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FSB Defector Describes 'Amoral' Conditions In South Ossetia

Vitaliy Khripun after his request for asylum in Georgia
Vitaliy Khripun after his request for asylum in Georgia
Twenty-five-year-old Vitaly Khripun, a border guard with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in South Ossetia, defected from his post on December 21 and has asked for political asylum in Georgia. Khripun was serving in the Java district along the administrative border that has separated South Ossetia from Georgia proper since last year's five-day war between Russia and Georgia.

In his first interview since his defection, Khripun says he was motivated to act by the culture of corruption and cruelty he witnessed in South Ossetia. He spoke to Olesya Vartanyan of Echo of the Caucasus, RFE/RL's Russian-language programming for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The interview took place in Tbilisi on December 22.

RFE/RL: Where are you from originally?

Vitaly Khripun: I was born in Ukraine in 1984. Since 1986, I've lived in Russia. Well, it was all the Soviet Union back then. In Murmansk.

RFE/RL: How long have you been in the military?

Khripun: I finished my conscription in 2004. After that, I went to sea, and then I applied to the Federal Security Service.

RFE/RL: When did you become an employee of the FSB?

Khripun: On May 27, 2008.

RFE/RL: Where did you serve?

Khripun: In Murmansk, in the coast guard of the FSB. And then I was sent to Ossetia. I assumed duty there on December 9, 2009.

RFE/RL: Was your military service in Murmansk different from what you've experienced since in South Ossetia?

Khripun: I can't say it's easy to serve in the FSB. No. Every place has its own nuances. But what we were told [about Ossetia] there isn't true in reality. When I was sent here, they said, "You will be helping to defend people, freedom, and honor -- helping your Ossetian brothers -- against Georgian aggressors." But as soon as I got here, I saw how it really was. The Russian military really is there illegally, because they're not doing any kind of protective work. I don't understand where this idea comes from.

RFE/RL: When you arrived here, what did you expect to see?

Khripun: Let's just say that if you come with the belief that there are peaceful people living there [in Ossetia], I can disappoint you straight away. I was in Tskhinvali, and as I approached my tent, I could hear shots from a submachine gun. I asked where it was coming from and the guys told me that was how the local people entertain themselves. They had gotten used to it already.

RFE/RL: How long did the shots continue?

Khripun: I stayed there for one night. I came from Vladikavkaz, stayed overnight in Tskhinvali, and then the next day went on.

RFE/RL: Was it your decision to go to South Ossetia, or was it an order?

Khripun: It was my decision. There were more possibilities for promotion here -- I mean, the salary is higher. But when you get here, you understand that things are not quite so.

RFE/RL: Do many people serving there feel like they're seeing something different than they were told in Russia to expect?

Khripun: Well, everybody sees it, but everybody perceives it in a different way. Everyone has his own psychology. Some people have no way out, because they have families.

RFE/RL: How much higher was the salary?

Khripun: In Murmansk, I had a base salary of 36,000 [rubles] ($1,200).

RFE/RL: Is that high?

Khripun: It's sufficient.

RFE/RL: And here?

Khripun: Here it's 52,000 [rubles].

RFE/RL: And if you compare the workload?

Khripun: In Murmansk, the workload was much bigger. There you got tired psychologically, rather than physically. I could feel it during my service on the ships. Here, you hardly get tired physically. And not so much psychologically, either. But toward the people.... You try to stay closed off, because a human being is a human being, and you're one too. But then it turns out a bit differently.

RFE/RL: Approximately how many FSB soldiers are now in Perevi?

Khripun: If we count all of the Java district [where Perevi is located], then a lot.

RFE/RL: How many?

Khripun: I don't know, but I think more than 60 people.

RFE/RL: Is 60 a lot?

Khripun: It's a lot. In fact, there are many more people, because of all the border posts. Even I don't know how many there are all in all. And each border post has 30 people, so you can calculate.

RFE/RL: So the Java district has two border posts?

Khripun: No, many more. I think about five.

RFE/RL: Did you know the people you were serving with in Sinaguri and Perevi from before?

Khripun: No. They came half a year before me, so I couldn't have known them. There was only one other soldier from Murmansk, but he was on leave at the time, so I never met him. The majority of the others were from Kaliningrad.

RFE/RL: What were your relations with your colleagues in Sinaguri and Perevi like?

Khripun: I wouldn't say they were bad. But it's an army. It has its own orders and rules, and you can get used to anything. I mean, from the physical point of view. Morally and psychologically, it's a bit…

RFE/RL: What do you mean, the army has its own orders?

Khripun: There are threats, of physical violence in particular.

RFE/RL: Was violence ever used against you?

Khripun: No, but I think it could have quickly gotten to that point.

RFE/RL: Did you see it happening to others?

Khripun: I heard about such cases. There, they call it "rehabilitation."

RFE/RL: Were you forced to do any bullying, any hazing?

No, you understand it a bit wrong. I don't deny that bullying exists in our army. But we're contract soldiers, so it's different. Of course, there are fights and so on. But if you mean hazing or abusing someone, we don't have that.

RFE/RL: So you can't say that conditions there were bad, or that you were under some kind of pressure?

