Beware of meddling in Kyrgyzstan!

Despite deep fissures in Kyrgyz society in the aftermath of the upheavals, external intervention would be counterproductive, advises John Heathershaw. Instead, foreign governments should concentrate their efforts on reducing the stakes of the conflict.
John Heathershaw
25 August 2010

Kyrgyzstan’s political difficulties go on. On 7 April 2010, a broad coalition of oppositionists organized protests and took command of the Government, ousting President Kurmanbek Bakiev, his family members and their allies from power. 

What appeared as a repeat of the March 2005 ‘Tulip revolution’ which removed former President Akaev and brought Bakiev to power, was much more violent. The Bakiev regime didn’t go quietly, using snipers to kill almost 100 protestors. Family members subsequently sought refuge in their regional stronghold of Jalalabat. 

Kyrgyzstan map

Eventually, with pressure mounting, Kurmanbek Bakiev was given transit through Kazakhstan to Belarus, where he remains. Maksim Bakiev, the President’s eldest son, the businessman-in-chief of the administration and purportedly the richest man in Kyrgyzstan, found his way to Britain in June where he is seeking asylum.   

Following the April events, an interim government was hastily formed with Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister, at its head. Clearly a compromise choice, Otunbaeva’s candidacy was supported by stronger colleagues, given her own lack of a regional base and thus political power. 

Power across the regions remains dispersed. Whilst leading regime figures eventually left the country or were captured, many of the family’s key supporters and regional power-brokers remain in place, particularly in the south of the country.  In the north and parts of the south, regional administrations are loyal to one or another of Otunbaeva’s deputies (including Omurbek Tekebaev, Almaz Atambaev, Temir Sariev and Azimbek Beknazarov), some but not all of whom have resigned from government in order to fight the elections. 

The uncertainty created by the April events led to competition between factions whose compositions shifted as allies switched sides. This set the seeds for a complex political conflict with fighting in Jalalabat city in May and much worse and more organized violence directed largely against ethnic Uzbeks in Osh and Jalalabat regions in June.  This left at least 350 dead and many thousands homeless. 

The conflict has elements of North versus South, Kyrgyz versus Uzbek, and pro-Bakiev versus anti-Bakiev. But in practice it is far more complicated involving economic, ethnic and political rivalries within regions and factions as well as between them. 

Kyrgyzstan’s is a resource-poor economy, but nevertheless one that provides plenty of loot for the small political-economic elite. Indeed politics and economics are inter-twined – as they were in the Soviet period, but with quite different dynamics. 

Central government provides opportunities for corruption at all levels with its deliberately obfuscatory systems of permits and inspections, tariffs and taxes. Bakiev associates made money out of illegally exporting hydropower and in setting up companies to sell fuel to the American transit centre (located at Bishkek’s Manas international airport) to supply operations in Afghanistan.  In the south, smuggling routes (including drugs trafficking), bazaars and the scrap metal and other trades to China are significant sources of income.  

Since the early 2000s, economic power has increasingly merged with political power and has thus exacerbated regional and ethnic tensions. Violence becomes more likely when these rivalries or ‘cleavages’ become mutually reinforcing. For example, clashes occur if a political leader can mobilize business partners and co-ethnics to rally against a political rival who is also a business rival and representative of the other ethnic group. 

These mutually reinforcing cleavages will only ever be approximate – there will be countless exceptions which belie the claim that this is driven purely by inter-ethnic hatred or greed – but in such times of tensions inconsistencies are cast by the wayside in favour of crude stereotypes which serve as cries for mobilization.    

The need for intervention?

All this sounds like a recipe for disaster and a crisis crying out for international intervention. 

A low-profile and under-resourced international investigation led by Kimmo Kiljunen, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's special envoy for Central Asia, has been launched.  Crucially, it is not under the auspices of the OSCE itself or any other international organization. This is a huge weakness as it allows foreign governments to absolve themselves of responsibility for the mission and local forces to disregard it as inconsequential.  The mission faced widespread cynicism across Kyrgyzstan and in the ‘international community’ even before it was formally announced in Bishkek.

