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Kyrgyzstan's deceptive calm

Instability could mount in the central Asian country.

Kyrgyzstan interim government
Supporters of Kyrgyzstan's interim government sign up on May 14, 2010, for self-defense unit brigades, which consist of local residents who intend to defend the interim government's control and prevent disorders in the capital Bishkek. (Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Seen from afar, Kyrgyzstan appears finally to be returning to normal. But following a bloody April uprising that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and left more than 80 dead, analysts warn that the small Central Asian nation is far from stable and could very possibly see further unrest, if not outright political chaos.

This situation has raised concerns in Washington and Moscow. Though they lately have been rivals for influence in the ex-Soviet state — which is the only country in the world to host both Russian and American military bases — Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State George Kroll announced recently in Moscow that they would coordinate efforts to stabilize Kyrgyzstan in the coming months.

“The sides noted the closeness of Russia and the U.S.’s assessment of the situation in Kyrgyzstan, and agreed to unify efforts towards establishing stability in the country,” said a brief statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, published on its official website.

In the weeks that followed the April 7 uprising, the ex-Soviet state has seen ethnic clashes in the south that left three dead and led officials to introduce a temporary state of emergency. Meanwhile interim leader Roza Otunbayeva has extended her term in office from the end of this year to December 2011, while the country gears up for a constitutional referendum at the end of June and then parliamentary elections in October.

Kyrgyzstan remains a society deeply split along geographic, economic and ethnic lines. Bakiyev comes from Jalalabad in the south; the provisional government leaders who replaced him are predominantly from the north. Within the south, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks compete and at times come into conflict.

“All the ingredients are there for continued nasty business,” said Alexander Cooley, an associate professor of international relations at Barnard College in New York and an expert on the region.

For all its diminutive size — 5.5 million inhabitants and comparable territory to South Dakota — Kyrgyzstan nevertheless sometimes seems to be not one country, but many. Economically, the north is relatively more developed and seems closer in character to Kazakhstan, with which the Kyrgyz share strong ethnic ties. The south — separated from the north by two walls of mountains — is part of central Asia’s racially mottled Ferghana Valley and is more traditional. Close to half the population is Uzbek. Even the Kyrgyz living there are viewed as a different breed by their northern brethren.