Risk of another post-Soviet frozen conflict in Kyrgyzstan

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.

As reported in the New York Times:

In the Cheryomushki neighborhood [of Osh], a nursery school teacher, Feruza Mamasadikova, 33, wandered around the interior courtyard of her home, so livid she was talking to herself. She said she had hoped the back section of the house might have been spared, but it was not. Nothing was left. Hunks of charred debris were everywhere. Even the walls had burned to the ground.

She said it seemed as if the rioters looted the place before igniting the gasoline. “They even took the carpets,” she said. “After that, they still had to set it on fire. Like beasts.”

“We don’t know where we are going to get help,” she said. “Winter is going to come, and we don’t know where to live. Our ancestors lived here. Our grandparents and back and back. We don’t want to leave. We want to stay in this neighborhood.”

“What kind of future do we have for our children?”

Nearby, the home of Syedgulam Abdulladjanov, 66, was also destroyed. Mr. Abdulladjanov said there was only one way to resolve the bad blood between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz: Uzbeks must receive their own autonomous zone.

“We must be separated from them,” he said. “We can rule over ourselves. We are a peaceful people.”

Such a sudden and violent deterioration in ethnic relations recalls numerous earlier crises in the wake of the Cold War that went on to trigger secessionist conflicts and full blown wars between Soviet and Yugoslav successor states. There is even a degree of resemblance to the early 1960s violence in Cyrus that sent Turkish Cypriots into enclaves, setting up the eventual Turkish invasion and de facto partition of the country in 1974.

In this light is not surprising that organizations such as International Crisis Group have called for an investigation by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, an institution set up to deal with post-Cold War ethnic conflicts when they were at their worst. Indeed, both ICG and Human Rights Watch have noted the need for robust minority protection and accountability measures in order to rebuild the level of inter-community trust needed to allow sustainable return of the many displaced:

… given the destruction of hundreds of houses, many of the displaced have no homes to return to even should they feel safe to do so. Repatriation of the displaced will require much greater security and confidence within the displaced community.

International security assistance is urgently needed. An international stabilization mission of limited size could make a significant difference by securing the area for humanitarian relief, providing security for some of the displaced to return home, and creating space for reconciliation, confidence-building, and mediation programs to succeed. This mission would have a policing mandate and could be bolstered by military forces, particularly constabulary forces or gendarmes, if necessary.

Security Council Members should work without delay with regional organizations to ensure that such a mission is fielded as quickly as possible, with the endorsement of the Security Council and with specific terms of reference, clear rules of engagement, and a limited duration. Countries with capacity to engage quickly, in particular Russia, should be encouraged to contribute to the rapid deployment of such a mission.

A short-term security presence is crucial to establishing the humanitarian corridor requested by the United Nations and should lead the way for multilateral efforts to create a secure political environment for the eventual, but delayed, holding of a constitutional referendum and elections, and a longer-term effort to strengthen the rule of law and the protection of minorities, as well as to assist the government in security-sector reform.

Accountability for the recent violence, including on the part of state authorities, will be essential to securing long-term stability and reconciliation. The government should be encouraged to investigate crimes, ensure the protection of witnesses, and hold accountable those responsible for the violence. Given the extent and character of the violence, however, government efforts toward accountability should have an international component to be credible and effective. As an immediate step, the government should cooperate with OHCHR to begin investigations.

If such an investigation is forthcoming, it will have its hands full in establishing a mutually acceptable narrative on what happened, let alone rebuilding trust between the majority and minority communities. As the New York Times reported yesterday, even as they order the demolition of barriers protecting Uzbek neighborhoods, local authorities are in full-blown denial that rogue army units may have attacked Uzbek civilians. Meanwhile, local Kyrgyz citizens have begun to engage in implausible and creepy narratives of Uzbek perfidy:

At the news conference, the Osh mayor said an investigation would determine who organized the violence. But he scoffed at accounts from numerous Uzbeks who have described how they were attacked by Kyrgyz soldiers.

“Anyone who wants to accuse our government of taking part, I categorically deny those rumors,” he said. “Soldiers, the military force of Kyrgyzstan, did not take part in this. It’s a lie, it’s slander. Our soldiers would never shoot peaceful people.”

Asked who organized the attacks, the mayor referred vaguely to “outside forces” and “Islamic militants.” He maintained that Uzbeks still supported him. “They trust me and believe in me,” he said.

