Marcus Cox letter from Kyrgyzstan – Why the referendum should go forward

by Marcus Cox

I’m just back from Kyrgyzstan, where I just happened to be when the country went south (spent an interesting evening watching the opening of the World Cup in a pub with the door barricaded and a riot outside.)

The question of whether to proceed with the referendum is actually a rather tricky one.  The previous Kyrgyz government, which was about as venal as they come, was toppled unexpectedly in April in a popular/Moscow-backed uprising.  The current interim government is in limbo, unable to receive the emergency budget support from the World Bank and other donors that it desperately needs due to its unclear legitimacy.  The draft constitution up for approval in the referendum is, by the standards of the region, remarkably democratic and progressive.  I don’t think it’s passage will in any way disenfranchise the Uzbeks.  It will provide the interim government with constitutional status, pending elections in October.

Against that background, there is clear evidence that the violence in Osh was instigated by the previous regime (now in exile in Belarus) to prevent the referendum going ahead, plunge the country into instability and either engineer a return to power or protect their many dubious economic interests.  The previous president and his family had stolen US$300 million from the country’s Development Fund, which you buys you a lot of trouble in Kyrgyzstan.  In the early days of the conflict, there were reports of unmarked vehicles driving into Uzbek neighbourhoods and shooting people at random, and then going into Kyrgyz neighbourhoods and telling people to flee before the Uzbeks retaliated.  Alas, despite some encouraging stories of Kyrgyz sheltering Uzbek neighbours, the provocation has proved all too successful, as the region’s many criminal elements, plus the mass of impoverished and undereducated young Kyrgyz men, have taken advantage of the ensuing chaos.

Against that background, cancelling the referendum would hand victory to those most responsible for this crisis, and in all likelihood cause the collapse of the current regime.  It’s hard to be sure, but my gut feeling is that this is the scenario most likely to lead to an escalation of conflict across the entire country.

I don’t believe the interim government has an anti-Uzbek agenda at all, but it has almost no capacity to intervene to stop the violence.  The army is small, under-equipped, unprofessional and poorly motivated.  The police were totally discredited in last April’s rebellion, when they failed to intervene in any useful way.  I don’t know whether elements of the army have been involved in violence in Osh – the consensus in international circles in Bishkek was that they have not, but nobody really knows – or if they are, whether they have been paid off by the previous regime or gone into business in their own right.  They are certainly not following orders from Bishkek.  But of course, it is characteristic of weak states that have lost the monopoly on force that, when they do intervene, they do so very badly.

The priorities now are to restore law and order in Osh and Jalabad, clear the way for humanitarian assistance and hope that, when the Uzbeks return home, the traditions of good neighbourliness among ordinary people have not been totally destroyed.  This calls for international support to the interim government to survive and regain control of the situation.  But special envoys and humanitarian supplies are not going to achieve this, and short of Russian military intervention, I don’t think anything else is on offer.

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3 responses to “Marcus Cox letter from Kyrgyzstan – Why the referendum should go forward

  1. Many thanks to Marcus for some insights on Kyrgyzstan that are far more informed than my bleary morning headline perusals.

    Although I am now convinced of the urgency of the referendum and would not argue for a moment that the interim government is anti-Uzbek, my concern remains that the nature of the authorities’ response appears likely to further alienate Uzbeks, but out of inadvertance and insensitivity rather than design.

    While there may be an immediate term political cost to acknowledging Uzbek victimhood and taking at least symbolic steps to encourage rapid return, the longer term costs of failing to do so may be even higher. Meanwhile current, legitimate efforts to secure control of the south are being carried out in a precipitate manner that risks re-igniting the violence.

    In this context, Marcus’ reference to “when Uzbeks return home” cannot necessarily be taken as a given and the type of diplomatic capacity-building approach that has paid off in the past for the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities may have an important role to play.

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