17 June 2010
James Nixey

James Nixey

Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme


The renewed violence in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions of southwest Kyrgyzstan, together with April's deja vu revolution seals its status as Central Asia's most unstable country. Since fighting started on 11 June, almost 200 have been killed and tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks have rushed across the border into Uzbekistan, which cannot adequately cope. Respected former diplomat Roza Otunbaeva, whose interim government's claim to legitimacy rests on the fragile basis that that it was put there by the people by force, has announced that she will not run for the presidency herself at the end the year. A provisional government is a lame duck government.

Kyrgyzstan was once an island of relative tranquillity (and democracy) in Central Asia. But the causes of its most recent bout of misery can be attributed to a number of factors. The most important probably consist of clan leaders opportunistically stirring up ethnic hatreds; prominent local politicians, patrons and mafia bosses jostling for power and supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev (now in exile in Belarus) stirring up trouble.

The prominent issue of interethnic hatred deserves closer examination for it is too often claimed but unsubstantiated. Clearly, from the scenes of the last few days there is room for exploitation of ethnic divides (despite many inter-ethnic marriages) by opportunistic and politically motivated individuals with power bases and men at their command. There are (unconfirmed) reports that this has been done through the use of snipers targeting civilians to escalate conflict. Otunbaeva claims that such actions are carried out by inside forces funded by Bakiev and his supporters.

As far as the usual heavy-handed great power competition in Kyrgyzstan is concerned, Russia has, in fact, made most of the right moves, the EU has been bland and ineffectual, China has been quiet and cautious, and the US has repeated the same old mistakes (of focussing solely on its airbase at Manas). Russia aside, little change there then.

Politically-driven ethnic violence has returned to this small corner Central Asia to fill the vacuum created - somewhat counter-intuitively - by the temporary lack of authoritarian government. Revolutions have reproductive qualities and the potential for further violence exists - at least within Kyrgyzstan.

But the prospects for such instability to spread through the rest of Central Asia are blessedly poor. Spillover and civil war didn't happen after 2005's 'Tulip Revolution' and they are unlikely to happen now. Wider Central Asia will remain as tightly gripped by its authoritarian rulers as ever - perhaps more than ever now.

The full article can be read in the July issue of The World Today. Read >>

Also read Revolution in Kyrgyzstan - Again: The International Dimension, James Nixey, April 2010