Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan, is on the run. But where? And what role did foreign leaders truly play in his decision to flee in what was depicted as a heroic effort to prevent civil war?
We already know that one possible destination is Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko says betrayal is loathsome, and that Bakiyev is welcome to a respectful reception in Minsk. I am told that two other options are Latvia, whose businessmen Bakiyev permitted lucrative control of Bishkek banks in partnership with his son, Maksim; and Turkey, which simply likes to be in the regional political mix.
Bakiyev’s embarrassing search for sanctuary validates a suggestion a couple of weeks ago by former Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev, whom Bakiyev helped to oust five years ago. I last saw Akayev standing without bodyguards shaking hands in the audience of an opera in Moscow, where he had found refuge, but he said that Bakiyev had irritated so many people that he would find no safe home anywhere in the immediate region.
Moscow gave credit for Bakiyev’s departure to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who spoke with Bakiyev by phone last Wednesday. In an alternate version, Kazakhstan’s minister for foreign affairs, Kanat Saudabayev, last week circulated a statement asserting that Bakiyev’s departure was the joint work of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and U.S. President Barack Obama.
I’ve been told by a U.S. official briefed on what happened that Nazarbayev collared Obama at a diplomatic reception at the Washington Convention Center during last week’s nuclear summit. The discussion turned to Kyrgyzstan, and Nazarbayev said, “Let’s get Dmitry in on this.” Nazarbayev proceeded to describe how he and Medvedev had decided together that Bakiyev's continued presence in Kyrgyzstan could lead to further violence, and that he -- Nazarbayev -- telephoned Bakiyev to say so. Nazarbayev suggested that he had offered Bakiyev a welcome in Kazakhstan. “Obama said, ‘Go for it,’” this official said.
The description is reminiscent of the role played by then-U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt in the 1986 flight of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos aboard U.S. aircraft to sanctuary in Hawaii. In the midst of a popular revolt known as “people’s power,” Laxalt precipitated Marcos’s agreement to board a U.S. helicopter at Malacanang Palace with a phone call in which he is said to have advised the U.S. ally, “Cut and cut cleanly.”
A couple of observations: One notes that there is considerable evidence for a Putin voice, as Andrew Kramer writes in today’s New York Times, since he caught all the region’s leaders flat-footed by immediately granting recognition to the new Kyrgyz government while Washington was still figuring out whether Roza Otunbayeva – the former ambassador to the U.S. – deserved its support. One imagines that, while the Obama-Medvedev-Nazarbayev exchange did occur, Putin’s voice was importantly in the mix as well.
Whatever the case, last Thursday, Bakiyev boarded a turbo prop plane for Kazakhstan. One wonders whether he understood at the time that the Kazakh sanctuary was only temporary, in the same way that Marcos apparently was led to believe that he was traveling not to Hawaii, but to his native province of Ilocos Norte, where he planned to mount a rear-guard action.
There are critics who believe that Nazarbayev acted slowly and, as chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, could have done more. Sam Patten, who runs the former Soviet Union program at Freedom House, a New York-based group that backs democracy groups abroad, says Nazarbayev could have dispatched OSCE monitors, and instead left it to others such as Putin to take the early diplomatic lead. “The machinery of OSCE could have helped in many other ways, but one very much gets the sense he chose not to use it in his own backyard,” Patten said in an email exchange.