Kyrgyzstan: Political Roots of Ethnic Crisis
Weekly Pulse
June 18-24, 2010
It may be simplistic to argue that the ongoing violence in Kyrgyzstan, one of the five Central Asian states that declared independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991, has only ethnic roots: the country’s majority Kyrgyz ethnically-cleansing the minority Uzbek population. For the current crisis seems to be politically-instigated, with deadly intent and criminal involvement. The situation is more complex than it appears.

Yes the bloodbath that began on June 13 has resulted in the death in hundreds of mostly ethnically-Uzbeks in the southern city of Osh and forced tens of thousands of Uzbeks to seek refuge across the border in Uzbekistan, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis in the region. According to UNHCR, the crisis has already produced some 300,000 internally displaced persons. It is also true that the two ethnic communities have long distrusted each other. Minority Uzbeks have historically felt discriminated, and Kyrgyz nationalists have treated them as a “fifth column” who can be used by hegemonic Uzbekistan.

Ethnicity, however, is not the main cause of the current conflict in Kyrgyzstan, the political exploitation of the existing ethnic tensions is. The armed gangs of Kyrgyz, Uzbek and even Tajik origin thriving on flourishing drug trade from Afghanistan are also reportedly involved in the power-play under way in this poorest of all the Central Asian Republics.

Communist Legacy

There as well is a historical context to the current violence. Just as it happened in the case of Yugoslavia in the Balkans, in the aftermath of the collapse of totalitarian regimes, whose long survival rested upon suppressing their ethno-nationalist communities, the uncertain and transitional political environment is always ripe for the sort of genocide of minority communities that took place in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and occurring now in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is probably the worst of cases in Central Asia, a region where political power is still in the hands of ex-communist elites and democratization process is either invisible, slow or seen in the form of abrupt occurrences, such as the April revolt in Kyrgyzstan against President Kurmanbek Bakiyev who himself was installed in power in 2005 through the so-called “Tulip Revolution.”

As for the external factors of political instability in Central Asia, the Soviet successor, Russia still considers Central Asia its sphere of influence and, therefore, takes active sides during a domestic political crisis in the region. The region is also of huge strategic significance for the United States and the West, partly because of the War on Terror in next-door Afghanistan and partly due to the region’s richness in hydrocarbon resources. This factor enables notorious dictators such as Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, to continue to rule, despite committing whole-scale massacres such as those of his opponents in Andijan in 2005.

The drug-trafficking from Afghanistan—with Ferghana Valley straddling across the troubled border regions of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan acting as the main supply route to Europe through Russia—has produced the armed gangs who thrive on politically-motivated ethnic crises such as the current one. No surprise that Osh, the second largest Kyrgyz city and the centre of ethnic strife—is located in a region that is the hub of drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

Russian Factor

This may be the bloodiest of all ethnic clashes in Kyrgyz history in the last 20 years, but it’s certainly not the first one. In 1990 as well, the Kyrgyz majority massacred the Uzbek minority in the country. However, the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to send Russian troops, who quelled the conflict. Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has twice appealed Russia to send peacekeepers.

However, Moscow may not like to entangle itself a highly fluid and potentially uncertain situation in a country that has not much to offer in terms of resources. Instead, the Russian government seems to prefer a limited regional response to manage the Kyrgyz crisis within the ambit of a regional security bloc of former Soviet republics known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that it leads.

As for the possible Russian role in the current violent political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, those who revolted against President Bakiyev have their powerbase in the north, and northern Kyrgyz have been the traditional rulers, even during the time Kyrgyzstan was one of the 15 Soviet republics. Therefore, they are more Russified than the southerners. On the other hand, the country’s south is the powerbase of Mr. Bakiyev, who is now in political exile in Belarus. It was he who had led the 2005 “Tulip Revolution,” in which pro-Russian President Askar Akayev—again a northerner and who had been in power since independence in 1991—was overthrown.

In Kyrgyzstan, both Russia and the United States have air bases, which respectively serve the former’s regional security interests and facilitate the latter’s counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. During his five-year rule, President Bakiyev did try to extract maximum benefits from both the outside powers. However, of late, he had apparently shown some leanings towards the United States.

Obviously, when it comes to fighting the war against extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan and the region, there is hardly any difference between American and Russian approaches to Central Asia. However, seen within broader regional framework, the Russians would like to have a dominant say in what happens politically in the post-Soviet Central Asian space. Even otherwise, Russia seems to have asserted itself in Central Asia and the Caucasus since undertaking a successful military intervention in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia in late 2008.

Blaming Bakiyev

Purely from the Kyrgyz domestic perspective, political machinations are certainly at work and should be a major factor in explaining why the ethnic trouble that began on June 13 in Osh has become so deadly overtime. The followers of former president Bakiyev are accused of triggering ethnic tensions in order to violently wrest political control from the new interim government. That ethnic strife is concentrated in the south, the former president’s powerbase, gives credence to such accusation being made primarily by the current Kyrgz leadership. After all, some of the pro-Bakiyev leaders in Osh have been able to seize control in some areas through Kyrgyz gangsters. Reports also suggest that Tajik mercenaries, hired some time after the fall of Mr. Bakiyev, did trigger the full-scale ethnic strife by targeting both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in early days of the conflict.

The immediate political reason that may have motivated the former Kyrgyz leader to sponsor ethnic violence was the interim government’s decision to hold a referendum on June 27 to vote on constitutional changes, which, it says, will pave the way for parliamentary-style elections in October. Mr Bakiyev, in alliance with his Kyrgyz armed gangsters, may have fuelled ethnic violence in the south by calculatedly exploiting long-standing ethnic fissures between the region’s Uzbek and Kyrgyz population.

If this is the case, then the international community must support the interim regime in Kyrgyzstan in restoring law and order immediately. The whole of Central Asia needs to move beyond the Soviet legacy of continuing authoritarianism. Any step towards democratization, whether it takes place in resource-starved Kyrgyzstan or resource-rich Turkmenistan, must be encouraged.

International Responsibility

The worsening ethnic violence in Osh and elsewhere in the south may lead to all-out civil war across Kyrgyzstan, and the consequent breakdown of political authority in the country. There is also a real possibility that the conflict could expand to engulf parts of neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It may also revive the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Recent tragic events in Kyrgyzstan are not merely a matter of a country’s political future, they pose a major challenge for mutual security in the Eurasian region as a whole. There is an immediate need to deploy international peacekeeping forces in southern Kyrgyzstan. The CSTO is one option, although its member countries have agreed not to meddle in each other's affairs and to act only in the event of an external threat.

Even if the level of violence recedes in coming days, the roots of tension will be there to be exploited by power hungary politicians in alliance with well-armed drug mafias. By deploying international peacekeepers in southern Kyrgyzstan, the world community can help the new leadership concentrate fully on democratization of a country that geographicaly links China with Central Asia.

The United Nations, the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are other potential bodies that could act in concert to bring peace to Kyrgyzstan. For its part, the United Nations should continue to handle the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the region on a war footing.