Kyrgyz Provisional Government Must Intensify Stabilisation Efforts in South
Kyrgyz Provisional Government Must Intensify Stabilisation Efforts in South
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Kyrgyz Provisional Government Must Intensify Stabilisation Efforts in South

Suggestions by Kyrgyzstan's Provisional Government yesterday that the situations in Osh and Jalalabad are stabilising, that foreign intervention is thus not needed, and that a referendum scheduled for 27 June can go ahead, are dangerously premature.

The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan remains unpredictable and volatile. The Provisional Government's handling of the situation has been less than assured, and it has itself admitted that its security forces lost control, and in some cases disobeyed orders. Crisis Group urges the government to focus its full attention on security concerns and achieving a long-term solution to the many social and humanitarian issues thrown up by the last four days of death and destruction. In particular it needs as a matter of the highest priority to create a well protected humanitarian corridor for aid deliveries.

Many hundreds have died since the night of 10 June. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and are now living in makeshift conditions in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Local officials in the south have told Crisis Group they fear they cannot guarantee the security of refugees encamped along the Kyrgyz side of the border with Uzbekistan. Human rights workers speak of Uzbek communities in the worse-affected cities too traumatised to accept medical aid from Kyrgyz health workers. Even the preliminary figures for destruction in Osh describe hundreds of buildings and homes destroyed. All this, moreover, has taken place against a back-drop of massive unemployment and poverty, in one of the most densely populated parts of Central Asia.

A further upsurge of violence cannot be excluded. Neither can a spread of the unrest to other parts of the south. A large number of weapons are almost certainly missing as the result of raids on police, military posts and arsenals. Anger is still high. Atrocity stories are rife on both sides. There seem to be few males among refugees who have made their way to the border. The Provisional Government should request the assistance of the international community – through the United Nations Security Council – to ensure the protection of its population from further violence.

We understand the Provisional Government's desire that a referendum on a new constitution go ahead on 27 June. We realise that the government feels this is a crucial test of its legitimacy. But we fail to see how a referendum is possible when many of its citizens, including a sizeable proportion of ethnic Uzbek Kyrgyz, are living without shelter. This alone could seriously undermine the referendum's legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and contribute to the sense of alienation of many southerners. Should the situation fail to improve dramatically in coming days, we urge the government to reconsider holding the referendum across the country. The best proof of legitimacy is successfully to restore peace and normality to the south of its country.

Kyrgyzstan needs help, and so far it has received little. International institutions and key nations such as Russia and the United States need to move rapidly to:

  • Develop a humanitarian corridor, including the necessary security and logistical support from Russia and the United States, to permit OCHA, UNHCR, ECHO and other humanitarian agencies to provide assistance to the hundreds of thousands of displaced.
  • Deploy a troika of officials from the UN, EU and Russia to find ways to boost the capacity of the Provisional Government to restore order, initiate urgent short-term reconstruction actions and begin the planning for the longer process of rebuilding the area and reconciling its communities.
  • Support the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities to start a process of investigation and accountability.

In particular the United Nations Security Council should continue to closely monitor the situation in Kyrgyzstan and request regular briefings from the Secretariat on the humanitarian and political situation in the region.  Should the situation further deteriorate or should the government of Kyrgyzstan request assistance, the Council should consider options to authorise the deployment of a limited law-enforcement mission or international military observer mission to support the government’s efforts to protect populations within a specific time frame and possibly followed by a multilateral policing operation.

Bishkek/Brussels/Washington 

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

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