Russia Accused Of Rights Abuses In Former Republics

RUSSIAN military peacekeeping forces stationed in hot spots in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan have attacked civilian areas and supplied weapons to military groups that violate human rights, the human rights group Helsinki Watch alleges.

In a letter sent Nov. 2 to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Helsinki Watch said Russia has ``gravely overstepped its benevolent role'' in Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan.

``Russia seems to be reasserting more of a hand in the `near abroad' without any regard to the human rights situation in these countries,'' Helsinki Watch Executive Director Jeri Laber said in a Nov. 2 interview with the Monitor.

Russia is purposefully contributing to the destabilization of those areas ``in order to restabilize it in a fashion that could be much more acceptable to Russia, to reestablish or retain Russian hegemony in the region,'' Mr. Laber said.

Galina Sidirova, an aide to Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, told the ITAR-Tass news agency Nov. 1 that it was possible that some Russian peacekeeping forces had taken ``unsanctioned actions,'' but she did not provide details.

Ms. Sidirova said after a meeting with Helsinki Watch officials that minor violations committed by the peacekeepers could have been avoided had the United Nations and Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) joined Russia in the peacekeeping efforts.

Russia is not active on former Soviet territory ``because of its interests there, and acts alone not because it wants to, but because organizations like the UN and CSCE do not render necessary assistance,'' ITAR-Tass quoted Sidirova as saying.

Russian troops have been deployed in peacekeeping operations in hot spots throughout the former Soviet Union since last year. Their presence has been contested by leaders in some former Soviet republics, who see them as a pretext to reassert Russian authority on their territory.

Helsinki Watch's letter to Mr. Yeltsin notes examples of Russian involvement in attacks on civilian areas in three separate conflicts.

Russia's 201st Rifle Division destroyed the Tajik village of Kofarnikhon in December 1992, the report says. And it says that Yeltsin confirmed Russian participation in the bombardment of civilian areas in Moldova last year, but later promoted the commander who had been in charge.

And this March, according to the report, a Russian pilot was found in the cockpit of a plane downed by Georgian forces fighting secessionist rebels in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. The report also accuses the Russian military of giving arms and training to these rebels, as well as aiding and abetting fighters with a reputation for human rights abuses.

In a separate development, Yeltsin on Nov. 1 set up an independent commission composed of former Soviet dissidents, cultural figures, government officials, and lawyers to monitor human rights abuses in Russia.

Andrei Solovyov, a close friend of the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, will head the commission. Mr. Kozyrev, Igor Golembiovsky, editor-in-chief of the daily Izvestia, and Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, are among the 14 members, Reuters news agency reported.

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