The coming months mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse. In a first of a series of articles of what impact the dissolution has today, we look at the legacy of the AK-47 rifle.
The Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s army, General Makarov (ironically also named after a famous gun), announced that the military will stop buying AK-47s. He says the army has 10 million of them, for ‘only’ 1 million soldiers. This comes as a backdrop of Russia overhauling and updating its entire military hardware. With this announcement, what is the AK-47’s legacy today?
A product of World War Two, the AK-47 rifle was designed by ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ General Mikhail Kalashnikov who was frustrated at being outgunned by the Germans. Seventy years on, it has become the standard weapon for revolutions, civil wars and terrorist groups the world over and even features on country flags- in Somalia, Al-Shabab even organised Koran recitation competitions where the winner’s prize was an AK-47. The weapon is chiefly famed for its reliability, low cost, simplicity and durability in extreme environments. But one of the major problems with AKs are their ammunition. AKs were all fitted with Soviet-style 7.62x39mm ammunition, which, due to Cold War rivalry, could not be used with NATO and Western weapon standards. Furthermore, this type of ammunition is highly contentious and deadly. The bullets “tumble” in ballistics-speak, meaning the bullet bores an ever wider and nastier hole inside its target. For obvious reasons, Western nations have been trying to shun such ammunition but the lack of any narrow definition of such ammunition in International Law has prevented any worldwide ban. And its effects are there for all to see as this ammunition is also the world’s favourite.
So does the Russian military’s decision mark the end of the AK-47 and the atrocities it helps commit worldwide? Sadly, NO! The Kalashnikovs have been widely copied throughout the world but not least in China and two of our now European Union Member States, Romania and Bulgaria. Both having been formally Soviet states, this is hardly a surprising statement yet what is shocking is to learn their persistence in conducting the same trades throughout their membership.
Bulgaria has various arms manufacturers but the biggest and most famous is Arsenal. As of July 2011, Arsenal was 36% controlled by the Bulgarian state and 60% by parent company Arsenal 2000, in turn controlled by offshore companies in the Virgin and Cayman Islands. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the eponymous gun, once said that Arsenal made the best AK-47s and its list is so extensive that Jane’s register of small arms lists Arsenal produces 16 variations of the rifle. The second dubious company involved is Kintex, which was synonymous with Bulgaria’s Communist secret police. Since those days, the company has barely changed and its running remains opaque. It is still authorised to import and export weapons for the country’s police and military but is now privatised. Over the last twenty years, the company’s name has appeared in a litany of documents referring to illegal arms trade and even EU diplomats have acknowledged the fact. The most likely event is that with the crumbling of legitimate Warsaw Pact markets, it turned to selling weapons to revolutionaries and mercenaries in Africa. Likewise, Romania used to be one of the world’s top ten arm manufacturers before the fall of the USSR. However, the subsequent loss in demand also led to search for alternative markets. The major manufacturer in Romania is called Fabrica de Arme Cugir S.A. And is also majority state-owned.
After the fall of the USSR, these manufacturers started to make NATO-adapted Kalashnikovs, in search of new markets. Besides the bloody revolutions of Africa, these weapons are also very commonly found in Mexico today where they are imported through the US. The US recognises AKs as collector’s items and they can be imported easily. They are then usually re-configured to automatic before being smuggled to Mexico.
All this makes Bulgaria’s and Romania’s membership of the Wassenaar Agreement a sham. This international institution was created in the post-Cold War era to avoid such use of small arms and attempt to regulate their trade. If this membership is a sham, what can one say of these nations membership of the EU and NATO, who reviewed and consolidated their military stock levels?
Many developing nations buy and use existing stocks of AK-47s today and China has a huge part of that market. Yet, to see EU Member States actively take part in this murky trade is morally and politically revolting. Until money has stopped echoing in its magazines, we are unlikely to hear the Kalashnikov’s parting shot any time soon.