Connect to share and comment

Kyrgyzstan: Is the West worried enough?

As Bishkek seeks public support, talk is of a failed state.

Uzbek refugees
Ethnic Uzbek refugees cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border as they return to Kyrgyzstan, near the village of Yorkishlak, some 249 miles east of Tashkent, June 22, 2010. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

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.