MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Georgian lieutenant turned up on a popular Russian radio station on Thursday and asked for political asylum in Russia, saying he had deserted his unit in protest at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s policies.
Russia defeated Georgia in a five-day war last August. But earlier this year a Russian army sergeant defected to Georgia, handing a public relations coup to Tbilisi’s pro-Western government. The Russian deserter said at the time he had fled to Georgia because conditions in his unit were unbearable.
The Georgian lieutenant, who presented himself on Thursday as Alik Bzhania, aged 35, said in a live interview on Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy radio station: “I have not defected to the enemy. I have joined the side of my brothers.”
Russian migration officials, security services and the armed forces’ general staff told local media that Bzhania had indeed asked for political asylum. Interfax news agency said it would host Bzhania’s news conference on Friday.
In a brief statement, Georgia’s interior ministry said Bzhania had worked on a patrol vessel in the coast guard department of the interior ministry from October 2008 but was dismissed last month “for multiple disciplinary violations.”
“I love my country, but I can no longer stay on its territory, because I just cannot look on quietly as President Mikheil Saakashvili is destroying Georgia from within,” Bzhania said in the radio interview.
Georgia has been gripped by political turmoil since early April, with the opposition protesting in the streets demanding Saakashvili resign over his record on democracy and last year’s disastrous war with Russia.
“I ask Russia to grant me and my family political asylum and help avoid persecution by the Georgian authorities which is likely to follow after I expressed my disagreement with the policy of our president,” Bzhania said.
He said he was a trained officer but he had not taken part in last year’s war between Russia and Georgia because he was doing civilian work.
He rejoined the military as a navigator of a coast guard cutter last October. He defected on May 23, leaving his unit in the Black Sea port of Poti, crossing into Georgia’s rebel region of Akhazia and giving himself up to Russian border guards.
Georgia has paraded the fugitive Russian sergeant — at ease wearing jeans and posing to cameras — and declined to extradite him to Russia because he asked for political asylum.
Russia first accused Georgia of abducting its army serviceman, but then Moscow sharply changed its tone and threatened to jail the run-away for desertion.
Additional reporting by Margartia Antidze in Tbilisi, editing by Ralph Boulton