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Saturday, July 10, 2010
The kindling in Kyrgyzstan
There is blame enough to go around for the hellish situation that has descended on Kyrgyzstan. Forces loyal to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev are said to have provoked the violence that has affected 8 percent of the country's population. The government's response has been ham-fisted and there are allegations that the army joined violence against minority Uzbeks.
The United States and Russia have both used Kyrgyzstan, a small strategically positioned nation in Central Asia, as a pawn in a geopolitical chess game, largely indifferent to the consequences of their maneuverings. The price of those manipulations, that incompetence and that cynicism have now come due.
On June 10, violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan when riots exploded in Osh, the second largest city in the country. The exact cause of the outbreak remains unclear: Some blame Uzbeks for attacking students and Kyrgyz women, which prompted revenge attacks by other ethnic Kyrgyz.
The specific incident may not be important: The region has long been divided by the two communities, and while they have mostly lived side by side peacefully, violence also broke out in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Only the intervention of Soviet military forces prevented that conflagration from spreading.
This time, the Kyrgyz authorities were again slow to respond and Uzbek parts of the city were razed and then virtually destroyed by fires. The government put the official death toll at nearly 300, but Ms. Roza Otunbayeva, who was upgraded from the interim president of Kyrgyzstan to president, believes that toll could be about 2,000. The United Nations estimates the number of people displaced and needing emergency aid could be as high as 1 million, or nearly one quarter of the population.
Uzbeks accused the security forces of joining the rioters — a charge the government has denied — and barricaded their neighborhoods. The government responded with ultimatums demanding the reopening of the neighborhoods and warned that Uzbek leaders would risk another confrontation if the barricades were not torn down. The demand was refused but the process of removal seems to have proceeded without incident.
While allegations of government complicity are likely to be false, there is no doubting the ineffectiveness of the central government's response. It has been slow and Mrs. Otunbayeva has been distant even when trying to be sympathetic. Entire Uzbek communities have been destroyed but still greater damage may have been done. The social fabric of Kyrgyzstan has been stretched and suspicions of communal violence will unravel it further.
Kyrgyz authorities believe the match that lit this bonfire was thrown by followers of Mr. Bakiyev, who was ousted by popular protests in April following several years of corrupt and harsh rule. The defense minister alleged that 500 of the 3,000 rioters were working for Mr. Bakiyev, and that they seized weapons and armored transport vehicles from poorly defended army outposts. The south is a stronghold of the former president and he is no doubt smarting over his ouster. But Mr. Bakiyev has denied any involvement and preliminary reports suggest that he is telling the truth.
Finally, fanning the flames that engulfed Kyrgyzstan is the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and Russia for influence in the Central Asian state. The country is desperately poor and strategically located — a dangerous combination. Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military air base that supplies military operations in Afghanistan. Moscow and Washington got into a bidding war over rights to the base, a competition that ultimately yielded hundreds of millions of dollar along with charges of nepotism and corruption that contributed to the undermining of the legitimacy of the Kyrgyz government. Neither government was prepared to help quell the violence; they either promised aid or sent troops to protect their own assets in the country.
Today, nearly 10 percent of the nation of 5.3 million has been displaced. After growing 11 percent in the first quarter of this year, the economy is projected to shrink between 2 and 5 percent in 2010. Uzbek leaders warn of a "cold war" among ethnic groups until the government takes real efforts toward reconciliation. For Kyrgyzstan's neighbors, the prospect of a restive Muslim community is worrisome. Discontent and anger could easily spill over borders and spread throughout Central Asia. The breakdown of government authority in a region best known for opium production sparks fears of yet another increase in heroin production and all its horrific consequences.
Tensions are likely to increase after the constitutional referendum that was held on June 27. The measure, which reportedly passed with 91 percent support, will turn Kyrgyzstan from a presidential state into a parliamentary democracy; it also grants greater regional autonomy. That appealed to the country's Uzbeks, who make up 14 percent of the population, and have demanded more say over their own destinies. The promise of more control is not enough: There will have to be a real devolution of power to win over the Uzbeks. In addition, they have demanded impartial inquiry into the cause of the violence and the army's actions. Failure to do so will ensure that tensions remain high in Kyrgyzstan and make another outbreak of violence only a matter of time.