Friday, June 18, 2010

Can the Kazakhstan-chaired OSCE Step up to the Plate in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

With violence subsiding in southern Kyrgyzstan, the real dangers to regional stability are only starting to come into perspective. Yesterday's announcement by the UN that the refugee problem had ballooned to about 400,000 seems to have awakened the international community, but its response remains unclear. What is clear is that the scope of the problems that could now emerge as a result of population displacement and lingering animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are significant and potentially could spark a much more serious regional conflict. While the international community was unable to adequately respond to the unrest that rocked the region this past week, it is now critical that there is an international response aimed at stabilizing the situation and preventing it from spiraling out of control any further.

Both Russia and the US have avoided responding militarily despite requests from the interim Kyrgyz government for assistance in stabilization. While one would expect more willingness on the part of these larger powers to assist Kyrgyzstan with establishing stability given that both have airbases in the country, it is also understandable that such bilateral action could inflame other geopolitical tensions regionally and even globally. What is needed now in southern Kyrgyzstan is a multilateral commitment to keeping the peace. The question is which multilateral commitment? The United Nations is theoretically the most neutral source of peacekeeping, but the UN bureaucracy can make response slow and poorly coordinated. Furthermore, since the situation has yet to escalate into a full-out war, it is questionable whether the UN would even deploy and, if it did, whether it would be the appropriate response.

On a more regional level, however, there are multiple possibilities. There is the CSTO (The Collective Security Treaty Organization), which is made up of former Soviet states, but it is unclear whether this organization has the capacity to field the type of peacekeepers who are needed. The same can be said of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together a diverse group of regional powers, but has neither experience with peacekeeping nor a clear mandate to form a joint peacekeeping force. That leaves the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), which, despite declining in its influence on the former Soviet Union, has a history of deploying peacekeeping observers in the Caucasus and the Balkans and has long had a substantial office in Osh staffed with regional experts. Furthermore, the OSCE's present chairmanship is held by Kazakhstan, the one power in Central Asia with the capacity and relative neutrality to take on a lead role in mitigating further conflict in the Ferghana Valley.

If the OSCE were to respond quickly now and establish a strong stable of peacekeeping observers for the south of Kyrgyzstan, it could have a substantial impact on the situation. Such an organization could mediate between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, protect the properties of refugees from further looting or usurpation, help reintegrate Uzbeks who have returned to protect their properties, and monitor the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Such quick and decisive action would be the perfect opportunity for Kazakhstan to demonstrate a positive leadership role within the OSCE and for the OSCE to show the former Soviet states that it can deliver support when critically needed.

The question that remains is whether Kazakhstan has the capacity to take on such a leadership role and push through the OSCE bureaucracy in order to field a professional, effective, and knowledgeable OSCE-led peacekeeping group in time to make a difference. If it did so, it would do much to reaffirm international confidence in Kazakhstan, re-establish a prominent role for the OSCE in the former Soviet Union, and potentially ease some of the geopolitical tension in Eurasia that the proponents of the “new great game” theory so enjoy promoting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why is Ethnic Violence Erupting Between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

As we watched the horrible news of violent chaos that overtook Southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week, the first question that came to mind was – why? Why would people who have been neighbors for decades be drawn into such senseless violence? Is it related to the overthrow of Bakiyev's government, or are we witnessing something completely unrelated? While information coming out of Osh and Jalalabad remains spotty, there is plenty reason to believe that the triggers of the unrest are related to the political instability in the country.

As the interim government claims, pro-Bakiyev supporters, and especially his infamous brothers, may have incited this violence. Witnesses have reported some evidence of such a provocation, but their claims remain unverifiable. Regardless, the fragile nature of the Kyrgyz state coupled with the frustration of Kyrgyz citizens over their country's continual instability has exacerbated the situation as even the interim government admits it has lost control. It is also likely that criminal elements are somehow involved as regime change in the country once again opens up the criminal underworld to turf battles. But, these various issues do not tell us the whole story. There is still the question of why this violence is taking an ethnic character when Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are hardly at the center of the present political crisis that may have triggered the unrest.

