Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Soviet Union
|Publisher||Human Rights Watch|
|Publication Date||1 January 1992|
|Cite as||Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Soviet Union, 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca561e.html [accessed 28 July 2017]|
Events of 1991
Human Rights Developments
The year 1991 saw the destruction of the Soviet Union as a political entity, a process that seemed to be culminating at year's end. The strong pro-independence vote in the Ukrainian referendum on December 1, following the failure of Soviet President Gorbachev in his various efforts to create a new political union, led to a meeting on December 8 involving Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Belorussian Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislau Shushkevich, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk at which they established a commonwealth of independent states open to all republics of the former USSR.
The new commonwealth will strive for coordination in foreign policy, development of a common economic space, customs and migration policies, transport and communications, ecology and the struggle against crime. Although Soviet President Gorbachev promptly declared this proclamation illegal, within days the parliaments of the three Slavic republics had ratified the commonwealth, and the four Central Asian republics plus Kazakhstan said they wanted to join the commonwealth. At the time of this writing, Yeltsin had announced that ten of the 12 remaining republics would join the commonwealth by the end of the year, and that President Gorbachev had no place in the new commonwealth structure.
The three Slavic republics that launched the commonwealth, as founding members of the Soviet Union and signatories of the 1922 state treaty, proclaimed the end of the USSR "as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality." Articles in the commonwealth agreement proclaim that USSR laws are henceforth invalid on their republic territory and that USSR organs will cease their activities in these republics.
The disappearance of the central government ministries – the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Procuracy, the Ministry of Justice – will have a marked effect on human rights. The rather extensive reforms of, for example, the Criminal Code, are now left to the discretionary power of the republic governments. The human rights picture will become as multi-faceted as the newly powerful republics.
The republics have confirmed their "commitment to the goals and principles of the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and other documents from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe" and their obligation "to observe common international norms on human and national rights."
Several articles of the commonwealth declaration proclaim specific human rights commitments. The major such proclamation is in Article Two:
The agreeing parties guarantee their citizens, regardless of nationality or other differences, equal rights and freedoms. Each of the agreeing parties guarantees citizens of other parties and also people without citizenship who reside on its territory, regardless of nationality or other differences, civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and freedoms in accordance with common international norms on human rights.
The human rights pledges in this article represent a welcome beginning for the new commonwealth. Particularly key is the promise of equal treatment under the law of all residents in republic territories. It remains to be seen, however, how well republic leaders will observe these pledges in practice.
Many events treated in this chapter occurred before the abortive coup of August 19, when the central government ruled – however ineffectually – over the Soviet Union. (For the sake of consistency and simplicity, the terms "Soviet," "Soviet Union" and "USSR" are used to refer to the region both before and after the August coup. Since the December 8 Commonwealth declaration, however, these terms have become part of history.)
The year began on a dismal note for human rights policies and practices in the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had largely abandoned democratic reform in the fall of 1990, tried to curtail freedoms of press and assembly and sanctioned a vicious crackdown in Lithuania and Latvia. High-level official advocates of liberal reform either resigned or were fired from the USSR government. The "war of laws" between Moscow and the republics signaled the center's growing ineffectiveness and the republics' determination to set their own course.
When Gorbachev returned to more democratic policies in the spring of 1991, he focused on drafting a new union treaty and securing Western aid for the desperate Soviet economy. On August 19, the day before the union treaty was to be signed by the participating republics, key right-wing members of the Soviet government, all Gorbachev appointees, declared a state of emergency and attempted to restore power to the center. Due to its plotters' stunning incompetence, and the lack of support for their move among key segments of the government, the coup failed after three days.
Had it succeeded, the coup could have totally changed the human rights picture in the Soviet Union, almost surely for the worse. Its failure, instead, ushered in political chaos, leaving considerable uncertainty about the protection of human rights. The collapse of the central government and the discrediting of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) empowered republic leaders, unleashing intense power struggles in some republics. In the post-coup period, it is feared that internal social and economic tensions and popular anger at undemocratic local leaders will more often find expression in bitter – if not violent – confrontation than in the painstaking, consensus-building work of democratic institutions. Moreover, participants in some of these political struggles are armed, an alarming development which imperils civilians and bodes poorly for democratic outcomes.
Nationalism has surged throughout the Soviet Union's myriad ethnic groups, encouraging republic leaders to take up nationalist agendas. In Georgia and Azerbaidzhan, for example, intensified struggles for power are exacerbating already lethal interethnic violence. No republic is ethnically homogenous. In some republics including the Russian Republic (RSFSR), ethnic minorities that have their own political-administrative units are waging intense battles for autonomy. Minorities without political representation fear discrimination. For example, Russians in many of the non-Russian republics are leaving their homes in response to an anti-Russian mood. It is no surprise, therefore, that human rights violations increasingly involve the rights of ethnic minorities.
It is unclear who will win the political struggles and what kinds of governments will take hold in the republics. This turbulent political transition is particular cause for concern as power devolves to the republics and they assume jurisdiction over institutions with human rights mandates.
In the wake of the attempted coup, the central government avowed that respect for human rights was a priority in the Soviet Union. In September, the Congress of People's Deputies issued a Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms. The document provides for a wide range of civil and political rights. Marking a clean break with socialism's emphasis on collective rights, no mention was made of group interests in the definition of the freedoms of speech, association, conscience, religion and assembly. In addition to civil and political rights, the Declaration sets out social and economic rights, including the right to work, property, education, sufficient living standards, and state support in housing and health protection.
In September, the Soviet government moved toward a more meaningful acceptance of international standards for human rights. At the Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension, part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced that the Soviet Union recognized international standards and no longer considered human rights an internal matter.
A September draft of the economic union of republics had invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to require members to ensure equality of rights and freedoms for all people. However, the proposal adopted October 18 does not include this provision. The real impact of the formal developments described above thus rests with the republics and their creation and strengthening of independent legal institutions.
Many republics have taken legal steps to guarantee human rights. Republic declarations of sovereignty often include provisions to protect the rights and freedoms of all peoples living within the republics' borders. Armenia and Moldova have endorsed and ratified major international human rights documents, and at least six republics have parliamentary human rights committees.10 It remains to be seen whether republics have the political will to make these measures effective.
Because the various republics keenly seek international recognition, they will likely apply for status in the CSCE. Georgia applied in the fall of 1991 for observer status but was rejected because of its poor human rights record; Armenia has also applied for observer status.
Official Use of Violence
While conducting research for its 1990 report on the December 1986 demonstrations in Alma-Ata, Helsinki Watch gained access to official materials setting out plans for "Operation Snowstorm." The type of military suppression of mass demonstrations outlined in these plans was first used in Alma-Ata, and may have set the pattern for four other suppressions.11 The January 1991 attack by Soviet forces on the Baltic republics was consistent with the pattern of violence that Moscow had used during the glasnost years to suppress dissent when it threatened the Party's, or Moscow's, control.
USSR Violence in the Baltic Republics
Lithuania's declaration of independence in March 1990 set off a protracted struggle with the Kremlin. Throughout 1990, the Soviet government imposed economic sanctions and threatened to use force to compel Lithuania to conform to Soviet law. Capitalizing on political troubles within the Lithuanian government, at a time when the world's attention was riveted on the imminent war in the Persian Gulf, Soviet authorities used lethal force to attempt to oust the freely elected government of Lithuania and reestablish Soviet rule.
On January 8, a column of some one hundred military vehicles rolled through Vilnius. The next day, Soviet paratroopers flew from a nearby Russian military base, ostensibly to arrest draft dodgers. On January 11, Soviet army troops attacked and occupied Lithuania's press center and National Defense building, closed the Vilnius airport, and surrounded the radio and television transmission towers. Thousands of people massed at the Parliament building and the transmission towers to stage a nonviolent defense of these key buildings. On January 13, Soviet troops attacked crowds – estimated to number between twenty and sixty thousand – at the television tower and press center. In seizing these buildings, Soviet paratroopers killed fourteen unarmed civilians, several of whom were run over by tanks; two more Lithuanians died later of their wounds, and an estimated 508 were wounded, many with gunshot injuries and burns. Soviet forces did not try to seize the Parliament building, which was guarded by a human shield.
Using similar tactics, the Soviet government tried to force Latvia to reverse its declaration of independence. On January 2, the Riga press building was seized by the Black Berets – elite troops known officially as the Special Function Militia Unit, or OMON, who report to the Soviet and\or the republic-level Ministry of Interior. Although Soviet officials justified this action by claiming that the press center was Soviet property, their real goal appears to have been to silence the outspoken Latvian press. On January 13, the same day as the Soviet troop attack on the television tower in Vilnius, regular army and special paratrooper forces, escorted by tanks, marched through the streets of Riga. The next night, Black Berets, claiming to be searching for draft dodgers, invaded the local police academy, beat up ten cadets, and seized the academy's arms. On the night of January 16, the Black Berets beat up a volunteer unit guarding a bridge.
On January 20, Black Berets launched an unprovoked attack on the Latvian Interior Ministry with gunfire, including automatic weapons. Latvian militia troops guarding the building returned fire. Three of five people who died as a result of the attack – Andris Slapins, Gvido Zvaigzne and Edjis Riekstins – were unarmed and shot by sharp-shooters in a nearby park. Slapins and Zviagne were both filmmakers; an investigative report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists suggests that OMON troops targeted the journalists. A sixth death in Latvia occurred on January 16, when Soviet troops stopped Roberts Murnieks, chauffeur for the Latvian Ministry of Transportation, and shot him in the back of the head.
During the assault on the Interior Ministry, OMON troops seized five Latvians on weapons and "hooliganism" charges. The men, who claimed to have been completely unarmed, were beaten and forced to sign confessions admitting to terrorist activity.
Evidence strongly suggests that the violence was part of a plan, apparently drafted in Moscow with Gorbachev's approval, to overthrow the pro-independence governments in Lithuania and Latvia and establish direct presidential rule by Gorbachev, in league with National Salvation Committees that were simultaneously announced. During a meeting on January 8 with then-Prime Minister of Lithuania Kazimiera Pruskiene, Gorbachev refused to promise that he would not use Soviet troops to intervene in Lithuania. In a letter two days later to Lithuanian leaders, Gorbachev threatened direct presidential rule. After the attack on the television center on January 13, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis telephoned Gorbachev asking him to call off the paratroopers, but Gorbachev refused to come to the phone. The National Salvation Committee, which was said to have been formed in Vilnius on January 12 and claimed that it was taking over the government by popular demand, bore an eerie resemblance to front governments traditionally organized by Moscow, for example in Budapest in 1956. However, the plan was thwarted by vigorous popular protest and widespread international condemnation.
In the following months, harassment by Soviet armed forces continued in Lithuania and Latvia. On January 24, Soviet forces jailed four civilians without bringing substantive criminal charges, beat them during their detention, and released them after they promised not to file a complaint. A car that refused to stop at a military checkpoint outside Vilnius was followed by a column of armored personnel carriers. One of the Lithuanian drivers was shot in the back of the head by a Soviet soldier. On February 12, Soviet forces arrested three members of Shield, a military-reform group which had just released a report exposing the crackdown in Vilnius as a coup attempt by the CPSU and Gorbachev. Two of the three Shield activists were beaten during detention. A month later, OMON troops opened fire on a Lithuanian bus carrying unarmed border guards, injuring three people. According to testimony collected by the Lithuanian procuracy, the Soviet government's claim that the bus was carrying arms was unfounded.
From late January through July, a campaign of repeated OMON attacks on Baltic customs posts became the principal method of intimidating the independence-minded republics. Soviet soldiers attacked, burned down, closed, or destroyed twenty-three Lithuanian customs posts along the Belorussian and Latvian borders; raided two Latvian railway customs posts; attacked and burned eleven Latvian border posts; and attacked and burned five posts in Estonia. In many cases, OMON troops beat the customs officials. Soviet Minister of Interior Boris Pugo denied OMON participation in the attacks, Gorbachev claimed to have no knowledge of plans for the attacks, and Soviet Procurator General Trubin called them unlawful. However, it is difficult to believe that these widespread and repeated attacks were ad hoc and had no sanction by any Soviet government office.
Armenians in Azerbaidzhan
In late April, Azerbaidzhani and Soviet military forces jointly launched a campaign of violence to disperse Armenian villagers from areas north and south of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territorial enclave in Azerbaidzhan where Armenian communities have lived for centuries. The official Soviet pretext for the military operation was to examine internal passports and apprehend members of Armenian paramilitary groups. However, the unstated goal was to "convince" the villagers – half are pensioners – to relocate permanently in Armenia.
The Soviet army title for this military action is "Operation Ring," because its basic strategy consists of surrounding villages with tanks and armored personnel carriers and shelling them. The next stage of the operation involves the entry of various troops (a combination of Fourth Army units and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) Internal Troops), followed by the Azerbaidzhan OMON, who interrogate villagers, round them up, and arrest or take away male heads-of-households to prisons in other parts of Azerbaidzhan. Finally, Azerbaidzhani villagers are allowed to come and loot the empty Armenian villages.
More than ten thousand Armenian villagers have been forced to leave Azerbaidzhan. Forty people have died, more than half Armenian civilians. Helsinki Watch has documented several instances of brutality, including rape, by the armed forces (especially Azerbaidzhani OMON troops) while Soviet army units stood by passively. Dozens of Armenians are still being held in Azerbaidzhani jails, although there are regular prisoner and hostage exchanges with the Azerbaidzhanis. Armenian officials claim that many of those detained are beaten and ill-treated.
Operation Ring was particularly violent in the villages of Martunashen and Getashen in early May. According to Helsinki Watch interviews with Armenian deportees and officials, eighteen villagers were killed, and Martunashen was razed to the ground. According to Armenian officials, the deportations in mid-July from the villages of Erkedj, Manashid and Bouzloukh in Azerbaidzhan resulted in three deaths among the Azerbaidzani MVD, many wounded, and the total dispersion of the population. In continued fighting in this area, 14 Azerbaidzhani OMON and one Armenian paramilitary fighter were killed in September.
On the day before the August 19 coup, the Soviet Army's 23 Division – which has a high percentage of Azerbaidzhani soldiers – as well as Azerbaidzhani OMON troops, conducted helicopter rocket attacks and directed artillery and machine gun fire at the large Armenian village of Verishen in Azerbaidzhan, near Karabakh. Two Armenian children were killed; there were deaths among Azerbaidzhani soldiers; and dozens of houses were burned, according to Radio Rossiya. On August 27, the Armenian villages of Karachinar and Verishen again came under missile and artillery fire, injuring four Armenians.
Fighting did not end in September as word spread of possible peace talks, described below. Two Azerbaidzhani OMON troops and on Armenian fighter were killed in Verashen on September 14. On September 15, the Azerbaidzhani OMON opened heavy fire on Karachinar, killing one Armenian civilian. As negotiations reached a final phase on September 25, OMON troops attacked the village of Chapar, killing six Armenian civilians, including a boy of fourteen.
Unfortunately, fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh continues. Radio Moscow reported on November 1 that Armenian paramilitary forces had launched a campaign to drive the Azerbaidzhani population out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Thousands were reportedly evicted from their homes. On November 1, the body of Azerbaidzhani Supreme Soviet Deputy, Eldar Bagirov, was found, the victim of apparent violence.
According to Armenian press reports, a new paramilitary group, the Popular Liberation Army of Artsakh (PLAA), an ancient name for Armenia, was formed in November. The PLAA claims to have united all armed groups of the Nagorno-Karabakh area, and was formed to prevent deportations from Armenian villages in the area. The PLAA, however, disavowed any intention to "harm the Azeri community in Nagorno-Karabakh," said it accepts the peace activities of the Russian and Kazakh observers, and denies any responsibility for shooting down the helicopter. (See below.)
Reports of continued hostage-taking by both Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis have appeared in the press. On November 30, the Armenian news agency "Azg" reported that two Armenians taken hostage a month ago had been set free the previous day; during the previous ten days, 20 Armenian hostages had been released by the Azerbaidzhani government. Another article, in the Armenian newspaper Yerkir (December 12), reports that six Armenians were released from a jail in Azerbaidzhan in exchange for Azerbaidzhani Deputy General Procurator, Shukur Rzayev, who had been captured on November 14 from the Public Procurator's office.
Georgia is currently mired in hostilities pitting nationalist Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner, and armed forces loyal to him against a nationalist political opposition allied with renegade parts of the Georgian National Guard calling for his resignation. Since his election in May, President Gamsakhurdia has presided over a wide range of human rights violations. On September 2, according to Western and Soviet Press reports, Georgian OMON troops used automatic weapons and truncheons to break up an unauthorized opposition National Democratic Party demonstration, injuring four people. The New York Times reported on September 3 that one demonstrator's lungs were pierced by a bullet.13 The crowd, which reportedly numbered about five thousand, was apparently unarmed and did not provoke the violence; when OMON troops fired shots into the air, the demonstrators responded by throwing stones. Opposition demonstrations continued throughout September and into October. Tbilisi police clashed with anti-Gamsakhurdia groups on September 22; two people were killed. Opposition sources claim that two protestors were killed by Georgian armed forces in clashes during a massive demonstration on October 4.
Armed conflict between Gamsakhurdia's forces and those elements of the political opposition that are armed further destabilizes Georgia. A reported eleven combatants – members of Georgian OMON forces, Georgian regular police, and the anti-Gamsakhurdia National Guard – died in armed skirmishes during September and October. Each side blamed the other for the violence. President Gamsakhurdia has called on all civilians to surrender their weapons, threatening that criminal charges will be brought against those who do not comply.
As 1991 drew to a close, both sides in the Georgian political conflict developed projects to try to heal the breach. The Georgian government announced the creation of a Committee of National Accord and Defense of the Territorial Integrity of the Republic of Georgia within the Georgian Supreme Council, while a new opposition group, Charter 91, proposed a set of stabilization measures.
The new government-sponsored committee is to include leaders of all Georgian political parties and public organizations of the city, and administrative personnel. Any person, regardless of nationality, who is a resident of Georgia, may become a member of this committee. Those who join must advocate total economic and political independence of Georgia and preservation of its territorial integrity.
Charter 91 urged the Georgian Supreme Council to hold a referendum for people to choose their own state system and government; to reelect parliament before the term of the present body expires. The stated aim is to persuade all political groups in Georgia of the need to declare civil peace. The authors also suggest the suspension of mass rallies and demonstrations in return for governmental agreement to reinstate the law on political associations, legalize opposition parties and offer the opposition air time on republican radio and TV to express their views. Charter 91 also urges that an ethnic minorities council with legislative powers be established.
On September 23, conservative forces in the Tadzhik government ousted Acting President Kadriddin Aslonov, a liberal who, in accordance with a post-coup Soviet presidential decree, had attempted to suspend Tadzhikistan's Communist Party activities in the republic. First Party Secretary Rakhman Nabiev was installed as president, and a state of emergency was declared the same day. In response, throughout September, thousands of protesters – including over two hundred hunger-strikers – camped outside the republic's Supreme Soviet building in a peaceful effort to change the republic leadership. In positive contrast to its actions during the February 1990 disorders in Dushanbe, the Tadzhikistan government declared that it would not use armed force to break up the demonstration and that it is publicly committed to a peaceful resolution of this political impasse. The state of emergency was lifted on October 1.
The voters of Tadzhikistan elected a new republic president on November 25, with former First Party Secretary Rakhman Nabiev winning. According to the electoral commission, Nabiev received 58 percent, while Davlat Khudonazarov – USSR Supreme Soviet Deputy and Head of the USSR Cinematographers' Union – won 25 percent. It remains to be seen how Nabiev's election as president will influence the political stability of the Central Asian republic.
Armed Conflict and Inter-Ethnic Violence
Violence and armed conflict destabilized various areas of the USSR in 1991. In these conflicts, the role of the central or republic governments is often unclear. In some cases, for example in Chechen-Ingushetia, the emergence of an armed opposition movement heightens the possibility of intervention by Soviet or republic armed forces.
Armenia and Azerbaidzhan
According to Soviet army reports, from January to June 1991 there were 197 clashes between Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis. The number of dead continues to rise, and includes journalists and Soviet and Azerbaidzhani officials. By September 13, 1991, according to Armenian Parliament Deputy Bagdasaryan, one hundred Armenians had been killed and 180 injured in Karabakh.14 In addition, both sides have taken hostages. These figures contrast with Soviet Army statistics, which report 12 dead and 41 wounded as a result of the Karabakh conflict.
Helsinki Watch, as well as journalists, have made repeated inquiries to Azerbaidzhani officials for overall figures on Azerbaidzhani casualties in "Operation Ring" and the Karabakh conflict. Other than claiming that "several hundred" Azerbaidzhani citizens have died, these officials have not given specific details.
Most of the Azerbaidzhani population in Armenia – a total of some 180,000 – were forced to leave that republic in 1988. This process was completed on August 8, 1991, with the eviction from Armenia of the last of the Azerbaidzhani inhabitants of Nyuvedi. According to Radio Baku, the operation was directed by the Armenian Ministry of Internal Affairs and involved the killing of two officers stationed in the village.
Armenians have responded with violence to "Operation Ring." For example, after an "Operation Ring" armed attack on the village of Aterk on August 14, Armenian villagers reportedly seized thirty-one Azerbaidzhani servicemen, holding them hostage. They were ultimately returned to the Azerbaidzhani side in exchange for Armenian hostages.
Attacks by both sides included assassination attempts not only against high-ranking Soviet and Azerbaidzhani military officers and politicians. For example, Valery Grigoryan, former chairman of the Azerbaidzhan Communist Party Karabakh Autonomous Oblast Committee, was killed by unknown assailants at point-blank range on August 10, purportedly for his support for a political solution to the Karabakh problem seen by some as pro-Azerbaidzhani.
Popular anger also has been expressed in street violence. In one incident, reported by Radio Rossiya, an Azerbaidzhani cameraman was taken hostage in front of the building where peace negotiations were taking place. The Armenian crowd also mistook a Turkish journalist for an Azerbaidzhani and beat him severely.
In a positive development, the leaders of Kazakhstan and Russia mediated a preliminary agreement in late September between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaidzhan that sought to settle the four-year conflict. Some of the main points of the final communique, signed by the four republic presidents, include:
- a cease-fire.
- the repeal, before January 1, 1992, of all unconstitutional Azerbaidzhani and Armenian legal provisions regarding Karabakh.
- the withdrawal from the conflict zone of all armed forces, except units of Soviet Interior Ministry and Soviet Defense Ministry troops.
- the selection of a group of observers to work out cease-fire measures and neutralize all illegitimate armed forces, as well as to develop safety guarantees for all civilians in the conflict zone and supervise the later stages in settling the conflict.
- the commitment of Azerbaidzhan and Armenia to ensure the eventual return of deported peoples to their homes, starting with vacated villages, and to guarantee their safety.
- the immediate release of hostages within a two-week period, after which hostage-holders will be subject to prosecution. Representatives of the mediators will monitor observance of these provisions.
After reaching this preliminary peace settlement, both sides continued negotiations. Two more negotiating rounds, described by both sides as slow but encouraging, were held in the first half of November.
These positive developments met an abrupt end on November 20 when a helicopter crashed carrying 21 high-ranking officials – mostly from Azerbaidzhan and Kazakhstan – to a new negotiating round. Azerbaidzhani officials claimed that this helicopter crash was caused either by a bomb or by a missile attack. Initial TASS reports indicated that the helicopter had crashed in a heavy fog, but later began referring to possible sabotage.
This tragic incident set back the cause of non-violence in the struggle between Armenia and Azerbaidzhan. Hundreds of thousands attended funerals in Baku for those who had died in the crash on November 22. Azerbaidzhani President Mutalibov declared that "things had gone too far" and that aggression against his republic would be stopped. The Armenian government called for an international investigation into the cause of the crash. Preliminary investigations by Azerbaidzhani ministries and the Soviet central government have been inconclusive.
In response to popular demands for retribution against Armenia, the Azerbaidzhani Supreme Soviet voted on November 26 to abolish the autonomous status of the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, according to Western and Soviet press sources. The Armenian population presently and formerly resident in Nagorno-Karabakh voted overwhelmingly in a December 10 referendum for independence. The Azerbaidzhani population of the area boycotted the referendum.
The USSR State Council, at a November 27 session attended by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaidzhan, called on Azerbaidzhan to restore Nagorno Karabakh's autonomous status. The resolution also called for the abrogation of all laws changing the oblast's juridical status, for a ceasefire and for the withdrawal of all illegal armed formations from the conflict zone.
According to a TASS item on November 28, the Armenian Foreign Ministry has asked the Azerbaidzhan government to search for ways to resume the political dialogue between the republics. Armenian President Ter Petrossyan has said that the newest round of peace talks should resume in Yerevan in early December.
Political conflict between the South Ossetian Autonomous Region and the government of Georgia began in late 1990, when Georgia declared independence and announced its unwillingness to participate in the union treaty negotiations. Fearing that independent Georgia would jeopardize its separate nationality status, South Ossetia declared itself part of the USSR, rather than an autonomous region of Georgia. The Georgian Parliament reacted by voting on December 11, 1990, to abolish the South Ossetian Autonomous Republic.
Continued violence between armed groups of Georgians and South Ossetians has gripped the region since December 12, 1990, leaving more than 250 people dead and 480 injured (many with gunshot wounds), and creating 80,000 refugees, according to the Soviet press agency TASS.15 It is not known how many unarmed civilians are among the dead and how many died at the hands of Soviet and Georgian military forces.
A state of emergency declared by the Georgian government is currently in effect in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. South Ossetians report that the Georgian government has set blockades in the north and south of the region, preventing supplies, including humanitarian aid, from reaching Tskhinvali. Electricity, fuel and water supplies have been interrupted repeatedly and for long periods. Tskhinvali and villages of both Georgians and South Ossetians have been shelled sporadically.
It is unclear whether the Georgian government is directly involved in blockading and bombing Tskhinvali; the extent of the Kremlin's collaboration with South Ossetian attacks on Georgian villages is also unclear. Both sides are reported to have taken hostages and hijacked vehicles. The most intense period of violence was in March and April; after a period of relative calm in July and August, violence resumed in mid-September.
Radio Rossiya reported on November 26 that the South Ossetia oblast council ordered the mobilization of all men aged 18 to 60. The council took this step due to concern over a rumored planned attack by local Georgians. Georgian military units, equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers and artillery reportedly were converging on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
Two days later, on November 28, the South Ossetian oblast council declared the disputed region a republic. According to Radio Moscow, it also declared a state of emergency in the area. Three days earlier, the Georgian parliament had voted to lift the state of emergency declared in parts of the oblast one year ago and called for the withdrawal from South Ossetia of USSR MVD troops. In contrast, South Ossetia asked for the Soviet troops to remain on its territory.
Soviet MVD forces have been in South Ossetia since March to intercede and supposedly to disband armed paramilitary groups. Armed Georgian groups have clashed on at least one occasion with the Soviet MVD forces. In April, the Georgian government claimed that the MVD forces were collaborating with South Ossetians to kill Georgians, but the Soviet Interior Ministry rejected these charges.
The Russian and Ukrainian minorities in Moldova make up some 27 percent of its total population of 4.3 million. Fearing what they perceived as an excessively nationalist Moldovan government, in 1990 the leaders of these communities proclaimed the secession of the Dniester region – on the east bank of the Dniester river – from Moldova. The government of the Moldovan republic refuses to recognize the small breakaway unit. As a result, tensions in the area have been simmering throughout 1991.
The Trans-Dniester leaders took several measures in 1991 to try to prop up the independence of the "Dniester SSR." which Moldova refuses to recognize. On August 7, they defied the Moldovan language law by issuing a decree to guarantee the study of Moldovan in the Cyrillic script rather than the Latin script now used for Moldovan-Romanian. They also considered adopting their own constitution.
In September, these measures by Dniester activists grew more dangerous: on September 25, armed Dniester "worker detachments" seized the Moldovan police building and other government buildings of the Dubasari district and cut off telephone and other communications.
Moldovan police officers in six districts of the left bank of the Dniester River have been pressured either to quit or to join Trans-Dniester. Pressure tactics include physically intimidating their families. Other activities of the Trans-Dniester partisans include a blockade of railway stations to demand the release of their leaders.
On September 19, the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet sent a delegation to Moldova to monitor the situation. Its investigation found nothing to substantiate claims that Moldova violated the human rights of the Dniester Russians. To the contrary, the Russian Supreme Soviet Delegation accused the Trans-Dniester leaders of violating the rights of Moldovans in Trans-Dniester by restricting Moldovan-language education. (Moldovan is now the official language of the republic and it now uses Latin script.)
On September 27, the Trans-Dniester organized its own armed People's Guard, which consists of some eight hundred men. Moldovan officials claim that these forces have stockpiled arms, including mortars. This development increases the likelihood that the Dniester Russians' political claims will result in civilian casualties. Indeed, on December 13 western news agencies reported that 13 people had been killed and wounded that day in a struggle for control of the city of Dubasari, in the Trans-Dniester area. Soviet news agencies said police of the Moldovan-majority government had fought with militia of the Russian-speaking minority there. Preliminary reports say there were casualties on both sides.
Chechen-Ingushetia is an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus area within the RSFSR. The population of this autonomous area, according to the 1989 census, is 1,338,000 – of whom 735,000 are Chechen and most of the rest are Ingush. After the August 19 aborted coup, during which the leadership of Chechen-Ingushestia appeared to support the coup leaders, a crisis of legitimacy developed in Chechen-Ingushetia. The discredited autonomous republic Supreme Soviet, representing traditional Soviet power, rapidly lost popular support to a new nationalist group, the Executive Committee of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People, led by retired Soviet Air Force General, Dzhakhar Dudaev. Under Dudaev's leadership, the Chechen nationalist movement has become increasingly radical in its demands, ultimately pressing for independence from the Russian Republic.
In response to increasing anarchy and tension, on November 8, Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree declaring a state of emergency in Chechen-Ingushetia. The decree imposes direct presidential rule, bans all meetings and demonstrations, puts strict controls on entering and leaving Chechen-Ingushetia, and orders the confiscation of all firearms. President Yeltsin has deployed about 2,500 troops to Chechen-Ingushetia to enforce the decree.
President Yeltsin's decree resembles Gorbachev's responses to various Soviet republics' struggles for autonomy. But because it sparked widespread criticism in the Russian government and armed resistance on the part of the Chechens, the state of emergency was not implemented or enforced. An overwhelming majority of the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet refused – in a non-binding vote – to approve the decree. The Russian Republic's interior minister, Vakha Ibragimov, resigned to protest the decree, and Akhmed Arslonov, whom Yeltsin appointed as interim administrator of Chechen-Ingushetia, and who served as the Russian Republic's representative there, urged Yeltsin to lift the state of emergency.
The Chechen resistance, led by General Dzhokhar Dudaev, a retired Soviet air force general, prevented the implementation of the state of emergency. Thousands of civilians were reported to have blockaded Soviet Interior Ministry troops inside the Interior Ministry building, and the republic's national guard was deployed at the airport in Grozny, the capital, to prevent the arrival of additional troops.
Tensions between the Russian Republic and Chechen-Ingushetia began in late August, when crowds of Chechens accused the leaders of Chechen-Ingushetia of supporting the August 19 coup attempt. Led by the Executive Committee of the All-National Congress of Chechen People (NCCP), they demanded the republic leaders' resignation, seized key government buildings (including the KGB headquarters and other law-enforcement buildings), took control of the media, and blockaded the republic's Supreme Soviet. On September 13, the Supreme Soviet was dissolved, a provisional parliament was formed, and a date was set for new elections. The NCCP, under the leadership of General Dudayev, formed its own National Guard.
The Russian government called for all armed formations to disarm. The NCCP ignored the call and, on October 9, seized power from the provisional government in Grozny. Following skirmishes between it and supporters of the provisional government, the NCCP called for a general mobilization of all males between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five and put the National Guard on "high alert." One armed clash left a civil servant injured, but no other civilian casualties have been reported.
Prisoners in a Grozny jail staged an uprising in early October, demanding that they be allowed to serve in the National Guard and that their sentences be revoked. In circumstances that are not clear, the National Guard was reported to have ended the uprising, killing one prisoner and injuring five.
On October 19, Boris Yeltsin ordered the National Guard to disarm, threatening vague measures to "normalize" the situation. The NCCP continues to ignore the order and warns of an "Islamic Holy War" if Russia does not end its "interference" in the republic's affairs. The Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution late in October ruling illegal the scheduled October 27 presidential elections in Chechen-Ingushetia.
Although deemed illegal by Russian Republic authorities, presidential elections in Chechen-Ingushetia were held on October 27. Former General Dudaev was declared the winner of the election. Izvestiya suggested the results were invalid since no special electoral commissions had been set up outside the main city, while the NCCP declared it did not matter how many people had actually voted.
As for the situation of the Ingush in Chechen-Ingushetia, they have pressed for the return of lands in North Ossetia (the Prigorodny rayon) from which they were deported in 1944. During the Third Congress of the Ingush People, Russian Republic Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi proposed that the issue of the return of Prigorodny rayon to the Ingush be decided by a congress of North Caucasus elders, promising he would try to organize it. The Ingush congress voted to press for the immediate return of this area in North Ossetia.
The Ingush decision caused great concern in North Ossetia, TASS reported on October 9 that there were demands for the creation of a North Ossetian national guard. An appeal to the USSR and Russian Republic authorities was published in the North Ossetian press on October 10, asking for immediate steps to protect the population.
The state of human rights in Chechen Ingushetia under Dudayev's rule remains unclear. Some Russian republic press reports allege that the National Guard intimidates television broadcasters. Local television journalists reportedly went on strike in early November to protest interference in the media.
The policies adopted by the Russian Republic in addressing the Chechen-Ingushetia independence drive could serve as a precedent for its dealings with other independence-minded autonomous republics within the Russian republic, notably Tataria, where tension is also running high.
Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Association
The Soviet Government
Among the targets of President Gorbachev's turn to the right in the winter of 1990-91 were the increasingly critical Soviet media. In November 1990, Gorbachev appointed the conservative Leonid Kravchenko to head Gosteleradio, the state television and radio monopoly. Upon assuming his post, Kravchenko promised to "serve the president's will," and upheld this promise with an active censorship policy. In early January, he prohibited "Vzgliad," an enormously popular television program, from broadcasting an interview with Shevardnadze, conducted after his stunning December resignation as foreign minister; on January 11, he suspended the program indefinitely. He also banned the highly popular television programs "Seven Days" and "Fifth Wheel." On January 10, Soviet officials closed Interfax, a Moscow-based independent news agency housed in a Gosteleradio building. Gosteleradio cited financial disputes for the closure, but Interfax claims that the motive was political.
During the crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia, Soviet armed forces sought first to control the media. Military units took over the main press buildings in Vilnius and Riga to "preserve" them from local governments and allegedly to protect the CPSU's property rights. Press workers went on strike, and newspapers almost vanished from Latvia for several days. Because the Soviet military took over the main television tower in Vilnius, for months Lithuanians had to rely on television and radio transmissions from Kaunas or Riga. The suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Latvian filmmakers Gvido Zviagzne and Andris Slapins, noted above, suggest that journalists were singled out for violent attacks.
The Kremlin's drive against freedom of expression extended throughout the USSR at the time of the bloody events in Lithuania and Latvia. The official media distorted the events, and the central government censored contrary coverage. For example, contrary to eyewitness accounts, the announcer for "Vremya" – the main television news program of the Soviet government – described the killing of unarmed civilians as "defensive." Four anchors for Television News Service quit the program because of increasing censorship; they told of having to read prepared government scripts describing Soviet activities in the Baltic republics.
On January 18, many liberal TASS correspondents in Leningrad were fired. Gorbachev requested the USSR Supreme Soviet to suspend the 1990 Law on the Press, which affirms the right to free expression and prohibits almost all censorship. Under pressure from liberal deputies, Gorbachev backed down, but he succeeded in authorizing the Supreme Soviet to develop "measures to ensure objectivity" in news coverage.
In addition to using censorship, the central government has kept the independent media in check through discriminatory allocation of scarce newsprint and other publishing supplies, which in any case are subject to severe and chronic shortages in the Soviet Union. Official newspapers have enjoyed an enormous advantage over their independent counterparts, which have to pay inflated prices for newsprint.
The Soviet "anti-Presidential slander" law remains on the books. Adopted in 1990, the law authorizes a maximum six-year prison term for those convicted of "indecent" slander of the Soviet president. In March, Valeriya Novodvorskaya, leader of the radical citizens' group Democratic Union, was charged under the law and acquitted.
During the conservative swing, the government also attempted to restrict freedom of assembly. In late March, it went against the Moscow City Council and tried to ban demonstrations, strikes, picketing and other gatherings in Moscow, in violation of international and Soviet law on freedom of assembly.
A May 1991 Law on the Resolution of Collective Labor Disputes significantly curtails the right to strike for labor unions. Under the law, labor strikes are permitted as a last resort and only for a limited number of disputes. The law bans strike activities in many industries, including railways, city transport, communications, and defense industries. It also sets out vague restrictions on strikes in other industries, such as a prohibition on strikes that would "threaten people's health" or "have severe consequences."
Those behind the August plot to take over the Soviet government sought to crack down on freedom of expression. Claiming that the media "bore much of the responsibility for the current chaos," Gennady Yanaev, acting president of the coup's Emergency Committee, published a list of a few newspapers permitted to publish, and banned all others. Yanaev also ordered the RSFSR television channel to carry Central Television programs and sent troops to stop certain radio broadcasts in Moscow and Leningrad. Paratroopers were also sent to seize Tallinn's television tower, and Radio Riga reported that its tower had been taken over by OMON troops. Despite these measures, however, many journalists ignored the coup leaders' crackdown on the media.
On August 22, after the coup had failed, Boris Yeltsin issued a decree with a clause suspending Pravda, Sovietskaia Rossiya, Glasnost, Moskovskaia Pravda, and Leninskoye Znamya – all Party-controlled newspapers – and nationalizing the property of all Party publishing houses. The decree claimed that the papers had "actively supported" the coup. Since under the Soviet Law on the Press only a court has the right to confiscate media property and ban circulation, these actions raised wide and outspoken concern that Yeltsin had gone beyond his constitutional authority. After a storm of protest, Yeltsin suspended the decree's clause on September 11, and the RSFSR Supreme Soviet presidium declared null and void all further attempts to confiscate Party property.
In the Republics
After the coup, the RSFSR, Ukraine, Tadzhikistan and Georgia agreed to suspend the activities of the CPSU,17 pending investigation of the Party's involvement in the coup.18 Gorbachev agreed to have the offices of the CPSU Central Committee sealed, authorized all CPSU property to be turned over to local soviets, and confirmed Yeltsin's ban on all political activities of the KGB, MVD and armed forces.
In early November, the 74th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution occasioned two anti-Communist actions in the Russian Republic. Moscow city authorities refused to allow a demonstration by Communist and workers' organizations within the Moscow city limits. And on November 6, Yeltsin issued an edict disbanding the CPSU and the Russian Communist Party in the Russian Republic and banning their activities.
This anti-Communist backlash imperils freedom of association and assembly and raises fears about "witch hunts" for Communists in the USSR. In late October, the Russian Republic government violated freedom of association in relation to non-violent organizations of national separatists when the RSFSR Procurator's office outlawed all political parties and public organizations that called for "the violation of the RSFSR's territorial integrity." The move also violates Soviet law, because although the Soviet Law on Public Associations forbids organizations seeking "the forcible rupture of the territory of the USSR, the union and autonomous republics, and the autonomous formations," an organization can be outlawed only by a court of law. The procurator's office is only authorized to issue a warning to organizations that violate the law.
On November 5, the Georgian Supreme Soviet restricted freedom of association by voting to suspend temporarily the August 1990 Georgian law on political parties driving several parties underground. Governments in other republics also control and define the process of registration, so as to effectively outlaw groups that they believe threaten their interests. For example, Turkmenia has denied registration to two major opposition groups: "Agzybirlik" (Unity) and the Democratic Party. The Tadzhikistan government finally permitted registration of the Islamic Renaissance Party in October 1991. The Uzbek government closed "for health reasons" the Tashkent office of Birlik (Unity) – the Uzbek popular front movement which counts millions of members.
The republic governments of Georgia and much of Central Asia enforce monopolistic control over the media. The Tadzhik newspapers of the Popular Front, Rastokhez; (Renaissance) and the Democratic Party, Adulet (Freedom) can be printed only outside Tadzhikistan, while the weekly Union of Journalists newspaper Sukhan, according to local journalists, engages in self-censorship, because it fears loss of registration. Because of republic government control over the press, the Turkmenistan Popular Front could print only one issue of its newspaper in 1991 – in Moscow.
The Georgian political opposition complains that it is barred from all local media outlets. A small independent Georgian news agency, Iberia, was initially denied registration. The day after registration was granted in May 1991, the group was expelled from its office space due to government pressure and has been unable to find new quarters. After the appearance of an issue of an unofficial Georgian journal Droni, (Time), supporters of President Gamsakhurdia appeared at its offices and destroyed the journal's equipment.
There are several disturbing signs that press freedom may also be threatened in the Russian Republic. According to a Christian Science Monitor article (October 31, 1991), Vitaly Tretyakov, Editor-in-Chief of the respected new newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette), said his paper and Moscow News recently had been warned by the Russian Republic Press Ministry that they had violated the press law. Tretyakov said he had been told that an interview with the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Konstantin Masik had, according to the ministry, shown "signs of war propaganda." The editor rejected this claim, saying the Masik interview had been found wanting because it contained criticism of the Yeltsin government.
After the draft Russian Republic Law on the Media was adopted by the Supreme Soviet on November 27, the Tass-Russian Information Agency reported two days later that representatives of the Russian Association of Independent Television and Radio Broadcasting were severely critical of its licensing procedures. Under this article (32) of the new media law, all TV and radio companies are obliged to allocate air time for Russian republic radio or TV programs. Mikhail Fedotov, Deputy Russian Republic Press Minister, rejected this criticism, saying it was standard practice for states to allocate air time.
In addition to denying media outlets to local political groups, the governments of Georgia and much of Central Asia also restrict access to media sources from outside their republics. For example, Turkmenia, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan block television transmission of "Rossiya" news programs. Such liberal publications as Ogonyok and Moscow News are not sold in Turkmenia and Tadzhikistan, while in Georgia subscribers to these and other similar magazines are not allowed to receive them.
The Georgian government has censored publications and broadcasts considered to be anti-Georgian. In a February press conference, President Gamsakhurdia declared that "journalists [in Georgia] may be deemed 'personae non grata'" for writing or publishing anti-Georgian articles or for "lacking objectivity." The Georgian government requested Radio Liberty, based in Germany and the United States, to stop broadcasting to Georgia, and "Vremya" was taken off the air on April 7. The June 12 issue of Izvestia was not published in Georgia because it contained an article criticizing Gamsakhurdia and his policies. The Georgian government explained the incident by claiming that Georgian typographers had gone on strike to protest the "insults" conveyed in the article.
Journalists are harassed in Georgia. In September, TASS correspondent Albert Kochetkov was attacked and his office destroyed. In late May, TASS reported that five Georgian journalists complained to President Gamsakhurdia about harassment and being denied information from official sources. Two journalists allegedly were expelled from a press conference given by Gamsakhurdia; one claimed he was threatened with criminal charges for criticizing the president. Interfax reports that Gamsakhurdia sanctioned a campaign of harassing journalists by accusing them of being members of the MVD.
The Georgian anti-presidential slander law, adopted in May 1991, prescribes a maximum of three years imprisonment for individuals who publicly insult or slander the Georgian president, while journalists would have to serve up to a six-year prison term. Press organizations found guilty of these charges may be fined up to 25,000 rubles (about $600 at the tourist rate of exchange) and may be closed if the slander is repeated. Helsinki Watch has not received reports of individuals or press organizations being tried under these charges. Anti-presidential slander laws also exist in Tadzhikistan and Turkmenia. Helsinki Watch was informed that a twelve-man censorship agency implements the Turkmenian anti-presidential slander law. In March, this agency vetted speakers' lists for the Turkmenia Writers' Congress.
A member of the Kazakhstan Popular Front, Bahytan Abirov, was brought to trial on October 9 for publicly insulting President Nursultan Nazarbayev. After charges were brought against him, Abirov reported that he was forcibly subjected to an examination at a psychiatric clinic. Leaders of the Kazakhstan National Independence Party (Alash) were also charged with "insulting the honor and dignity" of the president in October.
Freedom of Religion
The most unqualified improvements in civic freedoms in the Soviet Union took place in the field of religion. People of all faiths can now practice their religion without fear of government interference. One of the last elements of government intervention in religious practice was eliminated in early September, when the "Fourth Department" of the KGB, which had been responsible for monitoring religious organizations, was disbanded. The Fourth Department played a role in, among other things, approving archbishop appointments and membership in the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
About twelve thousand Russian Orthodox parishes now operate in the USSR. Missionaries of various faiths now proselytize in the Russian Republic. The Soviet government is returning churches, synagogues and mosques for religious use. The new freedom of religion has especially enlivened the practice of Judaism in the Soviet Union. People can now teach Hebrew without fear of arrest, and texts are being published in Hebrew. Local authorities in Moscow, Kiev and other cities have encouraged these positive developments.
