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Briefing Surveys Human Rights of Russia's Roma Population
Friday, October 15, 2004

By Erika Schlager
CSCE Counsel on International Law

On September 23, 2004, the United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “The Roma in Russia.”  Panelists included Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director, European Roma Rights Center; Alexander Torokhov, Director, Roma Ural; and Leonid Raihman, a consultant for the Open Society Institute specializing in minority issues in the former Soviet Union.

Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor to the Helsinki Commission, moderated the briefing.  She noted the Commission’s long engagement regarding the human rights problems faced by Roma as well as the overall human rights situation in Russia.  Highlighting the need to examine the particular situation of Roma in Russia, she observed that since Roma “constitute a relatively small part of the Russian population, their plight is often overlooked.”

Dr. Petrova noted that, for the 2002 Russian census, approximately 182,000 individuals identified themselves as Romani.  Unofficial estimates, however, suggest that the number of Roma in Russia is much higher; a figure often cited is 1.2 million.  She argued that the fate of Roma in Russia is emblematic of the racism, xenophobia, and discrimination faced by other ethnic minorities in Russia, particularly Jews and people from the Caucasus region.

In a comprehensive statement, Dr. Petrova outlined nine key areas of concern:  historical and social discrimination against Roma; the legal and institutional context of anti-discrimination legislation; the current political and ideological climate in Russia; the abuse of Roma rights by state actors (primarily the police); the abuse of Roma rights by non-state actors; discrimination in the criminal justice system; the portrayal of Roma in the Russian media; the lack of personal documents; and access to housing and education.

The main focus of Dr. Petrova’s statement concerned abuse by both state and non-state actors.  The main impetus of anti-Roma abuse in Russia is related directly to the ideological “war on drugs.”  People of Roma descent are targeted through racial profiling and various media outlets as illegal drug dealers and are subject to frequent police raids.  The “war on drugs” has also become an excuse for police brutality and racial targeting in which police plant drugs on the Roma or in their homes and then arrest them for the possession of illegal substances.

Dr. Petrova ended her statement with a call for the United States Government “to play a leadership role and use its economic and political weight to help improve the position of Roma in Russia and address the human rights problems of Roma in Russia as a matter of urgency and as a primary concern in combating racial discrimination.”  She asked human rights monitoring agencies both in the United States and in Europe to prioritize Roma rights in Russia and to draw the Russian Government’s attention to Roma issues that are currently not being addressed.

Dr. Torkohov, representing the Ekaterinburg-based Roma Ural, presented his organization’s efforts to monitor media coverage of Roma, examine factors contributing to lower levels of education among Roma, and assist Romani Holocaust survivors obtain compensation through existing programs.

Torkohov offered a number of recommendations to improve the current situation.  With respect to education, he suggested creating preschool programs for Roma children to improve literacy, working with both children and parents to understand the value of education, and facilitating cooperation between parents and schools.  Given the pronounced bigotry against Roma that characterizes portrayals of Roma in the broadcast and print media, he also suggested training journalists to improve their professional skills.

Leonid Raihman focused on ill treatment of Roma by the police, access to justice, and problems associated with the lack of personal documents, including passports.  Endemic corruption among the poorly paid and poorly trained police in Russia has fostered an environment in which Roma are the routine victims of extortion by the police.  This extortion, in turn, contributes to the economic marginalization of Roma.

Raihman also described the serious and complex problem of personal documents for the Roma.  He said the absence of personal documents, as well as the rigid nature of the personal documents system in Russia, represents an aspect of the problem.  However, he felt that ethnicity was the primary reason for problems in obtaining a passport.  “Administration officials,” he stated, “especially in housing and immigration departments abuse the discretionary decision-making power accorded to them by the passport system to discriminate against Roma and members of the vulnerable groups.”

Mr. Raihman urged the U.S. Government to use its power “to persuade the Russian Government to place the human rights problems which the Roma face high on their agenda.”  He stated that it is time for the Russian Government, as well as the rest of the world, to acknowledge and deal with the problems faced by the Roma in Russia.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Judy Abel contributed to this article.

