Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies: May 23, 2008

Commentary: Through Eurovision Goggles

By Luke Allnutt
The turnout puts European Parliament elections to shame -- the type of participation a "Eurocrat" can only dream of. On May 24, tens of millions of Europeans voted for their favorite songs in the finals of the 53rd Eurovision Song Contest, selecting the Russian entry "Believe" by Dima Bilan as the winner.

It's easy to scoff at Eurovision. It's gimmicky, kitsch, with substandard singers performing mindless pop. It's a refuge for the never-have-beens and never-will-be's.

But the contest actually says a lot about Europe and Europeans, warts and all. For, despite the flag swapping and the bonhomie, and the three-language choruses calling for armies to lay down their guns, the contest has always been petty, provincial, and even mean-spirited. And what could be more European than that?

Take the phenomenon of "neighborly voting." Countries have the chance -- either by jury or televote -- to vote for each other's songs. The results are unsurprising. Countries tend to vote for countries like themselves: they might share a language, a religion, or a disdain for the Germans or the British.

Greece and Cyprus regularly give each other the highest marks, and Balkan and Scandinavian audiences do the same among themselves. The voting also gives smaller countries, still perhaps smarting from CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) inequalities or restrictive immigration policies, a chance to bloody the noses of Europe's big boys.

Then there's the sniping and the provincialism. Set up in 1956 to unite a war-ravaged Europe, the competition sometimes has the opposite effect.

After the United Kingdom's entry bombed out with zero points in 2003, the duo's dressing room was vandalized. There were plenty of suggestions in Britain ("remember, we gave the world The Beatles") that the snub might have been due less to a wobbly performance than to the United Kingdom's role in the Iraq war.

This year, Armenia and first-timers Azerbaijan, who fought a war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, are already at each other's throats. A group of Azerbaijanis has launched a campaign on youTube claiming that Armenia's entry is based on three well-known Azerbaijani folk songs.

A French academic, Philippe Le Guern, has studied the song contest and has likened it to a kind of "war substitute." Just like corporate paintball, it's supposed to be teambuilding, but really it's an excuse to splat your most annoying colleagues with dire Europop.

And then there's the more recent phenomenon: enlargement fatigue. In recent years, the contest has expanded to include countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Since 2001, "New Europe" had triumphed with victories from Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Serbia, and now Russia. That has prompted grumblings from some Old Europeans. Veteran broadcaster Terry Wogan, who hosts the Eurovision show every year in Britain, said recently that a new "Iron Curtain" has descended on the contest.

"Eurovision was intended to bring us all together but instead it makes it manifestly clear how far apart we all are, " Wogan told Britain's "Daily Telegraph" newspaper this week. He fears that the "eastern stranglehold" might mean Britain (gasp!) will never win the contest again.

Conspiracy theories aside, that might have more to do with the caliber of entrants. For Old Europe, Eurovision is not supposed to be taken seriously. It's a running joke, something to be enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek.

But for many of the smaller countries, Eurovision is important -- not just in showcasing their national cultures, but also in attracting potential tourists. New entrants often send their top acts. Compare that with Euro-weary Ireland, which this year sent a purple-beaked glove puppet called Dustin the Turkey.

Ultimately, Eurovision is a success because it reveals how different we Europeans think we are, when in reality the opposite is true. The delusion of diversity and the reality of commonality. After all, we're all sitting down watching it together on a Saturday night.

Freud called it the narcissism of minor differences: the idea that, as human beings, our most virulent hatred is reserved for those who are only slightly different. Those Azerbaijanis outraged by the "theft" of their folk songs should take note.

The author is editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website

Analysis: Prosecutor Pressures Nalchik Raid Victims' Lawyer

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller

Larisa Dorogova

Larisa Dorogova, who represents the families of some of those killed during the multiple raids in October 2005 by young Islamic militants on police and security facilities in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), has appealed to KBR President Arsen Kanokov to intervene to put an end to the harassment she and her son have been subjected to in recent months by the KBR Prosecutor's Office, reported on May 14.

That agency opened a criminal case against Dorogova earlier this year for allegedly using foul language and threatening to kill a prison warder who refused her access to one of her clients.

On May 9, Dorogova's 20-year-old son Khadjimurat was snatched on the street by four men in civilian clothes. The men forced him into a car, and drove around the city for seven hours before finally releasing him, threatening him and questioning him nonstop about his mother's professional activities, Dorogova told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on May 14.

