Historical Context for Regional Response to Recent Events in Kyrgyzstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 85

The international reaction to the events of April 6-7 in Kyrgyzstan follows a pattern that is becoming all too familiar in the region. Over the past 19 years, many of the former Soviet republics have experienced violent and/or unexpected transitions in the form of political upheavals, coups, and “color revolutions.” The South Caucasus states, for example, have experienced leadership changes in a variety of these manners. The Central Asian states, in contrast, have been “examples of stability,” and observers relegate discussions of political violence to the Tajik Civil War of 1992-1997 and the Tulip Revolution of 2005 in Kyrgyzstan. However, it now seems that the victors of the Tulip Revolution have fallen victim to a repeat performance. In contrast to external actors’ responses, the regional reaction (or lack thereof) to the current events in Kyrgyzstan is shaped by the other Central Asian leaders’ own desire for security and their understanding of past events. Although stability is a common objective, they will look to Russia as the strongest member state of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to provide the assistance to Kyrgyzstan that is necessary to maintain the status quo.

The response from the international community has ranged from Russia’s swift recognition and offer of assistance to the more meticulous consideration by the US. Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was the first foreign representative to contact Rosa Otunbayeva, the generally acknowledged head of the interim government, and by April 14, Russia had promised $50 million in financial assistance and loans (EDM, April 15). The US was less quick to respond, with high-level calls and diplomatic visits marking the Obama administration’s gradual acceptance of the situation and a delicate negotiation with the interim government. Immediately following the initial protests on April 7, Turkey and China both expressed their concern about the events unfolding in cities across Kyrgyzstan and their condolences for the victims of the violence (www.mfa.gov.tr, Xinhua, April 7). Since the apparent resignation and departure of the deposed President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on April 15, each country is beginning to establish a working relationship with the new government in Bishkek (www.ferghana.ru, April 16). Ever the contrarian, Belarusian President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is providing both asylum and his “personal protection” to Bakiyev and some of his immediate family members despite Otunbayeva’s statements that Bakiyev must return to Bishkek to face prosecution for the deaths of those individuals who security forces fired upon during the demonstrations (www.24.kg, Kommersant, April 21).

Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asian neighbors have remained noticeably silent. There have been some reports of border closures and halting trade, but none of the other four presidents –Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan), Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan), and Emomali Rakhmon (Tajikistan)– have made any statements. In cooperation with Russia and the US, Kazakhstan played an active role in negotiating with both Bakiyev and the interim government, perhaps largely because of its responsibilities as the current Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, news regarding Bakiyev’s flight to, and subsequent departure from, Kazakhstan remained relatively understated and was devoid of judgmental commentary. The state media in Uzbekistan made a short announcement from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry on April 8, but otherwise the Russian media and internet have been the main sources of continuing news coverage (www.ferghana.ru, April 9). Nothing has been reported in the Turkmen media, and Berdimuhamedov’s regime has yet to acknowledge Otunbayeva or the interim government.

This is not the first time Central Asian leaders have remained silent while political turmoil engulfed a neighbor. One can go as far back as the Soviet period to see a similar situation. The reaction in Central Asia during the August 1991 coup, in which a group of right-wing Soviet officials intent on reversing reform efforts briefly held Mikhail Gorbachev hostage, was relatively weak. President Nazarbayev (then entering his second year as president of the Kazakh SSR) alone voiced his strong opposition, but as a close ally of Gorbachev, he stood to gain from the proposed “10+1” option. Gorbachev hoped that this proposal would salvage the Soviet Union in a more federated structure, wherein a central political leadership would be retained and he would be President. The other presidents (then First Secretaries within their respective republics) remained silent, waiting to see which direction the winds would blow. Karimov, who was in his second year as president of the Uzbek SSR, stated that such action (the coup) could be expected if reforms took place too swiftly and unevenly. Throughout the early 1990’s, as similar upheavals took place in the South Caucasus – especially the June 1993 overthrow of Abdulfez Elchibei in Azerbaijan and the demise of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia in December of that same year –the Central Asian leaders were again reserved in their response. Even as one of their own, Askar Akayev, was deposed in the Tulip Revolution, Akayev was castigated for his corrupt ways that were a product of an uncontrollable reform agenda. The Central Asian leaders were perhaps closest to expressing grave concern when the Tajik President, Rakhmon Nabiyev, was forced to resign in September 1992. The image of a shaken leader reading his statement of resignation at gunpoint was haunting for any of the leaders in the region.

There are several explanations for such tepid responses to political turmoil in the immediate neighborhood. The primary goal of each leader in Central Asia is regime stability. Regardless of whether this objective is for personal gain or due to a belief that leadership stability is essential for their country’s prosperity, the Central Asian leaders have cloaked themselves with a mantel of “essentialism.” When the Tulip Revolution occurred in March 2005, some analysts suggested that it was “inevitable” that other countries in the region would experience similar upheavals (EDM, March 24, 2005). Indeed, one can view the Uzbek government’s overreaction in Andijan in May 2005 as related to that event. Five years later, the same leaders, or their protégés, remain in power (Berdimuhamedov has replaced the now-deceased Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan), and it would appear that similar concerns still exist.

An additional issue is that the language expressed by some of the opposition members of the interim government in Bishkek has raised concerns among southerners, especially Uzbeks. The Central Asian leaders fear ethnic unrest and violence, and despite Bakiyev’s relatively peaceful departure from the country, the cycle of ethnic unrest and ensuing violence is repeating itself. This June 4-6 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Osh Riots, in which both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks rioted in the cities of Osh and Uzgen over Kyrgyz concerns that Uzbeks were given preferential treatment in housing allocations. Without much notice, the riots turned violent and resulted in over 300 dead and thousands wounded, with unofficial statistics placing the figures much higher. The previous year, in May 1989, similar riots took place in Ferghana, with Meskhetian Turks bearing the brunt of attacks by Uzbeks, leaving over 100 dead. Current reports that Meskhetian Turks and Russians are the victims of the ongoing land-grab in Bishkek ought to cause concern (www.ferghana.ru, April 20). While past incidents have been explained as specific isolated episodes, it does not mean that political leaders and officials have forgotten them. The interim government’s reaction toward the treatment of ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan will be one of the factors in determining if such lessons have been learned and whether the result will be a positive development for the country or simply personal enrichment for the politicians. Meanwhile, CSTO Deputy Secretary-General, Valery Semerikov, has traveled to Bishkek and the CSTO continues to monitor the situation on the ground (RIA Novosti, April 21). Although the CSTO would only be able to legally intervene at the official request of the Kyrgyz government, its involvement provides necessary reassurance for the other Central Asian leaders in regard to the security situation in their own countries.