Most observers at the moment are in the dark as to the causes and the instigators of the riots in the Osh and Jalalabad regions of Kyrgyzstan, which have been ongoing since 10 June.
There is a huge social and cultural fault line between southern and northern Kyrgyzstan, a fact which in the past has proved to be the source of much internal tension. For instance, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, overthrown in April by a popular revolt in Bishkek, came from the south and got most of his support from that region. Soon after the outbreak of violence in Osh and Jalalabad the Interim Government accused Bakiev’s clan, as well as organised criminal groups linked to him, of encouraging people in the south to riot and financing the clashes. The situation is so dramatic for the authorities that the Deputy Premier Almazbek Atambayev went as far as expressing concerns that the north of the country could see a repetition of the bloodshed that took place in the south. The central government is so weak and the scale of the disturbances so large that one cannot rule out a de facto collapse of the territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan.
> Map of Kyrgyzstan
Acrimony between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks has existed in southern Kyrgyzstan particularly since 1989-90, when similar incidents occurred in the city of Osh, and the main source of the conflict is the iniquitous distribution of resources in the Fergana Valley, an issue which has remained unresolved since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Also, in 1991 the new Central Asian state inherited the same state borders that were devised in the 1930s on the Stalinist principle of “divide and rule.” These cross ethnic boundaries, sources of water supplies and traditional paths of communication. Uzbeks who live in that part of Kyrgyzstan have not developed a “Kyrgyz identity.” Nevertheless, last week’s events bear the hallmark of provocations aimed at stirring up discord to weaken the stability of Kyrgyzstan and to force a change of the country’s policy. The breakdown of Bakiev’s Government has proved to be the catalyst.
The crisis has patently an international dimension. The clashes rapidly gained such huge proportions that Roza Otunbayeva, the Acting President of Kyrgyzstan, and her acting Ministers were confronted with the impossibility of stabilising the situation by themselves. On June 12 they appealed to Russia to send “impartial peacekeepers to separate the two sides.” The Russian President’s press spokeswoman initially stated that the Russian Government had refused to become involved in the conflict. Seeing for the moment no strategic payoff following an engagement, the Kremlin has nonetheless sent a battalion of airborne troops to the Kant Russian Air Force base about 20 kilometres from Bishkek, with the official task of strengthening the base’s defence.
On 14 June the Secretaries of the Security Councils of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), of which Russia and Kyrgyzstan are members, held an emergency session at its headquarters in Moscow. The statement released at the end of the session amounted to promising Otunbayeva’s Interim Government logistical, military and technical assistance. However the CSTO members refused to provide Kyrgyzstan with weaponry, although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted in his declarations after the meeting that preparations for an intervention were being made.
The CSTO has its own Collective Rapid Reaction Force (KSOR) in the region. Nominally, every member country of the organisation is represented in the KSOR by two battalions, with the exception of Uzbekistan and Belarus, which declined to sign the February 4, 2009 agreement on the creation of the KSOR. The KSOR is a fully fledged brigade with its own armoured vehicles and artillery pieces. Units of national armies are based at their permanent quarters, but joint drills and exercises are frequent.
There is a certain evasiveness in the Russia-dominated CSTO and The Kremlin’s position on the Kyrgyz crisis. This possibly stems, on the one hand, from a desire to avoid being accused of any interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state – a practice which Russia has been accused of on numerous occasions since the beginning of the 21st century – and, on the other, from Russia’s emphasis on its role as the only “great power” which could conduct an effective and successful military intervention.
Also, in the case of a further escalation and spreading of tension to neighbouring states, The Kremlin doubtless expects that international support for such an intervention will grow (time is on Russia’s side). In such a scenario, the Interim Government in Bishkek would be pressured into requesting the intervention of the Russians with the support of world opinion, the agreement of the regional states (there is a big question mark over China’s agreement, however) and, last but not least, the US. In all likelihood, the intervention would be carried out under the banner of the CSTO. The Russians would not lose time in strengthening the mandate of the “stabilisation forces.” However, recently we have witnessed a worsening of relations between the Kyrgyz Interim Government and the CSTO when the latter’s Secretary, Nikolai Bordyuzha, suggested that Bishkek pick the Kyrgyz KGB General Miroslav Niyazov to handle talks with the security organisation. Otunbayeva’s Interim Government sees in Niyazov a potential competitor for power, the more so if it is dragged deeper into the mire of ethnic violence.
What happens in Kyrgyzstan matters also to the United States, for three reasons. First, Kyrgyzstan is part of a dangerous neighbourhood, starting with Afghanistan. Second, the United States has troops stationed at the Manas base which provide support and reinforcement to US actions in Afghanistan and also sustain the Interim Government. Third, Kyrgyzstan is of interest, because of its proximity and history, to both Russia and China. If those two powers are interested in a country, the US has to be. The US base is near the Chinese border. A power vacuum or significant disorder would be a threat to US interests in Kyrgyzstan and the region.
But more importantly, the country is 75 percent Muslim. The escalation of the “Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) – now renamed the “war against Al-Qaeda” under the Obama administration – into “the long war”, and its dangerous spillover effects, legitimise the consolidation and open-ended duration of US armed forces presence in Kyrgyzstan and more generally Central Asia.
> Central Asia Map
The infiltration of drugs and armed militants into Central Asia has transformed the region into a fertile ground of instability, a centre of transnational organised criminal activity. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan’s physical centrality makes it vulnerable to spillover instability to its neighbours. It is now increasingly encapsulated by an intertwined web of terrorist networks: Russia’s Chechens and Dagestani to the north, China’s Uighurs to the east, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Al Qaeda, and various other terrorist groups to the south.
Southern Central Asia, in particular, with its close historical and trade links to Afghanistan, now serves as a vital conduit from Afghanistan and increasingly a focal point for the training and basing of militant terrorist groups. At the heart of Central Asia’s security crisis is the Fergana Valley. Since the late 1990s this region has been fervently contested by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and has endured continuous armed clashes, led by the IMU through raids and terrorist attacks, including car bombings, full-scale village assaults and the kidnapping of foreigners. Aiming to spearhead global jihadism, this militant group seeks to establish a transnational caliphate starting with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and ultimately expanding beyond the periphery of Central Asia’s Muslim regions.
Before 9/11, the IMU established intimate relations with al-Qaeda and became the most financed militant organisation in Afghanistan. As a result, these generous financial resources allowed the organisation more leverage to maneouvre efficiently and engage in sophisticated attacks to achieve concrete results throughout the Central Asia region. Security forces have uncovered several plots to overthrow Uzbek President Islam Karimov and an attack on the American airbase in Bishkek in November 2003, but the suicide attacks against the US E mbassy in Tashkent in July 2004 were successfully executed. Once the US-led coalition consolidated its presence in Afghanistan , the IMU reduced its domestic activities to, instead, concentratinge more on attacking NATO’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Thus thee situation in Kyrgyzstan could rapidly dissolve into also creating near chaos in Afghanistan.
Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in Iinternational Rrelations at the University of Georgia
The Georgian Times