BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan’s shaky provisional government is banking that a constitutional referendum this Sunday will provide it the legitimacy and support that it desperately needs, but many observers are anxious that the vote will simply hasten the country’s downward political spiral.
One week after anti-Uzbek riots in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal Abad left possibly thousands dead and even more homeless, the government of President Roza Otunbayeva is struggling to demonstrate that it actually has a grip on the country.
The interim leaders, who came to power in a blood-splattered uprising in April, are hoping that a successful referendum will be a demonstrative show of strength. Since the new constitution also creates a more muscular parliament, they also believe that prospect of increased political participation and authority will entice Kyrgyzstan’s fractious ruling class to invest themselves in the new system.
But Kyrgyzstan is increasingly looking like a country in name only. Political scientists use a term “failed state” when a government is incapable of providing basic services and protections to its population. Kyrgyzstan has not reached this stage yet, but there were moments this past week when it looked a real possibility.
Otunbayeva’s government wears its divisions on its sleeve, and is at times dangerously indecisive — even paralyzed. The violence in the south raged for three days before any action was taken. Paradoxically, for some the decision to go ahead with the referendum is a refreshing sign of coordination.
But the plan could go seriously awry. The constitution could fail to pass, or the government could fail to reach even the minimum threshold it needs for the poll to be legitimate. With hundred of thousands of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks having fled the fighting, it could be said that many voters have other things on their minds.
“It’s clear that it’s a grave mistake to go ahead with the referendum,” said Edil Baisalov, who was Otunbayeva’s chief of staff but recently left the government. “Osh and Jalal Abad are on fire, and it’s as if the rest of the country is saying, ‘Go to hell and live with our decision.’”
“It is morally wrong and politically a miscalculation,” he added.
Kyrgyzstan’s potential disintegration is raising alarms among observers in the West. Again, the scenario is not yet a given, but the possibility is real, and the repercussions could be wide-reaching. Kyrgyzstan with 5.5 million inhabitants is a small nation that has a big impact. It hosts a major transport hub for supplying United States troops in Afghanistan (as well as a smaller Russian airbase). It could also become, as Paul Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out in a recent op-ed, a conduit for two dangerous exports from Afghanistan: narcotics and religious extremists.
Eric McGlinchey, an expert on the region at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., is one of many who feels Western officials are not sufficiently concerned with the country’s plummet.
“If the international community is indeed committed to the Kyrgyz state, then it must step up and provide, at least in the short run, the security and muscle necessary for the Kyrgyz state to get back up and on its feet,” he wrote in an email exchange. “To simply continue recognizing Kyrgyz sovereignty, while allowing Kyrgyzstan's absolute power vacuum to persist, is ethically untenable.”
Meanwhile the south continues to smolder, like red-hot coals after a major fire.
Clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and security forces Monday in the south underlined the continuing volatility there.
Officials on Sunday dismantled barricades that the Uzbeks had erected to protect themselves. The clean-up proceeded without any incidents for the most part, opening up streets to traffic and allowing humanitarian aid to enter the ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods.
But when police entered the village of Nariman on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border on Monday morning, agencies reported, it produced an altercation that left two dead and more than 20 injured. Police said they came under fire as they entered the village to search for illegal weapons and information about the killing of a top law enforcement official. Residents dispute this version, however, and say that the forces beat and fired shots as they moved from house to house.
Uzbeks are deeply hostile to the police. They say that government forces were incapable — or unwilling — to protect them during the rioting. (Uzbeks make up 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s total population, but in the south their numbers are much higher. In Osh, the country’s second largest city, the ration of ethnic Kyrgyz to Uzbek is nearly even.) Numerous witnesses claim that government forces aided the Kyrgyz mobs and fired on mostly unarmed Uzbeks. Others say that they simply stood to the side while the marauders did their grim business.
Kyrgyz authorities last week arrested Azimzhan Askarov, a local human rights activist, on charges of inciting ethnic violence. (Government authorities say that they have arrested 20 people for possible involvement in the clashes.) Officials from Amnesty International, the watchdog organization, said that Askarov was in fact apprehended because he filmed troops standing by as Kyrgyz killed, burned and looted — and they feared police were beating him regularly to get him to reveal where the tapes are located.
“If there is no further major violence in the south, it will be because of good luck, not good policy — because there is no policy as far as we can see,” said ICG’s Quinn-Judge.
The fear however is that the hostilities will now move north. Bishkek is presently rife with rumors that something brutal is planned for June 25. What it could be is not at all clear: further ethnic violence, a coup or maybe just violent provocations to unhinge the population on the eve of the referendum. The rumors may of course be pure fabrication. But their existence is raising the already high tension in the country nearly to fever-pitch.