Monday, May 10, 2010

Lukashenka and Bakiyev: Friends in Need?

By Erica Marat

Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenka has recently told Reuters that he isn’t planning to extradite former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev back to Kyrgyzstan. The ironic union between Lukashenka and Bakiyev shows how both leaders share many similar traits of post-Soviet dictators.

Both used and abused their relations with Russia. Over the past decade Lukashenka was able to secure millions of dollars in economic aid from Russia to withhold social discontent in his country. Bakiyev, too, was able to receive $2 bn from Russia, part of which went directly to financing his presidential campaign last year.

But the more the Kremlin showed its support to both presidents, the more they became pragmatic about their relationship with the bigger neighbor. Their strengthened domestic power (largely thanks to Russia’s donations) gave them the confidence to play games with Moscow just to earn more aid in the future. Bakiyev’s example has obviously shown that such games backfire, as Russia ruthlessly revenged by exerting more pressure on the Bakiyev regime through mass media and support of his opponents who currently represent Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government.

Luckily for Bakiyev, Belarus was ready to accept and protect him at a time when the United States, Russia, Europe and Kazakhstan turned against him. For Lukashenka, however, Bakiyev is a useful domestic and international tool that shows how he is not going to allow “color revolutions” on his own turf. Indeed, compared to Bakiyev, Lukashenka was able to build a much stronger and loyal security sector ready to protect him both from angry crowds and individual opposition leaders. But Bakiyev’s destiny is the Belarusian leader’s worst nightmare.

How can this union last? Perhaps Lukashenko has not yet realized the shrewd nature of his new-found friend. Over the past five years Bakiyev has shown that he is skilled in bargaining for the best possible outcome for himself and is quick to betray his closest supporters. As U.S. and Kyrgyz governments continue to investigate allegations on corruption related to Bakiyev’s family, the former president will remain at the center of U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations.

This weekend at the Victory day parade in Moscow, which Lukashnka also plans to attend, Kyrgyzstan will be represented by Roza Otunbayeva, head of the provisional government. This will be the first foreign visit for Otunbaeva, showing that her government is committed to maintaining close relations with the Kremlin. She and Lukashenko are likely to meet on numerous other occasions led by Russian-dominated organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and CIS.

For Lukashenka, Bakiyev is therefore a mixed blessing. Bakiyev might turn into a political liability for the Belarus president, when he will turn to Russia for more help. The Bakiyev issue might fade into the background of Russia-Belarus relations, but for now it is causing friction between Minsk, Moscow and Bishkek.

Ironically, Lukashenka and Bakiyev are similar in character; their awkward manners are an endless source for popular jokes. Once it became known that Bakiyev found refuge in Belarus, numerous jokes circulated inside Kyrgyz social networks about the Lukashenka-Bakiyev union despite the overall anger in Kyrgyzstan about the April 7 bloodshed.


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