Kyrgyzstan: Violence in the Ferghana Valley in the southern part of the nation sets Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations against each other.
IN June, Kyrgyzstan was gripped by the worst violence in its post-Soviet history, which pushed the impoverished Central Asian state to the brink of collapse. It may take some time to assess the full extent of the tragedy that occurred in the Ferghana Valley in the south of the country.
The final toll is likely to be at least 2,000 people killed in four days of anti-Uzbek riots. About 400,000 Uzbeks fled their homes. Some 100,000 people, mostly women and children, crossed into neighbouring Uzbekistan; the others took shelter in villages not affected by the riots. In Osh, with a population of 250,000 people, 70 per cent of the buildings were destroyed by fire.
The majority of the victims were Uzbek residents in Osh, the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan, and Jalalabad, a city 60 kilometres away, as well as surrounding villages. The riots were reportedly triggered by a brawl between two groups of young people in a local cafe on June 10 and spread like wildfire across the region. However, available evidence suggests that the clashes were deliberately provoked and stage-managed. Organised gangs of Kyrgyz men riding jeeps and military 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. Many people died from sniper fire. The provisional government of Kyrgyzstan accused the family of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of organising and financing the riots in the south, his base and stronghold. Bakiyev, who lost power in early April in a violent popular revolt against his five-year rule, which was tainted by rampant corruption, denied any role in the violence, but a tapped telephone conversation, posted on YouTube in mid-May, has two members of his family discussing plans to provoke inter-ethnic clashes in order to bring the government down. “We need to find 500 b**ds... and keep [the country] in a constant mess,” said a voice identified as belonging to Maxim Bakiyev, the 32-year-old son of the ex-President. “Somebody needs to kick up a fuss.”
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 said organised crime groups, especially those involved in the Afghan drug trade, had played an active role in the unrest.
The crisis put to test Russia's ability to project power and guarantee stability in the most trouble-prone region of the former Soviet Union. When the fighting broke out, Kyrgyzstan's Interim President Roza Otunbayeva desperately appealed to Russia to send troops to help quell the violence. The plea posed a dilemma for Moscow: to intervene or not to intervene. When Russia's interests in the Northern Caucasus came under military attack by 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 Kyrgyzstan, where it has a military base; Kyrgyzstan is also its ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a defence bloc of seven former Soviet states, which also unites Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In the event, Moscow acted with extreme caution, redirecting the request to the CSTO, where Russia holds the rotating presidency. A relatively low-level meeting of the member-states' National Security Secretaries deferred the question of sending peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan, recommending instead the supply of helicopters, trucks and other equipment to Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies. At the same time, the CSTO “did not rule out use of any means” at its disposal to help quell the unrest, said Russia's security chief Nikolai Patrushev.
Simultaneously, Russian 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. With some 1,500 troops in Kyrgyzstan and another 7,000 in Tajikistan and substantial airpower in both countries, Russia can swiftly swoop down on any part of Central Asia. But 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 U.N. 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 also 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. Out of the seven CSTO member-states, three have not yet ratified the rapid reaction force plan, and Kyrgyzstan is among them, while Uzbekistan has refused to join in. These forces would anyway be meant to repulse external threats and aggression. Russia's partners in the CSTO would hate to create a precedent for interfering in the internal affairs of a member-state. Kazakhstan openly objected to a CSTO peacekeeping intervention; Uzbekistan has made no public statements on the issue, but its President, Islam Karimov, is understood to have conveyed his strong objections to Medvedev when they discussed the crisis on telephone.
Another problem is the absence of a legitimate government in Kyrgyzstan. The provisional government headed by Roza Otunbayeva is a motley assortment of opposition leaders who came to power in the bloody popular revolt that toppled Bakiyev. They made a big mistake disbanding the country's 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 did not command much authority, with the police and the army initially refusing to execute its orders to enforce the curfew and open fire on rioting mobs. Moreover, elements in the military took part in the 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 Jalalabad ended up in Kyrgyzstan. According to various estimates, there are between 700,000 and 1,000,000 Uzbek residents in 5.5-million-strong Kyrgyzstan, but in the Ferghana Valley they form the dominant and fastest growing ethnic group, prompting Kyrgyz fears of a Kosovo-like situation. 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. There is a deeper distinction that contributes to animosities: the Kyrgyz are traditional nomads, while the Uzbeks are farmers. Reports said there were many hillside nomadic herders among the rioters in Osh.
Twenty years ago, in June 1990, ethnic tension in Osh erupted into Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes over access to land and water that claimed hundreds of lives, and Moscow sent troops to restore order. At that time Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union. Today the situation is fundamentally different. “Getting in is far easier than getting out,” said Erlan Karin, a political analyst in Kazakhstan. “There are no clear borderlines in this conflict. Apart from the ethnic divide, there are warring criminal gangs and rival political clans vying for power. Outside peacekeepers may temporarily douse the fire but cannot extinguish its sources. Kyrgyz political leaders must work out solutions among themselves.”
Sending Russian troops to Kyrgyzstan could stir a hornet's nest of rivalries and hostilities in the region. Former Soviet Central Asia is teeming with smouldering conflicts and disputes over territory and resources. Tajikistan claims the Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, which historically belonged to Tajik rulers (“We will take back Samarkand and Bukhara,” Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon reportedly said at a restricted briefing to local journalists in December); Uzbekistan has territorial disputes with Kazakhstan. Tensions are riding high over the sharing of river water between upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are keen to build more hydropower projects, and downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which need water to irrigate their crops. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan fight for the role of regional superpower and are apprehensive of Russia getting militarily involved in the Kyrgyz crisis.
After four days of anti-Uzbek pogroms, 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 brittle, and violence could erupt any time either in the south or in the north, targeting Meskhetian Turks, who already came under attack in April, or the large Uighur minority. There are strong fears of a civil war and an eventual split of Kyrgyzstan in two parts separated by the high Tian Shan mountains. Even if the worst-case scenario of civil strife can be avoided, the government in Bishkek in the north will find it hard to control the restive Uzbek-dominated Ferghana Valley with just two winding roads across high mountain ridges connecting the two parts of the country. Uzbekistan, which is craving to become a regional superpower, may see this as an opportunity.
Instability may also spur a revival of jehadism in the region. In 1999 and 2000, when the Taliban was still in power in Afghanistan, Islamist guerillas infiltrated the mountainous region of southern Kyrgyzstan and used it as a staging ground for attacks inside Uzbekistan. Medvedev warned in an interview that Islamist extremists could grab power in Kyrgyzstan should the government fail to gain control.
“When people lose faith in the ability of the civil authorities to bring law and order and decide there is only one force that can do it, then 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 voiced grave concern over the Kyrgyz violence but made it clear it left the job of dealing with it to the Russia-led CSTO. It said it had “appreciation” for 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 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, denied reports that it would unilaterally or jointly with Russia send troops to Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. burnt its fingers in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 when it helped stage the “tulip revolution”, which set in motion the events that led to the current bloody mayhem. This time the U.S. urges a collective response with Russia.
“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.”
This may be a sign that the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations is extending to the former Soviet space. If foreign intervention becomes inevitable, there is a good chance the U.N. Security Council will give the CSTO a peacekeeping mandate in Kyrgyzstan. But Moscow will anyway have to play the leading role in efforts to rescue Kyrgyzstan because it is in Russia's zone of responsibility.
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.” The Kyrgyz crisis has presented Russia with a challenge and an opportunity. It gives Moscow a chance either to strengthen its position in a strategic region or to see its influence taper off.