Commentary | June 17, 2010

The Kyrgyz Crisis: Internal Incompetence, External Inaction

Officials in Kyrgyzstan have confirmed 191 deaths and 1971 wounded so far in the current crisis in that country. Many fear that the number of casualties may be much higher. There is no foreseeable end to the crisis in sight. It is becoming increasingly obvious that some sort of international intervention will eventually be necessary. But as the world contemplates the form such an intervention may take, it is essential to understand the local, national and regional dimensions of the Kyrgyz crisis.

Osh, the southern Kyrgyz town where the violence is concentrated, lies in Central Asia’s ethnically volatile Ferghana valley, close to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Although the violence appears to be ethnic, pitting Kyrgyz youth against ethnic Uzbeks, a closer examination suggests that many other factors are at play.

Much of the conflict stems from a crisis of competence and confidence in the Kyrgyz government. The popular uprising in April that ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev brought about a change in government, but little change in substance. The interim regime has been unable to provide the governance or the stability Kyrgyzstan needed to recover from the coup. Corruption is rampant, crippling many essential government services. Meanwhile, many appointees of previous governments still in the Kyrgyz administration – who have an interest in the failure of the current government – have been complacent in their duties, further aggravating the country's crisis of confidence.

The authorities have been unable to act promptly and effectively, creating a yawning gap between the government and its people. As one observer puts it, with the people's trust in their authorities irreparably lost, the situation poses increased challenges to the state's sovereignty and the susceptible government's political survival in the long run.

Meanwhile, a combination of ethnic, commercial and criminal interests are capitalizing on frustration with the government's shortcomings and the country's power vacuum. While the new ruling elite struggle to establish their writ, many such forces are clamouring for influence to ensure a stronger bargaining position once the crisis subsides. The country's drug lords, for example, have jumped into the fray, using the chaos to conceal criminal activity and preying on the displaced and dispossessed. Instigated by supporters of the ousted Bakiyev regime, miscreant elements are eager to turn the tables altogether and jeopardize the scheduled June 27 referendum that aims to shift the balance of power from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

External interests further complicate the picture. Neighbouring states such as Uzbekistan and regional powers, mainly Russia, may also be seeking to profit from the crisis to extract concessions from Kyrgyzstan's inexperienced government and to force it into partnerships according to their liking.

Uzbekistan's authorities are between a rock and a hard place. Displaced Uzbeks have been fleeing the violence in Kyrgyzstan and streaming into Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan would like to see them safe and cared for, but at the same time remains wary of any influx or external intervention that could destabilize the precarious political balance in its own border town of Andijan, which witnessed mass protests and shootings in 2005.

Russia's role is equally complex. Although Kyrgyzstan’s interim President Roza Otunbayeva is insisting on immediate Russian intervention to stabilize the situation, Moscow is seen as cautious and calculating. Russia first expressed concern over the situation, then announced that it was seriously reviewing response options, and has since maintained that it will only consider helping through a multilateral forum such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So far, Russia's only promises have been to provide transport for relief supplies and to help evacuate the affected population.

It is becoming increasingly evident that deployment of a peacekeeping force will eventually be necessary. In the meantime, every delay raises the cost of the conflict, not only in terms of life and blood, but also in added concessions the Kyrgyz government will have to make in return for cooperation with the interim president. It also exposes the interim authorities’ incompetence, leading pundits to predict yet another change in the government.

The longer Russia waits to help restore stability, the greater the chances that the next Kyrgyz government's fate will become welded to Kremlin's goodwill and support.

An inevitable question arising from Russia's diplomacy of delay is whether this reluctance to act is related to the U.S. air force base in Manas in northern Kyrgyzstan, long a cause of concern in Moscow. Some speculate that Russia may prefer to let the crisis continue, and exploit the Kyrgyz government's weakness to distance Bishkek from Washington.

When calm is restored, the balance of power in Kyrgyzstan will have shifted. Internal and external forces will no longer be aligned as they have been. New loyalties and regional partnerships will have emerged and will require new terms of engagement. Kyrgyz leaders will find themselves more dependent on Moscow than ever.

Dormant sparks of ethnic friction fanned to rise into flames will not be put off easily or soon. The scars will prove deeper and will take much longer to heal. The exodus of over 100,000 people from Southern Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan risks destabilizing the volatile Ferghana valley where Kyrgyzstan's borders meet with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. A peacekeeping force is required now, before peaceful ethnic coexistence is further jeopardized, Kyrgyzstan becomes ungovernable, and threatens to plunge an already volatile region into greater instability.

The Ferghana valley, because of its complicated ethnic composition and arbitrary border divisions, has been on the radar of the international organizations for long. Recent events demand that such organizations take stock of past and current risk management solutions, which solutions could have been offered to the newly independent states of Central Asia, and how effectively they can address the real needs of ordinary Central Asians in those vulnerable valleys The international community must learn from this crisis, develop insights and put into place conflict prevention and resolution measure to help ensure that such a tragedy never unfolds again..