KIEV, Ukraine — Seen from afar, Kyrgyzstan appears finally to be returning to normal. But following a bloody April uprising that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and left more than 80 dead, analysts warn that the small Central Asian nation is far from stable and could very possibly see further unrest, if not outright political chaos.
This situation has raised concerns in Washington and Moscow. Though they lately have been rivals for influence in the ex-Soviet state — which is the only country in the world to host both Russian and American military bases — Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State George Kroll announced recently in Moscow that they would coordinate efforts to stabilize Kyrgyzstan in the coming months.
“The sides noted the closeness of Russia and the U.S.’s assessment of the situation in Kyrgyzstan, and agreed to unify efforts towards establishing stability in the country,” said a brief statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, published on its official website.
In the weeks that followed the April 7 uprising, the ex-Soviet state has seen ethnic clashes in the south that left three dead and led officials to introduce a temporary state of emergency. Meanwhile interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has extended her term in office from the end of this year to December 2011, while the country gears up for a constitutional referendum at the end of June and then parliamentary elections in October.
Kyrgyzstan remains a society deeply split along geographic, economic and ethnic lines. Bakiyev comes from Jalalabad in the south; the provisional government leaders who replaced him are predominantly from the north. Within the south, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks compete and at times come into conflict.
“All the ingredients are there for continued nasty business,” said Alexander Cooley, an associate professor of international relations at Barnard College in New York and an expert on the region.
For all its diminutive size — 5.5 million inhabitants and comparable territory to South Dakota — Kyrgyzstan nevertheless sometimes seems to be not one country, but many. Economically, the north is relatively more developed and seems closer in character to Kazakhstan, with which the Kyrgyz share strong ethnic ties. The south — separated from the north by two walls of mountains — is part of central Asia’s racially mottled Ferghana Valley and is more traditional. Close to half the population is Uzbek. Even the Kyrgyz living there are viewed as a different breed by their northern brethren.
Further complicating the picture is the fact that the provisional government at times appears disturbingly disunited. Officials make conflicting pronouncements — for example, concerning the future of the United States’ key military air base, Manas, used to ship troops and supplies to Afghanistan and located just outside the capital, Bishkek. Acting President Otunbayeva says that the Americans will remain for the time being, and she has renewed the base's lease. Other officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Azimbek Beknazarov, have advocated closing the facility down.
“The fundamental problem in Kyrgyzstan right now is the regime's competence and powers of concentration,” Paul Quinn-Judge, central Asia director for the International Crisis Group, wrote in an email message. “They have to focus on running the country, not planning their campaigns four months hence.”
The government also lacks full legitimacy. While most Kyrgyz seemed overjoyed to see the back of Bakiyev, whose family was accused of siphoning off millions of dollars through corruption and crooked business deals, they nevertheless view the provisional leaders with a heavy dose of skepticism. Coming to power through a violent revolution is a far cry from the public blessing granted by democratic elections. All leaders of the interim government also have served in previous governments — even under the discredited Bakiyev.
Add to this mix the country’s ongoing financial woes. Kyrgyzstan is still reeling from the global recession and its government coffers, either through economic mismanagement or theft by the previous officials, are nearly empty. The public seems willing to give the new rulers a grace period, but peoples’ tolerance can only hold for so long.
For all its potential for instability, however, no one is yet considering the “C-word” — civil war.
“Civil war requires two armies. I do not see this. Most of the violence has been in one oblast, Jalalabad, exactly where we would expect,” said Quinn-Judge. “The Bakiyevs' ability to foster violence elsewhere is, based on their performance so far, limited.”
Cooley of Barnard College agreed that the chances for large-scale fighting so far are low. But he warned against continuing unstable circumstances in the south, brought on by the lack of legitimate law enforcement bodies.
“My reports from the south are that the police have checked out,” said Cooley, speaking by telephone from New York.
“The worst case scenario is that the south descends into real criminal instability, and the interim government ceases to work as a credible force,” he continued, though adding “we’re not there yet.”