Will Kyrgyzstan Violence Draw in Russia or the U.S.?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Anvar Ilyasov / AP

Uzbek humanitarian workers carry a wounded Uzbek man who fled from Kyrgyzstan near the border village of Jalal-Kuduk on June 14, 2010

Updated: June 15, 2010

Not even a season has passed, and again Kyrgyz cities are burning, with bodies littering the streets. In April, a bloody revolution left more than 80 dead in the northern part of the country, where the U.S. has a military base that is vital to the war in Afghanistan. A shaky new government then came to power. Now another round of massacres is under way, as gangs of Kyrgyz men have been slaughtering ethnic Uzbeks for the past four days in the southern part of the country, reportedly burning their homes and shooting at women and children. Some experts say the violence could spread across the region, where ethnic hatred and scarce resources have created an atmosphere ripe for cross-border conflict. Both Russia and the U.S. have a lot to lose if Kyrgyzstan falls into chaos.

By some measures, it already has. The tally of casualties and the shortage of food and medicine have led the International Committee of the Red Cross to deem the situation a humanitarian catastrophe. As of the morning of June 15, at least 170 people had been killed and 1,500 wounded, according to the Kyrgyz Health Ministry. That death toll, however, appears to include only the people who were admitted to hospitals. Many more victims are likely to be found in the buildings that have been systematically torched or in the mosques and cemeteries where the dead have been taken for hasty burials. Across the border in Uzbekistan, authorities say that perhaps 100,000 refugees have already entered the country, while another 80,000 victims, many with gunshot wounds, are waiting to escape.

Once they do, experts say, they will likely be housed near the huge community of ethnic Kyrgyz in northern Uzbekistan, setting the stage for revenge attacks. This may be one of the reasons that U.N. official Lynn Pascoe said on June 15 that he wanted Kyrgyzstan to set up a humanitarian corridor to help people affected by the deadly fighting. Pascoe also said he wanted to get help to Uzbekistan to make sure it could deal with the influx of refugees. The fighting is reported to have continued overnight, but Kyrgyzstan's interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, said on June 15 that there wasn't a need for a peacekeeping force and that a constitutional referendum would go ahead on June 27.

Uzbekistan's media have not yet shown Uzbeks the extent of the carnage in Kyrgyzstan. But along with whatever possessions they can grab, the Uzbek refugees will be carrying cell-phone videos and photos of the victims. These will likely include footage posted on the Internet over the weekend of charred bodies, wounded children and a flood of victims being dropped off at hospitals.

"In a situation where one ethnic group is suddenly attacked in one part of this valley, it triggers all kinds of other chain reactions," says Pavel Baev, an expert on the region at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Spread across the mutually hostile and impoverished countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia includes some of the region's most fertile and cherished land. But, says Baev, "the ethnic groups there create a real mosaic of conflict and warring interests."

When the U.S. opened its military base in the Kyrgyz city of Manas in 2001, Washington was well aware of this volatile composition. In June 1990, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks led to about 300 deaths and were only stopped when Moscow's forces intervened. Consideration of the situation has been overshadowed, however, by the U.S. military's need to get supplies to its troops in Afghanistan, and the Manas base has become its main Central Asian hub for that purpose. On June 11, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was concerned about the clashes and was continuing "to talk to the Kyrgyz government about the transit center at Manas."

But that government has been overwhelmed by the unrest, admitting on June 13 that it had lost control of the country's second largest city, Osh. It has since asked Russia to intervene. Now it is far from clear whether the Kyrgyz government's assurances about Manas can be trusted, says Alexander Kliment, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a political consultancy. If Moscow does decide to send in troops, effectively taking control of part of the country, "it may be that Washington has to fundamentally reassess whom, in fact, it is negotiating with on this question," Kliment says.

The Kyrgyz government is claiming that the ethnic clashes are part of a broader campaign by recently ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to destabilize his own country. Bakiyev, whose power base is among the ethnic Kyrgyz in the south who appear to be at the forefront of the violence, fled to Belarus in April after being deposed in a bloody coup and popular uprising. But he still has fierce support among southern Kyrgyz clans, as well as a sizable fortune that he amassed while in office. On June 13, he denied any involvement in the attacks. The Kyrgyz news agency AKI Press reported on June 14, however, that his relatives were seen leading the marauders, and Otunbayeva has echoed the claims of local police that Bakiyev's relatives orchestrated the killings.

Fueling the debate over the Bakiyev family's involvement is an audio recording from about a month ago of two men discussing plans to arm up to 500 "thugs" to spread chaos across southern Kyrgyzstan. Posted anonymously on YouTube on May 19, the recording has a caption identifying the voices as those of Bakiyev's powerful son Maxim and his uncle Janybek, who helped lead the country's security forces under the previous government. Although people familiar with the men say the voices sound like the Bakiyevs, both men have denied the authenticity of the recording. At the time, the ousted President said he could neither confirm nor deny if it were genuine. No matter, the conversation has turned out to be eerily prescient. The two men said the unrest should begin in the evening, sometime in the first three weeks of June, and that the attackers must be well equipped, not just with stones and clubs but with firearms, leading to clashes far worse than those seen during the April coup. All of that has now apparently come true.

Paul Quinn-Judge, the International Crisis Group's director in Central Asia and a former Moscow bureau chief for TIME, says the involvement of the Bakiyev family in these massacres has "an element of plausibility," but cautioned that "people are searching for the easy answer right now and not necessarily the accurate one." Speaking by phone from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, he adds, "I would not be surprised if they got involved in the second wave of unrest to keep it going." That would allow Bakiyev's clan to discredit the interim government, a professed aim of the ousted President's supporters that is clearly being achieved. The government has been unable to stop the violence from spreading to surrounding cities and villages, despite the state of emergency that Otunbayeva declared in the south and the shoot-to-kill order given to police to stop the attackers on June 13.

In the coming days, the international community will need to decide whether it will meet Otunbayeva's request for military assistance. Russia is considering it but has said it does not want to go in alone. It also has an important military base to defend in the northern part of the country. But neither Moscow nor Washington seems eager to get involved in a possible civil war or cross-border clashes. For now, that leaves aid groups struggling to cope with a humanitarian crisis which, according to a statement from the Red Cross, "is getting worse and worse by the hour."