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Until the mid-1990s, Kazakstan seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political parties could function and the media enjoyed some freedom. But President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments and single-mindedly sought to accumulate sole power. In the last few years, the regime has become ever more authoritarian. President Nazarbaev has concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating to himself all other branches and institutions of government. A constitutional amendment passed in October 1999 conveniently removed the age limit of 65 to be president. The OSCE judged last January's presidential elections, from which a leading opposition contender was barred as far short of OSCE standards. Last month's parliamentary election, according to the OSCE, was “severely marred by widespread, pervasive and illegal interference by executive authorities in the electoral process.” In response, President Nazarbaev has attacked the OSCE, comparing it to the Soviet Communist Party's Politburo for trying to “tell Kazakstan what to do.” Tajikistan has suffered the saddest fate of all the Central Asian countries; a civil war that killed scores of thousands. In 1997, the warring sides finally ceased hostilities and reached agreement about power-sharing, which permitted a bit of hopefulness about prospects for normal development and democratization. It seems, however, that the accord will not ensure stability. Tajikistan's Central Election Commission refused to register two opposition candidates for the November 6 presidential election. The sole alternative candidate registered has refused to accept the results of the election, which, according to official figures, current President Emomaly Rakhmonov won with 97 percent of the vote, in a 98 percent turnout. Those numbers, Mr. Speaker, say it all. The OSCE properly declined to send observers. Benighted Turkmenistan practically beggars description. This country, which has been blessed with large quantities of natural gas, has a political system that combines the worst traits of Soviet communism with a personality cult seen today in countries like Iraq or North Korea. No dissidence of any kind is permitted and the population enjoys no human rights. While his impoverished people barely manage to get by, President Niyazov builds garish presidential palaces and monuments to himself. The only registered political party in Turkmenistan is the Democratic Party, headed by President Niyazov. In late October he said the people of his country would not be ready for the stresses and choices of a democratic society until 2010, adding that independent media are “disruptive.” On December 12, Turkmenistan is holding parliamentary “elections,” which the OSCE will not bother to observe. Finally, we come to Uzbekistan. The Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings on democratization and human rights in Uzbekistan on October 18. Despite the best efforts of Uzbekistan's Ambassador Safaev to convince us that democratization is proceeding apace in his country, the testimony of all the other witnesses confirmed the widely held view that after Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is the most repressive country in Central Asia. No opposition political activity is allowed and media present only the government's point of view. Christian denominations have faced official harassment. Since 1997, a massive government campaign has been underway against independent Muslim believers. In February of this year, explosions rocked Tashkent, which the government described as an assassination attempt by Islamic radicals allied with an exiled opposition leader. Apart from elections, a key indicator of progress towards democratization is the state of media freedom. On October 25-27, an International Conference on Mass Media in Central Asia took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Not surprisingly, Turkmenistan did not allow anyone to attend. The other participants adopted a declaration noting that democratization has slowed in almost all Central Asian states, while authoritarian regimes have grown stronger, limiting the scope for genuine media freedom as governments influence the media through economic means. I strongly agree with these sentiments. The concentration of media outlets in pro-regime hands, the ongoing assault on independent and opposition media and the circumscription of the media's legally-sanctioned subject matter pose a great danger to the development of democracy in Central Asia. Official statistics about how many media outlets have been privatized cover up an alarming tendency towards government monopolization of information sources. This effectively makes it impossible for citizens to receive unbiased information, which is vital if people are to hold their governments accountable. Mr. Speaker, it is clear that in Central Asia, the overall level of democratization and human rights observance is poor. Central Asian leaders make decisions in a region far from Western Europe, close to China, Iran and Afghanistan, and they often assert that “human rights are only for the West” or the building democracy “takes time.” But delaying steps towards democracy is very risky in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious region of Central Asia, where many people are highly educated and have expectations of faster change. If it does not come, tensions and conflicts could emerge that could endanger security for everyone. To lessen these risks, continuous pressure will be needed on these countries to move faster on democracy. Even as the United States pursues other interests, we should give top priority to democracy and respect for human rights, or we may live to regret not doing so.

  • Chechen Crisis and its Implications for Russian Democracy

    This hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe was held to discuss the renewed military action taken against Chechnya in response to terrorist bombings. There is extensive discussion on the ramification of Russian human rights violations for the state of Russian Democracy. Additionally, there are several arguments that the war could destabilize the Caucus region.

  • Crackdown in Belarus

    Mr. President, just a few weeks ago, many of my Senate colleagues met a young, dynamic parliamentarian from Belarus, Mr. Anatoly Lebedko, right here on the Senate floor. He impressed us with his dedication and commitment as he advocates for democracy and the rule of law in his home country currently being rule by a repressive regime. You can imagine how shocked and concerned I was to receive a call from the State Department this week informing me Mr. Lebedko had been picked up by the authorities as part of the latest crackdown in Belarus. I am sure my colleagues who met Mr. Lebedko share my concern for his well-being and for the safety of all of those struggling for democracy and freedom of speech.   Eight years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus finds itself increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe as a direct consequence of the authoritarian policies pursued by its present government which have stifled that country's fledgling democracy and market economy. The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, held a hearing a few months ago to assess democracy and human rights in Belarus. In July, a number of Commission members and I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Lebedko address the annual Parliamentary Assembly meeting of the Organization of Security and Corporation in Europe (OSCE ) in St. Petersburg, where he outlined developments in Belarus and the prospects for genuine political and economic reforms. Clearly, the cycle of political and economic stagnation in Belarus will only come to an end through genuine dialogue based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.   The Helsinki Commission has called on Belarus to adopt meaningful political and economic reforms in keeping with that country's obligations as a participating State of the OSCE. On September 3, the government and opposition in Belarus began consultations at the office of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk. These talks, long urged by the international community and the Helsinki Commission could represent an important step in beginning the process of reversing the bleak human rights and democratization picture in Belarus.   Until recently I had been encouraged by what appeared to be the start of a dialog between the Belarusian Government and opposition. However, there have been a number of disturbing developments, including continued harassment of opposition members, a renewed crackdown on the independent media in recent weeks, and now the detainment of Mr. Lebedko.   We recently wrote to Secretary of State Albright voicing concern about the situation in Belarus and called on the State Department to intensify its work in this area. This most recent development underscores our concerns. I ask unanimous consent that copies of our letter to the Secretary of State, a letter we sent to the President of Belarus, along with recent news clips be printed in the Record. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 15, 1999. Hon. Madeleine Korbel Albright, Secretary of State, Department of State, Washington, DC.   Dear Madam Secretary: We are writing to voice our growing concern over violations of the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus under the authoritarian leadership of Aleksandr Lukashenka, who remains in power despite the expiration of his legal presidential mandate last July. The fledgling opposition in Belarus deserves both our moral and material support as they seek to overcome the legacy of Communism and authoritarianism and build a democratic society firmly rooted in the rule of law. Many of us recently had an opportunity to meet with Anatoly Lebedko of the United Civic Party of Belarus, a young political leader who, despite personal risk, continues to openly criticize the Lukashenka regime. His personal safety is of particular concern as he returns to Belarus following an intense crackdown against the opposition. In recent weeks, Lukashenka has reportedly authorized a series of measures designed to further suppress Belarus' already beleaguered opposition. Border controls have apparently been tightened and officials in Minsk and other large cities have been instructed to ban public protests and demonstrations. The few remaining independent opposition newspapers, including Naviny and Kuryer, have likewise come under increased pressure from the authorities. Lukashenka's campaign of harassment and intimidation of the political opposition has intensified. Former Premier Mikhail Chigir, arrested in March on politically-motivated charges, remains imprisoned. A number of other former government officials and political opposition figures continue to be subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention on similar changes. In a particularly disturbing development, several prominent opposition leaders, including Viktor Gonchar, Tamara Vinnikova, and Yuri Zakharenka, have simply disappeared. Madam Secretary, we urge you to intensify pressure on the Lukashenka regime for the immediate release of all political detainees in Belarus and a full accounting of those who have disappeared. We further urge you to ensure that adequate resources are made available on an urgent basis to support those programs aimed at strengthening independent media, human rights, civil society, independent trade unions and the democratic opposition in Belarus. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member, House. William V. Roth, Jr., U.S.S. Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C. Alcee L. Hastings, M.C. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S., Co-Chairman. Trent Lott, U.S.S. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S.S. Frank R. Wolf, M.C. Jesse Helms, U.S.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC, October 19, 1999.   His Excellency Alyaksandr Lukashenka, President, Republic of Belarus, Minsk, Belarus. Dear President Lukashenka: We are writing to express our serious and growing concerns about recent developments in Belarus. Until recently, we were becoming more hopeful that meaningful dialogue between the Belarusian Government and opposition would take place. Within the last month, however, violations of the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law have come to our attention that, frankly, lead us to question your government's seriousness in finding a solution to the problems of democracy in Belarus. We were disturbed to learn of the arrest earlier today of democratic opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, for allegedly participating in “an unsanctioned march.” Our concerns include the following: The continued imprisonment of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chygir, who was supposed to be released from investigative detention where he has been held for six months. The disappearances of former Central Election Commission Chairman Viktor Gonchar, his colleague Yuri Krasovsky, former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka, and former National Bank Chair Tamara Vinnikova. Increased attempts to stifle freedom of expression, including the annulling of registration certificates of nine periodicals, and especially the harassment of Naviny through the use of high libel fees clearly designed to silence this independent newspaper. The denial of registration of non-governmental organizations, including the Belarusian Independent Industrial Trade Union Association. The police raid, without a search warrant, on the human rights organization Viasna-96, and confiscation of computers which stored data on human rights violations. Criminal charges against opposition activist Mykola Statkevich and lawyer Oleg Volchek and continued interrogation of lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya. The initial attack by riot police against peaceful protestors in last Sunday's Freedom March. Your efforts to address these concerns would reduce the climate of suspicion and fear that currently exists and enhance confidence in the negotiation process which we believe is so vital to Belarus' development as a democratic country in which human rights and the rule of law are respected. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith, M.C., Chairman. Steny H. Hoyer, M.C., Ranking Member.   From the Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1999: Belarus Opposition Paper to Close. Minsk, Belarus. A leading opposition newspaper in Belarus said it was shutting down following a court order to pay an exorbitant fine, to the minister of security over an article he said injured his reputation. The Naviny newspaper, which has come under frequent pressure from Belarus's authoritarian government, said in its last issue that “both the suit and the trial were a cover-up for a carefully planned campaign by the authorities seeking to close down our newspaper.”   From the Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1999 Belarusan Officials Blame West for Riots. Minsk, Belarus. Belarusan authorities accused the West of being behind street clashes between some 5,000 opposition demonstrators and police in which at least 92 people were arrested. But Dmitri Bondarenko of the opposition Khartiya-97 movement said police started the fighting and another opposition member said authorities have long provoked violence by repression. The fighting broke out Sunday in Minsk following an authorized rally by about 20,000 people. The demonstrators were protesting the disappearance of several leading opposition figures and President Alexander Lukashenka's drive to reunite Belarus, a former Soviet republic, with Russia.

