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Corporal Glukhov's deserts to Georgia: the propaganda war begins

Varvara Pakhomenko
3 February 2009

Nothing out of the ordinary - a soldier deserts his military unit. For anyone who has any idea what our army is like, there is nothing surprising about this. According to official data, around 2,000 soldiers in Russia leave their military units every year. Human rights advocates say that the real figure is at least double that.  Statistics show that most soldiers flee the army because of bullying. Only less than a year ago, the Supreme Court vindicated soldiers who deserted for just this reason.  Until now the punishment for leaving a military unit, whatever the reason, was quite strict:  up to 10 years' imprisonment.

So there would be nothing unusual about the desertion of 21-year-old national service corporal, Alexander Glukhov from the small Udmurt town of Sarapul... if he had not turned up in a neighbouring country and appealed to the president on central television to grant him asylum. Russian soldier Glukhov fled from Georgia to Georgia, or from South Ossetia to Georgia - the interpretation depends on one's political views. So does the name of the disputed area where his division is deployed - Akhalhori or Leningori (the Georgian and Ossetian versions of the name respectively).

While the politicians cross swords, Russian soldiers and Ossetian armed formations remain in the strategically important area that was occupied after the events of August and local residents continue to leave it.

For several months human rights advocates have been raising the alarm over the catastrophic situation which has developed in this region: the vast majority of the population, which until August last year consisted of ethnic Georgians, is running away. The main danger is not the bands of armed Ossetian looters, who are still roaming the region. A much greater danger comes from the impending mandatory issue of Ossetian passports, currently being talked about by the Tskhinvali authorities. There are also concerns that entry to Georgia - which has now been significantly complicated - will be closed completely by the new Ossetian authorities.

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In Ossetia itself, they are saying that this region is needed more by Russia than Georgia, which does not have enough people to settle even the territory that was previously under their control. This is why as early as mid-August Russian troops were sent into the region, which is strategically important from a military point of view. Before the war Russian specialists were building a road to link Leningori with the rest of Ossetia, as the remote region could only be reached via the central Georgian highway.  They didn't manage to finish building it, so the soldiers, who were transported here in armed and off-road vehicles, found themselves effectively cut of from the outside world.

In August my colleagues and I encountered occasional Russian checkpoints in Georgian villages which were in the final stages of burning down.  Then the soldiers stopped us for only one reason, it seemed - to ask for cigarettes or fuel to cook supper. But that was summer, it was +30° and the local Ossetians were still happy to feed the soldiers of the liberating army. It seemed back then that the war was already over, and it would soon be time to go back to Russia.

But time was passing and many were unable to return.  Contract soldiers began to grumble: "I served in Botlikh (Dagestan), and received 14-15,000 roubles a month. Things were normal there: they fed us well and the conditions of service were OK.  When we were sent here, they promised to pay us $54 a day, but so far we have only received 8,000 rubles a month. We weren't paid the active service supplement either. They tell us that now we're a checkpoint, and we'll be on duty until the spring. We were sent here without our consent, which is against the terms of our contract. When we were sent here we didn't sign anything - we just came when the alarm was raised, and that's it.  I want to move back to Botlikh. I don't want to spend winter here. The conditions are terrible."

As well as complaining about the terms of their contract, the soldiers serving in the Akhalgori region told Memorial employees about the harsh daily conditions.

"Our battalion was deployed here in October.  We were stationed on a high point near the village of Mosabruni, by the border with Georgia. There are now 14 of us, including our officer. We live in a tent that we recently set up. We were given one oven, and made the other ourselves. We fetched the hay ourselves and made bunks. There are no beds. Previously we didn't have a tent, we slept in trenches, under our jackets. There were problems with food deliveries. When we were on the way here, we didn't eat for a day. A week after we arrived, the food ran out. We were told: "there's no petrol for transporting food". We don't know whether this is true or not, but there was no food for three days. We went to the villages ourselves - the people who live here are quite reasonable and helped us as best they could. We started getting food delivered to us once a day, usually at 1 a.m. Then things settled down, and for a while we didn't have problems with food, but then there was none again for three days. Over the last month, we've been without food for a week altogether. The local shop only sells things for lari. One lari equals 25 rubles. First they only took lari, then we agreed that we could change rubles for lari at the shop". 

And this was already November.