Most stories in the media have downplayed the ethnic character of this unrest, but those that have attempted to describe the ethnic background have generally gotten things mostly wrong. Such stories tend to focus on a history of Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension that comes from the drawing of borders in the Ferghana Valley in 1924. While the strange borders of the Ferghana Valley certainly help to aggravate ethnic relations in the region, they are not the cause of ethnic animosity. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the 1924 borders did not “create” the ethnic groups of Central Asia out of thin air in order to divide a united pan-Turkic population. The borders only explain why Osh and Jalalabad are part of Kyrgyzstan when they were traditionally Uzbek cities. Furthermore, it should be noted that, despite the continual political instability in Kyrgyzstan, few Uzbeks in the country would like to see their cities annexed to Uzbekistan where there is extensive political repression and arguably even more economic pressures.

So, what is the cause of ethnic animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? I would argue that it is not founded on ethnicity, the manipulation of nation-states, or an evil conspiracy masterminded by Stalin. Instead, this tension emerges from a cultural cleavage specific to Central Asia that is not limited to Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but is founded on the region's history of nomadic-settled interaction. Historically, the lines between nomads and settled people are somewhat blurred in Central Asia, and today there are virtually no real nomadic people left in the region. Nonetheless, the delineation between nomadic and settled people continues to be real in the minds of Central Asians and represents the primary cultural fault-line in the region.

While occasionally Central Asians will evoke this cultural fissure directly when Uzbeks or Uyghurs refer to Kazakhs or Kyrgyz as nomads without culture or when Kyrgyz and Kazakhs call Uyghurs and Uzbeks “Sarts” (a derogatory name for the settled people of the region that has pre-revolutionary origins). Usually, however, this cleavage is expressed through ethnic prejudices. These prejudices can be found throughout Central Asia, even in large cities where the idea of a settled-nomadic divide seems ridiculous, but they are most intense in the locations where the descendents of nomads and agriculturalists live in close proximity to each other. Southern Kyrgyzstan is one such place, but it is not the only one. In fact, if you had similar triggers for conflict in the other Central Asian countries, it would not be that surprising if violence erupted between Uzbeks and Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan, between Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Dashagouz or Mari regions, between Uyghurs and Kyrgyz in the Chu Valley, or between Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Ili Valley.

The tension between former nomads and settled people in Central Asia is not like that between ethnic groups in the Balkans or even in the Caucasus. It usually is not expressed outwardly, instead manifesting itself in the prejudices of daily interactions, business transactions, etc. It is only when these interactions are put under intense pressure from other factors does it seem to flare into violent conflict. But, when that happens, history has shown that the violence becomes intense and personal. Prior to this past week, the most recent example of this viciousness was the violence that erupted in the area of Osh in 1990. As Russian ethnographer Valery Tishkov has shown us in his meticulous and often “stomach-churning” descriptions of the violence at that time, the boundaries of civility were thrown to the wind as sexual violence, physical mutilation, and brutal murder using rudimentary farm tools spread throughout the region.

At the heart of this tension between former nomadic and settled peoples in the region is a fundamental distrust that likely harks back to a time when the nomads were cheated by traders at bazaars when they came to settled regions to sell their livestock and when nomads would ambush trading caravans that came through their herding regions. To this day, the stereotypes that each group uses for the other corresponds to such experiences. Former nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen) suggest that the settled peoples are “sneaky,” “cheap,” and not to be trusted. Descendents of the settled peoples of the region (Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tajiks to a lesser extent since they have less interaction with former nomads), in turn, claim that the former nomads are “lazy,” “corrupt,” and “uncultured.”

I feel that these prejudices are important to understand because they indeed run deep in Central Asia. That, in of itself, does not suggest that such violence is inevitable. It merely means that there is a deep cultural cleavage that can be exploited by those who wish to foster instability. Obviously, whoever provoked the recent unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan understood this all too well. Unfortunately, the international community seems not to understand it and appears to remain dumbfounded at the violence of the last week.

It is hard to predict the fallout from this violence, but it is likely to have a long legacy. The primary “wildcard” in the foreseeable future remains the response of Uzbekistan, which has reportedly thus far accepted about 100,000 Uzbek refugees from Osh and Jalalabad. Will these people return to their homes? If their property is taken over by Kyrgyz, how will the Uzbek government respond? These are the types of factors that could create a much more deadly long-term conflict in the region. Although Kyrgyzstan's interim government will likely work to prevent such an escalation of conflict, it is unclear if they have the capacity to prevent it. As for Uzbekistan, the intentions of Tashkent remain unclear, but there is a situation open for the Uzbek government to exploit. Let's hope cooler heads prevail.

View My Stats