Russia: Election-Season 'Hostages' Find Release
Police detained Reznik for allegedly provoking a street fight as he left his office in the early-morning hours of March 3. A court has since charged him with verbally and physically assaulting a police officer and ordered that he remain in provisional custody for at least two months.
The Yabloko party, together with human rights campaigners and a number of cultural luminaries, has cried foul and called for Reznik's release.
According to his own version, the 33-year-old politician was arrested and beaten up by police while trying to pacify a scuffle that had broken out outside his office building.
"Maksim Reznik is well-known for being a harsh critic of Governor Valentina Matviyenko," Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky told reporters shortly after the incident. "We would not like to think that the inappropriate, crude police decision to sentence him to two months in pretrial detention was ordered by the governor or her entourage."
The timing of the arrest certainly invites questions. It came just after Reznik had spent the day collecting alleged evidence of voter fraud in the presidential ballot. And it came just before a March of Dissent opposition rally planned in St. Petersburg on March 3 to protest the election results.
Observers like Yevgeny Volk, of the Heritage Foundation think tank, say Reznik's arrest fits into a broader Kremlin effort to ensure a smooth, scandal-free handover of power to Medvedev.
"I think it is part of a campaign that was aimed at neutralizing any criticism of the election as not very free and not very fair," says Volk. "During Soviet times, authorities carried out preventive cleansings in Moscow ahead of high-profile events. People who could potentially pose a threat to the regime were arrested."
Reznik is not the only opposition figure to have been conspicuously absent from the political arena on March 2.
Oleg Kozlovsky, the leader of the anti-Kremlin Oborona opposition youth movement, was serving an involuntary term of military duty away from Moscow.
He says a policeman accompanied by what he describes as two plainclothes security officers picked him up on December 20 outside his Moscow home and took him to an army enlistment office.
"I went through the medical commission very quickly, without having to queue, almost running," he tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Then I was told that I was being drafted into the army, which was a big surprise for me because it had no legal basis. The only explanation I was given was: 'We served in the army, now it's your turn.'"
Kozlovsky, who previously had been partly exempted from service due to chronic health problems, was immediately transferred to a military unit in the city of Ryazan, some 200 kilometers south of the capital.
"There, I heard bits of conversation between the army officers who had brought me and officers from one of the military units," he recalls. "They were saying that I had to be isolated, that I was from some kind of 'Oborona,' that I had to be put far away. They recommended a unit located near a village called Dubrovich in the Ryazan region, some 30 kilometers way from Ryazan, that you have to get to by following an isolated track in the forest. About 15-20 soldiers serve in that unit."
Kozlovsky was released from the army on March 4 -- immediately after the election and the Moscow March of Dissent, in which his fellow activists planned to participate before it was dispersed by riot police -- after serving just over two months of his imposed one-year military service.
Another vocal Kremlin critic, former Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi, spent March 2 in jail, awaiting a verdict on charges of abuse of office.
Donskoi's legal troubles started after he traveled to Moscow in late 2006 to publicly announce his intention to run for president in the March 2008 presidential election.
In July 2007, police burst into his Arkhangelsk apartment, dragged him outside in his underwear, and threw him in jail to face charges of using city funds to pay for private bodyguards.
But on March 6, after eight months in pretrial detention, Donskoi was suddenly released. Volk, of the Heritage Foundation, says the timing of such decisions is "no coincidence."
If the legal attack against the 37-year-old Donskoi was aimed at forcing him out of the political arena, it has been successful. Today, the man whom veteran Russian rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva has called a political prisoner says he is abandoning politics.
"I probably can't inspire anyone now, I can't tell people to go into politics and stand up for their ideas, because I'm scared for other people," says Donskoi. "I wouldn't wish anyone to go through what I endured in jail -- the humiliations, the mockeries from prison and law enforcement officials. In jail, I was treated worse than an animal, like some kind of object that you can kick, move around, isolate in a separate cell."
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
Kyrgyzstan: 'Public Trial' Held On 2002 Killings
The group behind the event says it was forced to conduct a symbolic hearing to remind officials that those who gave the orders to fire on protesters in March 2002 were never brought to justice.
In a ruling that is bound to spark controversy, former parliament speaker Mukar Cholponbaev read out a verdict at the end of the "trial" that found former President Askar Akaev and current President Kurmanbek Bakiev "as heads of the state and of the government, as guarantors of the constitution and the rights of the country's citizens," responsible "for organizing and carrying out" the 2002 shooting in Aksy.
Aksy remains a controversial and tragic event in Kyrgyzstan.
Several thousand protesters had gathered there to protest the detention of a local representative to parliament on charges of abuse of office. The situation was tense. Some protesters threw stones and sticks as police looked on. No one expected the police would open fire, but they did -- and five people were killed. A sixth died the next day, although there's been a lot of debate about whether that fatality was connected to the police shooting.
The event sparked protests that stretched to the capital, Bishkek, in the north.
At first, then-President Akaev blamed the protesters, saying a few ambitious people had used them for their own political aims. But when a videotape of the shootings emerged, it showed clearly that the police were not sufficiently provoked to fire on the protesters.
The prime minister at the time, current President Bakiev, resigned along with his government some two months later. Akaev, in a bid to calm the explosive situation, declared an amnesty for all involved and ordered the country to move on.
But that did not satisfy many who believe the people responsible not only for using deadly force but for authorizing it had escaped justice. This was especially true for the relatives of those killed, who have never stopped trying to have the tragedy properly investigated and those responsible brought to trial, including Akaev and Bakiev.
Sartbai Jaichybekov is an attorney for the relatives of those killed. Speaking at the trial on March 17, he suggested that he and others still think that Bakiev played a key role in the events at Aksy. He also pointed out that Bakiev's statements of his whereabouts when the shootings took place do not conform to other testimony in the case.
Bakiev "says that he was abroad, on a business trip" when the shootings happened, "but former Prime Minister [Kubanychbek] Jumaliev said in court that right after the Aksy events he was at a conference in Bakiev's office," Jaichybekov said. "He said: 'They called me and told me to go to Aksy and gather all the Aksy officials and I left right away for Aksy. I flew there and assembled 28 or 29 Aksy officials.' If Bakiev was outside the country, how could Jumaliev have been with him?"
Akaev was chased from office in March 2005 by protests against rigged parliamentary elections and his failure to improve living standards. Bakiev, by then an opposition leader, was elected president in July 2005.
Since then, there have been minor trials of some officials involved in Aksy. The highest-ranking official of that time to face trial so far is Sultan Urmanaev, the former governor of Jalal-Abat province, where Aksy is located.
Aksy Trial 'Illegal'?
Earlier this month, Urmanaev was found guilty of misusing his position and failing to address the growing problems in Aksy before the violence broke out. He was given a five-year suspended prison sentence with three years probation.
Pointing out that there have already been trials concerning the Aksy events, such as the one that convicted Urmanaev, Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on March 17 that the "people's court" in Aksy was illegal.
Kaiypov also recommended that if anyone is unsatisfied with progress so far in finding the guilty parties at Aksy, then they should lodge an appeal in the official court system.
"Since we a have a state, there are justice institutions in this state. Nobody else can judge" or hold a trial," Kaiypov said. "If people think that the trial wasn't fair, then it might be launched again. If somebody escaped trial, then they could be brought to court now. But if people say we are not satisfied with this court, so we will judge by ourselves, then nobody will be satisfied with that, because there is always one side upset with the court."
Aksy is like an open wound on Kyrgyzstan's national psyche. The protests that followed the killings forced the government to loosen its control over the right to assemble and ultimately served as a rehearsal for the events of March 2005 that chased Akaev from power.
But the lack of any real resolution weighs heavily on the minds of many Kyrgyz who are increasingly convinced that the authorities are not interested in seeing the case resolved.
Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
Russia: A Destructive Culture Of Lies And Mendacity
In a largely ignored open letter to President Vladimir Putin published shortly before the March 2 presidential election, the former Soviet-era political prisoner and heir to Andrei Sakharov condemned the culture of lies that the government has fostered in its bid to "manage" Russian democracy.
Kovalyov particularly had in view official statements and court rulings that the December 2007 Duma elections and the presidential campaign were open, fair, and democratic. But he also referred to the wider culture that has blossomed under Putin -- the creation of managed political parties that pretend to be an opposition, the fostering of Kremlin-sponsored nongovernmental organizations that take funding and attention from their problematic counterparts, the "spontaneous" appearance of grassroots movements such as For Putin! that purport to be groundswells, and so on and so on.
Kovalyov emphasized the "corrupting force" of the lies that Russia's leaders "are incapable of rejecting." He notes that no "remotely literate citizen" believes these lies, including even the staunchest supporters of Putin and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.
Kovalyov, addressing the leadership, speaks of a "paradoxical change" in the relationship between the public and the ruling elite. "You lie, your listeners know this and you know that they don't believe you...and they also know that you know they don't believe you. Everybody knows everything. The very lie no longer aspires to deceive anyone. From being a means of fooling people it has for some reason turned into an everyday way of life, a customary and obligatory rule for living."
"The customary lies of leaders always generate and cultivate cynicism in society and cannot achieve anything else," Kovalyov declared. "And gradually going back by the same path we came on is almost impossible, since you are doomed to lie." He said that, in such a culture, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's statements about "freedom being better than non-freedom" and the need for independent media can only be taken as "a continuation of your untruth," rebounding against the hard wall of the public's cynicism.
Russia, of course, has had unaccountable government for more than 1,000 years and the Soviet era accustomed the public to incredulity. Although Putin's Russia is not a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, it has succeeded in reestablishing this pernicious aspect of its political culture, making it arguably worse by stripping it of an ideological framework that at least offered some clues for interpretation.
Now, when Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov calls Russia's electoral system the most open and transparent system in the world, it cannot be understood in any other way than as Kovalyov said -- "the very lie that no longer aspires to deceive anyone."
For anyone inside such a culture, therefore, any statement becomes the subject of analysis rather than a furtherance of discord. Why is he saying this, the listener asks. And why now? And for whom? This is not a new development of the Putin era, but Putin has certainly done nothing to roll this culture back. Instead, he has manipulated it, benefited from it, fostered it, and -- in Kovalyov's opinion -- all but ensured that there is no road back for Russia.
The Yabloko Case
On March 10, Putin held a rare, closed-door meeting with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky. Very little has been said about the content of those discussions, with even the usually open and accessible Yavlinsky keeping mum. Yavlinsky did say, however, that he briefed Putin on the case of Yabloko official Maksim Reznik, who was arrested on March 3 on charges -- assaulting a police officer -- that he claims are politically motivated.
Reznik has exposed falsification of the presidential election results, organized opposition March of Dissent rallies, and is a leading organizer of a conference later this month at which the country's liberals plan to discuss the formation of a genuine, liberal opposition front. Yavlinsky said Putin promised "to look into the case," implying strongly that Putin gave him the impression that he had not heard of the matter before.
But in Russia's current culture, how are we to understand Putin's promise? The skeptical observer could be excused for speculating that Reznik was essentially being held as a hostage in some political game, perhaps one aimed at disrupting or discrediting the upcoming liberal conference. (One might logically assume that Yavlinsky's silence about the meeting is connected to his desire to secure Reznik's release.)
Russia's political culture is rife with similar examples: Early in Putin's tenure, when oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky refused to sign over his media properties to the state, he was thrown in prison until he complied. More recently, former Yukos Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who has spent some two years in pretrial detention under abominable conditions, was denied medical treatment for AIDS and serious related complications. (After massive domestic and international outcry, he was eventually moved to a medical clinic for treatment, but remains in custody.) Lawyers involved in the Yukos cases have said they believe Aleksanyan's treatment was an attempt to pressure the defense in other cases, including new charges pending against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his former partner, Platon Lebedev.
Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak was arrested on vague corruption charges in November, and many analysts have concluded the case is a bid by siloviki in the administration to put pressure on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin. All of these cases are landmarks -- and not the only ones -- in what Medvedev himself has decried (whether earnestly or rhetorically) as Russia's appalling culture of "legal nihilism."
Politics Of Intrigue
And that is not the end of the possible speculation around Yavlinsky's meeting with Putin and the Reznik case. Political analyst Valery Ostrovsky told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that it doesn't make sense for the Kremlin to try to disrupt the liberal conference. "It could lead to a unification of the democrats that would then be convenient for the Kremlin to control," he said. "But Grigory Yavlinsky, on the other hand, doesn't need such a unification. And removing Reznik, the conference organizer, from the political arena might even be convenient for [Yavlinsky]. It can't be excluded that [Reznik] was set up by his own people, who arranged a provocation with the police."
This is the sort of character assassination and innuendo that is the direct result of the country's cynical culture of political lies. As Kovalyov wrote: "Cynicism is cowardice, the flight from burning problems and hard-hitting discussion. It is the lowest pragmatism, petty time-serving teetering on the verge of baseness, or already toppled over the edge. It is intrigue trumping competition, and a rejection of moral taboos." And as he concluded, it is hard to see a road out of such a situation.
Iran: President's Allies Win Largest Bloc In Parliament, But Face ChallengesElection results in Iran so far indicate that allies of hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections.
Conservatives seen as critics of Ahmadinejad won a substantial bloc in the legislature, while reformists appeared likely to at least retain the small bloc they held in the outgoing parliament.
The election is seen as a crucial test for Ahmadinejad in advance of next year's presidential poll.
With more than 65 percent of the parliament's 290 seats decided, the pro-Ahmadinejad hard-line conservatives have taken 67 seats, while conservative critics of Ahmadinejad seized 46.
According to individual results announced by state television and the official news agency IRNA, reformists won 30 seats. Another 42 winners are independents whose political leanings were not immediately known.
Radio Farda reports that Iran's clerical leaders cheered the vote, which preserves the lock conservatives have had on the parliament since 2004.
Reformist leaders said that at least 14 winning independents are pro-reform, bringing their bloc to 44 seats so far. If correct, that would be around the size of the reformist presence in the outgoing parliament.
AP says several dozen seats, where no candidate won enough vote to secure victory, will be decided by second-round runoffs set for April.
Voter Turnout Up
The Interior Ministry reports voter turnout was about 60 percent of Iran's 44 million eligible voters -- up significantly from the 51 percent who voted in the 2004 election.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thanked Iranians for their participation, saying they had turned U.S. attempts to discredit the vote "into a vain bubble."
At a news conference in Tehran today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini echoed Khamenei's comments.
"Regardless of the attempts made by the American and the Western media to put people off voting and take away their hopes for the elections, regardless of their schemes, nothing came to fruition and as ever, we witnessed an immense turnout at the ballot boxes," Hosseini said.
Hosseini also called the conservatives’ victory an expression of the popular mood in the country.
"The loser from these elections was undoubtedly the U.S. The mass of the people and the youth in the country were the true victors," Hosseini said.
In a statement, the European Union's presidency said the vote was "neither fair nor free." It said over a third of prospective candidates were prevented from running in the elections.
The U.S. State Department said the election results were "cooked" because the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of candidates.
Reformist leaders and independent observers say the vote was not fair because the Guardians Council -- an unelected body of clerics and jurists -- disqualified some 1,700 mostly moderate candidates on the grounds that they were insufficiently loyal to Islam or Iran's 1979 revolution.
Voting irregularities were also reported during the polling.
Speaking at a news conference in Tehran on March 15, reformist coalition spokesman Abdollah Naseri said the reformists were determined to participate in the parliament in hope of bringing change to the Islamic republic.
