Kyrgyzstan tests Russia's regional commitments

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.

On Monday, Russia convened a meeting of the CSTO and left open the possibility of getting involved at a future date. Medvedev did not attend the discussions, but met with CSTO representatives afterward, calling the situation in Kyrgyzstan “intolerable.”

“This is extremely dangerous for the region, and therefore everything must be done to prevent these kinds of events — in accordance with the law, but firmly,” he said. The CSTO ruled out sending peacekeeping troops immediately, and Medvedev simply said the group would call another meeting “if the situation gets worse.”

The CSTO was founded in 2002 and includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Last year, it agreed to set up an 11,000-strong rapid reaction force, but Uzbekistan refused to sign on.

“There are a lot of internal tensions and a low level of trust — that’s why any action is so complicated,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

He said the Kyrgyz crisis was the “perfect chance” for Russia to exhibit its desire to become a regional peacekeeping power. “The CSTO would ideally serve as that framework but it looks like it is not prepared, at least in its current form, to take a decision because it is not a real military-political alliance.”

What’s more, leaders in the fragile region, particularly Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president Islam Karimov, are loath to invite a precedent, Lukyanov said.

“Central Asian leaders are extremely afraid to legitimize involvement for intervention in internal affairs,” he said.

Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired colonel and head of the Moscow-based Center for Military Forecasting, warned that if the situation continued to spiral, it could threaten United States interests in Afghanistan, and further inflame heroin trafficking from the region, a top Kremlin concern. The U.S. keeps an airbase at Manas, in the country’s north, that is a key resupply point for the war in Afghanistan. Yet Tsyganok said he believed Russia would remain uninvolved.

Lukyanov disagreed. “Russia, in the end, has no choice but to intervene. It’s very much connected to Afghanistan and a real disaster in Kyrgyzstan will lead to a complete strategic change in the whole area.”

“If Russia will not act then any claims on leadership, on sphere of influence, can be abandoned,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to show that Russia is a real leader in the area and there is no other alternative.”