There is a hole in the map of Central Asia where Kyrgyzstan used to be. A country once considered an outpost of relative tolerance and democracy in a region of dysfunctional authoritarian regimes is today a deeply divided, practically failed, state. If the international response to its descent into political chaos is not swift and bold, the consequences will be disastrous.
After years of mismanagement and corruption President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April by a provisional government that has not succeeded in establishing its authority over the country. An explosion of violence, destruction and looting hit southern Kyrgyzstan in June, killing hundreds and deepening the gulf between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.
In the process the government lost whatever control of the south it once had. Melis Myrzakmatov, the ruthless and resolute nationalist mayor of Osh, the largest southern city, emerged from the bloodshed with his political strength and extremist credentials strengthened. This was only reinforced by an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt last week to remove him. President Roza Otunbayeva ordered him to resign, he refused, and told cheering crowds in Osh that the government had no authority in the south. He even pledged to move the country’s capital to Osh.
Now caught between a humiliated provisional government on one hand and the renegade mayor on the other, southern Kyrgyzstan is a serious security risk in the region and beyond. As long as the south remains outside central control, the narcotics trade – already an important factor – could extend its power still further. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 95 tonnes of heroin pass through central Asian states on their way to Russia and Europe every year, and it calls Osh a “regional hub of trafficking activity”.
Southern Kyrgyzstan could also become a home to Islamist guerrilla groups. It is not just that the political vacuum could offer the opportunity to make recruits; the June pogroms deepened the gulf between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and another outburst is inevitable if the slide towards extreme nationalism continues. Next time, the victimised party could look to Islamist radicals for help.
The route back to stability will be long and difficult, not least because no reliable security or even monitoring force has been deployed in the affected area. Kyrgyzstan needs an internationally supported investigation into the pogroms; as visible an international presence as possible to discourage any recurrence; and close co-ordination on the rebuilding of communities.
The prospects are not promising. Even the delayed token force of 52 unarmed police advisers sent by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been a target of Kyrgyz nationalist ire, which the central government and the OSCE itself are sadly reluctant to challenge.
When state authorities are unwilling or unable to stabilise the situation the international community needs to be more active – to support an investigation into the June events with central roles assigned to those with suitable expertise, such as the UN high commissioner for human rights and the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities. And it should be made clear that further aid to the Kyrgyz government will be conditional on such an investigation.
The outside world also needs to outline a unified strategy for the reconstruction of the south involving extensive ground monitoring to ensure no funds are diverted to extreme nationalists, or corrupt officials. In particular donors will need to ensure none go to the Osh regional government as long as it advocates an exclusionary ethnic policy and refuses to submit to the authority of the central government.
Unfortunately any efforts to help pull back the divided country from the brink of disintegration may simply be too late. The UN security council – in particular the US and Russia – needs to undertake some active contingency planning so the international community will be in a position to respond in a timely and effective manner to any future violence and consequent refugee crises.
It may seem over-optimistic to expect the international community to take such steps after its manifest lack of interest in becoming involved in Kyrgyzstan – even while the pogroms were unfolding during June. The alternative, however, is to sit back and watch the continuing implosion of an entire country.
Louise Arbour, the former UN high commissioner for human rights, a former justice of the supreme court of Canada and former chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.