Kyrgyzstan: the absence of mercy

The humanitarian crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan fits all the requirements for international intervention. So why is it not happening, ask Natalia Leshchenko & David Hayes.
David Hayes Natalia Leshchenko
16 June 2010

The deteriorating internal situation in Kyrgyzstan since the sudden ousting of its serving president Kurmanbek Bakiyev on 7 April 2010 has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe. The violence in the southern region around the cities of Osh and Jalalabad, in which at least 178 people (mainly members of the Uzbek minority) died in the five days from 10 June, has been accompanied by a mass exodus towards the Uzbekistan border. What started as a political implosion in this central-Asian state of 5.5 million is becoming a national, and possibly regional, disaster (see Vicken Cheterian, “Kyrgyzstan failing: an arc of crisis”, 15 June 2010).

Even in an era where international intervention (especially of the military-peacekeeping kind) has lost much of what attraction it had, what is happening in Kyrgyzstan meets all the requirements for such foreign assistance:

* a new government that came to power via a popular uprising but which has little authority on its own account and is struggling to establish its authority over the country

* inflammatory ethnic strife between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority that is costing dozens of lives and threatening to escalate out of control

* destabilising forces that are capable of inciting violence in both communities, in an overall context of mistrust

* a humanitarian crisis where thousands of people are surviving with minimum or even zero water, food or shelter

* a social and economic environmentof deep poverty, scarce and/or expensive energy, competition for resources, and endemic corruption

* the danger of spreading insecurity throughout a region vital for world order.

There is little sign of the international community taking decisive action to ameliorate this dire situation. Some leading humanitarian groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have issued urgent warnings and appeals, yet there is an impression of international lassitude and drift. Kyrgyzstan’s deep problems were already exposed by the overthrow of the president in April 2010, yet the most that organisations such as the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seem to be able to manage is statements of concern.

The global reluctance

The reaction to the crisis of Kyrgyzstan’s state partners and interlocutors - several of whom have immediate interests in the country - has also been feeble. The big players - Russia, the United States and China - all need Kyrgyzstan to operate as a civic state able to moderate social discontents and contribute to greater stability in a volatile region scarred by the “war on terror” and a host of local problems. But they are also careful to avoid becoming so involved in Kyrgyzstan that it becomes their responsibility, let alone bearing the costs of trying to resolve its internal dysfunctions.

Russia, successor state of the Soviet Union of which Kyrgyzstan was a part for seven decades, is the most obvious candidate for intervention. Indeed, the well-meaning but impotent government in Bishkek led by the former opposition leader Rozu Otunbayeva has pleaded to Moscow for help. In principle, a force deployed in the southern most affected by destruction could do much to settle the immediate crisis; but even this seems more than the “elder brother” of the post-Soviet zone is willing to provide. 

The Kremlin’s reluctance is understandable. Although it has a military presence in Kyrgyzstan, it sees little gain in an emergency military deployment and many potential negatives. These include the cost, the absence of a clear mandate, the dangers of imbroglio, the unhealed wounds of the war with Georgia in August 2008, and the possibility of becoming a target of radical Islamists in the region (see Charles Clover, “Moscow wary of calls to intervene in conflict”, Financial Times, 15 June 2010).

The United States, which also operates a military facility in the country (the Manas “transit centre”, invaluable in supplying its Afghan campaign) is even less keen to get involved. China raises its voice only to arrange the return of its ethnic kin from Kyrgyzstan. In this situation, the obligatory calls for peace and order from the United Nations - echoed in Brussels, Washington and Moscow - are symbolically important, but of little help or consolation to the people in desperate need of basic security.

The world’s step-change

Many precedents show that the resort to intervention, especially of a military kind, carries inevitable problems. The best way to overcome them would be to make Kyrgyzstan a field of collaborative peacekeeping action. Kyrgyzstan, as well as being a member of the United Nations, also belongs to two blocs with military-aid provisions: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Defence Security Treaty (CDST). Neither has employed force in the past - in part as they embody the implicit goal of helping to prevent the fall of longstanding autocratic governments, rather than contributing to more enlightened governance. The early discussions of the UN Security Council and the CDST about the Kyrgyz crisis are inconclusive, and only limited relief to Kyrgyzstan can be expected. True, the emergency humanitarian aid that arrives is vital, but the many and growing security needs make a strong, independent military presence indispensable.

Kyrgyzstan has all the classic ingredients for an international peacekeeping mission. At present, this reality seems to escape those who should be focusing on it (perhaps the football world cup in South Africa is occupying too many minds and too much attention?). In that case a refocus is needed. When a region is burning and people suffering, it is time for leadership and action.

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