Originally Published 2010-07-14 00:00:00 Published on Jul 14, 2010
Hit by violent ethnic clashes, the Otunbayeva government faces a tough challenge to bring Kyrgyzstan out of the present crisis. One of the main challenges would be to conduct an impartial probe into the violence and punish the guilty to regain the confidence of the minorities.
Tough task ahead for Otunbayeva Govt in Kyrgyzstan
Amidst tensions, Kyrgyzstan conducted a national referendum on 27 June to change the constitution from a Presidential to a Parliamentary system and to legitimise the interim government. The Parliamentary election will be held in October 2010 and the Presidential election in December 2011. The change to a parliamentary democracy made Kyrgyzstan the only Central Asian Republic (CAR) to shift to this system. About 70 percent of the 5.5 million population participated in the referendum, of which 90.6 per cent voted in favour of the constitutional change and endorsed the interim government1 . All international observers have hailed the referendum as free and fair.

However, the referendum has also been criticized. An article in Open Democracy has called the referendum "flawed" because of restricted freedom of expression, biased media coverage, complication arising for putting to vote more than one issue simultaneously, faulty voting procedures, and non-participation of the Parliament2.

The past few months have not been easy for Kyrgyzstan. Violent protest ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power in April and an interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva, former Ambassador to the U.S. and U.K. took charge. Before her government could settle the political turmoil, another crisis gripped the country -- ethnic clashes between the Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minorities.

Uzbeks, the second largest ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan, constitute 15 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan. Osh and Jalalabad regions of southern Kyrgyzstan are the main Uzbek enclaves. Differences between the two ethnic groups have been distinct since ancient time. Uzbeks were the settled people, while the Kyrgyz led a nomadic life. Today, the Uzbeks, mainly engaged in commercial activities, are economically better off than the Kyrgyz. However, representation of Uzbeks in politics or government services is low. A violent ethnic clash had erupted in 1990 also, and hundreds were killed in the Osh region.

Differences between the two groups were brewing in recent times. And on 10 June, this took an ugly turn. On May 14, Batyrov, a local Uzbek businessman and a member of the Rodina (Motherland) Party, and his supporters helped the interim government clean the Jalalabad Provincial government headquarters of Bakiyev supporters. Batyrov and his supporters were also alleged to be responsible for burning down Bakiyev’s family house in his village in Jalalabad. The step taken by the Uzbeks did not go well with the ethnic Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan, which is Bakiyev’s stronghold.

The interim government of Otunbayeva, however, enjoyed the support of the Uzbek community. Moreover, Bakiyev’s bias towards the Kyrgyz made him unpopular among the Uzbeks. In May, Uzbeks demanded that the interim government improve the political status of the Uzbeks. The Kyrgyz saw these demands as the beginning of a movement for autonomy by the Uzbeks. A television interview by Batyrov is said to have further increased the inter community tensions. As quoted by a commentator in Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Batyrov was reported to have said that the "Kyrgyz security forces could not be trusted to protect ethnic Uzbeks and that alternatives, namely Uzbek patrols, would supplant Kyrgyz in protecting Uzbek neighbourhoods in southern cities"3 .

Another incident in the month of May further widened the gap between the two ethnic groups. On May 19, Kyrgyz mob razed the Peoples’ Friendship University at Jalalabad, founded by Batyrov. Two persons were killed and many others injured. Reports suggested that both the Kyrgyz attackers and pro Batyrov groups were armed.

The simmering tension flared-up on June 10. The violence started as a fight between the ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz at a casino in Osh4 . The violence gradually spread to Jalalabad. The interim government claims that Bakiyev and his supporters were behind the attack. Some others claim that the government military forces were involved in the violence. Whatever may have been the reason behind the violence, the ethnic clash have hit hard the social harmony in the country. The violence has caused severe humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan. More than 250 people have been killed and hundreds were injured5 . Some reports put the death toll much higher. According to reports, about 400,000 people were displaced6 . The incident led to serious refugee crisis as about 75,000 ethnic Uzbeks were displaced7 . Many took refuge in neighbouring Uzbekistan. However, Uzbekistan, unable to tackle the influx of refugees, closed its borders, creating further chaos.