Khripun: I wouldn't say that living conditions were bad. You have everything you need. But as far as the service is concerned, that's the reason I crossed over to the Georgian side. Because a human being should remain a human being, and not… You know, it's like obeying an order without knowing what it's all about. You understand that [this order] violates people's honor. But no one questions it. An order is an order.

RFE/RL: When you were in Sinaguri and Perevi, did you stay in contact with your family?

Khripun: Yes, I would call my mother, of course. It's Tuesday today, so that means I called her a week ago.

RFE/RL: Did you discuss your feelings with her?

Khripun: You know, my mother is far away. Imagine me telling her about my problems. I don't think it's a good idea.

RFE/RL: Did you try to tell anyone else about your problems?

Khripun: There's a good saying -- trust only yourself.

RFE/RL: So you didn't try to talk about it?

Khripun: Why should anyone know about it? There's a consequence to every action.

RFE/RL: Were you afraid of being persecuted?

Khripun: Yes.

RFE/RL: This is a little difficult to understand. You're saying that one day you suddenly decided that you couldn't take any more and you just got up and left?

Khripun: It wasn't one day. I was there from [December] 9th. So from the 9th until the 21st -- long enough to understand what the military's role is there, and what it's doing. I could tell you about corruption. For example, local Georgians have to pay money just to collect firewood. There are so many unregistered firearms that it's very easy to kill someone and simply say he was killed by the Georgian side. It's not difficult.

RFE/RL: You said you were told one thing in Russia and that in Georgia you saw something very different. Can you explain?

Khripun: Imagine the border controls. I think it will soon get to the point where people will be searched. There are some orders that you are supposed to carry out that you can't argue with. I think it's amoral, from a human point of view.

RFE/RL: How are the orders changing?

Khripun: You know that the [Soviet-era World War II] monument was recently demolished in Georgia. After that, of course, new orders followed.

RFE/RL: What were they?

Khripun: For example, you have a citizen of Georgia with a Georgian passport. Almost all of them have Georgian documents. Our side wants to humiliate them, so we tell them they have to go somewhere and make a translation [into Russian] and certify it at a notary's. If they don't, starting from the 1st of the next month, they'll be barred from crossing the border at all.
If you look where this Perevi is situated, it's far away from Tbilisi or Gori. If this person comes from a village, he hardly has any experience with a notary.

Another example was a ban on flour. Nobody is allowed to take flour out of Ossetia. They consider this the territory of South Ossetia, so it is forbidden to take flour out, even though villages are [located right on the border], practically divided into two parts. That means one part of the village has flour and the other part doesn't. And people have nothing to eat.

RFE/RL: So they cannot take it to Sinaguri?

Khripun: Of course not.

RFE/RL: Are there other examples?

Khripun: Wood. Bringing it in or carrying it out is forbidden. People who deal with trade to make their living are forbidden to bring goods in.

RFE/RL: How long do you think soldiers will be based there?

Khripun: According to rumors, Russia is waiting for a civil war to break out in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Were you prepped for a situation like that? Did you know what your instructions would be in such an instance?

Khripun: No. But we would have moved the [border].

RFE/RL: In the direction of Tbilisi?

Khripun: Yes.

RFE/RL: Were you told explicitly that if something like that happened, you should move the border?

Khripun: No one tells you anything directly. There are only rumors.

RFE/RL: What about the locals? Could they organize some kind of resistance to the Russian soldiers?

Khripun: No, they're scared. To us, they say Russians are good -- and then afterwards, among themselves, they say, "Why do need them at all?"

RFE/RL: This is your second day in Tbilisi?

Khripun: Yes.

RFE/RL: Describe how you got here.

Khripun: I left. I was armed, so I took out the magazine and put the gun on my back, and approached the Georgian border guards. They disarmed me, naturally, and called for police. I think it was the police that came, maybe not. They weren't wearing uniforms, so I couldn't tell. They took me to Gori. In Gori, a senior officer was speaking to me and I asked him for political asylum.

RFE/RL: At what time of day did you leave Perevi?

Khripun: At night. On Sunday.

RFE/RL: Did anybody see you leaving?

Khripun: No.

RFE/RL: What were your first impressions here in Tbilisi?

Khripun: Everyone says that Georgians are angry, mountain-dwelling people. But they're different than that, in reality. It's more pleasant to communicate with people here. People are very responsive and very friendly.

RFE/RL: What are you planning to do in the future?

Khripun: Something in the civilian sector. I might return to the sea.

RFE/RL: So you want to be a sailor in Georgia?

Khripun: Yes.

RFE/RL: Would you like to serve in the navy?

Khripun: No, I don't think I want to be in the navy. That would be amoral, I think, to change sides from one army to another. I was trained there [in Russia], and then I'd be fighting my own people. I think that's wrong.

RFE/RL: How long do you plan to stay here? Do you see any prospects for going back to Russia?

Khripun: If I go back, trust me, the FSB will never forgive me. Especially now that I've told so many people about [what was happening].

RFE/RL: What exactly do you think they will not forgive?

Khripun: They could forgive me if I left and then came back without telling anybody what was happening. They could turn a blind eye to this. But now that I've talked about what's happening there, about the bribes and so on, the FSB will never forgive me.

Translation by Komila Nabiyeva

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