Russian Deserters Languish in West

For Soviet soldiers who defected in E. Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, asylum is still not in sight

Rif Akhmetganeyev, a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel, says he is no longer afraid. But the reasons for his fear have hardly disappeared.

When he deserted from his unit and applied for German political asylum in 1991, he thought he had reached safe ground.

But after 6-1/2 years of waiting, Mr. Akhmetganeyev still cannot be sure that he and his family will not be deported to Russia, where he is considered a traitor and spy.

At the time the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, 340,000 Soviet troops were based in East Germany. The divided country reunified less than a year later, with Moscow's agreement that it would withdraw its Western Army Group by 1994.

But in those few months, some 600 Soviet soldiers fled the corruption and brutality of the Red Army to western Germany, where Western intelligence agencies interrogated them and - Akhmetganeyev claims - gave guarantees of help in obtaining political asylum.

The fact that they were interrogated by Western intelligence agents means that if they return to Russia, they could be prosecuted for treason.

"Money, relatives, my home - I threw it all away," says Akhmetganeyev, recalling the odyssey from his tank unit on the Polish border to northern Germany.

As a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and a collector of jazz and Western pop recordings, he had aroused the suspicion of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, in the past. After German unification, Akhmetganeyev took advantage of his position as deputy commander of the base to establish relations with Western officers.

Ralf Helbig, a retired German Air Force colonel who took command of a neighboring ammunition dump in October 1990, remembers that Akhmetganeyev's superior was loath to make contact with the German military.

Nevertheless, Colonel Helbig and Akhmetganeyev officially organized joint festivities and sporting events. "I asked Rif if he'd have second thoughts about meeting privately," Helbig says. "He invited me home, introduced me to his family, and showed me his photo albums."

By the time Helbig was redeployed to Cologne, Germany, in April 1991, the two officers had become friends. A few months later, Helbig lost contact with Akhmetganeyev. Only later did he learn that his friend had resisted KGB pressure to solicit his new Western contacts as informants.

Fearing reprisals, Akhmetganeyev, his wife, and three children packed a few possessions into baskets and told the guard that they were going mushroom hunting. Instead, they hitchhiked to Braunschweig and applied for political asylum in October 1991.

Akhmetganeyev, who was trained as a missile officer and had served at the Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, says he was debriefed by German intelligence officers twice and by the CIA once.

"I had to answer their questions to buy my freedom," Akhmetganeyev says, adding that he was told his application for asylum was dependent on his answers.

While German officials have admitted that "routine" interrogations took place, they insist no promises of asylum were made. Akhmetganeyev's application for asylum - like those of most of his fellow deserters - was rejected in April 1996 on the grounds that a country's punishment of desertion is legitimate except in extreme cases.

While his appeal of the decision is still pending, Akhmetganeyev has founded a group of some 40 ex-Soviet officers called "Hope." With support from friends like Helbig, he has taken his case to the public.

Other Red Army deserters prefer to maintain a low profile - not only out of fear of deportation, but because of what they call the "long arm" of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

Since reports of several kidnapping cases on German territory were publicized in the early 1990s, deserters have been especially wary about drawing attention to themselves. Akhmetganeyev for one claims that Russian security agents tried twice to capture him since his desertion.

"If I disappear, nobody would notice," says Alexander, a deserter who refuses to reveal details that could betray his identity. "Of course, I'm scared."

Only months before his unit was scheduled to withdraw from eastern Germany, Alexander left his base with his wife and son at the crack of dawn one morning. The career officer, who also served in Central Asia, was "fed up" with the arbitrary and often brutal conditions in the retreating Army. In Berlin, where he applied for political asylum, Alexander spoke with two German intelligence officers. "I was happy to help them. Russia is not my enemy, but I was very angry with Russia," he says.

His application for asylum was denied a year ago, and Alexander is now awaiting the decision on his appeal. He says he is ashamed to receive a $700 monthly welfare check. But because of his uncertain residence status, it is nearly impossible for him to find work.

Despite his insecure situation, Alexander says that seeking "asylum was the only possibility - otherwise it was death or prison."

The officer is not necessarily exaggerating. The catastrophic conditions in the Russian Army have been well documented. By the Russian Defense Ministry's own count, 500 officers committed suicide last year, and almost a third live below the poverty line.

Because he was openly critical, Alexander says he feared repercussions.

For whatever reason they decided to leave their units, Red Army soldiers such as Akhmetganeyev and Alexander automatically made themselves punishable for desertion under Russian law. Furthermore, because Western intelligence services interrogated them when they applied for political asylum, deserters could face additional charges of high treason or espionage - crimes with sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

German authorities have confirmed that offices in the processing center for asylum seekers near Nuremberg were used for debriefing.

In February, the German government acknowledged its responsibility by declaring that the deserters - even those whose asylum applications were denied - should not be sent back. Until that point, Bonn had sidestepped the issue, since relations with Moscow were already burdened by the prospects of NATO's eastward expansion and the Russian parliament's resistance to returning German works of art seized by the Soviets during World War II.

Predictably, the Kremlin condemned the move to keep the deserters as "politically motivated."

Still, the status of the 600 deserters continues to be uncertain.

While it is almost certain that nobody will be sent back soon, the question remains whether the deserters will receive a temporary permit on humanitarian grounds or full legal status as foreigners living in Germany.

In May, a court in Wrzburg granted a deserter asylum for the first time, ruling that the soldier had no possibility "to refuse questioning by Western secret services."

The asylum authority is appealing the decision.

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