Former commander of Russia’s Alpha Group, retired KGB Colonel Mikhail Golovatov, was detained at Vienna’s Schwechat International Airport on an arrest warrant issued by Lithuania. In an exclusive interview with RIA Novosti correspondent Valery Yarmolenko, Golovatov spoke about his detention and his return to Moscow. The colonel also revealed some previously unknown details about what happened outside the Vilnius TV broadcasting center in January 1991.
Mr Golovatov, did the Austrian law enforcement officers act professionally during your detention at Vienna airport? Did they insult you in any way?
They were absolutely professional, even loyal. They were bound to comply with the procedures set forth in the European – let me emphasize European, not Lithuanian – warrant, which they did.
Please tell us what happened after you boarded the plane to Vienna?
I bought a ticket for flight 602 on Austrian Airlines оn July 14 from Domodedovo Airport to Vienna, Austria. I was headed to the town of Ramsau, where they were holding a training camp for skiers, biathletes and Nordic combined skiers. I am president of the Moscow Cross-Country Skiing Federation and vice president of the Russian Cross-Country Skiing Federation. The flight was on time. Two and a half hours later the plane landed at Vienna airport. I grabbed my backpack and headed for the passport control stand. A female border guard checked the monitor, put my passport aside and told me to wait. She talked to another officer, returned and said that they needed to verify the origin of my visa. I have a multiple-entry visa. Shortly after, an officer and a sergeant showed up and asked me to follow them. At 4:30 p.m., we arrived at the airport police station. A police officer checked the data on the computer and asked me: “You were in Vilnius?”
I said I was there once 20 years ago. Everything became clear at that moment. I asked the police officers to give me the phone number of the Russian consulate, but I failed to get through. Then I requested to see an Aeroflot representative.
An Aeroflot employee showed up, and I asked him to give me the emergency contact number at the Russian embassy. He told me he didn’t have it. Five minutes later, he wrote two phone numbers for me and left, saying he had work to do.
So, the only representative of Russia washed his hands of it, so to speak?
Yes, that’s correct.
When did you finally have the chance to speak with Russian officials?
I spoke with a security officer from the embassy, who came to the airport 30 minutes later together with a consulate employee. Following talks with the police in German and English, it became clear that things looked fairly bad for me, and I need the Russian Ambassador in Austria Sergei Nechayev to intervene on my behalf.
We got the ambassador on the phone and he came two or three hours later. He had the appropriate services at the Foreign Ministry send encrypted messages about the incident to SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) and FSB (Federal Security Service). It took until midnight.
Did you think for a moment that the Russian government had just left you to the mercy of fate in this difficult situation?
No, I didn’t. When I saw what the ambassador and the security officer were doing, I understood that not only would they not leave me on my own, but they would not let the police have me. The security officer actually spent the whole time with me. The ambassador stayed with us until five in the morning. His actions helped keep the situation in check. The Austrians kept telling us that they acted in accordance with the arrest warrant procedure.
So, by 5 a.m. it became clear that they wouldn’t extradite you to Lithuania?
No, things were still uncertain at that time. By 5 a.m., they had searched me, conducted a medical examination, took fingerprints and everything else short of taking teeth molds; they measured my height and weight, and made a list of all my bodily markings and personal belongings. Everything was done professionally, but going through all of that isn’t much fun. On the bright side, they let me have my pills that I need to take regularly.
At first, they planned to issue a decision on me at 11 a.m.; then they rescheduled it to 1:30 p.m. At 3:45 the ambassador called me and said that the decision had been made and I was taking the next flight back to Moscow.
During the night, we contemplated several scenarios. One of them had me extradited to Lithuania; alternatively, they could let me go or stay at the Russian embassy on the ambassador’s guarantee pending the decision.
What other actions, including legal ones, were taken by the Russian embassy employees at the airport when you were in custody?
Next day, at about 10 a.m., we were joined by an Austrian lawyer provided by the Russian embassy. He looked at my arrest warrant and said that it was drawn up incorrectly. The warrant could not be enforced by the Austrians or any other EU country, because all the charges were explicitly political in nature, but political motivations should not have an influence.
This incident at Vienna airport set a precedent. You are a public figure, former commander of the legendary Alpha Group, which fights extremism and terrorism. On many occasions, you have participated in hostage rescue operations under government orders. What were you feeling as you were leaving Austria?
It’s a very important question. The arrest warrant portrays my colleagues and me as perpetrators of a coup d’état in Lithuania. Imagine that, being an Alpha soldier I rescued hostages taken by terrorists on aircraft, at embassies and schools. Now they charge me with being a terrorist. That makes no sense whatsoever.
Did you have a chance to talk to any ordinary Austrians while you were waiting to be released? What did they think about it?
At one point, an airport employee – a man my age - approached me and started a conversation. He already knew who I was. He offered to bring me a beer while I was waiting for a plane to Moscow. I declined and specifically asked for a ticket on a Russian airline. He agreed and promised to book a ticket on a Russian airline.
We know that you have many friends from special services around the world, including the United States. What do you think the U.S. authorities would have done if anything like that happened to a U.S. operative of your rank?
