As donors pledge $1.1bn to Kyrgyzstan, and its president promises to use their advice as a road map, it has become clear that the country needs more than international money.
The problems gripping Kyrgyzstan have not gone away. The “7 April events”, as they have become known and inter-ethnic violence in the south were links in the same chain. A change in government deepened regional divisions and alienated many southern Kyrgyz who felt that “their” president Kurmanbek Bakiyev had been unlawfully removed by northern rivals. A taboo on violence was broken.
The fall of the Bakiyev regime gave the Uzbek minority hope that their grievances would be addressed by new authorities. A window of opportunity appeared to open for them to participate in the affairs of the state and for the use of Uzbek as a regional language. The sense was that finally there were people in power in Bishkek who understood what minority rights were and would make them matter.
However, the resurgence of the Uzbek community, for the first time since 1990’s Osh riots, created a counter reaction from Kyrgyz nationalists, who felt that Uzbeks should know their place. Nationalist rhetoric, in which some government figures enthusiastically participated, raised the emotional stakes even higher than the media already had.
In the meantime, the authorities in Bishkek ignored escalating instability in the south. Warning calls by local NGOs to senior officials were met with a “don’t worry, we control the situation” stance. But the riots that broke out in June killed an estimated 2,000 people.
The insecurity continues. Police and security forces are overwhelmingly made up of ethnic Kyrgyz, whom the Uzbeks fear. Informal groups – militias and citizens’ patrols – have proliferated. Fear and mistrust prevent a return to normal life, while the gulf between two communities remains enormous. President Roza Otunbayeva is committed to doing the best for her country, but de facto, her power is limited. Politicians are more interested in the October parliamentary race than in stabilisation, leaving that for the new government in the autumn. The danger is that the electoral campaign unleashes populist rhetoric favouring nationalism, against which there are few safeguards.
It would be wrong to go along with Bishkek and blame the situation on external actors or scheming political opponents. The search for mysterious “third forces” – spearheaded, presumably, by Maxim Bakiev and his uncles – should be abandoned. Instead, the truth needs to be acknowledged: the government is weak, minority grievances remain unaddressed, justice is administered selectively and the security forces are biased against Uzbeks. Ethnic hatred is a sad reality that inhabits the hearts and minds of many people in the south, and this is what needs to be tackled.
The crisis showed that nobody, Russia included, is really interested in Kyrgyzstan. This week marked the 10th anniversary of the Eternal Friendship Declaration between two countries. This did not prevent Moscow from turning its back on the desperate government’s pleas to send troops in. Can somebody tell me what a crisis in Central Asia would have to look like for the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to intervene? The conclusion may be that for Moscow, if there is no oil, no gas and no vicious president who needs a slap on the wrist, a country is largely irrelevant.
The long-term prospects are worrying, as the Uzbek minority realises that it is largely on its own with its problems. A renewal of the summer’s clashes is at present is unlikely, as the community is shocked and scared. There are three possible templates for the future: that of Sri Lanka, where a powerful guerrilla organisation emerged after ethnic riots; that of Chechnya, where a nascent nationalist movement fell prey to Islamist networks; and that of Uzbekistan, which reacted to Andijan with overwhelming repression. None of these is very inspiring.
To resolve the situation, the ruling elite have to show a determined commitment to the ideology of multi-ethnic society instead of a “return to democracy” based on the titular group supremacy. Policy on interethnic relations and minority issues needs to be articulated, and a mechanism of reconciliation should be established to support it.
Lastly, external security assistance must be far more substantial than modest police training and equipment supplies. International actors including Russia need to put together a package of measures to stabilise the country in the short term until the new government takes root and is capable of reforming its armed and security forces. That would be an example of genuine co-operation between Russia and the west.
Anna Matveeva, a visiting fellow with the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics.