How Kyrygyzstan was plunged into its deadliest ethnic chaos in 20 years

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The path to Kyrgyzstan’s deadly ethnic chaos

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet republic hosting U.S. and Russian military bases, is engulfed by the worst ethnic conflict the country has seen in two decades. The violence, which follows just weeks after a public revolt toppled widely despised President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has killed scores of people, wounded hundreds and driven tens of thousands of refugees across the border to Uzbekistan.

Some questions and answers about how the country was plunged into chaos:

Q. What sparked the violence?

A. Clashes reportedly arose from undefined petty disputes in the southern market city of Osh and quickly spiraled into pitched battles between groups of young men, leading to the pillaging of local businesses and homes. Within hours, by early Friday morning, gunbattles spread across the city, as groups of ethnic Kyrgyz attacked minority Uzbeks in what some of them described as reprisals for attacks on their community. Ethnic violence then spread to Jalal-Abad, some two hours drive away. Government officials say the violence could not have spread so fast without an organizing force and accuse deposed President Bakiyev’s entourage of fomenting the disturbances.

Q. What lies at the root of the ethnic tensions?

A. The fertile Ferghana Valley, where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located, once belonged to a single feudal lord, but it was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Stalinist borders rekindled old rivalries and fomented ethnic tensions. Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Uzbeks are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights.

In the dying months of the Soviet Union, the ethnic groups clashed over rival claims to fertile land in fighting that left hundreds dead.

People in the region, however, insist that the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz now live peacefully and that elements seeking to destabilize the country have sought to capitalize on historical differences between the two communities.

Q. How has the government responded to the violence?

A. Interim authorities have declared a state of emergency in the areas worst affected by violence, but local people say the police and army have been overwhelmed by the scale of the unrest. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva has appealed to Russia to send peacekeepers, but Moscow has declined that request. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military group, is set to discuss hold discussions Monday on whether to dispatch a joint peacekeeping operation into the troubled country.

Q. What is the political backdrop to this crisis?

A. The country is currently led by a fragile coalition of rival politicians that coalesced earlier this year in opposition to Bakiyev, who was deposed in a popular and bloody uprising in April. The government has benefited from popular approval arising from widespread dislike of Bakiyev, but its perceived indecisiveness and early signs of infighting have already disillusioned many.

Interim authorities had hoped to seal their political and democratic credentials in a referendum to approve a new constitution on June 27, but the likelihood of that vote taking place looks increasingly slim.

Q. How is the international community reacting?

A. The United States and Russia, who both have military bases in the country, have the greatest reason to be concerned. The U.S. Manas air base says it is helping to deliver food and medical supplies. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is discussing what aid the U.N. could send to help the fleeing refugees. Russia has sent in additional troops to boost security at its base.

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