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Kyrgyzstan Needs Outside Help

While tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek people have existed for years, there was no apparent reason for interethnic violence between the two groups to break out last week. The provisional government says that violence was provoked by external forces, a view shared by many in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz military experts told The Jamestown Foundation that Akhmad and Janysh Bakiyev, the brothers of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, are suspected of instigating the violence. Together with groups of armed gangs, the brothers purportedly have been hiding in Tajikistan’s Jirgatal and Badakhshan regions, where the Tajik government’s control is the weakest. Groups of mercenary snipers reportedly were dispatched from Tajikistan to Osh and Jalal-Abad to spread chaos by shooting at people indiscriminately.

The latest violence highlights the weakness of Kygryzstan’s fragile provisional government. Reports about the possibility of interethnic provocations were available weeks before the recent unrest, but little was done to address them or prepare for a worst-case scenario. As violence spread across Osh on the morning of June 11, the Kyrgyz military acted chaotically, often reacting to rumors spread by provocateurs. A shortage of troops, equipment, fuel and reliable communication made matters worse. Interim leader Roza Otunbayeva was forced to call up reservist officers to sustain a 24-hour curfew in Osh.

While most troops have been deployed to Osh and Jalal-Abad, other parts of the country remain unprotected. If violence continues to spread in other parts of the country, the June 27 constitutional referendum and the parliamentary elections on Oct. 10 — both of which are much needed to provide legitimacy to the fragile provisional government — could be canceled.

Meanwhile, Russia, apart from providing humanitarian aid, has not developed a firm strategy for responding to the unrest on its southern flank.

Because of uneasy relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz military and police, which are made up predominantly of ethnic Kyrgyz, largely distrust the Uzbek minority. Kyrgyzstan’s military leadership perceives Uzbekistan as a threat to the country’s abundant water resources. This distrust between the Kyrgyz military and ethnic Uzbeks has widened as a result of the escalating violence. Many fear that the military is targeting the Uzbek minority specifically.

At the same time, some Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and Jalal-Abad are doing what they can to calm tensions on their own. In addition, Bishkek residents have been collecting humanitarian aid and medicine for victims of Osh and Jalal-Abad unrest.

It remains to be seen whether the ongoing tensions will escalate leading to even more civilian deaths. But it is clear that the provisional government will not be able to quell the riots without external help. It took a tremendous effort from the Soviet military to stop three-month ethnic unrest between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 1990 in Osh that resulted in the deaths of several hundred people. Kyrgyzstan urgently needs third-party mediators to engage Kyrgyz officials and leaders of the Uzbek diaspora in peace talks to restore the interethnic balance.

Erica Marat is author of “The Military and the State in Central Asia.”

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