  • Central Asia: The “Black Hole” of Human Rights

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce a resolution on the disturbing state of democratization and human rights in Central Asia. As is evident from many sources, including the State Department's annual reports on human rights, non-governmental organizations, both in the region and the West, and the work of the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, Central Asia has become the “black hole” of human rights in the OSCE space. True, not all Central Asia countries are equal offenders. Kyrgyzstan has not joined its neighbors in eliminating all opposition, tightly censoring the media and concentrating all power in the hands of the president, though there are tendencies in that direction, and upcoming elections in 2000 may bring out the worst in President Akaev. But elsewhere, the promise of the early 1990's, when the five Central Asian countries along with all former Soviet republics were admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, has not been realized. Throughout the region, super-presidents pay lip service to OSCE commitments and to their own constitutional provisions on separation of powers, while dominating the legislative and judicial branches, crushing or thwarting any opposition challenges to their factual monopoly of power, and along with their families and favored few, enjoying the benefits of their countries' wealth. Indeed, though some see the main problem of Central Asia through the prism of real or alleged Islamic fundamentalism, the Soviet legacy, or poverty, I am convinced that the essence of the problem is more simple and depressing: presidents determined to remain in office for life must necessarily develop repressive political systems. To justify their campaign to control society, Central Asian leaders constantly point to their own national traditions and argue that democracy must be built slowly. Some Western analysts, I am sorry to say, have bought this idea, in some cases, quite literally, by acting as highly paid consultants to oil companies and other business concerns. But, Mr. Speaker, building democracy is an act of political will above all. You have to want to do it. If you don't, all the excuses in the world and all the state institutions formed in Central Asia ostensibly to promote human rights will remain simply window dressing. Moreover, the much-vaunted stability offered by such systems is shaky. The refusal of leaders to allow turnover at the top or newcomers to enter the game means that outsiders have no stake in the political process and can imagine coming to power or merely sharing in the wealth only be extra-constitutional methods. For some of those facing the prospect of permanent exclusion, especially as living standards continue to fall, the temptation to resort to any means possible to change the rules of the game, may be overwhelming. Most people, however, will simply opt out of the political system in disillusionment and despair. Against this general context, without doubt, the most repressive countries are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, in particular, has created a virtual North Korea in post-Soviet space, complete with his own bizarre cult of personality. Turkmenistan is the only country in the former Soviet bloc that remains a one-party state. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has five parties but all of them are government-created and controlled. Under President Islam Karimov, no opposition parties or movements have been allowed to function since 1992. In both countries, communist-era controls on the media remain in place. The state, like its Soviet predecessor, prevents society from influencing policy or expressing its views and keeps the population intimidated through omnipresent secret police forces. Neither country observes the most fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion, or permits any electoral challenges to its all-powerful president. Kazakstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has played a more clever game. Pressed by the OSCE and Western capitals, he has formally permitted opposition parties to function, and they did take part in the October 10 parliamentary election. But once again, a major opposition figure was not able to participate, and OSCE/ODIHR monitors, citing many shortcomings, have criticized the election as flawed. In general, the ability of opposition and society to influence policymaking is marginal at best. At the same time, independent and opposition media have been bought, coopted or intimidated out of existence or into cooperation with the authorities, and those few that remain are under severe pressure. Tajikistan suffered a devastating civil war in the early 1990's. In 1997, war-weariness and a military stalemate led the disputants to a peace accord and a power-sharing agreement. But though the arrangement had promise, it now seems to be falling apart, as opposition contenders for the presidency have been excluded from the race and the major opposition organization has decided to suspend participation in the work of the National Reconciliation Commission. Mr. Speaker, along with large-scale ethnic conflicts like Kosovo or Bosnia, and unresolved low-level conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, I believe the systemic flouting of OSCE commitments on democratization and human rights in Central Asia is the single greatest problem facing the OSCE. For that reason, I am introducing this resolution expressing concern about the general trends in the region, to show Central Asian presidents that we are not taken in by their facade, and to encourage the disheartened people of Central Asia that the United States stands for democracy. The resolution calls on Central Asian countries to come into compliance with OSCE commitments on democracy and human rights , and encourages the Administration to raise with other OSCE states the implications for OSCE participation of countries that engage in gross and uncorrected violation of freely accepted commitments on human rights . Mr. Speaker, I hope my colleagues will join me, Mr. Hoyer, and Mr. Forbes in this effort and we welcome their support.

