by Rhodri C. Williams
The mayhem in southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week has been viewed primarily from a humanitarian perspective to date, with the main media focus on the rapidly escalating death toll, as well as the condition of some 300,000 Uzbek minority citizens displaced within Kyrgyzstan and a further 75,000 who found refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan. However, the New York Times recently picked up on the longer-term risk that the withdrawal of ethnic Uzbeks into heavily defended enclaves could portend the beginning of yet another frozen conflict at the crumbling edges of the former Soviet Empire:
While it is still early, the tensions here could lead to the kind of ethnic standoff that has repeatedly arisen across the former Soviet Union. These clashes — in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and elsewhere — are often referred to as frozen conflicts because they have not been resolved over many years. They entangle the major powers, as in the case of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the renegade enclave of South Ossetia, which soured relations between Russia and the West, particularly the United States.
The government had been hoping to solidify its standing by holding a referendum on a new constitution on June 27, but the ethnic violence has thrown those plans into doubt. Ethnic Uzbeks, who make up about 15 percent of the population, will not take part in the voting unless international peacekeepers arrive in Kyrgyzstan, an unlikely prospect.
If the referendum is canceled, then the government may be further adrift.
Although the Kyrgyz provisional government has acknowledged that the death toll may be much higher than reported, it has been slow in responding to the humanitarian needs of victims, defensive about reports that Army units were involved in attacks on Uzbek civilians, and reluctant to explicitly acknowledge the inter-ethnic element of the attacks. Unsurprisingly, some Uzbeks have responded by circling their wagons and demanding ethnic separation and autonomy within the country.