Then the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers hotline began receiving calls that on top of inhuman everyday conditions in a number of divisions stationed in South Ossetia, there had been bullying by officers. Soldiers and their parents complained that soldiers were beaten and humiliated, and that some officers took weapons away from soldiers asleep at their posts, and then demanded 2,500 rubles to give them back. The most alarming reports came once more from the Akhalgori region. Soldiers of the 639th regiment reported that they had been living in trenches for a long time.  They had no water, they were hungry and there was no medical aid. The father of one of the soldiers, alerted by his son, came to see him after a drunken officer beat him up and broke his nose. No one had given any medical aid to the son, and no question, of course, of any investigation of the crime. Then the officer broke the jaw of another soldier. Only the father's intervention forced the prosecutor's office to open a criminal case against him and the soldier was taken to the district hospital. The soldiers complained that this officer had once tied a soldier to a tree and kept him there all night.

Visiting the Akhalgori region once more at the end of December, Memorial employees and the organisation "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg" saw that a division of the 693rd regiment was living in a canvas tent with holes it in. It turned out the soldiers had no documents confirming they were taking part in military operations or the fact that they were stationed on the territory of South Ossetia. Some did not have any documents at all: no passports or military service record cards. Some wrote out statements, applying to terminate their contracts.  As the soldiers are in the mountains all the time, they cannot hand them in to command, so they asked the human rights advocates to do it.

Being stationed in a wine-growing region had a very bad effect on the morality of our army too. Everyone brought them wine: from the Ossetian villages in gratitude for help, and from the Georgian villages to establish good relations with the occupying army. My colleagues witnessed scenes from army life in Ossetia: in the Akhalgori region drunken soldiers and their officer were shooting at full bottles of wine - they obviously couldn't drink anymore.  They knocked off someone's pig at the same time. At one moment, in an attempt to settle the argument, several people pointed their guns at each other. But everything was resolved peacefully, without casualties.

In this situation, it is no surprise at all that corporal Glukhov ran away from his unit. It is also not difficult to see why he fled to Georgia, rather than home.  To start with, it's a lot nearer - a few kilometres on a good road to the nearest police checkpoint, and anyway the soldiers don't consider the Georgians fearsome enemies. While it's difficult to imagine a "federal" soldier in Chechnya taking refuge with the Chechen militants, the average Russian soldier can't immediately distinguish between an Ossetian and a Georgian.

So, Glukhov reached civilisation, and another round of the propaganda war began. Firstly, Glukhov himself spoke:

"We were sent to Tskhinvali in June. My bosses... officers, commanders... said that we were going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people fight against Georgia. In June we started digging trenches and dug-outs. Then the battle alerts began. We went to the scene of battle. We were there for a week, and then came back - it turned out it had been just exercises. Then I came to Leningori - Akhalgori on 1 December. I served there for a month and a half.

"The conditions there are not normal. I was on bad terms with the battalion commander, Major Fyodorov. The conditions are bad. There is no bathhouse. The food situation is awful - they don't feed you much. We also have military equipment there - tanks, APCs, Grad (Russian for hail) rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages... So I ask the president of Georgia to allow me to stay in Tbilisi."

The Russian Defence Ministry reacted immediately.  The acting head of the Press Service and Information Department of the Ministry, colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, announced: "...preliminary investigations have shown that Alexander Glukhov was captured by Georgian security officers in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia and taken to Tbilisi" - and demanded the immediate release of the soldier. At the same time, Drobyshevsky admitted that the soldier was indeed engaged in military service on the territory of South Ossetia and was supposed to be discharged in the coming spring.

The assistant to the Commander-in-Chief of Ground Forces, Igor Konashenkov, said that after his kidnapping, national serviceman corporal Glukhov had been subjected to brainwashing.   This was proved by Glukhov's confession that he had arrived in South Ossetia in June last year:  according to Defence Ministry information, it was only on 8 August that his motorised infantry division entered the region.

There are many interesting and contradictory things in the commentary of Defence Ministry officials, as well as in the statement of Glukhov himself.  Firstly, representatives of the Defence Ministry are no longer trying to hide something they denied for a long time - that a national serviceman was in a zone of armed conflict. The law prohibits sending national servicemen to "trouble spots" or abroad.

