The crisis has put to the test Russia's ability to guarantee stability in the most trouble-prone region of the former Soviet Union.
Last week's large-scale communal violence in Kyrgyzstan has pushed the impoverished Central Asian state to the brink of collapse and put to the test Russia's ability to project power and guarantee stability in the most trouble-prone region of the former Soviet Union.
Bloody clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the south of the country were reportedly triggered by a brawl between two groups of young people in a local café on June 10, and they spread like fire across the region. However, evidence suggests that violence was deliberately provoked and stage-managed. Organised gangs riding jeeps and armoured vehicles looted and set on fire houses and shops in Uzbek neighbourhoods and killed their residents. They also targeted Kyrgyz residents to set the two ethnic groups against each other.
The provisional government of Kyrgyzstan accused the family of the ousted President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of organising and financing the riots in the south — its base and stronghold. Mr. Bakiyev has denied any role but in a tapped telephone conversation, posted on YouTube in mid-May, two members of his family discussed plans to provoke inter-ethnic clashes to bring down the government.
A United Nations spokesman, too, said there was evidence indicating that the violence began with five simultaneous attacks in Osh by armed men wearing masks. Authorities say organised crime groups, especially those involved in Afghan drug trade, played an active role in the unrest.
Four days of rioting left an estimated 2,000 people dead and some 4,00,000 displaced, of whom about 1,00,000 fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Seventy per cent of the buildings in Osh, second largest city of Kyrgyzstan with a population of 2,50,000 people, were torched.
When the fighting broke out, interim President Roza Otunbayeva desperately appealed to Russia to send troops to help her quell the violence. The plea posed a dilemma to Moscow — to intervene or not to intervene. When its interests in Northern Caucasus came under military attack from Georgia two years ago, Russia struck back without hesitation, thrashing the Georgian army and dramatically reinforcing its positions in the region.
Many expected Moscow to respond with the same resolve to the crisis in Kyrgyztan, where it has a military base and which is its ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a defence bloc of seven former Soviet states, which also unites Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, Moscow acted with extreme caution, redirecting the request to CSTO, where Russia holds rotating presidency. A relatively low-level meeting of the member-states' national security secretaries deferred the question of sending peacekeepers, recommending instead the supply of helicopters, trucks and other equipment to Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies.
Simultaneously, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a battalion of paratroops to reinforce the garrison at the Russian airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow thus held the door open for intervention if the situation deteriorated.
The Kremlin has good reasons to be wary of getting drawn into the Kyrgyz crisis. To begin with, Russia lacks a legal basis for intervening in Kyrgyzstan in contrast to the situation in North Caucasus, where it had a peacekeeping mandate from the United Nations and the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States. Theoretically, it could do so under a CSTO mandate but the legal basis for the bloc's intervention in an internal conflict is shaky. In recent years, Russia has sought to expand CSTO capabilities through the creation of a standing rapid reaction force that could perform peacekeeping missions, but this is still a work in progress. Russia's Central Asian partners in CSTO would hate to create a precedent for interfering in the internal affairs of a member-state.
Another problem is the absence of a legitimate government in Kyrgyzstan. The provisional government headed by Ms. Otunbayeva is a motley assortment of opposition leaders who came to power in a bloody popular revolt that toppled President Bakiyev in early April. They made a big mistake, disbanding Parliament, the last remaining legitimate institution. The ethnic violence may now derail their plans to legitimise their standing by holding a referendum on a new Constitution on June 27, to be followed by new parliamentary elections in October as hundreds of thousands of Uzbek refugees remain displaced. The crisis showed that the interim government does not command much authority, with police and the army initially refusing to execute its orders to enforce curfew and open fire at the rioting mobs. Moreover, elements of the military took part in assaults on Uzbeks.
The Ferghana Valley, where the violence occurred, is a tinderbox of ethnic conflicts. The borders of the three Central Asian states — Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — that converge in the fertile valley were arbitrarily drawn by Joseph Stalin more than 80 years ago. Thus, the historical Uzbek cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad ended up in Kyrgyzstan. According to various estimates, there are between 7,00,000 and 10,00,000 Uzbek residents in the 5.5-million strong Kyrgyzstan, but in the Ferghana Valley they form the dominant and fastest growing ethnic group, prompting Kyrgyz fears of another Kosovo in the valley. Kyrgyz residents resent the fact that their enterprising Uzbek compatriots dominate the local economy, while the Uzbek community complains of discrimination in official jobs and language rights.
In June 1990, ethnic tensions in Osh erupted into Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes over land and water sharing that claimed hundreds of lives before Moscow sent troops to restore order. At that time, Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union. Sending Russian troops to Kyrgyzstan today could stir up a hornets' nest of rivalries and hostilities in the region.
The former Soviet Central Asia is teeming with smouldering conflicts and disputes over territory and resources. Tajikistan claims the Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and Uzbekistan has territorial disputes with Kazakhstan. Tensions are running high over sharing of river water between upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — which are keen on building more hydropower projects — and downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which need water to irrigate their crops. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan fight for the role of a regional superpower and are apprehensive of Russia getting militarily involved in the Kyrgyz crisis.
After four days of anti-Uzbek pogrom, the fighting in the Kyrgyz south died down, partly because the majority of Uzbek residents fled their homes and partly because the Kyrgyz security forces finally got their act together. But the calm is shaky and violence can erupt anytime.
The mass slaughter of Uzbeks was probably just the first act of a bloody drama unfolding in the heart of Central Asia. Even if the worst case scenario of civil war is avoided, the government in Bishkek in the north will find it hard to control the Uzbek-dominated Ferghana Valley, 600 km to the south and separated by the high Tian Shan Mountains. Uzbekistan, craving to become a regional superpower, may see this as an opportunity.
Instability may also spur a revival of jihadism in the region. In 1999 and 2000, when the Taliban was still in power in Afghanistan, Islamist guerrillas infiltrated the mountainous region of southern Kyrgyzstan using it as a staging ground for attacks in Uzbekistan. Mr. Medvedev warned in an interview that Islamist extremists could grab power in Kyrgyzstan if the government failed to gain control. “When people lose faith in the ability of the civil authorities to bring law and order … we can end up with a Kyrgyzstan that would develop along the Afghan scenario, the Afghan scenario of the Taliban period,” the Russian leader said.
While nobody has a ready recipe for stabilising Kyrgyzstan, all eyes are on Russia. China has voiced grave concern over the Kyrgyz violence but made it clear that it leaves the job of dealing with it to Russia-led CSTO, voicing “appreciation” of the bloc's decision to re-equip the Kyrgyz security forces. The United States, which has a key transit centre in Kyrgyzstan running supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan, denied reports that it could unilaterally or jointly with Russia send troops to Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. burnt its fingers when it helped to stage the “tulip revolution” there in 2005, which set in train the events that led to the mayhem last week. This time, Washington urges a collective response with Moscow. “We are not in any way framing this as a zero-sum game,” a senior U.S. administration official explained at the height of the Kyrgyz crisis. “On the contrary, we are very closely coordinating our actions with Moscow.”
Is the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations extending to the former Soviet space? If this is indeed so, the U.N. Security Council may give CSTO a peacekeeping mandate in Kyrgyzstan if the crisis deepens. But Russia will anyway have to play the leading role, because Kyrgyzstan is its zone of responsibility. As a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst said, “If Moscow does not find a way to respond to challenges such as Kyrgyzstan, any later claims it might make to a special role in the region will be unconvincing.”