Early on the morning of May 12 an armed group of about 10 people attacked a Tajik border checkpoint in Isfara oblast. They seized weapons and killed three Tajik guards. A few hours later the group moved into Kyrgyzstan through Batken oblast and headed toward Osh city. The gunmen clashed with Kyrgyz border guards, killing three military officials, two soldiers from a special forces Alfa battalion, and one civilian. Eight Kyrgyz military servicemen were wounded. Among the gunmen, four were killed and two taken captive by Kyrgyz security forces. The rest escaped into the mountains.
While some experts consider the May 12 incident to be a one-time event, others see it as manifestation of the growing threat of Islamic extremism in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Like the Batken events in 1999-2000, suspicions abound as to whether the armed clashes were a ploy by organized criminal groups to divert attention from drug smuggling from Afghanistan (IWPR, May 19; Vecherny Bishkek, May 16).
Kyrgyz experts consider the May 12 casualties to be too high and completely unjustified. They blame the Ministry of Defense and its poor coordination of the national armed forces. They criticize the ministry for functioning under a Soviet-style hierarchy, in which high-ranking officers are responsible for high-profile exercises but remain detached from low-ranking personnel in the field (Analitik.kg, May 18).
Several Kyrgyz NGOs wrote an open letter to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, accusing the Border Guard’s leadership of ignorance that resulted in the death of ordinary soldiers. According to the NGOs, the Kyrgyz security structures are more concerned with surveillance operations against opposition members and human rights activists than protecting the nation from foreign intrusions.
Following the incident, the commander of the Kyrgyz Security Service’s Border Guard, Myrzakan Subanov, said that about 1,000 kilometers of Kyrgyzstan’s borders remain unprotected. The Kyrgyz Border Troops simply lack the personnel and technology needed to control the state borders. Only key border checkpoints are guarded regularly, while zones between checkpoints are patrolled intermittently (Gazeta.kg, May 22). Furthermore, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek border guards have weak coordination strategies at the commander and soldier level.
Subanov sees the recent incident to be the result of several geopolitical factors. He claims there are external forces interested in destabilizing Kyrgyzstan. Specifically, the Kyrgyz government blames the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for instigating the attack. Interior Minister Marat Sutalinon said that IMU members were planning to carry out a number of similar terrorist attacks to mark the first anniversary of the Andijan massacre (Vecherny Bishkek, May 16). Similarly, the Tajik government’s official interpretation of the incident points at the IMU.
More than a week after the clash, the identity and motives of most of the gunmen remain unclear. Locals assume that the group included citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Armed conflicts between IMU guerrillas and Kyrgyz border troops in Batken in the summers of 1999 and 2000 visibly strengthened then-President Askar Akayev’s political position. In the aftermath of the attacks, Akayev announced military reforms and split Osh oblast in half to give more autonomy to Batken. He was rewarded with a high vote count in the 2000 election.
Unlike Akayev, Bakiyev has remained passive following the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz parliament proved to be more active in dealing with the situation, establishing a special committee to investigate the violent incident. Under pressure from the parliament and NGOs, the president ordered the Kyrgyz border troops reorganized into a separate agency that will function independent of the Ministry of Defense. However, both the parliament and the president are more concerned with the rising political tensions in the capital city, Bishkek. At the May 22 closed session of parliament, Kyrgyz legislators discussed the possibility of a voluntary dissolution in response to the government’s apparent unhappiness with their work.
On the international level, instability in southern Kyrgyzstan will provide additional incentives for regional powers to engage in domestic and regional security maneuvers. On May 18, the chief of Russia’s General Staff, Yuri Baluyevsky, told RIA-Novosti that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization plan to hold a series of regional anti-terrorist exercises involving all member-states of both alliances: Armenia, Belarus, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Similarly, Vyacheslav Kasymov, the SCO’s managing director of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, told RIA-Novosti, “The fact the IMU began to carry out concrete terrorist acts raises a special concern” (Gazeta.kg, May 22).
On May 22, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov announced that the Kyrgyz Armed Forces would stage a military parade on May 27. The date of the parade coincides with the Kyrgyz opposition’s plan to hold a peaceful demonstration against corruption in the government. Besides occupying Bishkek’s central square, where all demonstrations are usually held, the military parade will divert public attention from the opposition gathering.
As Kyrgyz parliamentarian Omurbek Tekebayev noted, “If the energy of power structures were applied where it is needed, on May 12 we could have destroyed terrorists without losses… And what do they [the power structures] want to show today with this [parade] arrangement?” (Akipress, May 22).