Kyrgyz woes meet feminine touch
By Derek Henry Flood
BISHKEK - Kyrgyzstan's former foreign minister and ambassador to the United
Kingdom, Roza Otunbayeva, was sworn in on Saturday as the nation's president
after the June 27 referendum affirmed the legitimacy of her office until the
end of 2011.
Kyrgyzstan has been through two fits of upheaval that have given regional
powers like Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan reason to question the country's
political future. First, a wave of bloody street riots in April ousted
president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and killed at least 88 people.
Then, clashes last month between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in southern
Kyrgyzstan - when mobs of Kyrgyz trashed
and set fire to Uzbek neighborhoods - claimed 300 lives, according to the
official death toll. Otunbayeva has said the real figure is closer to 2,000.
Otunbayeva, a smart woman encircled by silk-suited autocrats, has become
Central Asia's first female leader amid Kyrgyzstan's most difficult period
since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Otunbayeva, from the southern city of Osh that saw the most of Kyrgyz-Uzbek
clashes, has been criticized by the traumatized Uzbek refugees returning there
from a brief exile in eastern Uzbekistan for not meeting with their community
leaders. The Uzbeks say the new president has not addressed their concerns on
heavily guarded visits to Osh - only made after a degree of calm had returned
to the region.
Otunbayeva's immediate concerns are the internal crisis in the south and doubts
by regional state actors over her ability to keep Kyrgyzstan from
disintegrating along ethnic lines - there is more distrust between communities
now than at any time in the nation's history.
Tensions in Osh have not receded, though Kyrgyz security forces have began to
scour the city's leveled districts under the auspices of a government
investigation. Otunbayeva must deal with the contentions of many ethnic Kyrgyz
that the conflict and the international media's supposed sympathy for the
mostly Uzbek victims have tarred the whole of the Kyrgyz nation unfairly, only
generating further resentment within Kyrgyzstan.
Some Kyrgyz believe their Uzbek compatriots have adeptly manipulated the media
to win sympathy. In Osh, there were even more absurd claims that Uzbeks
purposefully set fire to their own businesses to stain the image of the Kyrgyz
Otunbayeva's apparent inability to entirely control the police and military has
many worried that, should a new bout of fire and death break out, she may not
be able to stem its bloody tide. In reaction, some Uzbeks talk of arming
themselves for the next, in their eyes, inevitable confrontation.
Trudging through the wholly destroyed majority Uzbek area of Cheremushki in
Osh, the only structures not razed are those with "Tatar" (Turkic Muslims from
the Volga region) or "KG" ("Kyrgyz") hastily spray-painted across their pastel
Anwar, a mixed ethnic Russian-Uzbek, toured the charred remains of what had
been until June 11 a lovely two-storey house he and his sister built for their
72-year-old mother as a home for the inter-ethnic family. They had lived
peacefully in the Ferghana Valley for decades following their Soviet-era
migration to the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic.
Anwar called his sister Luda from the ruined garden inside the scorched walls
of the home's courtyard. Luda sobbed uncontrollably when recalling the six
years it took them to save to build their matriarch's dream home, and then came
the night of the clashes; her septuagenarian mother had to leap out of a window
to safety as a group of uniformed men sprayed the house with petrol and set it
Across the narrow lane the home of a mixed Korean-Kyrgyz family was destroyed
just as mercilessly, apparently because the owners did not appropriately label
their house to let the raiders know it was not owned by Uzbeks.
"The world must know," Luda said with contempt. "Kyrgyzstan is our home. We do
not want to live in Russia. How can the world watch this happen? They [the
international community] must know!"
According to a senior Rome-based World Food Program logistician, the 49 refugee
camps that were rapidly erected in Uzbekistan were closed under collusion of
Uzbek and Kyrgyz authorities anxious to have the refugees return in time to
vote before the June 27 referendum.
The United Nations and all of its sub-agencies had prepared for a long-term
humanitarian situation along the Uzbek side of the border and ferried in tons
of relief supplies from their Dubai hub in the United Arab Emirates, 175 tonnes
Now, with virtually all of the displaced having returned, much of the aid sits
unused in Uzbekistan requiring another feat to move it to the Kyrgyz side.
Authorities on either side of the border were keen to quell the burgeoning
crisis, oblivious to the rapid response and expense that was already underway
by international aid organizations and the gargantuan Iluyshin-76 jet
cargolifters piloted by their Russian and Ukrainian contractors.
The regime of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov had no desire to host tens of
thousands of newly stateless people, possibly fearing they would destabilize
the already troubled Andijan province, which was the scene of a massacre in
2005 when government troops opened fire on an anti-government demonstration.
Khairullah, a formerly well-heeled Uzbek businessman, took a piece of blackened
wood to the bare, white wall of his home and etched "300,000" and uttered
"dollars", explaining that he felt himself almost a victim of his own success
and that his home had not just relative value in the Ferghana Valley, but that
at an estimated US$300,000 it was valuable anywhere by international standards.
He looked on in despair at the ruins of his house and asked rhetorically,
"Where will we sleep this winter?" As thousands of Uzbek families plod through
the wreckage of their lives, a team of military advisors was dispatched to Osh
by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to ascertain the
feasibility of constructing a new base there.
Despite Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev's tetchy statements about
Kyrgyzstan's ethno-political future that further democratization could lead to
"the collapse of the state", Russian realpolitik never seem to skip a beat in
Kyrgyzstan as the work of the CSTO, a sort of Eurasian North Atlantic Treaty
Organization, was well underway. The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
The Kremlin's unease with political progress in Kyrgyzstan is no surprise
considering the Russian government's consolidation of power following the
reforms of the 1990s and the humiliating war without end begun in the North
Caucasus during what former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and
his allied siloviki (politicians from the security or military services)
consider the disastrous reign of Boris Yeltsin.
The Russian-led CSTO's secretary general, former KGB and Russian General
Nikolai Bordyu, told the press that his delegation consisting of officers from
Armenia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Tajikistan as well as local nationals were in
southern Kyrgyzstan to assist local law enforcement and "promote peace" in the
This correspondent spoke to a representative from Tajikistan who stated that
the objective was to scout the area for a future base and that other concerns
were certainly of secondary priority. While the United States and Russia have
military bases in the northern outposts of Manas and Kant respectively, Russia
looks to use the Osh conflict to gain an anchor in the south in a bid to
outmaneuver the Americans tramping in its "near abroad".
Many Uzbeks wandering around Osh's ruins repeated rumors that plans for more
organized violence had been afoot, either just before or after Otunbayeva's
inauguration. Such talk is dissipating and ethnic violence has abated for the
Kyrgyzstan's next test has been confirmed for October 10, when elections will
be held across the country for seats in Bishkek's newly expanded parliament.
Otunbayeva decreed that ministers in her administration must vacate their posts
by this weekend if they wished to run for parliament. This she feels will help
ensure a freer and fairer electoral process removed from the expansive cronyism
of her predecessors.
Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Tekebayev led the charge by stepping down before
the weekend to announce his candidacy. Though the UN, the European Union and
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe praised the referendum
overall for the peaceful way in which it was conducted, providing the interim
government with a good degree of international legitimacy, many questions
remain as to the identity of the conflict's core agitators and whether or not
the new government can survive in such an embittered climate.
Here in Asia's fissiparous heart where thousands of internally displaced
ethnic-Uzbek citizens exist in limbo fearing the cold of the next Central Asian
winter, people continue to live day to day in trepidation. Otunbayeva has taken
an oath that she will do her utmost under the circumstances. The world is
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle
East and South and Central Asia and is the editor of the Jamestown Foundation's
Militant Leadership Monitor. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com.