Vienna, March 2 – Despite pledges to do everything in its power to find those missing in action in its Afghan and Chechen wars, the Russian authorities are no longer actively supporting that effort, a Moscow paper reports today. And its failure is adding to growing anger in the Russian officers and forcing NGOs to take on what should be a government function.
The Soviet and then Russian governments never maintained a list of those missing in action in their Afghanistan and Chechen campaigns. As a result, the exact numbers are a matter of dispute, with most estimates centering around 300 MIAs in Afghanistan and 1,000 missing soldiers in Chechnya (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/021/13.html).
In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin created a special commission in his office to identify and where possible return MIAs. It was headed by Col. Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov and, after his death, Gen. Vladimir Zolotarev. And, as “Novaya gazeta” notes, “despite the poverty of the state [at that time], the commission was somehow financed.”
And the commission achieved a great deal. With the help of the United States, the 124th Forensic Medical Laboratory acquired the equipment needed to identify the remains of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and in the first post-Soviet Chechen war. But with the coming to power of Vladimir Putin, all that changed.
Government financial support almost completely ceased and the commission’s status reduced as it was transferred from the office of the president to the defense ministry. And as an indication of just how far it has fallen since then, the Moscow paper notes that after the death of its most recent chief, the authorities have not even appointed a successor.
This downgrading in Russia of a function that in other countries like the United States, Israel and Serbia is considered to be one of the most important duties of the state to those who have sacrificed their lives for it has forced NGOs to try to fill the gap, an action that in itself is an indictment of Putin and his government.
One of the most important of these groups is the Committee for the Affairs of Internationalist Soldiers that is headed by retired general Ruslan Aushev. His group has made 12 trips to Afghanistan, found 22 MIAs still alive as well as the bodies of others, and helped restore them to their relatives in the Russian Federation.
Aleksandr Lavrentyev, who works as a deputy to Aushev in this effort, told “Novaya gazeta” that this group, which is now seeking public contributions for its 13th visit to Afghanistan, group will “continue to collect information” on the MIAs and return more of them. That is something the relatives of those missing boys need, and it is necessary for us as well.”
Aushev’s deputy added that the search for MIAs is also “necessary for our state.” But the journalist writing up this story added that whether that is in fact the case is something that he “if he is being honest, doesn’t know.” Nonetheless, he urges that Russians support this highly patriotic effort to “allow all [those still missing in action] to return home!”