Bonn, 2 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- More than 600 Soviet soldiers who deserted to Germany are seeking permanent residence permits to protect them from being returned home to face long jail sentences.
The chairman of their organization, former Major Oleg Tschabanov, says all of them have only temporary residence permits which are issued at the discretion of the individual German provinces where they live. The permits have to be renewed every three months. Some provinces, such as Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, have given reasonably firm guarantees that the men will be allowed to stay but this is not the case in other provinces.
"At any time, one or more provincial authority could decide that they should be returned to their home country," he said. "For many of us that could be imprisonment as deserters. For those who provided military information to western intelligence, including German intelligence, it could mean 20 years imprisonment or more."
The German interior ministry in Bonn says most of the men are officers and come from different parts of the former Soviet Union. They deserted from the Soviet army in East Germany between 1990 and 1994 -- that is, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism. Some brought wives and families with them.
Most applied for political asylum. This is usually granted only if there is a reasonable belief that the individual will suffer persecution if they return home. Government officials and lawyers say that as far as they know, none of the deserters has been granted asylum.
The interior ministry said that most of the deserters had been extensively interrogated by Western intelligence agencies. He gave no details but said "it was possible" that some had provided useful military information.
A lawyer, Michael Koch, who represent 20 of the deserters, said those who had provided information could face trial not only for desertion but also for high treason or espionage.
"For such men, a return home could mean a life sentence," he said. "its wrong that their fate should depend on the political goodwill of individual provincial governments. They should be given permanent residence permits. At the moment they are living in a continuing state of uncertainty. For some, of course, it is a continuing state of fear that they will be forced on to a plane and sent home."
Another lawyer, Albrecht Goering, of Munich who represents 18 deserters, said the former Soviet soldiers are not seeking German citizenship but simply a permanent right of abode. He argues that this was promised to them by the present Government led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
"It would be a betrayal of these men if the Government does not take concrete steps to ensure them a right of permanent residence," he said. "At present they are left hanging in the air."
Kohl's government made the statement about permanent abode in February this year after a campaign mounted by Tschabanov's organization and the lawyers for various groups of deserters. It won the support of all parties in the Federal parliament. However under German law, it is the provinces which control the residence rights of refugees and other foreigners. Therefore the federal Government's statement was essentially a guidance to the provincial governments.
The lawyer Michael Koch said that in practice, what the provinces allow the deserters is the status of "tolerated foreigners." Their permits must be renewed every three months and can be refused. He argues that they cannot build a permanent, secure new existence in Germany because there is always the fear that, for one reason or another, the three-month permit might not be extended.
New laws recently introduced to make Germany less attractive for the tens of thousands of people from the Third World who try to slip across the borders every year have brought other problems for the 600 deserters.
According to the lawyer Koch, the status of "tolerated foreigner" restricts the social benefits they can receive in Germany. They get less than those on social assistance. In practice it amount to 80 German marks a month for adults and 40 German marks a month for children under 15. They are also provided with basic accommodation, clothing and food.
Medical benefits are limited and the possibilities for finding work are also restricted. Lawyers said work permits are virtually never issued. There are also restrictions on the men leaving the area where they live.
The provincial government in Bavaria has taken steps to relieve some of the men's anxieties. The interior minister, Guenther Beckstein, ordered at the beginning of July that the three monthly permits should be converted into residence permits without a time limit. This is not the same as a permanent right of abode but does give those deserters living in Bavaria a greater sense of security. Similar measures have also been adopted in the province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Lawyers for the deserters naturally welcome these measures. But the Munich lawyer Albrecht Goering says that what is really needed is a general regulation applying equally to all provinces which removes the anxieties of the deserters and allows them to build a new life.