In an interview with Reuters on May 4, Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that if the Kyrgyz interim government were to send Minsk a request to extradite deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiev, such a request would be met with a negative response.
"No one has officially contacted me. [The next day, Belarusian authorities acknowledged that they had received an extradition request from the Kyrgyz interim government.] But I want to immediately officially declare that such appeals would be hopeless and humiliating for the interim government [in Kyrgyzstan]. The president of Kyrgyzstan is under the protection of the Belarusian state and its president. The so-called interim government shouldn't make appeals to surrender Bakiev. Surrender him to whom? It remains a question whether I will even want to talk to those currently in power in Kyrgyzstan."
Earlier, representatives of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry adopted a far more diplomatic tone, saying that should a request for extradition be received, it would be reviewed according to law. The ministry did not broach the question of political asylum.
Why does Lukashenka so categorically reject even the possibility of surrendering his deposed colleague?
Once Honor Is Lost, All Is Lost
The first explanation is rooted in the maintenance of prestige and honor. Given Lukashenka's outspoken initial comments about events in Kyrgyzstan, turning Bakiev in would necessarily result in a loss of face. On April 14, Lukashenka said: "If something similar were to occur in my country and someone were to lead others toward gunfire -- I would show them. One shouldn't blame Bakiev for the fact that the government used force in defending itself. If a government cannot defend itself and its people, what good is such a government?"
The main accusation against Bakiev is that he ordered the shooting of demonstrators on April 7. Lukashenka let it be known publicly that he considered Bakiev's response not criminal but an expression of self-defense -- and that Lukashenka would do the same under similar circumstances. By making this view public, Lukashenka cut off any room for maneuver -- i.e., the interim government's appeal could contain nothing about Bakiev of which Lukashenka had not already publicly exonerated him. While considerations of prestige are not unimportant to democratic leaders, they are paramount in the eyes of authoritarian ones: to reveal weakness is to put oneself at risk. A "weak dictator" is an oxymoron; for tyrants, there is precious little distance between a demonstration of weakness and the loss of power.
Yet the question remains: Why did Lukashenka get so involved in Bakiev's defense? Why did he leave himself so little "wiggle room," where any backpedaling from his initial position would be both psychologically and politically untenable? After all, there was never any real personal or political closeness between the two leaders prior to the events of April. Moreover, Bakiev's assertion in Minsk that he remains the president of Kyrgyzstan greatly irritated Moscow, on whom Lukashenka is in many ways dependent. Why then did he do it?
The Philosophy Of Authoritarian Legitimacy
By offering Bakiev safe haven and allowing, perhaps even nudging, him to declare that he is still president, Lukashenka hopes to obtain several symbolic bonuses.
Lukashenka was no doubt concerned that Russia so quickly recognized the new government in Kyrgyzstan, or may even have played a role in the uprising. By accepting Bakiev, Lukashenka sends a message to Moscow and Washington that he is ready to resist any such scenario in Belarus. He is taking on the role of executor and defender of the philosophy of authoritarian legitimacy, the leader of a new holy alliance, similar to the one formed by the 1814 Vienna congress defending monarchies against the revolutionary "disease." Evidence of this position is contained in Lukashenka's comment that "only the people can hold a president liable -- not gangs or groups or oppositionists -- only the people." It is probable that many authoritarian leaders in neighboring countries tacitly share Lukashenka's concerns about the revolutionary events in Kyrgyzstan and the role certain other countries may have played in those events. By giving voice to these concerns, Lukashenka has made himself their spokesman.
Lukashenka is also sending a message to the Belarusian people: should similar events unfold in Belarus, he will not give up power peacefully.
When And By Whom Might Bakiev Become Needed?
There might also be some practical benefits to Lukashenka's stance, which falls somewhere between that of Washington and Moscow. Although it was Lukashenka who offered Bakiev harbor, it was Russia and the U.S. that provided him safe passage -- perhaps to avoid civil war in Kyrgyzstan but perhaps also to hold on to some aces. The democratic intentions of the new Kyrgyz authorities are still doubtful - and the fact that today's deposed leader was the hero of an erstwhile "democratic holiday" very similar to today's, makes these doubts even more apparent. Also still doubtful is the future stability of Kyrgyzstan. The trial and punishment of a deposed ruler might serve as a cautionary lesson not only to the present leaders of Kyrgyzstan but also other countries in the region -- i.e. one should hold on to power at all costs to avoid a similar fate.
Moscow and Washington's plan to provide safe passage for Bakiev was predicated on the assumption that he would remain silent in whatever country he wound up. It was at this juncture that Lukashenka started to play his own game.
There are two improbable, though not impossible, scenarios under which Lukashenka might gain practical bonuses from his position: a) Should the new interim government fail to take the postrevolutionary situation under control and the country descends into chaos, the person with some measure of legitimacy held in Minsk's "freezer" might become useful - even to the larger countries; and b) If the curious harmony between Russia and the U.S. regarding the Kyrgyz situation should dissolve and once again become a customary zero-sum game between them, Bakiev might suddenly become a person of interest to either or both of these countries.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka is taking quite a big risk by championing Bakiev -- but his game is not totally devoid of logic. He might even end up winning it.
-- Yuri Drakahrust