In the fall of 1991, the Soviet and Ukrainian governments gave official recognition to the problem of anti-Semitism in the USSR. At a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, President Gorbachev issued a statement denouncing anti-Semitism, perhaps the first Soviet leader to do so. After Gorbachev's statement was delivered, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk also made a strong statement against anti-Semitism. Despite this official denunciation, anti-Semitism still flourishes in the free press and civil society. The great strides in religion are, unfortunately, attended by the organization of anti-Semitic demonstrations and the publication of anti-Semitic articles and tracts by such right-wing organizations as Pamiat (Memory).
Freedom of Movement
Emigration and Travel Abroad
The long-awaited adoption in May of the Soviet entry-exit law19 represented some progress in the right to leave and return to the USSR." The law simplifies travel and emigration by removing the need to obtain invitations from abroad and reduces the number and scope of restrictions on travel. The practical effect of its provisions are now unclear, however, given the collapse of the Center's powers.
Unfortunately, the law also codifies serious limitations. Under Article 12, the Soviet government can deny an international passport to individuals deemed to have "information constituting a state secret" for up to five years from the time they were exposed to the secret. Moreover, Article 12 grants the Council of Ministers the right to establish an "expert commission" to extend the term in individual cases. Individual challenges to the classification of a state secret can be reviewed by a judge only once every three years. It is unclear who would appoint this expert commission, leaving open the possibility that its members would be less than objective in deciding what constitutes a state secret. Moreover, definitions of state secrets in the Soviet Union are notoriously vague.
The law authorizes the government to restrict travel by individuals who have civil suits pending in court or outstanding "negotiated contractual obligations." The government also can deny an international passport to individuals who have registered for enlistment until military service has actually been completed. In addition, to obtain an international passport citizens must present notarized copies of their labor record books, presumably to prove they have never engaged in work which required a security clearance, a requirement which unnecessarily complicates the application process. The law allows the Council of Ministers to promulgate additional rules on processing and issuing international passports, thus risking additional barriers.
The law provides administrative and judicial remedies to appeal denials of international passports. But due process in emigration matters is on shaky grounds in Soviet courts, which have questionable independence.
Authorities in some republics now claim that they oversee the emigration process; in light of the collapse of the Soviet Central government each republic will implement its own policies in this regard.
On October 18, a new commission was formed to review the cases of those individuals who had left jobs which had exposed them to state secrets more than five years ago, but are still being refused permission to leave the country. In its first meeting, the commission – which consists of five officials from the USSR Foreign Ministry, the KGB, the all-Union Office of Visas and Registration, the RSFSR Parliament, and the Soviet-American Bureau on Human Rights (an affiliate of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews) – could not agree on whether all such individuals should be granted permission to leave. Nor could it agree on which parliamentary body has the right to review former political prisoners' requests to leave the country.
An internal passport system, administered by the USSR MVD or new republic replacements, regulates movement inside the Soviet Union and continues to operate. It is still unclear what legal standing it will have in the new commonwealth. Until now, Soviet citizens needed to obtain residence permits to live in a particular city and to secure legal employment, a clear infringement on freedom of movement. Sergei Alekseev, chair of the Soviet Committee for Constitutional Oversight, announced on October 11 that the committee found residence requirements "unconstitutional," and declared that they would be rescinded as of January 1, 1992.20 The committee's decision allows the adoption of new residence regulations, but only if they conform with the minor restrictions on the freedom of internal movement allowed under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.21 The committee's decision, if enforced, would bring freedom of movement within the Soviet Union to line with international norms. However, since its inception, the committee's power has been tenuous. The newly formed RSFSR Constitutional Court could well adopt its own measure on residence requirements that may or may not follow the Soviet committee's guidelines. Moreover, some Russian officials are on record as wanting to retain residence requirements for Moscow and St. Petersburg to prevent a flood of migrants from overtaxing these cities' resources.
Deported Peoples and Displaced Persons
The propiski (residence-and-movement controls) system affects all Soviet citizens. Two groups are particularly affected: over a dozen Soviet nationalities that Stalin had deported en masse in the 1940s22 and persons forced to leave their homes in recent years due to civil strife and natural disasters.
National homelands were returned to some, but not all, of the deported peoples. The RSFSR Supreme Soviet adopted a law on April 26 that provides for the restoration of the territorial integrity of these homelands in the RSFSR to pre-deportation borders. The law also allows deported peoples who had no national territory to return to their former homes, and calls on the USSR, the RSFSR and the autonomous republics to compensate all deported peoples for the harm done to them.
In a welcome move by the central government, additional information on the deported peoples was made available on November 29. According to a TASS report, more than 600 files from the NKVD-MVD archives on the Stalin-era deportations of peoples from the Crimea, the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia have been opened up. One of these documents reveals for the first time official statistics on these deportations: from 1936 to 1956, 3.5 million people were deported.
A Helsinki Watch investigation in 1991 found that, despite the law, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks and Soviet Kurds are still unwelcome in areas that used to constitute their traditional homelands.23 For example, local authorities in Tatarstan and Georgia use the propiski system to refuse resettlement of Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks.
Families of Crimean Tatars who, despite official refusal to grant them residence permits, returned to their homeland are forced to live in squatters' camps. In June, Helsinki Watch visited such a camp in Lugovoe, where 117 Crimean Tatar families live in primitive conditions. Because they cannot be legally employed, the Crimean Tatars at Lugovoe receive fifty rubles (a little over one dollar) per month per family member, which is barely adequate to buy food.
The propiski system prevented the Ingush, a national group native to the Caucasus, from living in territory in North Ossetia that had been taken from them in 1943.24 In April 1991, a group of Ingush attempted to seize their former homes in North Ossetia, resulting in violence, at least one death, and the declaration of a state of emergency in the disputed area as in well as in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. More than 1,500 MVD troops were deployed from other parts of the RSFSR. Tensions in the area rose in mid-October, when the Executive Committee of Ingushetia proclaimed the Northern Ingush Republic on the right-bank part of Vladikavkaz.
The propiski system poses an extra hardship for the thousands of Soviet citizens who fled their homes in 1991 due to civil unrest, natural disasters or fear of ethnic discrimination. About eighty thousand people in South Ossetia (both Ossetians and Georgians) were displaced by the combined effect of ongoing civil strife and the April earthquake. As a result of the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and the forced evictions of Armenians from Azerbaidzhan and Azerbaidzhanis from Armenia, over 10,000 were displaced. Thousands of Russians who have lived for generations in the area are increasingly leaving Central Asia, and Kazakhstan, fearing discrimination. Without propiski, these displaced persons are often forced to live in "relocation" villages, where conditions are squalid, or to depend for housing on the generosity of friends or relatives. Because the government stipend for displaced persons is inadequate for survival, they often must seek marginal employment to support themselves.
Criminal Justice System
With the collapse of central political power in the USSR and elimination of the central ministries, republics gained control over many features of the criminal justice system, including penal codes, codes of criminal procedure, and the prison system. At this point it is too early to say how these developments will affect the major reform of the criminal justice system under way in the Soviet Central government in recent years. Respect for international standards on due process and prison conditions depends on the varying will of the republics to set and enforce such standards.
Respect for due process has been weak in the Soviet Union. The right to counsel, while provided in theory, is ineffective in practice because police do not inform those arrested of their rights. Another and more extreme problem is the shortage of qualified defense lawyers. Interrogations in police lock-ups frequently proceed whether or not an attorney is present. The lack of an effective bail system and a sluggish criminal justice system force detainees to languish in decrepit pretrial detention centers, described below, for an average of four to six months. Many detainees remain in these facilities for an additional one and a half years.
The Soviet Presidential Decree of January 26, 1991 "On Measures to Combat Economic Sabotage and other Crimes in the Economic Sphere" violated the right of due process on its face. The decree sanctioned searches without warrants of enterprises, organizations and production premises, including private residences if they are used for economic enterprises. The decree was to remain in effect until laws on the Soviet militia, security organizations and investigative operations were adopted. The Soviet-militia and security-organizations laws also permitted warrantless searches, although the law on security organizations was suspended after the coup. The law on investigative operations was never enacted. Nonetheless, the decree apparently remains on the books and can be invoked to conduct warrantless searches.
A 1991 Helsinki Watch mission to investigate prison conditions in the Soviet Union visited twenty-one facilities in the RSFSR and Azerbaidzhan, including pretrial detention facilities, police lock-ups, labor colonies, and post-conviction facilities. As elsewhere in the world, the worst conditions were found in the pretrial detention centers, where presumptively innocent people are held after their arrest and throughout their trial. Conditions in these facilities are appalling – often so overcrowded that prisoners have no room to walk in their cells. Frequently, there is virtually no ventilation, and fetid smells pervade what little air there is to breathe.
Conditions are relatively better in Soviet labor colonies, where most convicted prisoners are incarcerated. These facilities are not as severely overcrowded, ventilation is better, and detainees are granted more rights. Prisoners receive a wage for their work, but the money they must pay for their upkeep usually leaves them with little for themselves; since prisoners are compelled to work, many prisoners complain that colony work is a form of slavery. Prisoner rights activists claim that many sick and handicapped prisoners are required to work at onerous jobs for excessively long hours. The work assigned is for the benefit of the state economy rather than the rehabilitation of the prisoner.
The Soviet Interior Ministry used to control most prisons in the country. Before the coup, prison reform had begun to decentralize control over prisons and to yield modest improvements. The plan to eliminate the Soviet MVD by November 15 (along with seventy-nine other all-Union ministries) was summarily put in practice in December. Republic interior ministries will presumably assume complete control over the prisons.
Decentralized control heightens concern that prisoners charged in connection with inter-ethnic disputes, or who are members of minority ethnic groups, will be singled out for harsh treatment. In this connection, the mistreatment of Armenians in Azerbaidzhani pretrial detention centers has come under scrutiny. In March, the Azerbaidzhani MVD granted Helsinki Watch permission to visit a number of pretrial detention centers. In June, however, the same MVD denied Helsinki Watch access to the Giandzha and Shusha detention centers, where Armenians rounded up in "Operation Ring" were detained. Soviet and Azerbaidzhani authorities claimed that the visits were canceled because those areas were under emergency rule. However, judging by first-hand accounts of abusive treatment committed against Armenians in these areas, both the Azerbaidzhanis and the central authorities had reason to deny Helsinki Watch access to these centers.
Helsinki Watch interviewed an Armenian who was beaten severely and subjected to other mistreatment in an Azerbaidzhani detention center. Amnesty International reported that two Armenians died after physical abuse in these centers.
Similar allegations of physical abuse in cases with political implications have emerged in Georgia. In the Fall of 1991, there were two prison revolts in Georgia to protest the guards' brutality and poor conditions. Two prisoners were killed by Soviet MVD troops brought in to put down the revolt.
The July 1991 Soviet Fundamentals of Criminal Legislation reduced to five the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty: treason, premeditated murder under aggravated circumstances, rape of a minor with aggravated circumstances, kidnapping a child, and crimes against humanity. The fundamentals exempt women and anyone under the age of eighteen from capital punishment. In the post-coup Soviet Union, however, republics may or may not continue to abide by these guidelines.
In 1991, the Soviet Justice Ministry published, for the first time since 1934, statistics on executions in the Soviet Union. The number of death sentences carried out in the USSR decreased from 770 (with twenty commutations) in 1985, to a low of 271, (with seventy-two commutations) in 1988. In 1989, there were 276 sentences and twenty-three commutations and in 1990, 445 sentences with twenty-nine commutations. A reported 195 executions were actually carried out in 1990.
Condemned prisoners may petition for clemency to the Soviet Clemency Commission, the presidium of the republic Supreme Soviet where the sentence was issued, and the Soviet president. Under the old political system, the Soviet president had ultimate authority to decide on clemency.
