Explosion of violence in Kyrgyzstan: Moscow wins?

The terrible new outburst of intercommunal violence in Kyrgyzstan is unexpected in detail, if not necessarily in outline. While ousted president Bakiyev’s initial attempts to raise an insurrection in the south flopped (commentators should be wary of the easy characterisation of the south as a ‘Bakiyev stronghold’), it is clear that the new governing coalition is failing to demonstrate one of the key requirements of rule in Kyrgyzstan, the ability to balance clan, ethnic and regional interests.

The presence of a substantial Uzbek minority (they represent 14.5% of the national total, but almost a third of the population of the south) was always a potential cause for trouble. On the other hand, this — like the north/south divide — should not be overstated. To be sure, there are those in both Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours who profess real and urgent fears of an imminent and catastrophic split. At a roundtable in Almaty, for example, Bulat Sultanov, director of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies, reportedly warned that Kyrgyzstan could becoming “a second Afghanistan.” This is at present alarmist, though. At the risk of leaving a hostage to fortune, I do not believe that Kyrgyzstan faces an imminent split, let along a descent into anarchy, even though there are certainly unresolved pressures which could dramatically sharpen existing north/south tensions.

In a piece I wrote last month for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I expressed a concern that tensions within the provisional government, especially as October’s elections loom, could lead to rival candidates playing the ethnic and regional card. I still think this is very likely, perhaps all the more so now. But there is another actor whose role recent development also bring into the spotlight: Russia.

Whether Moscow had any hand in exacerbating these tensions is unknown; on balance, I’d think not. On the other hand, they do play very well into Russia’s hands, eager as it is to reassert its hegemony over Central Asia. In this context, Moscow’s initial rejection of Bishkek’s plea for peacekeeping forces might sound surprising. (It has reportedly sent a ‘reinforced battalion’ of paratroopers, probably around 450 troops, but these are — for now, at least, meant purely to guard Russian facilities there). The key point, though, is that the Russians have not so much said no as not yet, reserving their decision for an emergency meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation tomorrow (14 June). They may yet still say yes,or at least to run a CSTO-approved multinational contingent to which they would contribute the main forces; they may say no, confining themselves to humanitarian and political assistance. Either way they:

  1. Bring Kyrgyzstan back into their sphere of influence after Bakiyev’s attempts to play Moscow and Washington against each other over the Manas airbase, forcing Bishkek to beg for help just to emphasise its dependence;
  2. Demonstrate their mature and statesmanlike approach, not snatching at the opportunity to intervene but working within the auspices of a regional multinational structure (even if it is one they dominate); and
  3. Strengthen the CSTO, at a time when it is risking being eclipsed by the (heavily-Chinese-influenced) Shanghai Cooperational Organisation.

We’ll see what happens, but for Moscow this doesn’t look like a bad investment on a weekend’s patience.

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