Even before the October 13, 2005, Nalchik raid, Dorogova had periodically defended young men allegedly hounded, detained, and beaten by police simply because they were practicing Muslims. In the wake of that raid, experts suggested that systematic harassment by police at the instigation of then-KBR Interior Minister Khachim Shogenov impelled many young believers to join the ranks of the North Caucasus resistance.

Immediately after the attack, Dorogova agreed to represent some of the accused, but in November 2005 she was barred from doing so. She continued, nonetheless, to represent the families of some of the young men killed in the fighting who appealed to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the Russian Constitutional Court, and to Kanokov to hand over their sons' bodies for burial. That request was refused on the grounds that Russian legislation stipulates that the bodies of "terrorists" be interred in unmarked graves.

Dorogova protested that that provision did not apply insofar as the young men in question -- at least some of them innocent passersby -- had not been formally tried and found guilty of terrorism. Witnesses claim to have seen one of the young men purportedly killed during the fighting, Boris Dzagalov, alive on October 14, according to on February 16, 2006. In a photograph taken of him in the Nalchik morgue, his right eye and most of the upper right side of his face have been obliterated (see

The families of the deceased then appealed to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which in mid-2007 informed Dorogova that the bodies were cremated one year earlier, in June 2006. Meeting personally with the bereaved relatives in September 2006, Kanokov declared that if he had the authority to release the bodies, he would have done so. In November 2007, the Nalchik City Court ruled that the official who ordered the cremation acted unlawfully, reported on November 14.

Continuing Legal Battle

A total of 59 young men were arrested and charged with terrorism, banditry, armed insurrection, and murder in connection with their alleged participation in the October 2005 attacks. The preliminary hearings in that case began in October 2007 behind closed doors in a specially built courthouse in Nalchik; since then, one of the 59 defendants has died, apparently of natural causes.

At the outset, five of the defendants submitted written statements claiming that testimony they gave while under investigation was extracted as a result of, or under the threat of, torture, and that they signed that incriminating testimony in the absence of a lawyer. They therefore formally demanded that their testimony be excluded from the prosecution's case. Dorogova agreed to represent three of those five who planned to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

In January 2008, the KBR Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the torture allegations, but on March 20, the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor's Office rejected the defendants' demand. In January 2008, however, the Prosecutor's Office also ruled in response to an appeal by the widows of some of the alleged militants killed in October 2005 that police were acting unlawfully in repeatedly summoning them for questioning and mandatory fingerprinting, reported on January 31.

Dorogova lodged a formal protest with KBR Prosecutor Oleg Zharikov after prison officials refused her access on January 31 to one of her clients, Zaur Tokhov. Tokhov told the court when the hearings resumed on February 5 that prison officials had attempted to strangle him.

The Prosecutor's Office subsequently overturned two refusals by the Nalchik City Court to take legal action against Dorogova in connection with the alleged contretemps that followed the refusal to allow her to meet in detention with Tokhov, and on April 16, the KBR Bar Association opened disciplinary proceedings against Dorogova with the aim of stripping her of the right to practice, reported.

The relatives of the slain men responded with an appeal on Dorogova's behalf to Kanokov, according to on April 21. They attributed the move to strip Dorogova of the right to practice law to her stated readiness to raise their case with the European Court of Human Rights, and warned Kanokov that sidelining her would result in a reversion to the "atmosphere of lawlessness and terror" that triggered the October 2005 violence.

Meanwhile, on March 26, Dorogova found a live cartridge in her mailbox together with a letter, allegedly from members of the Islamic resistance, threatening to kill her. The combined Kabarda, Balkar, and Karachai jamaat has denied having issued any such threat and praised Dorogova as a "devout Muslim" who is doing all in her power to "defend Muslims being held captive by unbelievers." Dorogova herself told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that she suspects the power ministries ("siloviki") are behind the ongoing attempts to intimidate her.

In her appeal to Kanokov, Dorogova recalled his pledge following his appointment as president in September 2005 to crack down on endemic corruption within the law enforcement agencies and to protect human rights. She said she considers it pointless to appeal to the republican Prosecutor's Office, claiming that it was on orders from that agency that she was refused access to Tokhov in January, and that the move to strip her of the right to practice originated with First Deputy Prosecutor Alik Zhekeyev. She argued that she has not in any way broken the law in her professional activities, and concluded with the request that Kanokov take "urgent and effective action" to protect herself and her son, reported on May 14.

On May 14, the KBR Supreme Court embarked on the process of selecting jury members for the upcoming trial, reported, but only 145 of the 400 potential jurors showed up, of whom 67 immediately asked to be excused from jury service, reported. A further 35 did so on May 15, and as of May 19, when other defense lawyers finished questioning them, only 31 potential jury members were still available.

U.S.: Russian Think Tank Wants To Study America, Not Attack It

By Heather Maher
The first Russian think tank based in the United States has yet to officially open its doors. But it's already generating a lot of controversy.

Critics say the Russian Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (RIDC) is little more than a new propaganda tool for the Kremlin as it sharpens its attacks on the West. But the head of the institute's New York branch says he and his colleagues intend to study U.S. democracy -- not criticize it.

Andranik Migranyan bristles at the suggestion that the new think tank is seen as Kremlin tool meant to respond in kind to the harsh critiques often heard from Western NGOs like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.

The political scientist says scrutinizing U.S. conduct at Guantanamo Bay or the Bush administration's public-surveillance program are not on RIDC's agenda. Instead, the organization's main goal is to study the United States for potential solutions to common problems back in Russia.

"We have very serious problems today concerning these problems of immigration, integration, and adaptation," Migranyan said at a recent press conference in Washington. "Russia is becoming more multinational, multiethnic, multireligious, and we have serious problems in this area. This country [the United States] has a long-lasting history on all these issues. And we would like to know how these problems are discussed here, how they are solved here -- as well as institutional problems, and problems [with values]. What do those things mean?"

There's no disputing that during most of Russian President Vladimir Putin's eight-year rule, which ended earlier this month, U.S. rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House -- not to mention the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report -- have frequently criticized the Russian government for a variety of sins against democracy.

Such groups have noted a steep decline in Russia's civil liberties under Putin, pointing to the forced closure of independent media outlets, the jailing of political opposition figures, and tight state control of campaigns and elections.

Russia often seeks to discredit the findings of such Western rights groups. But with the formation of RIDC and other initiatives like Russia Today, a government-funded English-language news channel begun in 2005, the Kremlin appears to be moving from a defensive posture to an offensive one.

Yet Migranyan said the idea for the institute was not a tit-for-tat response to Western criticism, describing it instead as the brainchild of a number of Russian political thinkers who are interested in the concept of democracy and in making sure Russia's own thoughts on the subject are heard.

"In Russia, from [former] President Putin to President [Dmitry] Medvedev to the rest of academics to the mainstream, or at least majority, they accept the idea of liberal democracy," he said. "They value institutions and values, they understand that this gives efficiency to the economy, efficiency to political system[s]. But at the same time, the idea of sovereign democracy means that you can't just impose it."

Questions Remain

Migranyan, who has held several advisory posts with the State Duma and Federation Council, describes himself as an avid student -- if not a fan -- of American political affairs. Unabashedly in the Kremlin's camp, he is quick to criticize opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.

The launch of RIDC was announced with fanfare at the start of 2008. Its operations, however, remain somewhat vague. The institute has yet to create a website, for example, and a Paris branch, reportedly already open, has shown little sign of life. Migranyan says he has already signed leases on office space for the New York office and is waiting for a U.S. bank to approve the institute's status as a nonprofit charity.

While he waits, he says he's holding meetings with potential U.S. partners -- think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Institute; Russian studies centers like the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard; and academic institutions like the University of California at Berkeley.

Questions remain about RIDC's funding. Many observers have alleged that the group receives handsome support from the Kremlin. But Migranyan says that while the Kremlin approved the group's creation, financial support comes from "different business structures and donors who are interested in America" -- and not the government.

Still, a fellow speaker at Migranyan's press conference -- while not acknowledging Kremlin funding -- saw nothing wrong with accepting government support. Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow, lashed out a questioner from the National Endowment for Democracy for what he characterized as a double standard on the question of government funds.

"The last time I [checked] the National Endowment for Democracy was funded by the U.S. government," Lozansky said. "I don't know, probably you get some private funds, too, but most of the money comes from the government. The same with the National Democratic Institute, the same with National Republican Institute."

Lozansky, who was stripped of his academic position in the 1970s for publicly criticizing Soviet policy, appeared convinced his country was on the right track -- and that naysayers should find another country to inspect.

"It may take Russia 50 or 100 years to achieve total democracy, but it will get there," he said. "Let them do their own thing."

Afghanistan: Student Says Death Verdict Followed Torture To Coerce Confession

Kambakhsh supporters protest in Kabul after his death sentence was announced in January

KABUL/PRAGUE -- An Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam has rejected the charges and told an appeals court in Kabul that he was tortured into a confession.

"As a human being, a Muslim, and a descendant of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, I will never allow myself to insult my ancestor or my religion," Kambakhsh told the court, according to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "These are things of which I have been unfairly accused. This accusation is unlawful and I don't know why they did this to me."

The hearing was adjourned until May 25 to allow 24-year-old Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh to consult with an attorney and prepare a written defense.

Kambakhsh was condemned to death by a court in Balkh Province in January at a summary trial for blasphemy at which he had no legal representation.

He had been detained in October and spent months in a cell for suspected "national security" threats and then a local jail before his case was transferred to the capital, Kabul.

A source close to the case suggested to RFE/RL in the weeks following the verdict that it was proving difficult to find an attorney to represent Kambakhsh. The source speculated that "maybe they are under pressure or are frightened of the case because of the power of mullahs."

Kevin Olivier, who works on Asian issues for Reporters Without Borders, said last week that Afghan authorities still had not provided the young man's lawyer with the file for the case, thus preventing him from preparing his appeal.

Reporters Without Borders is one of a number of international rights and media organizations that have criticized the case and urged Kambakhsh's release.

Domestic pressure has also arisen on Kambakhsh's behalf to battle what some regard as entrenched religious elements who impede Western-style freedoms and thwart attempts to modernize a society heavily reliant on local tradition.

President Hamid Karzai responded to domestic and international pressure to intervene after the initial verdict with assurances that justice would be served but that the Afghan court system must be allowed to function.

AP reported that a transcript of those January proceedings read at the May 18 hearing asserted that Kambakhsh disrupted classes at Balkh University with questions about women's rights under Islam, distributed an article on the topic, and penned three additional paragraphs for the controversial piece.

In an interview with AP on May 17, Kambakhsh dismissed all three allegations and said he was being made "a scapegoat in some political game."

Kambakhsh was studying journalism at Balkh University and writing for a local newspaper at the time of his detention.

The article reportedly in question was written by an Iranian expatriate who lives in Germany.

Russia: Chronicling A Samizdat Legend

Natalya Gorbanevskaya

"Because of people like Natalya Gorbanevskaya," Joan Baez once said, "I am convinced that you and I are still alive and walking around on the face of the earth."

Natalya Gorbanevskaya was the dissident behind "The Chronicle Of Current Events," a samizdat publication that first appeared 40 years ago this week in the Soviet Union.

It was Gorbanevskaya who single-handedly produced its first few editions, before she was arrested in 1969 and spent more than two years in a Soviet psychiatric facility.

But her fellow dissidents continued the publication of "Chronicle" after her arrest. Following its 1968 debut, for 15 years and 65 issues the "Chronicle" documented the Soviet regime's persecution of its own people. Its mimeographed issues waged an uneven struggle against the daily million-copy editions of "Pravda," "Izvestia," and other Soviet propaganda organs.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia's liberal Yabloko party, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the "Chronicle" was a "feat of people who could not be forced to remain silent about injustice and about the crimes that were being committed in the Soviet Union.

"These people knowingly sealed their own fate. They knew that sooner or later they would be cruelly punished for this, whether by imprisonment or by exile. But even knowing this, not doubting it, they held the free movement of information, the reporting to the entire world of what was happening to people in the Soviet Union, more dearly than their own fates."

Gorbanevskaya was motivated by a United Nations declaration proclaiming 1968 the "Year of Human Rights," to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her cause was taken up in the West; Joan Baez wrote a song about her and talked up Gorbanevskaya's cause during concerts.

"The government of the USSR thought she was a very poor idea, and they put her in the old bughouse. She was pregnant at the time, she was very strong. She convinced herself she would be fine, she would have her child, she would go on speaking out. So every time she comes out of the loony bin she writes another poem and they put her back in," Baez once said.

Gorbanevskaya was allowed to emigrate in 1975 and today lives in Paris.

