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Sunday, December 30, 2012

RUSSIA: The Russian town full of fallen dictators that could be Bashar Al-Assad's next home


BARVIKHA, Russia — A few years back, before he settled in this bucolic town in a pine forest near Moscow, Askar Akayev, then the president of Kyrgyzstan, had a very stressful day.


Outside his presidential palace, an angry mob had gathered. An overturned car was on fire. Protesters had shinned over a wrought-iron fence and were breaking ground-floor windows and prying open doors.
Then came word from a security adviser: The time had come.
“I left in the suit I was standing up in,” Mr. Akayev told a journalist soon after his downfall in March 2005. Within days he was here, staying in a government-owned sanitarium — and in good company.
This improbable small town of villas and luxury boutiques, built around the sanitarium where Mr. Akayev stayed, is home to half a dozen or so deposed leaders and members of their families.
And in its snowy tranquillity, it offers one strange, possible future for the embattled president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, as Western governments have been pressuring Russia since summer to smooth his departure with an offer of asylum.
For now, even with rebel fighters closing in on Damascus, diplomats in Russia, Mr. Assad’s most important ally, have denied they are considering granting him safe haven as a step toward resolution of the conflict. But the Russians have come through with 11-hour rescues of their allies before.
“The Russians have experience with getting heads of state out in the nick of time,” said Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia. “They could be trying to signal to Assad there is an offer, but the window of opportunity is not going to remain open for a long time.”
Leaders’ hurried packing and just-in-time flight to this place from angry street crowds or the nearing sound of gunfire brought measures of resolution to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere.
Russia has been inching closer to agreeing to a settlement that would include Mr. Assad’s departure, if that is even possible at this juncture, with rebels occupying parts of the capital and firing mortar rounds at the presidential palace in the Muhajireen neighborhood of Damascus.
On Thursday, the United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian diplomats agreed to revive a peace initiative that stalled last summer after the Russians insisted it refrain from specifically excluding a role for Mr. Assad in any transition government. It was unclear whether Russia would accede to such a demand in any new agreement, and if so, whether the Syrian leader would land here.
Not all political exiles live in the districts of spacious country homes that lie here, along the Ryublyovsky Highway, but many do.
By many accounts, once here, these people enjoy the quiet and privileged afterlife of former elites of Soviet or Russian client states that have folded. In a snowy shopping center, the Barvikha Luxury Village, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana shops were open on a recent visit, of possible interest to Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, who is known to dress fashionably.

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