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Delicate Balance for U.S. in Kyrgyzstan

Interviewee: Michele E. Commercio, Assistant Professor, Political Science, University of Vermont
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 23, 2010

Recent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are the result of "a political conflict that happens to be corresponding to ethnic lines" following the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, says Kyrgyzstan expert Michele E. Commercio. The United States has to tread carefully in responding to the conflict, Commercio says, or it risks being evicted from the Manas airbase it leases in northern Kyrgyzstan, a transit point for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The provisional government will have a hard time claiming the legitimacy of a scheduled constitutional referendum on June 27, Commercio says, if 15 percent of the population "is either outside of the country, internally displaced, or too fearful to take part in the referendum."

What's behind all the unrest in Kyrgyzstan?

What you have is a power vacuum that developed after the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April. The current provisional government led by the new president, Roza Otunbayeva, is having great difficulty maintaining control in the south. Many Kyrgyz in the southern part of the country are still very pro-Bakiyev and are upset that he was ousted. The Uzbeks, for their part, were not pleased with Bakiyev. Bakiyev was more nationalistic than his predecessor, Askar Akayev, a Soviet-era strongman, and more interested in promoting the Kyrgyz at the expense of minorities, including Russians and Uzbeks. Bakiyev was also less interested in a market economy than Akayev. The Uzbeks had, relatively speaking, flourished in the market economy that Akayev established. So, to some extent, they felt threatened by Bakiyev's more nationalistic position, and by his desire to assert stronger state control over the economy.

Did the Uzbeks help overthrow Bakiyev?

Yes, the Uzbeks actually joined their Kyrgyz counterparts up north in the recent revolution to oust Bakiyev. Since the Kyrgyz in the south were pro-Bakiyev, what evolved was a political divide between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south. So I would argue that this is not so much of an ethnic conflict as it is a political conflict that happens to be corresponding to ethnic lines.

The Kyrgyz in the south, as we know, are impoverished. They are traditionally nomadic and into agriculture, and the Uzbeks are traditionally sedentary and into commerce. The Kyrgyz in the south are upset with the current political situation, and I would argue that they're taking their grievances out on this minority, which happens to be a handy scapegoat because they're heavily concentrated in the southern city of Osh. They're neighbors; they live side by side, and all accounts thus far have suggested that it's been pretty much the Kyrgyz attacking the Uzbeks. So you've got an outpouring of Uzbek refugees--one hundred thousand refugees approximately that have fled to Uzbekistan and about three hundred thousand more that are internally displaced within Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz army is not very strong, and there are credible reports that the army was firing on the Uzbeks.

Exactly, it's a weak army to begin with, not well funded, not well trained, and then on top of that, there these reports that the army has clearly taken a side and engaged in the violence against the Uzbeks.

I would argue that this is not so much of an ethnic conflict as it is a political conflict that happens to be corresponding to ethnic lines.

What is the referendum this Sunday about?

The referendum is on whether or not a new constitution should go into effect. The new constitution is based on a parliamentary rather than a presidential form of government. The Otunbayeva administration says it wants to establish a parliamentary system of government that will obviously diminish the powers of the president a great deal.

This is a new constitution drafted by Otunbayeva's government?

Exactly.

So it's just recently drawn up.

Yes, very recently. And, for example, it states that Kyrgyz is the state language and Russian is the official language, but like all the prior constitutions that Kyrgyzstan has had since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it does not give the Uzbek language any kind of recognition. And at this point in time, Uzbeks are actually the largest minority in Kyrgyzstan. Russians used to make up close to 30 percent of the population when the Soviet Union collapsed, but because of all the out-migration among the Russian population, what you have now is the Uzbeks as the largest minority. They're about 15 percent and Russians are now down to about 11 or 12 percent.

So a lot of the intellectuals and managerial class left?

Yes. Kyrgyzstan has suffered a serious brain drain because of that. The Uzbeks have not left for fairly obvious reasons. For one, if they leave, chances are they're going to go to Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan is far more authoritarian than any government that Kyrgyzstan has had since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it's not a market economy like Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbeks will not have as great a chance to flourish economically in Uzbekistan as they do in Kyrgyzstan.

Is there any word that Otunbayeva might postpone this referendum?

Not yet. But I don't see how they're going to carry out this referendum and then claim that it was legitimate if 15 percent of their population is either outside of the country, internally displaced, or too fearful to take part in the referendum. If the largest minority doesn't participate, it's going to be very hard for this government to claim that the outcome was legitimate.

