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Kyrgyzstan tests Russia's regional commitments

Russia's refusal to send peacekeeping troops to southern Kyrgyzstan raises eyebrows.

Osh ethnic violence
A concrete block reading "Kyrgyz Zone" stands in the middle of the street in the city of Osh on June 13, 2010. Ethnic Uzbeks said Kyrgyz gangs were battling Sunday in besieged neighborhoods of Kyrgyzstan's second city Osh, burning residents out of their homes and shooting them as they fled. (Stringer/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russia has long touted its role as a regional champion, fiercely laying claim to its sphere of influence and forming a host of security groupings aimed at ensuring stability.

Now it looks like little more than rhetoric.

As southern Kyrgyzstan explodes in the worst ethnic violence central Asia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has remained conspicuously distant. At least 170 people have been killed in five days of fighting in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad — some estimates put the number at 10 times that. Osh, the country’s second largest city, has effectively been ethnically cleansed of Uzbeks, as tens of thousands stream toward the nearby border with Uzbekistan, fleeing gangs of ethnic Kyrgyz that have set Uzbek homes and business alight, reportedly killing with abandon.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which came to power in the April unrest that unseated former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, recognized early on that it had little power to control the situation. It had never fully gained control of the south, a Bakiyev stronghold, and violent clashes have erupted sporadically since his ouster, fed by simmering ethnic tensions.

On June 12, one day after the violence in Osh began, Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader, appealed directly to Russia for help.

“The situation in the Osh region has spun out of control,” she said. “We need outside forces to quell confrontation.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded by saying the Kyrgyzstan unrest was an “internal” affair, and dispatched a battalion of troops to reinforce Russia's air base in the north of the vast, mountainous country. He also ruled out involvement by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a loose alliance of ex-Soviet countries that Moscow has been attempting to shape into a sort of regional NATO for years.

“Only in the case of a foreign intrusion and an attempt to externally seize power can we state that there is an attack against the CSTO,” Medvedev said Friday. “All the problems of Kyrgyzstan have internal roots.”

CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha agreed, saying the violence was “purely a domestic affair” and so the group would not intervene.

That’s a different line than he was spinning four years ago.

“The treaty aims to prevent bloodshed and application of force for solving problems both inside the country and on the borders with other states,” Bordyuzha told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, commenting on a different regional conflict.

Russia’s failure to get involved in the Kyrgyz unrest presents a catch-22: If it were to get involved immediately, Western observers would likely decry its militancy and declare Kyrgyzstan “lost” to Russian influence. If it doesn’t get involved, its years of rhetoric aiming to build up groups like the CSTO would be exposed as hot air.