  • Report on Georgia's Parliamentary Elections: October 1999

    On October 31, 1999, Georgia held its third parliamentary election since gaining independence in 1991. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s ruling party, the Citizens Union of Georgia, scored a convincing victory. According to the Central Election Commission, in the first round, the CUG won 41.85 percent of the party list voting, or 85 seats, along with 35 single districts. The opposition Batumi Alliance, led by Ajarian strongman Aslan Abashidze, came in second, with 25.65 percent of the vote and seven districts, gaining 51 seats. Industry Will Save Georgia was the only other party to break the sevenpercent threshold for parliamentary representation, managing 7.8 percent and 14 seats. In second-round voting on November 14, the CUG increased its lead, picking up ten more seats, and then won another two in a November 28 third round, for a total of 132. The Batumi Alliance’s final tally was 59. Overall, the CUG has an absolute majority in Georgia’s 235-seat legislature, improving on the position it held from 1995-1999. The outcome did not indicate how tense the race had been between the CUG and the leftist, proRussian Batumi Alliance. A win by the latter threatened to move Georgia into Russia’s orbit and away from market reforms. The election also offered a foretaste of next year’s presidential contest, when Abashidze runs against Shevardnazde. With such high stakes and relations so confrontational between the contending forces, charges of widespread fraud dogged the elections. Of the Central Election Commission’s 19 members, only 13 signed the document announcing the results. Nevertheless, OSCE’s observation mission called the first round of the election a “step towards” compliance with OSCE commitments, adding that most of the worst violations occurred in Ajaria. OSCE’s verdict after the November 14 second round was more critical, noting violence at some polling stations and vote rigging and intimidation at others. OSCE’s initial cautiously positive judgement, however, allowed Eduard Shevardnadze to claim that democratization is proceeding in Georgia and that the country’s admission to the Council of Europe was well deserved.

  • The Situation in Dagestan

    This briefing addressed the security challenge face by Russia in the Northern Caucasus in light of an outbreak of fighting in Dagestan in response to unemployment and rampant crime. The potential role of the OSCE in achieving peace in Dagestan in a similar manner to its mission in Chechnya was discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Dr. Robert Bruce Ware, a professor in the Department of Philosophical Studies at Southern Illinois University, and Dr. Zulfia Kisrieva-War a native from Dagestan – evaluated potential responses to several questions, including who the combatants in Dagestan are; their aims; why the region is such a volatile area; and whether Moscow has a coherent broad-based strategy for achieving peace and prosperity in the region. Historical background on the conflict and strategies for the international community to pursue moving forward were also topics of discussion.

  • Human Rights in Russia

    This briefing focused on a report by the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews regarding human rights in 30 out of Russia’s 89 regions. The report, part of a project funded by USAID, was unprecedented in its scope and detail of coverage of human rights across Russia. At a previous hearing, the connection was drawn between the decline in Russia’s economic fortunes and the growing violations of human rights and civil liberties. Ludmilla Alexeeva and Micah Naftalin discussed how crime, corruption, and human rights violations combined to weaken democracy and rule of law in Russia and undermine the well-being of its people. They emphasized the vastness of these problems and the necessary collaboration of NGOs from different regions to obtain a thorough and accurate analysis of the country’s respect for human rights.

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