Similarly, an OSCE police observation mission has been agreed, but it numbers just 52 officers and has yet to be deployed. Its functions and powers are not yet clear. 

If Kyrgyzstan is ‘on the brink of civil war’ as various foreign leaders and international analysts have warned, this response seems wholly insufficient. Two French academics recently called for EU intervention in a Le Monde leader article. But a large-scale intervention is both unlikely and unwise for several reasons.

Firstly, there is significant nationalist opposition to intervention, both from former supporters of Bakiev and from within the provisional government. 

Both the international investigation and the police mission have been the subject of protests. Some of this may be motivated by a fear of what will be discovered, but there is also an understandable nationalist backlash against what is perceived as international interference.

Secondly, Kyrgyzstan faces international indifference, lack of understanding and powerlessness. 

Despite nationalist sentiment, Otunbaeva and some others in the interim government called for Russian peacekeepers after the conflict broke out in Osh. Russia, the leading member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of which Kyrgyzstan is a part, declined to intervene on the grounds that the conflict was ‘internal’. This may be a good thing for Kyrgyzstan, as Russia hardly has a strong track record for impartial peacekeepers. Its initial role in Tajikistan (from 1992) was to fuel the conflict and its interventions in Georgia and Moldova froze conflicts for future violence.

Other ‘great powers’ are equally unconcerned and/or ineffective. China is completely indifferent, unless the conflict threatens to provide a safe haven for Uighur nationalists who it regards as threatening its Western province, but who have been weakened considerably by years of Chinese persecution. 

Western powers and international organizations, obsessed with the debacle which is the mission in Afghanistan, also lack the interest and understanding to make a great deal of difference in this complex conflict. Any mission would likely be tokenistic and serve Kyrgyzstan ill as it would give the impression of doing something rather than genuinely advancing conflict resolution.

As will be explored below, international actors would be advised to reduce the harm they do and administer reconstruction assistance without exacerbating ethnic divides, rather than resolve a conflict which they barely understand.    

Thirdly, there is a political process in place. 

Against the advice of many experts and international onlookers, Kyrgyzstan went ahead with the referendum on changing the political system on 27 June, little more than a week after the devastating ethnic violence in Osh. This created a sense among many ethnic Uzbeks that their plight was disregarded by the government and, since the violence, many are seeking to leave the country. 

However, the plus side of the ‘yes’ vote was the confirmation of the interim government and the political process which will elect a new parliament under a mixed presidential-parliamentary system. 

In the new system, much more power will rest with the parliament. To enter this larger parliament parties must gain 5% nationwide with 0.5% in each region. One party cannot take more than 60% of the seats. With an extraordinary 148 political parties registered (as of early August), and 5 or 6 strong parties vying for power, coalition-building is inevitable. The reduced power of the Presidency, with a one-term limit, should mean that its power to co-opt and control factions in parliament is more limited.  

Whilst the system is barely formed and open to all kinds of informal manipulation, the sheer number of parties and the money being invested in the elections suggest that they do matter. Whilst institutionalized pluralism in Tajikistan was killed off by its 1990s civil war, it has seen a revival in Kyrgyzstan since Bakiev’s ousting. This is cause for cautious optimism.

What role for international actors?

If international intervention is unlikely (and unlikely to help), this does not mean that the role of foreign governments is unimportant. The United States, Russia, China and neighbouring states can do a great deal to reduce the stakes of the conflict and prevent downward spiraling. Here’s five suggestions.

Firstly, donors can help in how they give aid. 

According to official pronouncements $1.1 billion has been pledged. It seems that at least $450 million of this is new money for the reconstruction of Osh. Development aid does not directly solve poverty, end corruption, create democracy or resolve conflict, but it can have inadvertent effects which make things worse if it is not managed properly.

What international aid does do is supply a basic social safety net for the poor, provide resources which can elicit cooperation or conflict, create and sustain a class of NGO managers and workers, and subsidise the state. 

