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Russia: Casualty Count In Chechnya Increasingly Questioned

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian critics of the war in Chechnya have long been accusing the military of underreporting the number of casualties sustained. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that those critics are now offering proof to back up their claims.

Moscow, 24 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The anti-war group Soldiers' Mothers Committee recently announced its estimate that 3,000 soldiers have died in Chechnya so far -- about four times the official figure. The Russian government said the estimate was based on lies. But journalists and other observers are starting to uncover evidence that Russian bodies are piling up faster than the government admits.

Valentina Melnikova heads the Soldiers' Mothers group's Moscow branch. Her group issued its own estimate when it noticed that Russian authorities had stopped giving out cumulative casualty figures in December, when street fighting stepped up. Melnikova told RFE/RL her group was shocked by its findings.

"Around the 13th or 14th of January, our regional committees started calling us in Moscow because they were receiving many appeals from the families of killed soldiers asking what kind of compensations and privileges the family was entitled to. So our women gave us the number of casualties they knew for their region. And that drew an absolutely horrific picture -- after the fighting in Argun and Shali, after renewed fighting in Gudermes, we realized that the military had [stopped] giving the number of killed and injured on purpose. We just did an average of our data we got from our colleagues, like we did in 1995 during the previous war. Eighty regions, an average of forty dead per region. That's how we came up with our evaluation of about 3,000 dead."

Melnikova said her counting method proved itself reliable last fall, when her group's estimates coincided almost exactly with official statistics.

More recently, the government's information on casualties has been greeted with skepticism. Russian authorities said two weeks ago that there have been 741 deaths of soldiers in Chechnya. But they did not give a precise time period for the casualties, nor any way of checking the figure.

Military authorities give out occasional, random reports of how many were killed in a given day -- but since such reports are not issued every day, it is difficult to get an accurate cumulative count. Casualty figures are sometimes given only for Defense Ministry troops, or only for Interior Ministry troops.

Many Russian analysts say the government may be deliberately underreporting casualties, fearing that a high death toll could turn public opinion against the military command -- or against the government. That is something the Kremlin would not want to risk in the weeks before a presidential election in which the incumbent, Vladimir Putin, is heavily favored.

Underreporting can be done by registering soldiers as "missing in action" rather than "killed in action," by spreading the number of casualties over several days, or by not counting soldiers who die in hospitals as war casualties.

Eyewitness reporting is hard to come by, as there are few journalists reporting from the front lines. So is it the government's word against the Soldiers' Mothers? Russian media have been delving into the issue.

NTV last night (on the program "Itogi") focused on a military hospital in Rostov on the Don (in southern Russia). During the last Chechen war, that hospital served as a central morgue for bodies from Chechnya. It also serves as a casualty registry, as each killed soldier is entered into a computer -- but NTV reporters were not allowed to ask questions about overall casualty figures.

One hospital employee told NTV that lately she has been registering as many as 18 deaths a day, complaining that her contract requires her to process only about six. And workers at the Rostov train station said up to 15 coffins were shipped out every day.

The NTV correspondent (Boris Sobolev) pointed out that the daily toll could be higher. The Rostov morgue is used only for Defense Ministry soldiers -- the regular army -- and not for the Interior Ministry or special forces, which traditionally suffer higher casualties.

Yuri Gladkevich is a military journalist covering Chechnya for a new independent news service called Military News Agency, or AVN. He told RFE/RL that based on correspondents' reports from the battlefield as well as on military leaks, AVN estimates Russian losses to be about three to four times higher than the official figure, slightly less than the Soldiers' Mothers estimate.

The true extent of casualties can be hidden only temporarily, Gladkevich says, and if it is shown that the government is concealing casualty figures, the deception could cost the government more support than high casualties would have.

"It seems to me that society really does want to know the truth, to know how much this [war] is costing us -- what price we are paying in lives, in victims, in material resources. It's our money, those are our sons, it's our work."

He says public opinion has changed since the first war. The public now is tired of crime and corruption, Gladkevich says, and might accept higher casualties as a price to be paid for order.