Dissident Magnet

The morally powerful dissident community of the Soviet Union coalesced around "The Chronicle Of Current Events," which continued producing several editions each year until 1983.

Dissidents including Anatoly Yakobson, Yury Shikhanovich, Pyotr Yakir, Viktor Krasin, Sergei Kovalyov, Aleksander Lavut, Tatyana Velikanova, and others worked on the "Chronicle" over the years. Most were persecuted severely for their activities.

The publication was intentionally laconic in style, trying to fill the huge void of essential factual information left by Soviet propaganda.

The first issue of the 'Chronicle'

Memorial activist Aleksandr Cherkasov has worked on the Russian human rights group's project to make the entire 6,000 pages of the "Chronicle" available online.

"There are almost no assessments there, just facts. And this composure, this outwardly serene perception of everything that happens, without hysterics, without emulating those who pressured this independent activity -- this was perhaps one of the most important features of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union," Cherkasov says. "Not to emulate the adversary, because otherwise you start resembling him."

Memorial held an event marking the 40th anniversary of the "Chronicle" at its Moscow office on April 30, attended by Gorbanevskaya and other figures connected to the publication.

Moscow Helsinki Group leader and noted human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva told the crowd of some 200 people about the role "The Chronicle Of Current Events" played in her life.

"I have done a lot in the human rights movement," she said. "But I think perhaps the most important thing I did was that I typed out the first issue of the 'Chronicle.' It was an epoch-making thing."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

Turkey: Parliament Approves 'Cosmetic' Free-Speech Reform

By Jeremy Bransten

Journalist Hrant Dink received a six-month suspended sentence for "insulting Turkishness." He was later killed by a militant nationalist

Turkey's parliament has voted to amend Article 301, a controversial law that limited free speech by permitting the prosecution of people for "insulting Turkishness."

Under the changes, which must still be approved by the country’s president, insulting Turkishness would no longer be a crime, but insulting the Turkish nation could still land you in prison.

According to Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for "The Economist" magazine, the distinction between insulting Turkishness and insulting the Turkish nation isn’t any clearer in Turkish than it is in translation. That leaves many people wondering how to interpret the revision to Article 301.

"A lot of people are asking the same question, and the change seems to be more cosmetic than anything else," Zaman says. "Indeed, what is the difference? And equally, what do they mean by the 'Turkish nation'? Does it mean ethnic Turks? Does it encompass Kurds, as well? Nobody really understands what this means."

In recent years, thousands of people have been prosecuted in Turkey for “insulting Turkishness,” as set out in Article 301. They include academics, historians, journalists, and writers -- including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Dink Assassination

Pamuk was tried for stating, in an interview with a Swiss magazine, that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it." The charges against Pamuk were later dropped. But contrary to his claim, Pamuk was not the only person in Turkey discussing the Armenian issue -- and getting into trouble for it.

In 2006, the well-known Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted under Article 301 for insulting Turkishness, and received a six-month suspended sentence. He was subsequently assassinated by a militant nationalist.

The European Union demanded that Turkey drop restrictions on free speech as a precondition to eventually joining the bloc. The government-sponsored amendment to Article 301 appears to be an attempt to satisfy the EU, as well as Turkish nationalists. And in Zaman’s assessment, it will probably do neither.

"I think that this was a sort of balancing act," Zaman says, "and I think in the process they fell off the tightrope, because neither the nationalists -- who they were trying to appease -- sound terribly happy, nor does the EU. In fact, we've heard many EU officials, at least in private, complain that this was just a cosmetic change and didn't go anywhere near addressing their concerns about free expression in Turkey."

If the amendment becomes law, much will depend on how Turkish prosecutors and judges choose to interpret what constitutes “insulting the Turkish nation.” The one concrete change from the amendment is that the maximum jail time for the offense will now be two years, rather than the previous three.

But Zaman is skeptical that the amended law will offer more protection to those who touch sensitive political and historical subjects.

"I think we will continue to see writers like Orhan Pamuk and others who dare to challenge the official history -- be it on the issue of the massacre of Armenians in 1915 or the fate of the Kurds," she says. "I think that such prosecutions will continue."

The EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia, has issued a statement calling the amendment to Article 301 "a constructive step forward in ensuring freedom of expression." But several human rights groups say the amendment does not go far enough. They are calling for a change to other laws that restrict expression, including Turkey's antiterror law and its laws on crimes against the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.