Kyrgyzstan failing, and an arc of crisis

The violent descent of parts of Kyrgyzstan into communal conflict since the overthrow of its president in April 2010 leaves a security vacuum whose dangerous effects could be felt across central Asia, says Vicken Cheterian. 

The already grim situation in the central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan has, around the southwestern cities of Osh and Jalalabad in particular, become desperate. On 10 June 2010 and the subsequent days, members of the Uzbek minority in the area have been targeted by Kyrgyz gangs who burned their homes, killed at least 118 people and wounded 1,485, while forcing tens of thousands to flee towards the border with Uzbekistan - which around 75,000 of them (at the time of writing) have been allowed to cross (see “Kyrgyzstan: violence in the south escalates”, Irin, 14 June 2010).

This unfolding human catastrophe has political roots in the crisis of the Kyrgyz state itself. The complex and multifaceted ingredients of the crisis cast a dark shadow over Kyrgyzstan’s future. In the context of poverty, insecurity and dysfunctional politics in the unsettled Ferghana valley - whose territory and population of 11 million is distributed between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - what is happening now in Kyrgyzstan has ominous implications for the wider region. For if Kyrgyzstan fails as a state, and inter-ethnic violence in the Ferghana valley is not contained, the resulting security vacuum in Kyrgyzstan could threaten the fragile stability of central Asia as a whole.

The explosion

The immediate context of the current wave of violence is the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, as a result of a popular uprising on 6-7 April 2010. This began in the northwestern city of Talas and then quickly spread to the capital, Bishkek, The violent police repression of demonstrators in Bishkek on 7 April claimed at least eighty-four lives and hundreds wounded, yet the power of the crowds left Bakiyev with no choice but to escape the capital the same evening; a week later he flew to Kazakhstan and thence Belarus (from where he continues to make statements and denounce the administration headed by Roza Otunbayeva that succeeded him).

This abrupt and unexpected series of events, five years since the overthrow of the authoritarian leader Askar Akayev that brought former opposition activist Bakiyev to power, But unlike the briefly acclaimed “tulip revolution” of March 2005, the aftermath of the latest “regime-change” has been bloody. Across the country, violent clashes have multiplied: near Bishkek (where Meskhetian Turks were attacked in the village of Mayevka on 21 April) and more dangerously, in Jalalabad (where clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks on 14 May left two people dead and sixty wounded) and then Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh (where on 10 June and after, violence escalated into more extensive fighting, burning, killing, and expulsions). Jalalabad and Osh lie in the Ferghana valley region of southern Kyrgyzstan, where Kurmanbek Bakiyev has his home village and political base.

Kyrgyzstan seems unable to escape the spiral of violence. But is it also failing as a state?

The background

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers feared that central Asia in the 1990s would become a zone of conflicts similar to - or even more violent than - the Balkans and the Caucasus. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 had sparked a decade and more of war and entrenched a culture of violence, with spillover effects into Afghanistan’s central Asian neighbours (such as making arms increasingly available). In the last years of the Soviet state there had been ethnic pogroms against Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana valley, and Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes in Kyrgyzstan. Yet in the event only one central Asian country witnessed state collapse and civil war: Tajikistan in 1992-97, with the most violent phase in 1992, where regional elites too easily portrayed in ideological terms (communist conservatives vs Islamist-democratic oppositionists) fought for power.

The ability of the region’s states to avoid destructive civil strife in this period was owed to two factors. First, the ruling nomenklatura proved capable of retaining power (two central Asian presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, had headed the respective ruling communist parties in the late Soviet period). Second, nationalist movements did not grow sufficiently to challenge the existing state borders.

Kyrgyzstan even emerged as a “model” of reforms in the early 1990s; in a region where conservative instincts dominated, the liberal economic policies and democratic discourse of the first post-independence president Askar Akayev seduced western donors and other outsiders into regarding Kyrgyzstan as an “oasis of democracy”. The reformist spirit died down within a few years. Akayev did not establish a police state like his neighbours, but the rule of the presidential “family” over lucrative businesses was part of a pattern of widespread corruption. Elections were increasingly fraudulent, and opposition parties and critical journalists were harassed by the authorities (see Sureyya Yigit, “The Kyrgyz catastrophe”, 15 April 2010).

The source

In fact, Kyrgyzstan was always less of an “exception” than it appeared. It has more in common with Tajikistan than any other of its neighbours. Both countries are landlocked and mountainous, with mountain-chains (the Pamirs in Tajikistan, the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan) cutting the countries into two main valleys and a multitude of smaller ones, creating strong local identities. They  were the poorest Soviet republics in the region (Kyrgyzstan a close second to Tajikistan); both are water-rich but energy-poor, and depend on downstream lands (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) for oil-and-gas deliveries; both depended on heavy state-subsidies in the Soviet times, of which post-Soviet international aid replaced only a small fraction.