In addition to the material and human loss, the inter-ethnic violence has left a deep impact on the minds of the youth. Educational institutions became the targets of attack. Three major universities -- Jalalabad State University, Jalalabad Medical University and Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh -- have been destroyed, jeopardising the future of several students, including several foreign students. A large number of foreign students from India, Pakistan, China and Turkey study in Kyrgyzstan, mainly in Osh and Jalalabad. The violence claimed the life of one Pakistani medical student. As the situation worsened, countries evacuated their citizens from the affected cities. 116 Indians were evacuated8 from the affected cities. Out of these, 106 were from Osh -- 99 students, one Professor and a businessperson9 . The rest were from Jalalabad.

Given this background, even after the situation normalises, the damage caused by the violence will take time to heal. Suspicion between the two communities will continue to grow, threatening the stability and national integrity.

The present crisis in Kyrgyzstan has a serious impact on regional politics also. Osh, the epicentre of the problem, is close to Ferghana valley, which has witnessed growth of extremism since independence. Continuing social tension is likely to help extremist forces strengthen their foothold. Resurgence of Taliban forces and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan is a concern for the CARs and Russia. Instability in the CARs would give the extremist forces opportunity to spread their network in the region, thereby threatening the security and stability of the entire region. Moreover, Osh is a major transit point of drug trafficking route from Afghanistan10 , which would further worsen if the situation is not controlled. Refugee problem would also create rift between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as Uzbekistan is facing the worst of the influx of Uzbeks fleeing from Kyrgyzstan. Turbulence in Kyrgyzstan could thus escalate tension in the region, a development all would like to avoid.

Also, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world that has both U.S. and Russian bases, adding to the geo-political importance of the Republic. The U.S. base at Manas is an important transit hub for the U.S.-led coalition operation in Afghanistan, which has been in use since 2001. Russia has a base at Kant since 2003. So far, both U.S. and Russia have acted cautiously and avoided being entangled in the internal affair of the Republic, averting an accentuation of their geo-political rivalry.

The interim government, however, requested Russia to send force as the situation worsened. However, Russia refused stating that the violence is an internal affair of Kyrgyzstan and instead sent humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan would have further complicated the geo-political complexities in the region. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia led regional security structure, also refrained from sending troops to Kyrgyzstan. CSTO stated that its mandate does not allow it to intervene in the domestic affairs of any country.

The legitimization of the interim government after the referendum raises hope of reconciliation. The Otunbayeva government faces a tough challenge in the coming days to bring the country out of the present crisis. One of the main challenges for the Otunbayeva government would be to conduct an impartial investigation of the ethnic violence and punish those guilty to regain the confidence of the ethnic minorities and preserve national unity. At the same time, the new government has to win over the Kyrgyz population in the south, which has been supporting Bakiyev. Given Bakiyev’s support base in the south, it would be difficult for the new government to go ahead with the reconciliation process without including Bakiyev and his supporters. The government also needs to address the economic grievances of the people that led to the downfall of the Bakiyev government to prevent reoccurrence of such an incident.

(Angira Sen Sarma is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

1 http://www.america.gov/st/sca-english/2010/June/20100628161650esnamfuak0.3745386.html.
2 Sureyya Yigit, "Kyrgyzstan’s flawed referendum", 2 July 2010, Accessed at http://www.opendemocracy.net/sureyya-yigit/kyrgyzstan%E2%80%99s-flawed-referendum.

3 Sam Khan, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks Say ’Our Voices Are Not Heard, 22 June 2010, Accessed at http://www.rferl.org/content/Kyrgyzstans_Uzbeks_Say_Our_Voices_Are_Not_Heard/2079281.html
4 Bruce Pannier, "Kyrgyzstan: Anatomy of a Crisis", 2 July , 2010, Accessed at http://www.rferl.org/content/Kyrgyzstan_Anatomy_Of_A_Conflict/2089464.html
5 http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE65O11120100625

6 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/asia_pacific/10347472.stm
7 http://en.rian.ru/exsoviet/20100613/159410845.html
8 The Hindu, 16 June 2010
9 ibid
10 "Sergei Grits, Kyrgyzstan military seeks control in Osh", Accessed at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jun/16/kyrgyzstan-military-seeks-control-in-osh/

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