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World: Human Rights Watch -- Annual Report Paints Bleak Picture In Many Former Soviet States (Part 2)
By Andrew Tully
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

While the annual report by Human Rights Watch focuses on the crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur and U.S. prisoner interrogations in the war against terrorism (see Part 1), it also has plenty to say about human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. The study examines developments last year in 64 countries, including much of the former Soviet Union.

Washington, 13 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Iron Curtain fell nearly 15 years ago, but Human Rights Watch says it is mostly business as usual in much of the former Soviet Union. That's according to "World Report 2005," the annual survey conducted by Human Rights Watch.

According to the rights advocacy group, all of Russia is effectively controlled from Moscow, elections in Belarus are laughable, abuse of prisoners is the norm in Uzbekistan, while Armenia and Azerbaijan are run by authoritarian regimes as the two countries continue their standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Only Ukraine shows tentative signs of becoming an open society, but democratic developments there are too recent to show a trend.

In Russia, the report says, police torture and the violent hazing of military recruits continues. And it blames the government of President Vladimir Putin for the disappearances and extrajudicial executions of opponents in Chechnya. At the same time, it criticizes Chechen rebels for similar abuses, as well as for the deadly school siege in Beslan in September.

The Human Rights Watch survey also points out that Putin has drawn virtually all power to himself. It points not only to the Kremlin's control of all electronic media, but also to Putin's move to have regional governors not elected locally but appointed by the president.

Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's acting executive director for Europe and Central Asia who oversaw the study of the countries of the former Soviet Union, said no one should be surprised at Putin's moves to centralize power in the Russian presidency, given that he has always favored a rigidly strong central government.

Denber told RFE/RL that Putin probably believes that centralizing power will help keep politicians honest. But she added that it might be just as difficult for members of the presidential administration to stay honest as it is for local governors.

"I'm sure that from the Kremlin's perspective, having governors appointed is a path toward decreasing corruption. But from another perspective, you could just look at that as moving corruption to a different place," Denber said.

Belarus, too, continues to be run as if it were a Soviet state, according to Human Rights Watch.

It points to the elections for the 110-member Chamber of Representatives in October, in which the opposition did not win a single seat. The report says this was accomplished, at least in part, because the state controls all national television stations and most radio outlets.

And it accuses the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of harassing the country's media through the closing of independent newspapers and arresting journalists on libel charges.

Denber said such behavior is nothing new in Belarus. But she said the fact that Belarusians are seeing more of the same year after year makes matters worse there.

"When you see a lack of change, when you see a repetition of elections that are empty exercises and that shut out the opposition, that is tantamount to things getting worse," Denber said. "When you see the state continuing to crack down on civil society groups and on the press, it's more of the same, but it actually constitutes a worsening of the situation."

The human rights records of neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan are also not improving, according to the report. It says the political life of Armenia, for example, continued to focus throughout 2004 on the fraud-tainted presidential elections of the previous year.

The survey says there were calls for the resignation of President Robert Kocharian, and notes that the government violently broke up protests, raided opposition offices, arrested opposition leaders and supporters, and even attacked journalists.

The political life of Azerbaijan, meanwhile, was similarly affected in 2004 by the presidential election of 2003, which also was fraudulent. Last year, the report says, Azerbaijani opposition leaders were subjected to unfair trials in which they were charged with responsibility for some of the violence that followed the election.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the on-again, off-again conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan. Denber said the leaders of both nations have subtly used the dispute as a way to keep people's minds off each country's political shortcomings.

Another trouble spot is Ukraine. Human Rights Watch details what it calls the mostly successful efforts of the government of President Leonid Kuchma to limit political freedoms since the country achieved independence in 1991.

The document says these political abuses led to the presidential election in November, in which Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner, even though most outside observers found it riddled with fraud.

Supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko rallied in vast numbers in downtown Kyiv, and the country's Supreme Court eventually called for a new election a month later -- which Yushchenko won.

Denber said that, given 13 years of political corruption in Ukraine, Yushchenko's election offers real hope to the Ukrainian people because they have demonstrated their own power as engaged and educated voters. And she said their insistence on fair elections won them powerful allies in Europe.

But Denber added one caveat: "There's a huge onus now on Yushchenko precisely because there are these expectations. And it would be really sad if, instead of delivering on promises, the new government ends up not delivering and in the process perverting the rule of law. And that would make a lot of people very disillusioned."

She said a disillusioned Ukrainian electorate could lose faith in the system and eventually turn to a leader like Putin -- one who promises greater strength, but delivers less democracy.

(The full Human Rights Watch report is available at http://www.hrw.org/wr2k5/).