"At this stage none of our candidates are willing to resign even if they are confronted with the most impossible obstacles, with the knowledge that their rights have been taken away from them and they will participate in parliament," Naseri said.
Prominent Tehran-based journalist Issa Saharkhiz told Radio Farda today that despite the strong conservative showing, Ahmadinejad will likely have a more difficult time with the new parliament than he had with the outgoing legislature.
The differences between hard-line supporters of Ahmadinejad and a more moderate faction aligned with former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani could also encourage a conservative challenge to Ahmadinejad in presidential elections in 2009.
Speaking on March 15 in the city of Qom, where he won a seat in parliament, Larijani said he vowed "cooperation between the parliament and the government."
Larijani, who is seen as possibly eyeing his own presidential bid, also said he had no ideological dispute with Ahmadinejad and that their disagreements were mainly about style.
Larijani quit his post as nuclear negotiator last year citing differences with Ahmadinejad about how to handle the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
The moderate conservatives are led by Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps chief Mohsen Rezaie.
There are also two coalitions of reformers: the Reformist coalition inspired by former reformist President Khatami and the National Confidence Party led by former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi.
Reformists and some conservatives have accused Ahmadinejad of fueling inflation, which now stands at 19 percent, with loans and subsidies. Reformists have also criticized him for his vitriolic anti-Western rhetoric, which has led to Tehran's increased international isolation.
Belarus Demands U.S. Ambassador Leave Minsk
Belarus said it is responding to sanctions imposed by Washington on the state-controlled oil and chemical company Belneftekhim.
'Forced' To Act
Anatol Krasutski, the deputy chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Belarus's House of Representatives, told RFE/RL from Minsk that the Lukashenka government had no alternative but to act.
"This step was forced upon us, and it may lead to a search for some sort of a compromise," he said. "But, I repeat, the American side forced us to take this step."
In Washington, a White House spokesman said the development serves only to further isolate Belarus. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said President George W. Bush is "deeply disappointed" at Belarus's decision.
Not Leaving Now
But Casey stressed that U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart hasn't left Belarus and will stay there for the foreseeable future.
"[Stewart] is in Minsk and she'll remain in Minsk while we continue to review the situation," he said. It's important, we think, to have our embassy there in Minsk and to have high-level diplomatic representation there to engage with the Belarusian government on a number of concerns."
In announcing its demand, the Foreign Ministry in Minsk pointed to the Belneftekhim sanctions imposed last autumn. Washington froze that company's assets and forbade U.S. companies to do any further business with it.
Along with the European Union, the United States also has imposed economic and travel sanctions against Belarus until Lukashenka agrees to release political prisoners and allow and institute more democratic reforms. The travel restrictions include Lukashenka himself and his close associates.
Minsk acted on the same day the European Commission agreed to open an office in Belarus. Belarusian political analyst Andrey Fyodarau said the two actions may be linked.
'Good Cop/Bad Cop'?
"I wouldn't rule it out because there does indeed seem to be some movement in [Belarusian] relations with Europe," he said. "Maybe that's why we're taking this tack with the U.S. In other words, we won't give them an inch. At the same time, our trade with America is not too big. But I wouldn't rule out another version either: It might be that this situation is being played out by the West according to a 'good cop /bad cop' scenario. One side [Europe] is heading toward cooperation, albeit slowly. The other side [the United States] is getting tougher."
Lukashenka has recently been making friendly overtures to the West ever since Russia began to drastically increase the price of oil it exports to Belarus -- prices Belarus has trouble paying.
Earlier this year, Lukashenka ordered the release of several political opponents from prison as a gesture to the West. Washington welcomed the releases, but said it wouldn't start talks on improving relations unless he freed one more prisoner, Alyaksandr Kazulin.
Kazulin opposed Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election campaign and was arrested during a protest after Lukashenka won a new term in office.
The Belarusian government freed Kazulin long enough for him to attend his wife's funeral last month, then put him back in prison.