These elements have helped feed political instability in both countries. In Tajikistan, the civil war between the authorities in Dushanbe and the Islamic Renaissance Party was ended by a peace treaty in December 1997; but after this an Islamist militant fringe (coming mainly from the Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley) created a new radical movement called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 1998-2000, the IMU - with logistical support from the Afghan Taliban - launched raids from their mountain bases in the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border region in an effort to overthrow the Islam Karimov regime.

The United States attack on the Taliban after 9/11 was followed by strong blows against the mostly Uzbek jihadi militants which caused most of them to disperse; but a hard core joined the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, and (though this is less clear) some may have retained logistical capabilities inside the Ferghana valley. In any case, the weakening of the IMU does not mean the end of Islamic political activism in post-Soviet central Asia, as suggested by the regular arrests of activists identified with the Hizb ul-Tahrir movement.

In Kyrgyzstan there was no comparable armed conflict, but the revolution of 2005 revealed the fragility of the country’s state institutions (see Yasar Sari & Sureyy Yigit, “Kyrgyzstan: revolution or not?”, 3 April 2005). This to a degree reflected Askar Akayev’s refusal, despite his becoming increasingly conservative during his years in office, either to contemplate using force against his people or to strengthen the state’s repressive capacity. It seems that his successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev drew from 2005 the lesson that he must be determined to preserve power at all costs. Yet even the orders to shoot at demonstrators and the piles of bodies that resulted did not in the end make his regime any more resilient than Akayev’s: in each case, one day of revolt was sufficient for regime-change.

The different experiences yet similar outcomes of 2005 and 2010 suggest the  conclusion that the Kyrgyz state is chronically weak. This is a cause of concern among the other central Asian states, especially over the possible spread of the virus of revolt among their own populations, who in most cases are deprived of political rights considered elementary in other continents. This fear explains why (for example) Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan closed their borders for several weeks following the overthrow of Bakiyev; the mass exodus of Uzbeks from Osh and Jalalabad after 10 June 2010 has so far met a more flexible response (in terms of the number of women and children being allowed in), but many have still been refused entry (see Ainagul Abdrakhmanova et al, “South Kyrgyzstan Slides Out of Control”, Institute of War and Peace Reporting, 14 June 2010).

The prospect

There are two serious factors in the Kyrgyz crisis that could become security risks for the entire region. The first is that ethnic tensions could explode into open conflict that could acquire an even more dangerous dimension (see Sanobar Shermatova, “Kyrgyz South and Uzbek issue”, Ferghana.ru, 9 June 2010). Uzbeks form 13% of the population in Kyrgyzstan as a whole, but have been a far larger proportion in the southern cities of Osh, Uzgen and Jalalabad. More recently, they have come to feel pressed both by deepening segregation from their Kyrgyz neighbours, and by Uzbekistan’s own suspicions about their loyalties; the regime in Tashkent often accuses them of harbouring radical Islamic militants (see Deniz Kandiyoti, “Andijan: prelude to a massacre”, 20 May 2005).

Uzbeks form the dominant ethnic group in the entire region, and the fear is that ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan involving the Uzbek community could work to reinforce Uzbek nationalism, in turn leading to a questioning of the Soviet-designed states’s current borders and legitimacy. These, after all, were questions by Uzbek nationalist intellectuals before the Islam Karimov regime marginalised the nationalist-democratic opposition parties (Birlik and Erk) in Uzbekistan in the early 1990s.

The second factor is a revival of jihadism. In the late 1990s, Islamist guerrillas used the mountainous region of southern Kyrgyzstan, especially the province of Batken, as a safe haven from which to initiate attacks deep inside Uzbekistan. The spread of Taliban activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the increasing reliance of Nato forces on supply-lines passing through central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) make it possible that the region might become a new space for confrontation. The prospect here is that the evident inability of the Kyrgyz state to control its own territory, at a time the Taliban is reviving, could reawaken dormant Islamist militants in the Ferghana valley, the divided heart of central Asia.

The stakes in Kyrgyzstan are thus very high, for the country and the region alike.

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His next book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, January 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

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Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva. Among his books is War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (17 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

"Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)

"Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

"Georgia: between war and a future" (8 July 2009)

"Armenia-Turkey: genocide, blockade, diplomacy" (13 October 2009)

"Armenian genocide and Turkey: then and now" (24 April 2010)