Under the Soviet system which held sway in the country for over six decades, the citizen was treated as the creature of the state. The judicial system, such as it was, was usually meant to follow previously determined decisions on the guilt – or, rarely, the innocence – of the accused.
Judges were all party members, and People's Assessors – meant to introduce the pseudo-voice of the populace – were also party loyalists. In short, the new judicial systems in the republics will have to overcome decades of popular suspicion, party dependence, and general incompetence.
Reform of the judicial system was a major priority of Soviet reformers, as well as Western legal experts who offered much assistance in this important effort. After the Soviet central government collapsed in December, however, the future of many reforms – however imperfect – of the Soviet judicial system is uncertain. The various republics of the former USSR are likely to have widely differing policies, let alone practices, in this key area.
A review of previous Soviet reforms indicates the likely difficulties which former Soviet citizens will face under new diverse judicial systems:
- Amendments to the Fundamentals of Criminal Procedure for the first time codified the presumption of innocence of the accused and proclaimed the defendant's right to legal counsel from the moment that criminal charges are brought or within 24 hours of arrest or detention. Further amendments grant defense counsel free access to their clients and to the investigative file of the case. In practice, however, access was still controlled – and sometimes denied – by the investigator or the militia.
- Practical difficulties in the implementation of these new theoretical rights abounded in the area of pretrial defendant rights; even a day could be too long to give the militia unimpeded access to a defendant. The law does not say that the accused has the right to remain silent during this time. In addition, defendants were not apprised of their right to counsel and were often denied access to counsel until later in the criminal process. Furthermore, the acute shortage of lawyers, particularly defense lawyers, prevented the implementation of these rights.
Although the number of political prisoners has declined sharply in recent years, the issue unfortunately has not disappeared. According to veteran human rights activist Cronid Lubarsky, who publishes a respected newsletter on this issue, as of October 31 there were – depending on the definition of the term – 157 political prisoners in the former USSR. Of these, 78 may have used violence, and, under a definition that limits the term to those punished for peaceable expression or association, may not be appropriately labelled political prisoners.
A republic breakdown of these statistics reveals the following:
|Russian Republic||23 (including 12 who may have been violent)|
|Belorussia Republic||2 (including 1 who may have been violent)|
|Georgian Republic||70 (including 16 who may have been violent)|
|Armenian Republic||1 (including 1 who may have been violent)|
|Azerbaidzhani Republic||49 (including 46 who may have been violent)|
|Kazakhstan Republic||4 (including 1 who may have been violent)|
|Uzbekistan Republic||4 (including 1 who may have been violent)|
Positive steps have been taken in the USSR toward releasing political prisoners and addressing past abuses against them. The RSFSR Supreme Soviet in late October declared October 30 as an official day of commemoration for victims of political oppression. The date has special significance because, during the Brezhnev era, imprisoned dissidents marked it as the Day of the Political Prisoner. In addition, an October 18 RSFSR law rehabilitates those who suffered political repression throughout the Soviet period and provides financial compensation for some categories of victims.
Some great major strides have been made in the releases of political prisoners. In 1991, political prisoners were amnestied within weeks after the coup in several republics, including Russia, Ukraine and Tadzhikistan. In Russia, the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Human Rights requested that Russian President Yeltsin pardon five political prisoners and Kirgiz President Askar Akaev pardon one; all the prisoners were serving sentences for attempting to emigrate illegally or engage in espionage; such emigration attempts came under a criminal code provision on treason. Among them was Valery Yanin, who had been charged by a Kirgiz court with attempting to emigrate illegally to Turkey and had served three years in a psychiatric hospital and twelve years in prison. Yanin was released from Perm Prison Camp 35 on September 14. On September 27 Anatoly Khobta, Aleksandr Goldovich, Viktor Olisneivich, Valery Smirnov and Aleksey Scherbakov were released from the same camp.
Shortly after Ukraine declared independence on August 24, its National Council introduced "a list of legislation in reaction to the coup."25 The list included the depoliticization of the Ukrainian Procuracy, as well as the republic-level MVD and militia. There was also a call for the immediate release of People's Deputy Stepan Khmara, who had been imprisoned and released three times in the previous year for his political activity. Ukrainian President Kravchuk also declared a general amnesty on August 26, according to Soviet news agency Interfax, for all "political prisoners against whom proceedings were brought during the period of political confrontations by separate militant groups."26 Kravchuk was referring to the sharp ideological clashes between pro- and anti-Communist groups in Ukraine which had prevailed there several years ago.
On September 10, a general amnesty was declared in Tadzhikistan, cutting by half the sentences of men over age fifty-five, World War II veterans, women over age fifty, and women with minor children. Those sentenced for alleged participation in the violent February 1990 events are included in this amnesty.
However, of growing concern are those detainees who may be charged with violent political crimes simply because of their political affiliations. In Georgia, almost seventy members of opposition paramilitary groups have been arrested solely because of their membership in these groups, without apparent regard to whether they have committed violent acts. The Georgian government classifies them as common criminals because of the violence sometimes employed by these opposition groups. Helsinki Watch also remains concerned about the treatment of detainees in Azerbaidzhani prisons, as noted above.
Helsinki Watch has learned of several prisoners in Georgia and Central Asia who appear to have been imprisoned in 1991 for the peaceful expression of their views:
- Turkmenistan Popular Front leader Shiraly Nurmyradov was sentenced in July to eighteen months in prison on charges of fraud. He and his supporters claim that the charges are fabricated, and that statements written by the alleged victims denying that the fraud ever occurred were ignored by the Turkmenian Supreme Court.
- Uzbekistan People's Deputy Shovruk Ruzimurodov was sentenced in July to four years imprisonment for "organizing mass disorders." Because he was not present at the meeting of the Uzbekistan Supreme Soviet at which he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity, the parliamentary action was illegal. Ruzimurodov was an activist in Birlik, a nationalist group that calls for Uzbekistan sovereignty and acts as the Uzbekistan Popular Front.
- Georgian National Democratic Party leader Gia Chanturia was arrested after a plane in which he was flying was ordered to return to Tbilisi on the evening of September 17. He was charged with having organized construction of barricades on Rustaveli Prospekt on September 2, which his supporters deny he did.
- Georgian journalist Giorgi Khaindrava, a close associate of Chanturia, was arrested by plainclothesmen on a street in Tbilisi on September 18. Local opposition activists claim he was arrested for making videotaped documentaries of the violent events of September 2.
- South Ossetian Popular Front leader Torez Kulumbegov was arrested on January 29 and charged with inciting ethnic hatred. His trial was scheduled to begin in September and has been postponed several times.
The fragmentation of power in the USSR has made it difficult to identify which agencies are authorized to arrest and release individuals, to obtain verifiable material on individual cases, and to track political prisoners. Evidence of such fragmentation was seen in a Moscow Central TV interview broadcast on September 13, in which new KGB Chairman Vladimir Bakatin stated, "[The issue of political prisoners] is a question not for the KGB but for the Ministry of the Interior, because it is the MVD which deals with all of these gulags.... Therefore, all these lists are there."27 The problem is compounded by the proliferation of paramilitary groups and subsequent mass arrests in certain republics.
The legal right to claim conscientious objection to military service is still not recognized in the Soviet Union. Compulsory military service of at least two years was, until recently, required by law. With many republics declaring independence, it seems likely that the problem of conscientious objection to Soviet military service will diminish. Some republics, notably Ukraine, have set up their own military systems or national guards. Kazakhstan and Moldova have also taken steps toward the creation of military service for their respective republics. If service is made compulsory for these citizens, the issue of conscientious objection could re-emerge.
According to Amnesty International, there were at least thirteen imprisoned conscientious objectors in the Soviet Union as of July. By October, however, Cronid Lubarsky reported that there were three men remaining in prison on these charges. In February, the USSR Supreme Soviet considered a draft law proposing an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors. It is to be hoped that the republics will adopt legislation providing for conscientious objection or alternative service to military service.
In another legislative development, the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted on November 1 a law granting amnesty to military deserters and draft dodgers. Under the law, these groups would receive amnesty if they either return to duty or present themselves to the police within one month of the law's entry into force.
No new cases of political abuse of psychiatry were reported in 1991. Still, much remains to be done before psychiatric practice in the Soviet Union meets acceptable international standards. The All-Union Society of Psychiatrists and Narcologists was actively involved in drafting legislation, described below, to protect the rights of the mentally ill. However, the Society has not publicly acknowledged past psychiatric abuses, penalized past abusers, or taken any steps to relieve those who suffered from abuse or misdiagnosis.
The Society established a commission to review cases of possible psychiatric misdiagnosis – usually involving overdiagnoses of schizophrenia – but it reportedly is not very active. Since mid-1990, it has reviewed 112 cases, and has a waiting list of an additional four hundred people. Even when the commission finds cases of abuse and misdiagnosis, the Society is apparently not helping victims seek legal and social rehabilitation. Rather, the society sets the historical and personal records of former victims straight.
The World Psychiatric Association reported that there is still no effective review of psychiatric treatment and administration in the USSR. Although individual psychiatrists have shown greater sensitivity to their patients' legal rights, patients in general are poorly informed about these rights. Soviet draft legislation on mental health issues, introduced in parliament in June, would establish that the mentally ill have full rights as citizens, provide for confidentiality, and call for lawyers and psychiatrists to protect patients' rights. It is to be hoped that such laws will be enacted.
The Right to Monitor
The conditions for human rights monitoring in the Soviet Union have improved dramatically over the past few years. It is up to the constituent republics and emerging states of the USSR to maintain these improvements, since they now exercise control over many of the institutions – such as the prisons, the interior ministries and the riot police – that may impose restrictions on human rights monitoring.
In 1991, the Soviet government did not systematically inhibit the formation of domestic human rights monitoring organizations, or investigations by domestic or international monitoring groups. Domestic monitors generally had access to prisons, many officials at a variety of levels, official records, and usually to areas under states of emergency. Soviet officials also permitted other human rights monitoring work. During the 1991 meeting in Moscow of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), Helsinki Watch held independent proceedings on human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, bringing in experts and witnesses from around the country. The Moscow Helsinki Group held a similar forum in Vilnius. In addition, Helsinki Watch opened an office in Moscow in September to facilitate its monitoring in the country. These developments would have been unthinkable in the Soviet Union of even two years ago.
Some exceptions mar this positive trend. In late December 1990, the Soviet military procurator denied information to the Azerbaidzhani Supreme Soviet commission appointed to investigate the January 1990 crackdown in Baku. For example, it refused to furnish data on military casualties during the crackdown, claiming that such information was available in the "central press."28 Soviet authorities, along with their Azerbaidzhani counterparts, refused to grant Helsinki Watch access to two prisons where Armenians were being detained, as described above, and generally refused to allow individual interviews with prisoners.
More generally, human rights monitoring by international groups is hindered by the exacting bureaucratic procedure required for obtaining business visas to visit the country. One of the purposes for opening a Helsinki Watch office in Moscow is to try to reduce these bureaucratic entanglements, but to do so the office must be registered as a foreign organization on RSFSR and USSR territory. It is unfortunate that, despite its professed commitment to human rights, the government of the Russia Republic has thus far refused to register Helsinki Watch, claiming that it does not have the proper procedure to do so.
Human rights monitoring in other republics of the USSR can be problematic. A member of Memorial, a Soviet human rights group, was declared persona non grata in Georgia for his critical remarks about human rights conditions in that republic. Members of the Russian Republic's parliamentary commission on human rights were reportedly detained briefly in an Azerbaidzhani prison during their investigation of deportations of Armenians from Azerbaidzhan.