I am almost certain that if an American were detained in Austria, the Austrian ambassador in Washington would be summoned to the State Department and properly thanked for his cooperation and his refusal to extradite the person to Lithuania. The Lithuanian ambassador would have been issued a note of protest and notified of imminent sanctions, because the person in question was acting on the order issued by a U.S. president. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was the Soviet commander-in-chief.
What does Russia need to do to avoid such arrests of Russian citizens in the future?
I hope that our Foreign Ministry and the Russian government will respond accordingly with regard to my detention in Austria. This might come in the form of a note of protest regarding Lithuania or some other declaration. Russia is the successor to the Soviet Union, and I am a citizen of this country. The Russian Justice Ministry should also come up with something. The country must protect its soldiers who risk their lives fighting terrorism and extremism. If, God forbid, this case is taken to The Hague Tribunal, then there will be tens of thousands of people like me shortly. Today, we are dealing with Lithuania; tomorrow Latvia or Estonia will do the same thing.
In addition to the Baltic states, there are other countries that are seeking to bring Alpha officers to justice. If we just sit on our hands, we might end up in an absurd situation...
Yes, there are dozens of such petitions again Alpha operatives. Some of these petitions are coming even from the republics that are part of Russia. I will not name them, but I’m sure you know which ones I am talking about.
It looks like former and active Alpha operatives are on their own when they have to prove that they acted on government orders. What about the Russian agencies that are supposed to deal with these issues?
The point is that this warrant should have been first submitted to the Russian Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor’s Office. These institutions should have notified me that Lithuania and the EU had issued an arrest warrant or a court order against me.
Lithuania issued a court order against me in December 1991 when a commission was investigating the actions taken by the State Committee on State Emergency (GKChP). I was notified that I needed to give testimony on Lithuania. I came to the General Prosecutor’s Office and told them that I was not going to testify, because I was not under investigation. However, I told them that as head of the unit I could provide an explanation.
I told them that a special flight took us to Lithuania to support the telecommunications infrastructure at the Vilnius television center and to ensure access for Russian-speaking journalists. That’s it. This question has never been raised since 1991.
What are the Baltic countries after?
I think that their goal is to get preferential energy deals with Russia, such as lower oil and gas prices. Politically, the Lithuanian government is challenging the legitimacy of the orders issued by the Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Gorbachev. I am a soldier and I acted within the borders of the Soviet Union. The instructions were issued to different units. Debating whether the order was issued or not is idiotic. There was a meeting at the headquarters, records were made, conversations were held over the government phone lines provided by the KGB-operated government communications department. We acted in line with the law and on orders issued by the commander-in-chief.
Do you fear for the lives of your relatives and your own life?
You know, it’s naïve to think that security guards can keep you safe at all times. There were some instances where we had to hide our officers who had performed special operations. If we failed to do so, they would have met a tragic fate.
For example, we conducted a rescue operation to free our four colleagues arrested in Georgia who were on a mission that Gorbachev signed off.
How did your colleagues and friends react to your arrest in Austria?
I received many phone calls from all around Russia with offers of help. Vitaly Bubenin, first Alpha commander, who is 70 now, called me and expressed concern over this situation. Most importantly, our government should do what it has to do in order to discourage certain Western politicians from attempting anything like that against Russian citizens in the future.
Alpha draws its strength from generations of experience and traditions. If the government fails to respond properly to such attempts to arrest elite Russian soldiers, wouldn’t that affect young Alpha operatives who risk their lives fighting crime and terrorism in the northern Caucasus?
All Alpha units are fully staffed now, and young people are willing to become special operatives. We need to understand that everyone’s on the same team, from rank-and-file Alpha soldiers to the president of Russia. Who else will take care of these people if not the government?
Background information: The Supreme Council of Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990. The Soviet authorities rejected the move as unconstitutional. Unauthorized protest rallies broke out in Lithuania in January 1991, after which special operations units and airborne troops were deployed there and assumed control of several strategic facilities. During the night of January 13, a column of Soviet armored vehicles headed toward the downtown areas of Vilnius. Fourteen people died and over 600 others were injured in the ensuing clashes between the protestors and the military.
One Alpha operative died from a wound in the back.
Special services stated that clashes were the result of a massive provocation, and that all those who died, including the Alpha operative, were shot by snipers.
Audrius Butkyavichus, head of Lithuania’s regional security department, admitted in later interviews that he had ordered Sajudis snipers to take positions on the rooftops of the buildings near the TV center. They shot people using imported rifles.
Lithuanian law enforcement agencies did not investigate this. However, in 1999 a Vilnius district court found six Soviet soldiers guilty of crimes allegedly committed on January 13, 1991. Twenty-three more soldiers are under investigation. Of these 23 people, 21 are Russian citizens and two are citizens of Belarus.
The Lithuanian prosecutor’s office sent 94 petitions for legal assistance to Belarus, Russia and Germany, but all of them were rejected. They are now conducting an international search across the European Union looking for participants in those events. European arrest warrants have been issued.
Law enforcement officers acted on government orders. However, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev denied later that he had issued orders to storm the TV center.