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Russia: Court Challenges Unprecedented Compensation Award For Chechen War Veteran

Russian authorities have been waging war in Chechnya for four years. And for nearly as long, they've been fighting a second battle -- in courtrooms, where war veterans are seeking redress for failing to receive compensation for their time served in the breakaway republic. Earlier this month, a judge granted an unprecedented award to one Russian soldier. But the state is fighting the decision, and the veteran is still a long way from seeing any of his money.

Moscow, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sergei Myasnikov could soon become a rich man by Russian standards. A court earlier this month granted the 37-year-old Chechen war veteran a monthly award of 73,000 rubles (about $2,400) as compensation for injuries sustained while serving in the breakaway republic. He was also granted a one-time lump sum of $50,000 -- as payback for the hundreds of underpaid days he spent fighting in Chechnya.

Myasnikov first went to Chechnya in August 1999, at the very start of Russia's second war in the republic. He served numerous tours of duty with the Interior Ministry's special SOBR forces, and was among those responsible for leading the notorious "zachistki," or mopping-up operations, officially aimed at removing guerrilla fighters but which just as often meant cruel and arbitrary incursions into private Chechen homes.

Like many of the men who fought in Chechnya, Myasnikov says he was paid less than he had initially been promised. Hoping to lure Russian fighters to the republic, a special presidential order was issued pledging them between 800 and 950 rubles a day. But the government's bill grew larger and larger as the war dragged on, and soon fighters saw their wages being cut.

Myasnikov's problems were further complicated in the summer of 2000, when the truck he was driving through Grozny detonated a mine, killing two fellow Russian fighters and leaving him badly injured. Extensive surgery repaired some of the damage to his head and face. But three years later, back home in the Volga region city of Saransk, he is still racked by constant pain.

Myasnikov's wife Nelli describes their situation. "He's got a disability pension, 4000 [rubles] a month ($130). That's all. Well, there was an extra amount -- 3,000 rubles ($100), I think. Yes. But it wasn't monthly, and it kept coming three months, six months late. So his pension is practically all we have. The part of his head where the shrapnel hit him was taken out. He has a plate there [instead of skull]. It's horrible."

Some recent improvements were made in amendments to Russia's veterans law, which grants official veteran status to former fighters in Chechnya and other local wars like Abkhazia. Earlier, only veterans of World War II carried the official status, which gave them better access to low-cost housing, better pensions and free transport, and medical care.

Russia's regional governments also have the possibility to pass their own legislation on compensation for local war veterans, although few regions have the budgets to do so. The $130 pension is the most disabled fighters can expect to automatically receive from the state. For younger soldiers, the amount can drop as low as $13. Unable to survive on his state pension, Myasnikov took his case to court.

Saransk district court judge Nina Yerina says initially Myasnikov sought only to raise his monthly disability payments, to compensate for the fact he can no longer work. "It's a compensation case for damages to his health sustained during fighting in Chechnya, it's a war wound. Almost [all of the Chechen veterans who bring these cases] have lost their ability to work. We have a lot of cases like that."

The court gave Myasnikov a $500 per month compensation package. But the Mordovan Supreme Court threw out the decision following an appeal. Undaunted, Myasnikov continued to fight. Most courts simply order payment for time spent in combat -- literally, "fighting money" -- plus interest. But Yerina took it several steps further, granting Myasnikov a $2,400 monthly pension and a one-time $50,000 award.

The judge said she considered his disability and payment arrears and decided to "add it all up." "Why? Because it's the law," she said. "The man had seven or 10 [tours of duty] in Chechnya, so of course it runs up. He's completely ill. He has a metal plate in his head. He has sustained really serious trauma."

Once more, however, the prosecutor appealed the decision. The Mordovan Supreme Court will hear the appeal 7 October. Valerii Dashkevich heads the Mordovan Interior Ministry's legal department. He says the award grants Myasnikov far more than what the ministry legally owes him for his service.

"The family of [a soldier] who dies gets less than he does. That doesn't make any sense," Dashkevich says. "I think that the court made a mistake, but that's my personal view. Basically, the formula for calculating [the compensation] is wrong. That's all. [Myasnikov] will get what is due to him according to the law. If he's injured, he'll get social guarantees and [something] from the insurance."

Yerina says the Interior Ministry's compensation formula is unfair and far lower than nonmilitary work-compensation schemes. The issue of unpaid "fighting money" is gaining greater prominence as more and more court cases like Myasnikov's are heard. Earlier this month, a Moscow court forced the local Interior Ministry to pay out a month of "fighting money" to 22 ministry troops. One human rights lawyer estimates there are some 13,000 unpaid "fighting money" wages waiting on the ministry's desk.

Few are hopeful that Myasnikov will ever see the bulk of his award. Valentina Melnikova heads the Moscow branch of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a nongovernmental organization assisting draftees. She says authorities typically drag such cases from one appeal to the next and almost never honor court payment awards.