As the Cold War waned and the Soviet Union began to crumble, the U.S. government's concern with human rights problems in the USSR diminished. The Bush Administration continued some important human rights programs, especially in promoting free emigration and the development of the rule of law, but in general it accorded human rights issues low priority in what was mainly a reactive policy toward the USSR. The Administration's commitment to President Gorbachev sometimes led it to downplay its criticism of human rights abuses because it was afraid of undermining Gorbachev's hold on power. Its focus on Gorbachev and the central government began to change after the August 1991 coup attempt that speeded up the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the empowerment of republic governments. In December, Secretary Baker set forth key human rights concerns as the basis for new relationships between the United States and the former Soviet republics.
In 1991, the State Department as a whole, its Bureau on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the U.S. Embassy, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission continued some already established valuable human rights programs in the USSR. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow actively promoted Jewish emigration by providing extensive resources and staff support to refugees. This support included not only processing refugee immigration forms, but also arranging for U.S. grants for individuals who had to pay for their airline tickets in hard currency.
According to U.S. government sources, the Embassy also negotiated with the Soviet government to obtain promises that the 1991 emigration law would be implemented so that emigres would benefit fully from it. The Soviets agreed to give international passports automatically to individuals who had exit visas to Israel when the law was adopted, rather than force them to go through the long bureaucratic procedure for obtaining passports.29 Soviet officials also reportedly guaranteed that the maximum five-year waiting period for those who were exposed to state secrets would begin with the date of exposure, rather than the date the law was adopted. In October, the State Department began to investigate reports that republic emigration officials were not abiding by the USSR emigration law.
By bilateral agreement with the Soviet government, the U.S. government has access to documents on those Soviet criminal cases that it suspects may have political overtones. In 1991, the U.S. Embassy obtained documents on and investigated roughly thirty such cases. In addition to these activities, the human rights officer in Moscow meets weekly with the head of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Bureau of the Russian Republic Foreign Ministry.
The State Department Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs organized programs to encourage the rule of law in the Soviet Union. Two seminars brought together Soviet and American judges in Moscow. The U.S. Information Agency sponsored a one-month training program in the United States for Soviet legal experts. Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, made two trips to Moscow, where he met with Soviet officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Office of the Procurator General. In these and other meetings, Secretary Schifter discussed human rights issues and legislation. His office has concentrated its activities on helping the Soviets to create institutions that can be used by Soviet citizens to protect their individual rights.
After the coup attempt, Secretary Schifter met with Vadim Bakatin, the new KGB chair, to discuss the right to privacy and the limits of police power in a democratic state. Schifter also voiced concern over due process for the coup plotters in his discussion with the Soviet Deputy Procurator General.
In September, a delegation of the U.S. CSCE Commission visited Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the republics of Georgia and Armenia. Human rights issues received particular attention in meetings with Georgian, Lithuanian and Armenian officials. In Moscow, the group met with Sergei Kovalev, chair of the Human Rights Commission of the Russian Republic Supreme Soviet, and discussed human rights issues with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
At the CSCE Conference in Moscow, Max Kampelman, Chair of the U.S. delegation, delivered a statement expressing "profound concern" over the arrests of Georgian National Democratic Party leaders, deploring the violence in Southern Ossetia, and urging President Gamsakhurdia to restore basic civic freedoms in Georgia and to bring his behavior in line with CSCE requirements. Kampelman's criticism of human rights violations in Uzbekistan and the deportations from Azerbaidzhan showed an understanding of the human rights impact of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the consequences for human rights of its very complex ethnic structure.
The Concluding Document of the Moscow CSCE Conference provides for a new system of expert fact-finding missions under which a participating state may invite, or may be asked to invite, delegations of experts, composed of people who are not nationals or residents, to investigate human rights questions in its territory. The United States government fully supported this measure. However, it did not support a Soviet-sponsored proposal that would have given the missions the authority to recommend sanctions in cases in which abuses were found.
Despite these positive moves on some human rights issues, the Administration's reaction to human rights abuses in the USSR throughout 1991 was hampered by its Moscow-centrism and its fear that raising human rights issues might undermine President Gorbachev and interfere with good U.S.-Soviet relations. At critical moments, the Administration disassociated Gorbachev from disturbing human rights developments and declined to call upon him directly to account for human rights abuses.
The clearest and most important example of this tendency was the Administration's very cautious response to the violent crackdown in Lithuania and Latvia by Soviet armed forces, which left at least twenty-two civilians dead and hundreds wounded. President Bush, the State Department and other Administration officials and spokespersons did come forth with harsh public criticism of the Soviet Union, but the Administration took no further measures. Moreover, the criticism came four days late, seemed targeted mainly for domestic consumption, and pointedly avoided assessing Gorbachev's role in the crackdown or calling upon Gorbachev directly to intervene. Calls from the U.S. Congress and the Baltic-American community to postpone the forthcoming summit meeting were initially disregarded and, when the summit ultimately was postponed, the crackdown in the Baltics was not among the reasons given.
President Bush initiated the Administration's mild reaction in his remarks on January 13, in which he "ask[ed] the Soviet leaders to refrain from further acts that might lead to violence" and urged the Soviet government to resolve its conflict with Lithuania through political channels. It was only in response to public and congressional pressure that the Administration ultimately condemned the use of force and raised the issue with CSCE member states. Addressing the U.S. CSCE Commission on January 17, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Raymond Seitz condemned in strong terms the violence in Lithuania and declared that the United States held "the Soviet leadership responsible for the actions of the Soviet military." He emphasized that the military actions violated Soviet commitments under the Helsinki Accords and pointed out the need for the United States and its allies to present a "unified front" to the Soviets.
Secretary Seitz also threatened that "the whole range of programs of cooperation" with the Soviet Union would be curtailed if the repression did not stop, but did not say what specific measures the United States would take in response to the military crackdown. Indeed, from the initial troop deployments through the aftermath of the violence in Lithuania and Latvia, the Administration dithered. President Bush glossed over the issue in his January 13 statement, saying only that the Soviet actions "could not but affect our relationship." He specifically refused to address the question of whether plans for the U.S.-Soviet summit, scheduled for February, would be affected. A few days later State Department spokesman Richard Boucher condemned the violence but indicated that punitive actions were not a priority: "we have in mind the U.S.-Soviet relationship." Secretary Baker observed on January 22 that the use of force might jeopardize "progress" in U.S.-Soviet relations and declined to elaborate.
The Administration turned down an opportunity to explain its policy toward the Soviet Union in light of the crackdown. On January 23, the House Subcommittees on Europe and the Middle East and on Human Rights and International Organizations held a joint hearing on the Baltic developments. American and Baltic-American academic experts on the Soviet Union testified. The State Department was asked to testify, but replied that it could not attend, even though every effort was made to accommodate its schedule.
After the January events, the Administration was still reluctant to publicly criticize the Gorbachev government for human rights abuses. For example, when Gorbachev attempted to suspend press freedoms after the crackdown, the State Department viewed it merely as "a step in the wrong direction." When he sought in March to ban all demonstrations in Moscow and impose direct rule over the city, the State Department publicly declared it an "internal matter." Later, in March, however, Administration sources told Helsinki Watch it publicly and privately cautioned Soviet authorities not to use force against demonstrators.
U.S. support for Moscow throughout most of 1991 suggested that concern with the viability of the central government outweighed an interest in human rights in the emerging new political arrangements. President Bush's loyalty to Gorbachev resulted in contradictory statements.
Responding to MVD central government-controlled OMON attacks on a Lithuanian-Belorussian customs post at Medininkai on July 31 – which resulted in the killing of seven Lithuanian officials, and the critical wounding of another – the State Department used general language to urge the Soviet government to settle its claims with Lithuania peacefully. President Bush, in Moscow at the time of the incident, implied it was the result of "cross-border violence on both sides," further minimizing the Soviet government role.
Appearing at a Moscow press conference with Gorbachev a few hours after the Medininkai incident, President Bush denied any link between the killings and the Baltic drive for independence. Asked for his reaction "to the incident in light of your call yesterday afternoon for freedom for the Baltic states, the President replied, "Well, I don't think there is a connection." Bush went on to appear to try to shield Gorbachev from any responsibility for the Medininkai incident, saying, "The President [Gorbachev] immediately got on this [the murders] and said they are conducting an investigation."
On August 13, however, President Bush sent a letter to Lithuanian Prime Minister Gedimines Vagnorius. Bush wrote:
A situation has been created in the Baltic states that itself leads to violence, and that situation must be changed. We will continue to press the Soviet government to exercise control over the actions of its forces in the Baltic states and to make clear our belief that Moscow is ultimately responsible for acts committed by its personnel.
There are two possible explanations for the President's contradictory reactions to this incident. Either the Administration did not want to voice public criticism of the Soviet central government – or of Gorbachev – for the Medininkai killings, or Bush was later privy to new information indicating responsibility.
The Bush Administration is to be credited for its tough response to the August 19 coup attempt. It refused to deal with the Emergency Committee, which President Bush compared to the "renegade regimes" in Iraq and Libya.
Despite its Moscow-centrism, the United States did make a concerted effort in 1991 to expand contacts with democratic reformers and in the RSFSR and the non-Russian republics. An impressive list of U.S. government official activities includes nearly thirty meetings involving republic leaders and reform groups from ten republics. The State Department reports that human rights concerns figured prominently in meetings with delegations from Georgia and Azerbaidzhan. However, official public comments on the continuing violence in Georgia and Azerbaidzhan have been mild and infrequent.
The development of official contacts in the republics represents a significant change from 1990. Even so, for most of the year the Administration underestimated the seriousness of the internal struggles in the USSR and its implications for human rights. For example, Secretary of State James Baker's rosy assessment of perestroika in June before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee ignored the ongoing struggle for power between the central government and the republics as illustrated by the failed union treaty negotiations. It was not until just before the December 1 Ukrainian independence referendum that the U.S. government, in announcing that it would recognize Ukrainian independence, indicated that it was abandoning its Gorbachev-centered approach.
Marking a major new stage in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, Secretary Baker announced on December 12 the U.S. intention to coordinate aid initiatives through direct contacts with the new republics. Declaring that the "dramatic end of communism in Moscow and the unraveling of the centralized Soviet state" present the West with great opportunities as well as dangers, Baker said that republic leaders now look to America for assistance, including in democratization: "We must help our former adversaries understand the ways of democracy and to build political legitimacy out of the wreckage of totalitarianism." Baker said:
The West ... should stick to fundamentals and support those, wherever they may be found, who put into practice our principles and values.... Unless republic governments respond by complementing their independence with democracy and the equal treatment of persons belonging to minorities, they will soon find themselves suffering the very same crises of legitimacy, cohesion and effectiveness that has caused the centrifugal devolution of power in the Soviet Union itself.
Baker also outlined several key human rights components of the new relationship between the United States and the republics of the former USSR:
[T]he United States will welcome into the community of democratic nations those new political entities who believe in democratic values and follow democratic practices; who respect borders and commit changes only through peaceful and consensual means; and who will adhere to the international obligations and norms and practices of the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris.
In his December 12 speech, Baker summarized past and future aid initiatives now organized on a republic-to-republic basis. He began by listing current U.S. food and medical supply programs to various republics and areas in the former USSR:
- The United States has shipped 10 million tons of food in 1991.
- The United States has granted four billion dollars in Commodity Credit Corporation food and grant credits this year, $2.3 billion of this amount since the coup.