At the State Department, spokesman Casey said it is regrettable that Belarus decided to confront the United States rather than work with it, especially after making the gesture of the initial prisoner release.
"We are appreciative of the fact that they have released several of the political prisoners, and we in fact noted at the time that if they were to release the remaining political prisoners -- very specifically Mr. Kazulin -- then we might be in a position to engage with them and begin a dialogue on how we might be able to improve relations," Casey said. "But frankly if the Belarusian government wishes to shoot itself in the foot, they're welcome to do so."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service correspondent Bohdan Andrusyshyn contributed to this report
Iran: International Unions Highlight Solidarity With Jailed Labor LeadersThousands of trade unionists, transport workers, and other people around the world have united in a show of solidarity with jailed Iranian labor leaders Mansur Osanlu and Mahmud Salehi.
The "Global Day of Action" took place on March 6 and included rallies in front of Iranian embassies in Australia, Britain, Japan, Ukraine, and other counties.
The events were supported by the International Trade Union Confederation and International Transport Workers' Federation as (ITF) -- global confederations that represent unions in nearly 150 countries -- well as Amnesty International, all of whom have repeatedly called for the two men's release.
Osanlu's case has been compared to that of Lech Walesa and, for some, the international show of support in the case recalls the Cold War-era support by international labor organizations for Poland's Solidarity movement, which ultimately helped topple communism in Eastern Europe.
IFT Secretary-General David Cockroft tells Radio Farda that Osanlu's treatment has become a symbol of the Iranian workers' movement, which has come under intense government pressure.
"We are organizing a series of action days and we continue to organize these action days, because we are doing everything we can to persuade [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad, but also to persuade the entire regime within Iran, [that] their problems in the world are big enough already without concentrating on depriving democratic trade unions of the rights to present their members."
Osanlu is the founder and leader of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company. Iranian authorities do not recognize the union, and its members have been harassed and the union's activities have always been restricted.
The 50-year-old Osanlu has been beaten and repeatedly arrested after being accused of acting against the government and national security. He currently is serving a five-year prison term. Rights activist say he is in danger of losing sight in one eye due to previous beatings.
Salehi, a former leader of the Saqez Baker's Union, has also been imprisoned over his labor activities. He too has been charged with acts against national security.
Salehi, who is serving his prison term in Iran's Kurdistan Province, has only one kidney and requires regular medical treatment, but authorities reportedly have not always provided it.
The organizers of the demonstrations and rallies tell Radio Farda that their main demands include the release of Osanlu and other jailed unionists and the free functioning of labor unions. They also want to raise awareness about the dire situation of trade unions in Iran.
Osanlu, who has led the Iranian trade union for two years, has paid a heavy price for his activities. He was first arrested in December 2005 and spent seven month in Tehran's Evin prison for organizing protests by bus drivers who complained of low wages.
The following month, trade unionists and bus drivers had been planning new protests to call for Osanlu's immediate release but authorities arrested several trade-unions activists on the eve of the planned strikes.
Trade unionists and rights activists in Iran and the West have repeatedly called on the Iranian government to free Osanlu and other workers jailed for their peaceful actions.
Although Osanlu was released from Evin under a heavy bail in summer 2006, the government pressure on him has never stopped.
He has been repeatedly detained by security agents. Then, in July 2007, Osanlu was beaten and abducted in Tehran. His family has subsequently been told that he was sent again to Evin.
"Osanlu is a genuine trade union leader who has been working very hard to defend the rights of his members. And the sooner that he is out of jail and allowed to conduct his work in freedom, the better it will be for all of the people of Iran and I would say the better it would be for international reputation of Iranian government."
Critics of the Iranian leadership say the case echoes Soviet officials' persecution of labor activists. Walesa and his Solidarity trade-union movement challenged Poland's former communist regime -- first by staging strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in August 1980. He led the series of nationwide strikes in 1988, a year before Solidarity was and allowed to campaign as a political party.
Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and was elected president of Poland in 1990.