Why did Kyrgyzstan suddenly erupt into violence?
Four days after violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan, the embattled interim government is still unable to control the ongoing fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups in the provinces of Osh and Jalalabad. At least 120 people have died and thousands have been injured during the four days of unrest. According to the Russian media, up to 75,000 refugees have begun crossing the Uzbek border. Local NGOs believe the real number could be much higher. Short of troops, equipment, fuel, and reliable communication devices, the Kyrgyz military has been ill equipped to quell the violence. The new government, which took power in a violent uprising just three months ago, has found itself over its head and called for military support from Russia over the weekend. But Moscow declined the plea, declaring the violence to be an internal Kyrgyzstan issue.
While the violence has captured the world's attention, outside observers seem unsure about why it has suddenly erupted and the conflicting explanations offered by the participants haven't exactly helped matters. Local officials say the unrest broke out as news spread of a fight between young patrons at a casino in Osh. The groups of young Kyrgyz patrolling the streets of Osh and Jalalabad blame Uzbeks for starting the fighting as part of a plot by neighboring Uzbekistan to wrest control of the region.
Adding more uncertainty to the mix, the Kyrgyz provisional government has accused deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev -- who draws much of his support from the Southern Kyrgyz -- of instigating the unrest through proxies as a way to disrupt a planned constitutional referendum on June 27. The referendum would have given the country's new leaders a foundation for establishing legitimacy.
Kyrgyz military officials say that agents of Bakiyev dispatched well-trained mercenary snipers to Osh and Jalalabad who shot indiscriminately at locals to spread chaos. While it's not surprising that the new government would seek to pin the blame on its predecessor, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the unrest may have been carefully orchestrated. These include attempts by unidentified armed groups to seize control of TV channels, universities, and local government buildings during the fighting, unlikely targets for a mob driven purely by ethnic animosity.
One might think that Kygyzstan's southern region would be a tinderbox for ethnic confrontation. Uzbeks are the largest ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan after Russians, making up over 13 percent of the population. In Osh and Jalalabad, however, Uzbeks constitute the majority of the population. The Uzbek minority is largely excluded from Kyrgyzstan's political system, though they dominate the country's merchant class. Disputes over water and land use between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are common in the south. The Soviet Union spent decades trying unsuccessfully to suppress ethnic nationalism in the area and in 1990, when the Soviet military was unable to put a stop to a three-month-long inter-ethnic battle between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh that resulted in hundreds of deaths, it was taken as a sign of Moscow's diminished power over its regions.
But the early years of Kyrgyz independence, the two groups were generally able to settle disputes without resorting to violence, much of which was due to former leader Askar Akayev's policies of rapprochement. He made the advancement of ethnic minorities a priority, granting land to the Uzbek community and building Uzbek language universities under a policy known as "Kyrgyzstan - Our Common Home." Uzbeks were overwhelmingly supportive of Akayev, but their fortunes turned for the worse when Bakiyev overthrew him in 2005. While he never directly suppressed the Uzbek community, Bakiyev mostly ignored their grievances and allowed the ethnic situation to return to its normal state of animosity. Under his leadership, drug traffickers and organized criminal groups found a safe haven in Kyrgyzstan's south, further frustrating local residents. All the same, the president's firm hand kept ethnic violence to a minimum.
Since Bakiyev's downfall earlier this year, however, ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan have spiralled out of control. In April, a group of Meshketian Turks, a small Muslim minority group, were attacked by provocateurs in the outskirts of Bishkek. In May, ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed in much small riots in Jalalabad in a preview of this weekend's violence. The incidents highlighted the Kyrgyz provisional government's inability to maintain stability in the country and, despite his denials, have convinced many that Bakiyev is still acting behind the scenes to destabilize the new regime. The heavy deployment of troops to Osh has left other parts of the country vulnerable and fears are running high that the unrest could spread to other areas.
Unfortunately, the Kyrgyz military, predominantly made up of ethnic Kyrgyz, may itself be part of the problem. Many of its leaders share the suspicion that Uzbekistan plans to invade Kyrgyzstan to protect water resources and expand its territory. They are thus inclined to look upon local Uzbek residents as a fifth column; for their part, many Uzbek residents fear that they will be specifically targeted and are disinclined to trust the military to fairly resolve the dispute.
The interim government seems to have given up on solving the problem on its own and at this point, third-party mediated negotiations seem the only viable solution to bridge the trust gap between Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek and Kyrgyz population. Kyrgyzstan urgently needs the United Nations ‘and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's specialized peace mediators to engage Kyrgyz officials and leaders of the Uzbek diaspora before there is the need for peacekeeper involvement in the region.
Kyrgyzstan doesn't often find itself dominating the international headlines, but the stakes in this conflict are high. It is still the only state in Central Asia with viable and active political opposition, professional NGOs, and independent journalists. The upcoming referendum and the parliamentary elections that would follow could set a powerful example for the region. However, if Kyrgyzstan is left alone in solving its deep-rooted ethnic strife, the escalating violence threatens the very future of democracy in Central Asia.