High casualty figures become part of Chechnya’s election campaign

A stunning figure for the number of lives lost in the course of Chechnya’s two wars was announced on August 15 by Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov: 160,000. That includes federal troops, guerrillas, and civilians.

A stunning figure for the number of lives lost in the course of Chechnya’s two wars was announced on August 15 by Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov: 160,000. That includes federal troops, guerrillas, and civilians.

“The figures I have given have been calculated by combining information about all casualties in Chechnya over the past 15 years,” says Dzhabrailov. “We received data from all participants: the military, the Interior Ministry, district administrations. Our figures for the Ichkeria period are based on official documents I received from the Ichkerian Interior Ministry, when I worked at the Chief Mufti’s press service. And the casualties in that period were no lower than they are now or during the counter-terrorist operation.”

Dzhabrailov didn’t give separate figures for federal casualties and guerrilla casualties, but noted that 30-40,000 ethnic Chechens had been killed in the course of the two campaigns in Chechnya. The rest of the casualties are “members of various ethnic groups.” According to Dzhabrailov, there are up to a thousand active guerrillas in Chechnya at present, including 100-150 foreign mercenaries.

No one can say how close these figures are to reality; such estimates vary greatly. Two years ago, in July-August 2003, five federal and Chechen officials cited estimates of guerrilla numbers ranging from 1,000 to 3,000.

Experts are also questioning the figures given by Dzhabrailov.

Last week, the Defense Ministry’s official website updated its casualty figures for the second campaign in Chechnya: 3,459 Defense Ministry personnel killed and 32 missing in action since September 1999.

Casualties for the Internal Troops are obviously much higher, although neither the Interior Ministry press service nor the Internal Troops press service were able to give us a specific figure yesterday.

All the same, these federal casualty figures differ from Dzhabrailov’s figures by two orders of magnitude.

Georgy Kunadze, deputy chief-of-staff at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, told us: “According to the estimates of human rights groups, total civilian and military casualties are 90,000. I don’t understand where Dzhabrailov got the 160,000 figure.”

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, discerns some ethnic politics intrigue in Dzhabrailov’s statement: “The Chechens, especially Chechen politicians, seek to present the highest possible casualty figures – since their ethnic group has suffered, they exaggerate the figures. The direct casualties in Chechnya are huge, of course: 40,000 is the figure given most often, though 60,000 and 70,000 are also mentioned. But 160,000 – that, as a rule, is a figure given by Chechens themselves. Besides direct casualties there are also indirect casualties, of course: unborn children, and so on. But the direct casualties are nowhere near 160,000.”

Experts assume that Dzhabrailov’s casualty figures might be part of Grozny’s “psychological pressure” on the Kremlin: Chechnya’s leaders are striving to conclude an agreement with Moscow regarding the distribution of powers, including some exceptional concessions for Chechnya – but Moscow is in no hurry to sign the agreement.

“Some sort of incomprehensible game is being played with this agreement. It’s been ready for signing dozens of times, but it keeps being postponed,” said Dzhabrailov. In July, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov stated that the agreement would be signed on Chechnya’s behalf by the new parliament, so “we still have some time.”

Chechnya’s parliamentary election is set for November, and the campaign has already begun, de facto. Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, says that Dzhabrailov’s statements are part of the campaign.

Diskin told us: “It’s long been known that the number of deaths is much lower. Dzhabrailov’s statement is linked to the upcoming election for the parliament of Chechnya; he’s seeking to show that he looks after his fellow Chechens and is capable of defending their interests in the parliament and at a higher level. But it’s premature to put pressure on the Kremlin, since not all the options for reaching agreement with Moscow have been exhausted as yet.”

The Kremlin takes a similar view. Kremlin sources who asked to remain anonymous told us that “the agreement will be signed in due course.”