What went wrong in Kyrgyzstan? What is likely to happen next? What can the international community do to help prevent a recurrence of violence?
Kyrgyzstan has suffered another bloody revolution - the second, and much the worse, in five years. Violence has engulfed much of the country, and the national fabric is being torn apart.
American champions of democratic values celebrated five years ago - the George W. Bush administration was particularly vocal - when corrupt Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev was toppled by popular protests. There were limited casualties in the “Tulip Revolution,” which was compared by many to the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine - all carried out against post-Soviet governments in the name of greater freedom and democracy for “the people.”
However, Mr. Akayev was soon succeeded as president by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who robbed the country blind and was far more authoritarian. Mr. Bakiyev in his turn was toppled by a nationwide wave of popular protests on April 7 this year, and a broad, basically well-meaning coalition government of opposition parties took power the very next day.
The new government spent two months painstakingly preparing a national referendum to turn Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished, landlocked little country of 5.5 million people, into a parliamentary democracy. On June 27, about 90 percent of the voters endorsed the new constitution and the creation of the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia. Almost 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
However, the new leadership team in Bishkek should have spent more time firing Mr. Bakiyev’s worthless or disloyal appointees running the army and the police and establishing a firm basis for law and order. By failing to take firm control of the levers of power, they allowed the country to plunge into chaos before the new constitution could be adopted.
Mr. Bakiyev’s successor, current President Roza Otunbayeva, who will serve until the end of 2011, has stated that her government had hard intelligence that Mr. Bakiyev, his son Maxim and some of his supporters plotted to incite violence in their southern strongholds of Osh and Jalalabad to discredit the national referendum.
The troublemakers’ strategy was simple and has been used throughout the former Soviet space by the disgruntled and power-hungry: Stir up long pent-up frustration over ethnic, religious or other differences among segments of society.
Kyrgyzstan is 75 percent Muslim, with 65 percent of the population ethnic Kyrgyzs and 14 percent Uzbeks, most of them located in the south, close to Uzbekistan. The other significant group is Russians, who represent 12.5 percent of the population. Most are Orthodox Christians.
Ms. Otunbayeva and her colleagues clearly didn’t take the danger seriously enough. They were good at arguing over constitutional theory, but they didn’t know how to run a country.
When the violence exploded in Osh on the night of June 10, it was caused primarily by Kyrgyz attacking Uzbeks in a naked demonstration of crude ethnic nationalism. The results were horrendous. Ms. Otunbayeva has since admitted that over the next five days, at least 2,000 people were killed - almost 10 times the official death toll. At least 400,000 refugees fled their homes, 100,000 of them into neighboring Uzbekistan.
To any casual American eye, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, both mainstream Muslim peoples, would be impossible to distinguish. They have coexisted generally in peace for generations. But the violence has created a climate of bitterness and resentment that could poison all of Central Asia for generations if strong law and order are not credibly re-established and re-established fast.
However, none of the three great powers with major interests in Kyrgyzstan wants to get involved. The United States wants to keep good relations with whoever rules in Bishkek to continue using the Manas air base, which is a crucial resupply route for U.S. and NATO forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. China has enormous, growing and lucrative trade ties with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It doesn’t want to spook any of them by flexing its own military or diplomatic muscle in the region.
That leaves Russia, but Russia has its hands full in the Caucasus and is concentrating its more modern and better-trained military forces there for another possible confrontation with Georgia - a danger Obama administration planners should take a lot more seriously than they do. The Russians have had their fill of long, thankless anti-insurgency campaigns in Central Asia (think Afghanistan) and they’ve made it clear they don’t want another.
International peacekeeping forces usually are a bad idea for everybody, except when the alternative scenarios are even worse. That is the case in Kyrgyzstan. Ms. Otunbayeva held her precious referendum, and parliamentary elections are due Oct. 10. However, as the birth pangs of democracy in Iraq show, having nice, open parliamentary elections in a country with little to no experience of real democracy often isn’t enough to tame the passions and ambitions of ethnic and religious groups. Kyrgyzstan is still at the early dawn of its first day of democracy.
For Kyrgyzstan to survive, its government must start providing the most basic commodity required of every government - security and safety for the people through effective administration of law and order. So far, it has failed miserably. Having the distractions of a drawn-out political process isn’t going to help.
Kyrgyzstan needs international peacekeepers and a reformed, strengthened police and army as quickly as possible. It will be far easier to supply the peacekeepers than the reformed army: Just look at the problems the U.S. armed forces have had trying to make the Iraqi and Afghan security forces effective.
However, the picture is not all black by any means. Neighboring Kazakhstan has enjoyed almost two decades of post-Soviet social peace and steady economic progress despite a population mix far more diverse than Kyrgyzstan’s. Kazakhstan has favored economic development over political liberalization under a strategy of “democratic evolution.” By almost every measure, this has worked very well.
Peacekeepers are needed as quickly as possible to give the new government in Bishkek time to establish the firm rule of law throughout the country and to set the economy in motion again after months of instability and violence.
The peacekeepers shouldn’t be American, but any sound U.S. foreign policy should support urgent action to get them in place. As much as possible, Central Asian neighbors should play a leading role in bringing stability to the region. The lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents are at stake.
Martin Sieff is senior correspondent for Central Asia Newswire and a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times. His most recent book is “Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship Between the United States, China and India” (Cato Institute, 2010).