Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Violence “Alarm Bell” for Central Asia

Regional leaders should not conclude that cure to unrest lies in more repression, analysts say.
By Dina Tokbaeva, Lola Olimova
  • A vehicle proclaims its owner's ethnic allegiance as Kyrgyz as it races through Osh in the violent summer of 2010. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)
    A vehicle proclaims its owner's ethnic allegiance as Kyrgyz as it races through Osh in the violent summer of 2010. (Photo: Inga Sikorskaya)

The mass ethnic violence around Osh and Jalalabad in June 2010 was a traumatic event that has scarred neighbouring Central Asian states as well as Kyrgyzstan itself.

Analysts say there is a danger other Central Asian leaders will conclude that the only way of preventing similar things happening is to crack down hard at home. Such tactics might be inadequate to deal with the multiple risk factors facing the region, which include massive poverty and organised crime as well as Islamic radicalism with connections to Afghanistan.

The fighting in June, concentrated, over several days in southern Kyrgyzstan left over 400 people dead, and homes and businesses looted and burned. (IWPR covered these events extensively, for example in Renewed Unrest in South Kyrgyzstan and South Kyrgyzstan Slides Out of Control.)

The precise causes of the conflict are unclear, but they followed months of political disturbances after President Kurmanbek Bakiev was driven from power in a popular unrest. The June clashes were of another order altogether from previous incidents, pitting ethnic Kyrgyz against Uzbeks in acts of orchestrated rather than casual violence.

Kyrgyzstan is now more stable than it was, and many hope a parliamentary election in October will eventually produce a stronger and more legitimate government than the interim administration that succeeded Bakiev. However, the winning parties remain locked in disputes over coalition-building, and there are also questions about whether governance has really been restored in the south, and about the fairness of trials arising out the violence.

Farhod Tolipov is a political analyst in Uzbekistan, a country that temporarily hosted tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fleeing the fighting in Kyrgyzstan. He argues that for Uzbekistan, too, the violence was “without doubt the most significant event of the last year”.

“Since these events began moving, they have continued until now, albeit in a different form – they have sown deep mistrust between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan. This will also leave its mark on inter-state relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for many years to come,” Tolipov said.

“I think this was a kind of moment of truth, a signal or warning; a bell which has tolled across the whole Central Asian region.”

 Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based journalist and Central Asia expert, says the violence has prompted governments in other regional states to blame attempts to build democracy for Kyrgyzstan’s woes, in other words justifying their authoritarian rule and prompting them to strengthen domestic security arrangements further.

“The leaders of all the neighbouring countries in the region have been saying, and will probably continue to say, “Look at what happens when things are allowed to slide, as happened in Kyrgyzstan under the guise of democracy,’” Dubnov said.

The practical conclusion these leaders have drawn is that “they need to strengthen their punitive agencies and security services”. That kind of reaction, Dubnov added, was a feature of countries where “domestic problems are not resolved in a democratic fashion, which is true of all the Central Asia republics to varying degrees”.

As Kyrgyzstan’s politicians struggle to build a system that – under a new constitution passed in June – is supposed to move the country from the strong presidential rule typical of regional states to a fairer parliamentary model, Dubnov said it was important for them to steer clear of the populist, nationalist sentiment that has emerged this year.

Martha Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, agreed that this year’s turbulence made shaping Kyrgyzstan’s political future more difficult.

“The ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiev, and the subsequent inter-ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan have further divided Kyrgyz society and made it harder for a stable and lasting ruling coalition to be formed. Part of the difficulty in forming a coalition is because of the nature of the new Kyrgyz constitution, and its nascent political party structure,” she said.

“It is also a reflection of a more general problem that other countries in the region are likely to experience, which is that the limitations on political participation in each of these countries have limited the emergence of independent-minded political elites, which is likely to create a crisis of elite competence when political power is transferred, as it will inevitably be when the current political leaders in Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and Tajikistan exit the political arena.”

Tajikistan experienced unrest of a different kind in 2010, which peaked in September with an ambush in which 25 soldiers were killed by armed militants in the eastern Rasht valley. This incident and subsequent skirmishes in the same area invoked ghosts of the 1992-97, as former anti-government guerrillas were said to be involved. (See Tajik Authorities Struggle to Quell Militants.)

 Reports that the dissident fighters were in contact with, and may have been assisted by, Islamic paramilitaries from neighbouring Afghanistan added an alarming dimension to what might otherwise have been seen as a localised clash. Experts say the incident shows how, given the proximity of a highly unstable Afghanistan, Tajikistan is at risk of becoming the weak point through which instability spreads into Central Asia.

 A Moscow-based Central Asia expert, Sanobar Shermatova, said the Tajik government should respond to challenges from dissident armed groups in a measured way, including the possibility of negotiating with them.

“If the government sees these people as a potential threat to itself and is keen to ‘sweep the area clean’, it won’t be a productive battle,” she said. “It’s better for Tajikistan to be a united, strong state [held together through] national reconciliation.”

Olcott said the deteriorating political and security situation in Afghanistan is, “if not spilling over into Central Asia, at least serving as a training ground for politically disaffected Islamists in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These people are likely to try to use growing popular dissatisfaction in Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan in particular, to their advantage.”

At the same time, she said it was too easy to blame radical Islamists for acts of violence, while there were also forces keen to create trouble in Central Asia.

“Criminal groups without ties to jihadist groups are also potential sources of terrorist attacks. Yet rather than try and confront these criminal groups, there is likely to be a tendency to blame radical Islam for any and all violence that occurs,” Olcott said, adding that “there is the further risk that the governments in the region will target Islamic dissenters and further politicise Islam, and so increase social tensions and polarise society unnecessarily”.

In the context of both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Eduard Poletaev, a political analyst in Kazakstan, said governments preferred to look for enemies to blame rather than discuss deeper problems that made instability possible in the first place.

“Political elites do not want to acknowledge that problems might lie with them, and with economic and social conditions in their country,” he said. “It’s easier for them to point the finger elsewhere, at certain forces that are trying to destabilise things…. It’s obvious that destructive forces can only cause instability where the preconditions exist for that to happen.”

Poletaev said that by identifying such threats to stability, governments were simultaneously justifying their own legitimacy and appealing for support from large powers like Russia or the United States. But they would be wrong to expect other countries to come in from outside and sort out their problems for them, he added.

“Foreign players are pursuing their own geopolitical interests, and they do need stability. But none of them wants to shed its [own troops’] blood to restore order, in the event that a situation of conflict arises again,” he said.

Poletaev’s conclusion is that Central Asia’s leaders should try to work together to address common problems. “The one thing that’s clear is that we’re bound together by much more than our [common] Soviet past,” he said.

Regional cooperation and integration have been difficult to achieve in the two decades since the Central Asian republics became separate countries, and they are often in dispute over water, energy, and border issues.

As Poletaev pointed out, matters are complicated by the fact that many of their leaders do not get on with one another. “The modern history of Central Asia is written mainly by the relationships between leaders, and these personal relationships are well known to all,” he said.

Dina Tokbaeva is acting regional editor for Central Asia; Lola Olimova is IWPR’s Tajikistan editor and Yulia Goryaynova is an IWPR editor covering Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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