Vienna, May 8 – While the number of guns illegally in private hands in the Russian Federation is miniscule in comparison to weapons having that status in the United States, Russians today have far more such guns than ever before and now have enough to “conduct a small civil war,” according to an investigation by a Moscow journalist.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Sergey Kanyev, who writes frequently on crime in the Russian capital, says that there are approximately 170,000 pistols and automatic weapons in the hands of those who are “not the best part of the population” and who obtained, retain and can be expected to use them illegally (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/047/00.html).
The Moscow journalist began looking into the matter when, after a militia officer shot up a supermarket there, “some sources asserted” that the officer had stolen his weapon from a fellow soldier in the Chechen campaign while others “wrote that the pistol has disappeared from the stocks of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”
The latter suggestion, Kanyev said, raises the question of how many guns may be missing from official stocks and how often they are being tracked down and returned to safe keeping. The statistics, he continues, make “an impression,” but “a still greater” one is produced by the lack of correspondence between the number “lost” and the number “returned.”
“As a result of corruption and the sloppiness of the force structures,” he writes, “the population of Russia” is now in a position “to conduct a small civil war.” And while that may seem to be a journalistic exaggeration to people in countries with far more guns in private hands, for Russians, who in Soviet times had little access to guns, it may be shockingly appropriate.
Not surprisingly, officials at the FSB, MVD and Ministry of Defense are not willing to provide any details, the “Novaya gazeta” reporter says, but “it is sufficient” to talk to any traffic policeman, and he will allow you to copy a compact disk containing a data base on weapons that are missing or stolen and that the militia hopes to recover.
The traffic police use this list, Kanyev says, when they are checking cars they have stopped for moving violations. And while the list is almost certainly incomplete and not reflect many weapons that have been lost or recovered, the journalist says, it is “none the less” a very useful place to start.
According to this data source, from 1951 through 2008, on the territory of the USSR and then on that of the Russian Federation were stolen in one way or another 182,114 guns of various types. In addition, he says, “166,265 guns were seized by MVD and FSB officers from criminals and ordinary citizens.” But the actual difference between those lost and found is far larger.
The largest “source” of such weapons is the defense ministry, Kanyev says. While in Soviet times, the military was generally able to prevent the loss of weapons except during conflicts like Afghanistan, “beginning with the 1990s, the situation sharply changed [and] out of the army arsenals, arms flowed out in quantity.”
During the two Chechen wars, the journalist says, the military officially lost 4,456 weapons, although the actual number was certainly higher given seizures by the Chechens, guns improperly listed as lost or destroyed, and generally chaotic accounting methods. Moreover, FSB officers serving in the combat zone lost weapons and ammunition as well.
Interior ministry officials and the militia have often “lost” weapons, he continues. In 80 percent of the cases in Soviet times, the officers involved were drunk. Unfortunately, those guns continue to go off “up to now.” Indeed, he suggests that many actions that Moscow has branded as terrorist may have been conducted by people with stolen weaponry.
Moreover, he continues, it is an open secret that militiamen sometimes trade in arms, something they can easily do given that “according to unofficial data of operational officers, 70 percent of the arms taken from criminals are not recorded in the militia files.” As a result, today there are “approximately 170,000 pistols and automatic weapons” now in private hands illegally.
Other officials, including prosecutors, have also “lost” or “sold” weapons, and it is entirely possible that that pattern may explain recent reports that the defense minister has issued an order banning officers from carrying weapons without explicit permission, something that has infuriated many officers but may help prevent more guns from falling into the wrong hands.