Better aid distribution needs programme managers with experience in the region who know the nuances of local politics, recognize that their aid is political, and use their leverage to minimize corruption by gatekeepers, local NGOs and government officials. 

Worse, aid distribution is reliant on consultants, overstates the impact of aid whilst claiming its political neutrality, and is ignorant of how aid is being reappropriated by village elders, directed through NGO patronage networks and pocketed by corrupt officials. Such dynamics are common when large amounts of aid are dispersed in a short period of time, but would be particularly damaging here as they inevitably create conflict between factions on a localized basis. These might in turn exacerbate national tensions.             

Secondly, the United States should insist on complete transparency in fuel sales and transit fees for the Manas base, with the system subject to annual US General Audit Office inspections. 

It might be suggested by the United States that companies providing fuel are levied with a special national windfall tax, which would finance a development fund for Kyrgyzstan. 

If this is unacceptable to the newly elected government, then the US should consider its position in Kyrgyzstan. This may seem unrealistic, but if the US really does care for regional stability and the predicament of Kyrgyzstan it must not allow itself to be held to ransom by Bishkek again.  

Thirdly, regional neighbours and powers must stop symbolically (and perhaps materially) ‘fuelling’ the conflict.  

In particular, the Russian discourse on Kyrgyzstan has been hyperbolic – warning of ‘Afghanicisation’ and civil war – despite the fact that it was far from unhappy that the Bakiev regime fell. This is clearly connected with the contemporary Russian political imagination and its distrust of any separation of powers. The new constitutional arrangements are considered weak by Russia and are clearly a departure from the presidential, ‘power vertical’ model favoured by the Kremlin and most governments in the region.  

Such rhetoric may seem inconsequential, but it creates nervousness amongst elites in Kyrgyzstan who still place a lot of stock on Russian views. It also encourages the widely-held impression that Moscow, through its security services, is ready to take sides in Kyrgyzstan, as it has done in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Moreover, if illegal small arms trafficking to Kyrgyzstan increases, then Russia – with still by far the best contacts in the region of any foreign government – will probably know something about it and should work to end such transfers.  

Fourthly, regional neighbours should demand openness in, and place limits on, their contracts to buy electricity from Kyrgyzstan.

It transpired that the Bakiev government made big money out of these sales, which were unbeknown to the national and international press until it became clear that Kyrgyzstan’s reservoirs were running dry. Now is not the time to have the tit-for-tat struggles over water, hydro-power and (in the opposite direction) gas that have characterized Kyrgyzstan’s energy relations with its neighbours since independence. 

Fifth and finally, neighbours should open their borders and keep them open in all but the most extreme circumstances. 

Closed borders make legal trade impossible, whilst having little or no impact on trafficking. Kazakhstan closed its borders for many weeks after the April 7 uprising, making life harder for many in Kyrgyzstan at a time of great uncertainty. Uzbekistan, perhaps inadvertently, provides a better example with a limited border closure in April and then a closure following the June events which, whilst self-interested, served to send refugees back to their homes and avoid the long-term refugee camps which serve as humanitarian and security problems. The Government of Kyrgyzstan, in turn, should not make unproven accusations against neighbours, such as its claim that Tajikistan provided the base for the organizers of the Osh violence.     

For Central Asia as a whole, relatively minor but ongoing political violence in Kyrgyzstan could be much more harmful than the far more serious civil war in Afghanistan. This is because basic geographic proximity matters far less than political, economic and social inter-connections. In this sense, Kyrgyzstan is far more intertwined with the other Central Asian republics than Afghanistan, from where the threat of militancy ‘spilling over’ is fundamentally misunderstood and routinely exaggerated for political purposes.  

This short article has attempted to explore the international dimension of conflict resolution short of a direct international intervention to save Kyrgyzstan from itself.  Such an intervention would inevitably be (perceived as) neo-colonial, might exacerbate conflict and should be avoided unless the conflict becomes considerably more violent. 

It is far better for international actors to reduce the stakes of the conflict than raise them by launching an ill-conceived intervention. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData