim wherever they turn," AI reports. "The government's mission to eliminate 'bandits' both on the streets of Moscow and in its military offensive in Chechnya has gone too far."

NEWSPAPER GROUP ASKS YELTSIN TO REIN IN REGIONAL GOVERNMENTS. In a letter to President Boris Yeltsin, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers expressed "serious concern" with the deteriorating conditions of press freedom in Russia and asked him to take swift action against local governments accused of attacking the regional press in recent weeks. (For details see Watchlist of 16 December.) The appeal reminded Yeltsin that Russia is a party to numerous international conventions, including the one on Civil and Political Rights, which local authorities are violating.

JEWISH GROUP CALLS FOR ANTI-EXTREMIST LAWS. The US-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews has challenged the Russian government to use its gains in the Duma to enact laws that "will protect Russia's Jews and other vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities." In a statement released on 20 December, UCSJ recalled that for years the government submitted draft laws designed to check the activities of hate groups and other extremists, but the Duma, dominated by communists and nationalists, refused to adopt them. But in releasing this appeal, the UCSJ's Micah Naftalin noted that both Unity and Fatherland-All Russia rely on regional governors, "many of whom routinely violate human rights and collaborate with extremist, anti-Semitic groups without fear of sanction from Moscow." In a just published report on "Antisemitism, Xenophobia and Religious Persecution in Russia's Regions,", UCSJ warned that "an infrastructure of anti-Semitism" taking hold at the grassroots and official levels, influenced by communist, neo-Nazi, and Russian Orthodox forces.

TURKMEN AUTHORITIES ARREST BAPTIST PASTORS, RAID CHURCHES. On 16 and 17 December Turkmen authorities arrested two Baptist pastors and raided Baptist churches in Chardjou, Mary, Turkmenbashy, and Ashgabat, according to the California-based news agency Compass. This latest assault on the freedom of religion occurred even as the staff of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe were in Ashgabat meeting with government officials and religious groups. "Turkmenistan is the most repressive police state of the former Soviet Union," said Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). He charged President Saparmurat Niyazov with violating "all human rights commitments the country has committed itself to observe." Smith cited the example of the police arresting democracy activist and former parliamentarian Pirimguli Tanrykuliev while lunching with the U.S. Embassy's human rights officer. In August Tanrykuliev was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on trumped-up charges.

CPJ CRITICIZES AZERBAIJAN MEDIA LAW. On 16 December the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed "great concern" about Azerbaijan's new media law, adopted by parliament on 9 December, which CPJ said "severely restricts press freedom." The law orders all news media to register with the Ministry of Justice and offers no recourse for news organizations denied registration on political grounds. Similarly, a yet unnamed government agency will be in charge of broadcast licences which it can withdraw, shutting down a station which has no right to appeal through the courts. As for individual journalists, they may be sued for work that "insults the honor and dignity of the state and the Azerbaijani people" or is "contrary to the national interest."

BELARUSIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE WINS CASE. In an unexpected development, a Minsk court on 17 December ruled in favor of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee which had been struggling for most of the year against the state's efforts to shut it. The court voided the warnings by the Ministry of Justice which claimed that the committee had failed to register its regional branches. The court ruling shows that at least on occasion, Belarusian citizens can challenge abusive administrative practices and win, said a joint statement by the BHC and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. "The Belarusian judiciary should be transformed from a 'crime fighting unit' into an independent branch of state, able and willing to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches," said Aaron Rhodes of IHF.

THE WALL IS DOWN AFTER PRAGUE PAID THE PRICE. Local authorities in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem have dismantled the wall separating a Romany neighborhood from ethnic Czech neighbors, according to the Czech news agency CTK. President Vaclav Havel, the Council of Europe, and the international human rights community had condemned the wall as racist, but its removal took place only after the Czech government agreed to pay the equivalent of nearly $300,000 to the local authorities, with one third of the money going for the purchase of the homes of the ethnic Czechs to enable them to move elsewhere. The remaining funds are supposed to be spent on programs to benefit the Roma. European Union officials welcomed the compromise, but Ondrej Gina of the Romani National Congress called it "a capitulation to racism."

** UPDATE ON BELARUSIA'S MISSING PERSONS ** Two hundred and twenty-eight days have passed since the disappearance of former Interior Minister Yuriy Zakharanka, and 82 days since the disappearance of Viktar Ganchar, deputy chairman of the de jure Belarusian parliament called the Supreme Soviet, and his businessman friend Anatol Krasovskiy. Prior to their disappearances, all three oppositionists were under police surveillance. Former Central Bank President Tamara Vinnikova, who disappeared on 8 April, has surfaced earlier this month in a yet unidentified European country and gave two phone interviews to reporters who are convinced of her identity. The mystery of her whereabouts continues. Pavlyuk Bykovsky, senior reporter of the weekly "Belaruski Rynok," suggested that the government might point to her reappearance as proof that the other three missing persons might also be in hiding.

BRIEFS CZECH REPUBLIC. The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "greatly alarmed" by the criminal prosecution of Zdenek Zukal, owner and director of private TV studio ZZIP in the town of Olomouc, for accusing local law enforcement officials of corruption and links with organized crime. Zukal made the accusations in a series of investigative reports on TV Nova in 1997. If found guilty of "assisting in the criminal act of false accusation," Zukal could be jailed for up to nine years. POLAND. The Warsaw weekly "Solidarnosc" declared Chechnya President Aslan Maskhadov "Man of the Year 1999." The editors explained their decision as an expression of solidarity with the Chechen nation which "faces extinction." RUSSIA. The Duma recessed for the election without acting on the proposed law extending by one year the registration deadline for religious organizations. According to the 1997 law, after December 31, 1999 religious organizations which have not re-registered may be liquidated by court order when so requested by the registration office. According to conservative estimates, some 9,000 organizations - half of all religious organizations registered prior to 1997 - have not completed their re-registration. YUGOSLAVIA. On 20 December Serbian Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic took a leaf out of the old communist textbook and called RFE, along with VOA, part of "the psychological and propaganda services" of the United States government. Spokesman Ivica Dacic of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party said his party plans an offensive against the "satanization of our people and our country" by news media critical of the government.


By Charles Fenyvesi and Merkhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

During their 45-minute meeting at the White House on 21 December, President Bill Clinton and his Kazakh colleague Nursultan Nazarbaev "did not find time" to discuss the recent elections in Kazakhstan or human rights, Nazarbaev told the press afterwards.

But the two made headway on subject of oil. Nazarbaev agreed that his country's main product will flow through the Baku-Ceyhan route promoted by the United States rather than via Iran.

Visiting the United States this week for the third time since 1991, Nazarbaev continues to care about his image in the West. He is aware that investments will not flow into his energy-rich country unless he convinces American leaders that he is a benevolent strongman. His ace in the hole is stability. Nothing in Kazakhstan happens without his knowing about it first, and he and those beholden to him are firmly in control.

Among the presidents of Central Asia's five republics, Nazarbaev is far from the most authoritarian. But he is not the most tolerant either. To silence independent opinion in parliament and the news media, he has dispatched teams of the tax police or the secret police to search the homes of those who oppose him. If they persist in disagreeing with him after such visits, the dissenters are often charged with tax evasion or with "insulting the dignity and honor of the President." For several opposition activists, these charges have led to jail sentences of up to two years. In contrast to his colleagues in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Nazarbaev opposes executions for political crimes.

Kazakhstan is the largest and potentially the richest of these states. But over the past few years, Nazarbaev has appeared more concerned about turning the country into a family business rather than improving the standard of living of the population at large. He and his wife Sara have three daughters, each of whom is married to a very talented man. And together, Nazarbaev's daughters and sons-in-law control much of Kazakhstan's economy.

The eldest daughter, Dariga, now controls an extensive media empire: a heavily subsidized official news agency which owns the national television network of several channels throughout the country and up to a dozen radio stations. Her holdings include several research organizations which actively distribute their product over the Internet. She herself does not own newspapers. But financial groups closely tied to her family now do, and together with her, they have squeezed out almost all of the independent press. Dariga's husband, Rakhat Aliev, who had served as chief of the tax police, now heads the Almaty office of Kazakhstan's KGB, the National Security Committee.

Nazarbaev's second daughter Dinara is in charge of the country's network of top secondary schools. Her husband, Timur Kulibaev, is president of the Kazakh Transoil State Company, which controls all crude oil traffic in the state. As Kazakhstan has one of the world's largest proven oil and natural gas deposits, that job is the economy's most important - and the country's highest-paid.

And the president's youngest, Alia, has not yet made a career choice. Newspapers in Russia have reported that she has a drug problem. But her parents put their faith in Alia's husband, Aidar Akayev, son of the president of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and have made him a senior executive in a family-controlled bank.

Nazarbaev's wife Sara also plays a powerful role via a charitable organization. Sometimes donations to her charities appear to be a precondition of preferment by her husband: The rector of East Kazakhstan State University, Erezhep Mambetkaziev, donated 10 million rubles - worth roughly $100,000 then - on behalf of his university immediately before he was named minister of education. Moreover, Nazarbaev's privatization drive has benefited other members of his family. Eleven of the country's 12 largest banks are controlled by them.

The power of his own family has convinced Nazarbaev that he can ignore any criticism he might receive for violations of human rights in Kazakhstan. And the importance of his oil reserves, he clearly believes, represents a further guarantee that he will receive relatively little. Taken together, these factors suggest that the Nazarbaev family may become ever more powerful but that the prospects for stability in Kazakhstan over the longer term may not be good.