Soviet Rights Concerns Shift to Republics
THE suppression of democracy in newly independent Soviet republics is supplanting the fate of dissidents and refuseniks as the main human rights concern in the Soviet Union.Both foreigners and Soviets attending the long-planned human rights conference of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Moscow agreed that human rights is still a concern, even in a country that just sealed Communist Party offices and slated its KGB secret police for an overhaul. "There is a danger that in the process of decentralization and with the rise of nationalism, there could be new problems with human rights," says United States Rep. Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas, a member of the the US congressional delegation to CSCE. "There's going to have to be a lot of good old-fashioned oversight and pressure ... to make sure human rights prevail," he adds. In a speech opening the CSCE conference on Sept. 10, President Mikhail Gorbachev said the failed Aug. 19-21 coup was proof the Soviet Union was evolving into a democratic nation that had "stopped being the antagonist in the world." But he also stressed there were still improvements to be made, particularly in guaranteeing the rights of ethnic minorities in the various Soviet republics. "During the transformation of our union special attention must be paid to the ethnic minorities in new state formations," Mr. Gorbachev said. No former Soviet republic, including the newly independent Baltic states, is free of human rights problems, observers say. After touring the Baltics, Mr. Glickman said the issue of who qualifies for citizenship needs to be clarified in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Ethnic Russians who settled in the region following the Soviet occupation in 1940 have expressed fears they will be excluded, effectively reducing them to second-class citizens. The three Baltic republics took their seats as full members of the CSCE on Sept. 10, a recognition of their new status as independent nations. Soviet officials have stated that they consider that all the former republics retain the obligations, such as observance of the Helsinki CSCE agreement on human rights, of the former Union. The Transcaucasian republic of Georgia is by far the worst human rights violator among republics, says Robert Kushen, a fellow at the New York-based Helsinki Watch organization. In Georgia, not only are the rights of ethnic minorities, such as Ossetians and Abkhazians, threatened, but a one-party police state under President Zviad Gamsakhurdia is quickly being built on the ruins of the Communist totalitarian system, Mr. Kushen says. Former dissident Gamsakhurdia was elected president last spring on a pla tform of independence from the Soviet Union. In recent days protests against Gamsakhurdia's rule have gained momentum and the president shut down opposition newspapers. Nevertheless, protests continue in the capital, Tbilisi. And the threat of violence was increasing as so-called black beret special police units were poised to break up the anti-Gamsakhurdia activities, the independent Interfax news agency said. A congressional delegation led by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, the head of the Congressional Helsinki Commission, visited Georgia last week as part of a tour of Soviet republics. Mr. Hoyer told reporters on Sept. 9 that "no member [of the delegation] left Georgia feeling confident that democracy was in the ascendancy." A congressional staff member accompanying the delegation described a dinner given by Gamsakhurdia in Tbilisi as a tense affair. The Georgian leader issued sardonic taunts questioning American commitment to self-determination. At one point, the staff mem- ber recounted, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona was so angered by comments made to him by Gamsakhurdia's wife that he walked out of the dinner. In addition to the suppression of democracy in the republics, the potential persecution of Communist Party members is also something that human rights observers are starting to think about, said John Finerty, a staff member of the CSCE congressional commission. The delegation stressed to Latvian officials during their visit to that Baltic republic that arrested Latvian Communist Party chief Alfreds Rubiks, charged with treason for his involvement in the attempted coup, should be given a fair and open tri al, Mr. Finerty added. Gorbachev, in his speech Sept. 10, pledged that all the accused coup conspirators would be given full legal rights to a fair trial. The congressional delegation was apparently impressed by the change in attitude since the failed coup and the anticommunist revolution that has followed. They singled out as noteworthy the pledge given by Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky that the Soviets no longer considered the human rights question to be meddling in the nation's internal affairs. While there is notable improvement in human rights conditions here, international oversight organizations cite a growing difficulty in monitoring violations, given the splintering of the Soviet Union. Resources are already being stretched as organizations such as Helsinki Watch struggle to track 15 republican governments instead of a monolithic center. It will take a while for rights organizations to make the adjustment to the new realities in the Soviet Union. Human rights work in the past was focused on the main cities - Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and Kiev - and the information on dissidents and refuseniks was obtained from a limited range of sources, Kushen said. Expanding the information network into the republics will be a sometimes arduous process, he added. Another problem facing American human rights activists is the lack of a US policy toward the newly free republics, Kushen adds. "It hampers our effectiveness when the US government's position is not clearly developed."