Should the referendum go ahead even if there is violence?

Otunbayeva, who says she will not run for the presidency, asserts that "We must hold [the referendum], or the country will remain in turmoil."

Is there any threat to the United States' use of the Manas base?

There was conflict between the Bakiyev administration and the United States over the base when the lease was up. The Kyrgyz demanded an outrageous increase in rent that I believe initially the United States declined, and then eventually they compromised, and the United States ended up agreeing to pay more than it ever had in the past. So there is sort of a conflict already. But the current threat is basically based on the current government saying to London, "Look if you don't send Bakiyev's son, who is seeking asylum in Britain, back so that he can stand trial in Kyrgyzstan, we will shut down the base." But the major threat to the United States is that if the United States comes out too strongly one way or the other toward the provisional government, the United States could be kicked out. The United States has already been kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005 for criticizing Uzbekistan's human rights record.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake flew to Kyrgyzstan, and all he really said was there should be an international investigation. There was no criticism of anybody.

The United States is being very cautious, because they've got to be careful if they support Otunbayeva and Otunbayeva's administration falls. If that happened, whoever replaces her administration could kick the United States out.

The Russians had been in a sort of competition with the United States while Bakiyev was in power. They tried to bribe him with this big loan if he would cancel the lease to the United States. So they were angry when he went ahead and renewed. Do you think the issue will come up when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with President Obama on Thursday? The Russians haven't really done or said much since this outbreak of violence, have they?

The major threat to the United States is that if the United States comes out too strongly one way or other toward the provisional government, the United States could be kicked out. The United States has already been kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005 for criticizing Uzbekistan's human rights record.

No. Otunbayeva did ask Russia at the height of the violence to send troops to quell the violence, and Russia declined. My take on Russia is that it's very reluctant to get involved in internal Kyrgyz affairs by itself. I suspect that if the United States were to initiate something, Russia would collaborate. And I suspect that if the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were to organize something, Russia would be a part of it. Russia probably views this as a messy Kyrgyz affair that it wants to come to an end, because Russia has strategic interests in the region as well, and Russia has an airbase in Kant, not far from Bishkek.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, all these Central Asian states seem to remain authoritarian or corrupt. Is there any shining light in any of these states?

Kyrgyzstan used to be considered the most democratic of the Central Asian states. That was during the early to mid-1990s. But after 1994, Akayev became increasingly authoritarian when he ran into opposition in parliament when he was trying to force through more economic reforms. What you have since the mid-1990s in Kyrgyzstan is really a less than democratic government. And the corruption is endemic throughout the region. In Kyrgyzstan, it's particularly difficult to root out because the country is just so poor. The stakes are so low that the only way that most people can prosper economically is to have some sort of position within the government where they can engage in corruption. Bribery is just part of the system. That's how people top off their salary.

It sounds like Afghanistan.

It's very difficult to root out that kind of corruption, and I know Otunbayeva is singing the same song that Bakiyev sang about rooting out corruption. I highly doubt that her administration will ultimately be any different than the Akayev or the Bakiyev administrations, simply because they're operating within these economic and political limitations.

What is the difference between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? They're all Muslims. And they're all Sunnis?

Yes, they're all Sunni Muslim.

What language do they speak to each other?

It depends. They might speak Russian to each other, but the Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages are both Turkic languages, so they're mutually understandable. They might speak Russian; they might speak Kyrgyz or Uzbek. Probably, most interactions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are a mixture of Russian and Kyrgyz and Uzbek.

Honestly, there is not a great deal of difference between the two ethnic groups. These are ethnic groups that were essentially artificially created by the Bolsheviks as part of their strategy to establish power and legitimacy in the region and to draw borders. As the decades wore on during the Soviet era, and as time wore on after the collapse of the Soviet era, those identities have become more important and have sort of taken on a life of their own.

Under the czar, what was that whole area called in Central Asia?

It was called Turkistan. It was a large area that was essentially divided by nothing more than the sedentary and the nomadic groups. There was a lot of mixing of peoples, and there wasn't a great deal of identity besides tribal identity. The Soviets came in and imposed these ethnic identities. And those borders are all artificial, and that's also part of the problem. You've got this Fergana Valley that Stalin divided that is part Uzbek, part Kyrgyz, part Tajik. And Osh is right in there.

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