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20 Jun, 2009 16:23

Georgian officer flees to Russia

A Georgian navy lieutenant, Alik Bzhania, who defected to Russia seeking political asylum, has said his decision was prompted not by fear of threats, but disagreement with Georgian President Saakashvili’s policies.

“I did not have any problems, I was not in the opposition, and I am not a politician. Everything was fine, but I am just against the course that our president is following,” Bzhania said at a press conference at the Interfax main office on Friday.

On Saturday, Interfax reported that another Georgian soldier has fled his country to seek political asylum in Russia.

The news agency quotes a source based in southern Russia. However, the source did not provide any details. The Russian Migration Service has not commented on the information either.

“Saakashvili could start the war again”

Lieutenant Alik Bzhania says the main reason he left is because he did not want to fight a war with Russia.

“The Georgian forces are rearming. Reservists are being summoned to the armed forces. I saw reports about it every day on Georgian state television. Saakashvili is clearly not changing his course and I don’t want to take part in another war with Russia. I don’t want to shoot at my brothers. That’s why I left,”
Alik Bzhania said.

At a crowded media briefing in Moscow, Bzhania explained why he wants asylum in Russia, pointing his finger directly at his country’s president.

“In the Georgian army, we couldn’t even say something negative about Saakashvili’s regime. Otherwise we could be immediately kicked out. And I could no longer tolerate watching my country being destroyed from the inside,” Alik Bzhania said.

Speaking on why he chose Russia as his destination, he said he hoped for help from his relatives living there. He added he didn’t see Russia as an enemy of the Georgian people and blamed the Georgian government for pushing the conflict out of control.

He said Russia kept its word, given to the people of South Ossetia, and protected them, unlike the US, which failed to defend its Georgian allies in the conflict. On the other hand, he strongly objected to Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as nations, saying it set a bad example for other autonomous or semi-autonomous regions.

"I'm afraid for my relatives"

According to Bzhania, he is seeking publicity about himself in order to protect his family from possible persecution by the Georgian authorities. He wants his parents and brother brought to Russia to join him.

"I worry very much about my parents. I have no wife or children. My mother is a housewife, and my father works. My brother is unemployed," Bzhania said.

He even asked the Red Cross to assist the transportation of his parents from Georgia.

Bzhania said he had served as a navigator with the Georgian coastal guard in the port city of Poti.

Bzhania is now 35 and he said he first entered military service back in 1995, but later resigned. During the time of the military conflict between Georgia and Russia in August last year he was working as a construction worker.

In October this year he returned to his military career. However, on May 23 he left the Georgian forces. He deserted and went into Abkhazian territory, where he surrendered to Russian border guards providing security in the region.

Once he crossed the Abkhazian border, he was held in custody while Russian intelligence checked his information.

Russia's security services have said they don’t exclude the possibility of provocations from Georgia following the event.

“Since the fact of the crossing of the border by a Georgian military officer is now circulating in the media, we don’t exclude that some provocations or speculations may happen, probably by Georgia,” the source said.

Controversy rages over Bzhania's dismissal

Tbilisi described the defection as a provocation and stressed that Bzhania had been, in fact, fired from the country’s naval forces prior to his crossing the border.

The border police department of Georgia’s Interior Ministry said that “Lieutenant Alik Bzhania was serving in Georgia’s Interior Ministry border police as a patrol vessel specialist from October 2008, and was dismissed from service on May 18, 2009 for repeated breaches of discipline”.

Earlier, though, Georgia’s Interior Ministry said that Alik Bzhania was dismissed from service on an order dated June 12, 2009, according to News – Georgia news agency.

But Bzhania knocked the bottom out of the statement that he was dismissed from the Navy before he fled to Russia.

During RT’s live television broadcast, Bzhania showed his officer’s ID card and said that, if he had been dismissed from service before he fled to Russia, this card would have been taken from him in accordance with the rules.

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Russia's General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, has announced that Alik Bzhania “is not a person of interest for Russia’s Armed Forces.”

"The competent authorities that address the issue are working with him now. For Russia’s Armed Forces, this officer is not of interest," Nogovitsyn stressed.

The Russian Federal Migration Service has said the request for asylum is now being considered. A spokesman for the agency said they have 183 people from Georgia registered as refugees as of June 1.

Bzhania’s escape comes amid mounting tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. Russia’s Foreign Ministry believes Georgia is deliberately raising tensions in the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions

Russian-Georgian relations have been tense since Tbilisi attacked South Ossetia last August, sparking a five-day conflict.

Just last month, Georgian authorities blamed Russia for inciting soldiers to mutiny at one of its army bases in an alleged attempt to prevent Georgia from forming closer ties with NATO.

At the same time, Tbilisi believes that Russia has become paranoid.

Tensions high in Georgia

While this blame-game continues, Georgia is going through repeated political crises, and opposition leaders say no wonder someone would want to defect from such an army.

Opposition rallies have been continuing for weeks, with protesters locking themselves in cages while demanding President Saakashvili step down.

They have accused the president of turning Georgia into a police state and creating a corrupt political regime.

Other accusations have to do with using the law to restrain the military and cracking down on freedom of speech.