Still, the deep ethnic divide was apparent in interviews with Kyrgyz who were in the conference hall.

Nasikhat Kurmanbayeva, 29, was searching for information about her sister, who disappeared during the rioting.

“The Kyrgyz people have good souls, they are a simple, peaceful people,” Ms. Kurmanbayeva said.

She had a clear explanation for the extensive damage in Uzbek neighborhoods. “The Uzbeks destroyed and set fire to their own homes so that they could then blame the Kyrgyz,” she said. “They want the world to think that the Kyrgyz are guilty.”

However, the element that is so far missing in this nightmare scenario is an ethnic “mother country” with revanchist claims waiting for the opportunity to protect its asserted constituency abroad through a helpful readjustment of borders. Despite the precarious situation of the large Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, neighboring Uzbekistan appears to be more concerned about upholding the principle of its own recently won territorial integrity than exercising any expansionist ambitions it might harbor.

The Uzbek foreign ministry’s official reaction to the coup in Kyrgyzstan last April was sanguine, affirming that the overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was viewed as an internal affair of the Kyrgyz Republic and (perhaps a bit prematurely, in retrospect) affirming the “wisdom and prudence of the Kyrgyz people, their ability to find and mobilize efforts to revive peace and social stability in the country”.

Following the eruption of ethnic rioting in the south, a 14 June statement by the Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs noted the particular concern of his country for the fate of its ethnic compatriats across the border but was careful to distinguish the provocations behind the events from the policies of the provisional Government and the attitudes of the broad Kyrgyz public:

The fact that all these widespread cases of murder, robbery and burning of houses are taking place against the Uzbek diaspora living in Osh city and Osh region are epecially causing the feeling of intolerance and serious concern.

There is every reason to conclude that such actions have an organized, managed and provocative character, they have a far-reaching goal to provoke inter-ethnic confrontation, and create intolerable conditions for national minorities living in southern Kyrgyzstan.

We have no doubt that all this is taking place under the instigation of forces, whose interests are totally far from the interests of the Kyrgyz people.

Everything that is happening in Osh today in no way responds to traditional centuries-old, historically tried and tested relations of friendship and cooperation between all nations and nationalities in Kyrgyzstan.

Shortly afterwards, Uzbek President Islam Karimov also downplayed the situation in Kyrgyzstan at a Tashkent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In his speech, Karimov buried his remarks on Kyrgyzstan at the end of a long address on Afghanistan and then simply declared that the riots – like the earlier coup – were an internal affair:

Speaking about regional security and stability, I would like to very briefly touch upon the situation in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan’s relations to the events in this republic are clearly reflected in the statement of the Uzbek Foreign Ministry made on April 9, 2010. We believe this is an internal affair of Kyrgyzstan, and that says everything.

I believe that the public and the people of Kyrgyzstan have enough practical wisdom and reason to solve the difficult situation that is developing today in this country.

The Declaration of the SCO Summit in Tashkent that we are going to sign today fixes the common position of member states on this issue. Its main essence is to express our solidarity with the Kyrgyz people, common concerns over the difficult situation in the country, readiness to render necessary assistance to the Kyrgyz Republic in order to faster stabilize the situation and legitimize the authorities and to strengthen the socio-economic situation in the country.

Subsequent communications by President Karimov with the UN Secretary General and the US Secretary of State struck a similar tone of humanitarian concern and diplomatic emollience. This reaction by the state most poised to sense a crass opportunity in the Kyrgyz crisis appears to represent a reassuring sign that the persistent fragility of states around the former Soviet rim has convinced their governments that they are better served by strict observance of the forms of sovereignty than short-term opportunism.

Indeed, the fact that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization itself failed to support Russia’s summer 2008 incursion in Georgia is revealing, showing that the territorial integrity even of a non-member state registered as more significant than the policy imperatives of one of the Organization’s weightiest members.

It remains problematic that the pendulum has swung so far from the ethnic revanchist free-for-all in the 1990s to today’s status quo fixation, in that the latter has encouraged the authoritarian and repressive tendencies of many states in Central Asia once notionally oriented toward political liberalization. However, if sovereignty concerns prove capable of at least containing murderous ethnic tensions within borders, that is no mean feat given the record in the region.

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One response to “Risk of another post-Soviet frozen conflict in Kyrgyzstan

  1. Pingback: Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 2 – Unen-durable Solutions | TerraNullius

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