- Project Hope has sent nearly 20 million dollars in privately-funded medical supplies; in the next 18 months that amount will likely double. These supplies have been sent to the "most needy" areas: in the Urals, around the Aral Sea, near Chernobyl, in Armenia, and Moscow; Belorussia will also soon receive medical supplies.
- A separate post-independence program has been created for the Baltic states; they have already received 8 million dollars in medical supplies.
- The Department of Agriculture has been ordered to expend or deliver 165 million dollars of its grant funds to meet food shortages.
- The U.S. government will use 100 million dollars of the amount which Congress has authorized in order to transport humanitarian assistance.
- The U.S. government will expend food stocks left over from Desert Storm to assist hard hit areas: Armenia, the industrial cities of the Urals, and Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Baker proclaimed, "[T]he best way the West can help is to place Western experts on the ground and to bring Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs and others here for training." He described various people-to-people programs to assist in personnel training:
- The president has already approved an effort to put Americans on the ground to solve long-term food distribution problems.
- The Administration is proposing several steps to augment ongoing USIA efforts.
- The Administration will work with Congress to support an expanded Peace Corps program in at least four republics.
- The U.S. government will expand a Commerce Business Training Program to accommodate 150 Soviet interns in the next year.
In this speech, Baker also announced initiatives to increase technical assistance and funding:
- The Administration intends to propose authorizing legislation to Congress to ease U.S. efforts to provide assistance and technical cooperation. A major aim of this legislation will be to promote trade, business and investments by U.S. corporations in various areas of the former USSR.
- For 1992, the Administration with Congress will put forth a 100 million dollar technical assistance program. One aim of this program is to act as a catalyst for private investment.
- President Bush will ask the heads of the Trade and Development Program, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank to consider facilitating the work of U.S. businesses in food distribution, energy and housing.
- The Administration supports accelerated IMF and World Bank efforts to draw up new economic plans for those republics which follow security and political responsibilities which the U.S. has put forth.
Baker's enumeration of U.S. programs to assist the republics of the former USSR reveals a new emphasis. Baker declared, "[T]he bulk of responsibility must lie with republic leaders who have already assumed primary control over economic policy and resources. They must make the hard choices necessary for economic recovery."
The Administration now recognized that it must deal with the republic leaders as the primary sources of power. And Secretary Baker has indicated that U.S. support will go to those republics that believe in democratic values and follow democratic practices."
The Work of Helsinki Watch
In 1991, Helsinki Watch intensified its work in individual Soviet republics while maintaining its ongoing monitoring of human rights throughout the territory. The recognition of the independence of the three Baltic states and the devolution of power to the remaining republic governments has underlined the need for Helsinki Watch to continue its program, begun in 1990, of human rights monitoring in each of the regions that once made up the USSR and to expand its efforts to examine violations by republic governments. During the course of 1991, Helsinki Watch representatives traveled to Armenia, Azerbaidzhan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenistan, and published reports on various "hot spots" in the Soviet Union. The opening of an office in Moscow at the end of 1991 will facilitate Helsinki Watch's work of monitoring both the central and the republic governments.
In the aftermath of the January events in Latvia and Lithuania, Helsinki Watch issued a newsletter, "Pattern of Violence: Lithuania is Latest Example of Soviet Army's Use of Lethal Force," which condemned the Soviet army's use of force. Helsinki Watch pointed out that the Baltic violence was consistent with a pattern of violence in five other republics during Gorbachev's presidency. An article on this subject, authored by Helsinki Watch, appeared in The New York Times on January 16, 1991. At the end of January, Helsinki Watch representatives traveled to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to talk with government officials and eyewitnesses to the January events; the findings of the mission appeared in an article in The New York Review of Books. The central government's reluctance to investigate the January events prompted a March 11 letter from Helsinki Watch, expressing concern about official subversion of such efforts. Soviet military attacks on civilians and buildings in the Baltic republics were updated in a June 19 newsletter, "USSR: Continuing Violence in the Baltics," and a border-post incident that caused seven deaths was condemned by Helsinki Watch in a press release on August 6.
Helsinki Watch also investigated violence against civilians by central Soviet government forces during a January 1990 military incursion in Baku, Azerbaidzhan. On January 19, 1991 – a year after the disturbances, in which 131 civilians were killed by the Soviet army – Helsinki Watch issued an appeal to the Soviet and Azerbaidzhani governments to cooperate fully in investigating the event and to lift the state of emergency. An extensive report, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan, issued in May 1991, published the results of Helsinki Watch's fact-finding missions to Azerbaidzhan.
Another report in the Helsinki Watch series on the Soviet army's unwarranted use of force against civilians was published in August 1991. It dealt with the February 1990 incidents in Tadzhikistan in which twenty-one unarmed protestors were killed by Soviet armed forces. Conflict in the Soviet Union: Tadzhikistan called upon Soviet authorities to try those criminally liable for the use of lethal force and denounced the use of the military for police actions. The lengthy report was the product of several Helsinki Watch fact-finding missions to Tadzhikistan in 1990 and 1991.
Human rights issues have emerged starkly in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaidzhan for control over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. On May 10, 1991, Helsinki Watch appealed to the Soviet government to take steps to end the conflict and to ensure the safety of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the border between Azerbaidzhan and Armenia. In June and July, Helsinki Watch representatives traveled to Armenia and Azerbaidzhan to investigate the displacement of populations from both republics. In a letter sent before President Bush's early August trip to Moscow, Helsinki Watch urged President Bush to raise the issue of the Soviet government's reliance on lethal force against civilian protestors in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaidzhan, Tadzhikistan, Lithuania, Latvia and Armenia.
Helsinki Watch publicly condemned key aspects of the August coup: the takeover of the Soviet government, the suspension of civil liberties and the shutdown of the independent media. Helsinki Watch also pointed out that the failure to condemn the misuse of military force in the past may have led the coup plotters to believe that they could assume power with impunity.
Helsinki Watch also continued its monitoring of a variety of other human rights abuses in the USSR. In April 1991, Helsinki Watch issued Glasnost in Jeopardy: Human Rights in the Soviet Union, an overview of the human rights situation in the Soviet Union through March 1991. The report noted the Gorbachev government's move toward the right in the fall of 1990, and pointed out that the renewed repression had not been successful in suppressing liberties that had come to be exercised during the previous three years. It included sections on the rights of members of ethnic minorities, and discussed the movement of the republics toward secession, the draft union treaty and the status of governmental and military structures. Texts of the major laws enacted in 1990 appeared in the appendix.
Helsinki Watch continued to express concern about people imprisoned for political reasons. On June 10, 1991, Helsinki Watch sent a telegram to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the president of Georgia, and to Vakhtang Razmadze, the procurator general, expressing concern about the physical condition of Dzwaba Ioseliani, an opposition political figure who was in prison and on a hunger strike. On June 22, Helsinki Watch sent a cable to Turkmenia's President Niyazov to protest the pending trial of Turkmenian Popular Front activist and writer Shiraly Nurmuradov. On July 8, Helsinki Watch called on the Soviet government to ensure fair treatment of Fark Ismail and Nadir Agaev, who had been released from years of unjust detention in psychiatric hospitals and continued to experience harassment from the Soviet government. Helsinki Watch also expressed concern about the political overtones in the case of Stepan Khmara, a peoples' deputy from Ukraine and a leading proponent of independence, who was arrested on charges of assaulting a policeman.
Helsinki Watch has also noted violations of civil and political rights in Georgia and Russia in the post-coup period. In another letter to President Gamsakhurdia dated September 27, 1991, Helsinki Watch expressed alarm at reports that the Georgian government was censoring the press, harassing political opponents, and using excessive violence in the conflict with the South Ossetians.
At the time of the August 19 coup, Helsinki Watch urged the cancellation of the major CSCE human rights conference scheduled to take place in September in Moscow. When the coup failed, the CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension took place as planned. Helsinki Watch sent a large delegation to the conference and organized three independent seminars. The first dealt with recent incidents of the unjustified use of force by the Soviet government against civilians in eight republics and consisted of oral reports by eyewitnesses and officials. The second focused on the current plight of ethnic minorities deported under Stalin; the discussion, which included Russian parliamentarians and representatives of various deported peoples, centered on a new Russian Republic law on compensation for the deported peoples. A report by Helsinki Watch, Punished Peoples of the Soviet Union: The Continuing Legacy of Stalin's Deportations, was released in Moscow at the seminar. A third Helsinki Watch event in Moscow was a roundtable discussion on prison conditions in various CSCE countries, including the USSR. Helsinki Watch used the occasion to release a preliminary version of its report, Prison Conditions in the USSR. Based on visits by Helsinki Watch to twenty-one facilities in Russia and Azerbaidzhan, the report maintains that, despite efforts by prison authorities to eliminate systemic abuse, grave problems remain, especially in pretrial prisons.
Helsinki Watch offices in New York and Washington continued to provide a forum for visiting Soviet journalists and activists and republic government officials. Among those hosted in 1991 were Lev Timofeyev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group; Revaz Mkheidze, a Georgian television journalist; Judge Bakradze of the Tbilisi City Court; Judge Zemribo, chief justice of the Latvian Supreme Court; Gogik Haratiunian, vice president of Armenia; Antanas Buracas, head of the Lithuanian Human Rights Committee; Alexejs Grigorieff, a journalist and member of the Latvian Human Rights Commission; Tamerlan Karaev, vice president of Azerbaidzhan; Yuri Butchenko, a Siberian labor activist; Zenon Poznyak, head of the Belorussian Popular Front; and Andrei Kozyrev, Russian Republic Foreign Minister.
This chapter includes developments in all of the geographic entities that were seen as part of the Soviet Union for most of 1991. The only exception is the separate chapter accorded to discussion of post-August 19 events in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, after the three Baltic states were given wide international legal and diplomatic recognition of their sovereignty.
Human Rights Watch takes no position on the issue of self-determination, although it upholds the right to advocate independence. Our separate treatment of the post-coup Baltic states reflects our interpretation of the prevailing international view of claims of sovereignty and our assessment of de facto power in these areas after the August events. The formation of a new Commonwealth of Independent States was announced just as this publication was going to press.
The Human Rights Committee of the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet, jointly with the Inter-republic Relations Subcommittee of the republic's International Affairs Committee, issued a statement on September 11 expressing concern over developments in Georgia.
In late October, the Tadzhik Committee on Constitutional Oversight took a stand upholding freedom of association by protesting the ban that the Tadzhik Supreme Soviet had placed on the Tadzhik Communist Party. In its decision, the Committee argued that the Supreme Soviet had no legal basis for banning the Communist Party.
The USSR Constitutional Oversight Committee has the right to suspend immediately any law that violates human rights standards of international or Soviet law. The committee was empowered to suspend residence requirements effective immediately, rather than January 1992.
Article 12 allows only such restrictions on freedom of movement as are "provided by law ... are necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals and the rights and freedoms of individuals," and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the Covenant.
Because he suspected them of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, Stalin forced a dozen national groups to relocate to Central Asia and dissolved the administrative units that had constituted their ethnic homelands. The "deported peoples" include Volga Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Meskhetian Turks and Crimean Tatars.
Some small progress took place during the summer of 1991 toward the resolution of the territorial claims of the Akkinsty Chechens, who had been deported in the 1940s from their homeland in what is now called Daghestan. The Chechens had been forbidden from returning to their territory, which is now occupied by Laks, another Caucasian people who had been forcibly resettled there by Stalin. In demonstrations during the spring of 1991 in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, angry Chechens threatened to squat on the disputed land. Responding to the demonstrators' demands, the Daghestan Congress of People's Deputies convened to discuss the issue.