Russian critic of Chechen war loses rights post


MOSCOW -- Powerless to hasten a Russian victory in Chechnya or do anything else that might affect the fighting there, the lower house of parliament lashed out yesterday at the war's most prominent critic, Sergei Kovalyov, by stripping him of his post as Russia's human rights commissioner.

Mr. Kovalyov had spent the early weeks of the war in the Chechen capital, Grozny, interposing himself between the Russian military and the president of the breakaway republic, Dzhokhar M. Dudayev. Mr. Kovalyov called on Russian soldiers not to attack; after the assault began, he began documenting human rights abuses and calling them to the world's attention.

The 64-year-old biologist and former Soviet dissident emerged as a hero for many, both here and abroad, but army commanders and Russian nationalists heaped abuse on him. His critics accused him of traitorously advocating attacks on Russian soldiers -- which he never did.

But large elements of the officer corps, smarting from the Russian army's disastrous performance in the war, were looking for a scapegoat, and they turned on Mr. Kovalyov. Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev called him an "enemy."

The proposal to strip him of his post was made in parliament by Sergei Baburin of the Russian Way bloc, and was approved by a vote of 240 to 75. Mr. Baburin said that Mr. Kovalyov's "appeals to the world to increase pressure on Russia" had caused "deep grief" at home.

Mr. Kovalyov, an associate of the late Andrei D. Sakharov, became a dissident in the 1960s and was editor of the underground journal the Chronicle of Current Events. He was arrested in 1974 and spent seven years in the gulag.

Alexander Yakovlev, the presidential representative in the upper house of parliament, criticized the move against Mr. Kovalyov as "a negative act." He said it was surprising that the lower house, or Duma, would have acted so hastily, without any discussion, any consideration of who might now take the post, or any effort to notify Mr. Kovalyov himself, who is in Genoa, Italy.

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