Secondly, as a sign of brainwashing, ministerial officials cite the fact that the soldier claims he came to South Ossetia prior to 8 August. I can't state for a fact that corporal Glukhov arrived in South Ossetia in June. But I personally witnessed at least a hundred armed vehicles and trucks carrying troops passing from the north through the Roki tunnel on 13 July last year. Several days later it was announced that military exercises "Caucasus-2008" were beginning in this region.

Moreover in conditions when neither national servicemen, nor even the majority of contract soldiers, have documents confirming their involvement in military operations, we cannot be sure that the soldiers came to South Ossetia on the exact date named by their superiors.

We can, of course, see that Georgian special services might organise a special operation to kidnap a corporal from Sarapul.   But the nagging question must always be - why would they bother taking such a risk? The failure of the operation would completely undermine Georgia's image. A few months ago a cortege of the presidents of Georgia and Poland was fired at on the border of that same Akhalgori region.  This has yet to be fully cleared up. A real diplomatic scandal was avoided and everyone tried to hush it up. The other possibility looks just as strange: that corporal Glukhov slipped into Georgian territory intending to emigrate and gave himself up to the authorities. He doesn't look like a dissident.

Another scenario seems more likely.  In October, for instance, several drunken Russian soldiers wandered into a Georgian police checkpoint in the village of Nikozi.  It's just a few kilometres from Tskhinvali and in their drunken state they could have mistaken their way.  An agreement with the police was reached and the soldiers were released. But they might not have been.  From the point of view of the Georgian authorities they were representatives of an occupying army and in the country illegally.  

The corporal listed all the military equipment and Grad rocket-launchers pointed at Georgian villages; he made the politically correct gesture of saying that Leningori could also be called Akhalgori.   This reminded me of another statement to journalists, but on Russian television. When I was working in Georgia with a research group of Russian human rights advocates from the human rights centre Memorial and the Demos centre, I heard the story of a young Georgian who was held hostage for several weeks at a Tskhinvali prison.  He was a civilian who was taken prisoner during the first days of the armed conflict, made to wear a military uniform and memorise a short text. He was forced to repeat these words - the only words he could say in Russian - in front of a central Russian television channel camera:

"My colleagues and I - there were 400 of us - gathered on Marjanishvili (Tbilisi - V.P.) Square and went to the Great Liakhvi Gorge (territory of South Ossetia - V.P.).  After Tskhinvali was shot at with mortar launchers, howitzers and Grad rocket launchers (they told him not to forget to mention the Grad rocket launchers), we arrived from the Tamarasheni direction on the 8th. In Tskhinvali I saw dead civilians - women, children, and old people. My colleagues were killing women and old people. I started to feel bad, I threw down my AK-47 and ran towards Tamarasheni, where I gave myself up to the militia. Then I was brought here.  I am being well treated.

The investigator asked how I felt about Saakashivili's government. I said I thought badly of it.

Why? "Because he killed people, he is a bad ruler."

He asked: "Do you believe in his politics" "No".

Then the journalists forced me to repeat the entire text once again".

In response to the Russian Defence Ministry statement, a representative of the Georgian Interior Ministry Shota Utiashvili said that no one was keeping Glukhov in Georgia by force - he could go back at any time. This evidently means returning to his unit - where else? Sergeant Glukhov may not look like an intellectual, but he is clearly also not a complete idiot - he must realise what will happen to him if he goes back after all this.

In Georgia the Russian corporal is fed, shown to journalists and diplomats and told that he will not be extradited to Russia.  He faces a serious jail sentence for leaving his unit and he may also be accused of treason towards Russia.  He is undoubtedly a real find for Georgian propaganda.  In August Georgians saw Russian soldiers carrying a toilet out of a military unit and they started bringing old fridges, toilet paper and clothing to the Russian embassy. I heard one Georgian diplomat commenting that Russian soldiers wear stolen Georgian uniforms: "the Russian army is roughing it in Georgia".  Now they can show the whole world that a soldier from the victorious army is asking the defeated army for asylum.

It's all quite strange. But there are real people behind this case: whatever happens, Alexander Glukhov really is a Russian corporal, who clearly had a difficult time at his division stationed in the Akhalgori region. He is just one of the several thousand soldiers who annually desert from their divisions, but society only learned about corporal Glukhov because he could be a useful weapon in the continuing propaganda war. At the same time it also learned about the leaky army tents and the dwindling population of the Akhalgori region. At least that is something to be thankful for...

 

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