North Ossetia's Arms Bazaar

Criminals and ordinary citizens are buying black market weapons in the North Caucasus.

North Ossetia's Arms Bazaar

Criminals and ordinary citizens are buying black market weapons in the North Caucasus.

In the North Caucasus, illegal weapons are cheap and readily available.

Sergei, a former soldier now resident in North Ossetia, gave IWPR a price list. He said that in Chechnya one can buy an automatic weapon, often captured from rebel fighters, for 200 US dollars. Outside Chechnya, Kalashnikov rifles cost 500 dollars. A grenade launcher can be found inside Chechnya for as little as 100 dollars, while outside the republic the cost doubles.

“Grenades are affordable even for pensioners,” said Sergei. “They cost between five and seven dollars each.”

Former army officer Andrei Vasiliev added, “If you have money in North Ossetia, you can buy almost any kind of firearm. In every military unit you’ll find people who one way or another, are doing illegal but profitable business.

“I took part in an antiterrorist operation in Chechnya and saw how during the handover between units, contract soldiers would take the parts of dismantled machine guns away with them. In Mozdok [Russian military base in North Ossetia] they sold them to whatever buyers they could find.”

It was mainly former servicemen who would agree to give information for this article, so the specific information they offered related more to the past than the present. But all agreed that the practice of soldiers selling their weapons, which took root during the first Chechen war of 1994-96, is still flourishing.

North Ossetia is home to dozens of military units belonging to both the regular Russian army and the interior ministry. Soldiers, many of whom are on short-term contracts, can move easily between the Chechen conflict zone and North Ossetia, making it a simple matter to traffic weapons.

The buyers are generally found among local criminal groups. Junior sergeant Dmitry described seeing such prospective customers while he was serving at a military base.

“A car drove up to the gates and without batting an eyelid, the driver and two passengers proposed that we sell them three AKS-74 rifles,” recalled Dmitry. “They waved a fistful of dollars at us, but when this was met with a resounding ‘no’, they quickly drove away. I reported the incident to my commander. In 18 months of service, this is the tenth case I’ve seen.”

Georgy, a 30-year-old contract soldier in the interior ministry forces, said the trade was rampant because of low army salaries and the small risk of punishment.

“In Chechnya today, the only reason not to buy and sell arms is if you’re lazy,” said Georgy. “You can get hold of a good weapon without much trouble, and then sell it for several times as much. I know guys who did a couple of deals like that in Chechnya. True, two of them were caught, but they were dismissed without any major fuss. Obviously, the officers were also involved in dirty business. In the army today no one wants to earn money through blood and sweat.”

The weapons trade took off during the first Chechen campaign, when many Russian soldiers sold weapons to the rebels they had officially been sent to disarm.

“During the first Chechen war, I served in a motorised regiment, half of which was made up of soldiers on contract,” said Sergei Grishin, a senior sergeant now in the reserves. “Soldiers often returned to their unit without their machine guns – they’d been accompanying a military convoy out of Mozdok and the guns had gone missing along the way. They’d sold them, of course.”

According to Grishin, “It’s just as easy to buy arms in Mozdok today.”

The nature of the arms business has changed since the Nineties, when Chechen rebel fighters were the main buyers. These days it is mostly criminals – but average citizens are also buying weapons, according to Soslan Doyev a former soldier who is now a college teacher in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia.

“We can’t say that it’s just criminals acquiring the weapons,” said Doyev. “Nowadays, unfortunately, the authorities can’t guarantee the security of their citizens. We were convinced of that by the tragic events in Beslan [scene of 2004 school massacre]. People are forced to defend themselves and in my view that’s why they are buying weapons.

“Of course it should all be done legally, but the law enforcement agencies create many obstructions, which is why people buy on the black market.”

Captain Igor Kornev, now in the reserves, blames serving officers for allowing the trade to continue.

“They use the soldiers to quietly run a business in ‘Kalashes’ [Kalashnikovs],” he said. “I am sure that commanders with a lot of stars on their epaulettes turn a blind eye to it all. Some serious pressure needs to be applied – there’s no other solution.” Soslan, a lieutenant-colonel in the police who is in charge of cracking down on arms sales, agrees. He said that police recently uncovered an illegal trade in grenades and explosives in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia, close to Ingushetia.

“According to the police officer dealing with this case, there is a huge amount of weaponry - both single-shot and automatic – held by members of the public.”

Ruslan Tavitov, the military commissar for North Ossetia – in charge of army recruitment and conscription - said his office could not be held accountable if soldiers turned to crime. “It’s normal people who join the army,” he said. “What happens to them after that is not our responsibility. That’s what the commanders and trainers are there for.”

In response to IWPR’s request for comments on the allegations of weapons trading, Alexander Tebloyev, military prosecutor for the Vladikavkaz garrison, said he was busy and declined to answer questions. He said only that his colleagues are engaged in combating “all types of illegal activities by the military”.

The garrison’s military court followed the prosecutor’s example and refused to give a specific response.

“After the prosecutor, it’s hard to add anything,” said Colonel Martynov of the interior ministry forces. “If there are no instances of weapons being sold from military units, then where does the public get the machine guns, grenade launchers and ammunition which the law enforcement agencies confiscate almost every day?”

Murat Gabarayev is a correspondent for REGNUM news agency in North Ossetia.

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