The outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks has left, according to the latest official figures, some 200 dead, thousands wounded and up to 100,000 minority Uzbeks fleeing pogroms by Kyrgyz mobs. The head of the interim Kyrgyz government, Roza Otunbayeva, has announced that the true number of casualties of the ethnic strife may be many times higher since Uzbeks bury their dead immediately, before the sun sets, according to Muslim tradition (Interfax, June 15, 16).
The weak Kyrgyz military and security forces that are almost exclusively ethnic Kyrgyz, have been incapable of effectively quelling the massacres. Otunbayeva has repeatedly asked Russia to intervene and send “impartial peacekeepers to separate the two sides.” Yet, Moscow is providing only humanitarian aid and technical assistance (Interfax, June 16). This low-key reaction has baffled observers: the Russian leadership has been constantly claiming that the post-Soviet space is its legitimate sphere of interest, but when an emergency arises, it seems to shrink away.
The West is signaling that it would want Russia to play a leading role in a possible humanitarian intervention to stop the carnage (EDM, June 16). The US operates a major airbase in Manas in the north of Kyrgyzstan that is an essential hub to transit troops and supplies to Afghanistan. At present, the humanitarian crisis and ethnic carnage is restricted to southern Kyrgyzstan, but any further destabilization could undermine transit through Manas, and the allied effort in Afghanistan.
The fertile Ferghana Valley, where Osh and Jalalabad are located, once belonged to a single feudal Kingdom of Kokand that was annexed by the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. The Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, split the densely populated Ferghana Valley (present overall population –11 million) among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uzbek part of the valley has been the center of radical jihadist activity of the Taliban and al-Qaida connected Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU was weakened after 9/11 by US attacks on its bases in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s northwest frontier as well as suppression by the authoritarian secular Uzbek regime led by President Islam Karimov. The massacres and ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan could revive the jihadist movement in the Ferghana Valley, potentially threatening the stability of the entire region to the detriment of Russia, the West and China.
Moscow seems to have good reason to intervene to prevent the further destabilization of Kyrgyzstan with apparent Western blessing, but the Kremlin is still hesitant. This is in stark contrast to the events of August 2008 when the Russian leadership acted decisively by immediately invading Georgia allegedly to stop the massacres of Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities that later turned out to be propaganda inventions. If in August 2008, the Russian invasion had indeed been an improvised response to a Georgian attack on separatists in South Ossetia, it would have taken, like today, many days to organize any coherent response because of the cumbersome nature of political/security decision-making in Moscow and the low mobility and combat readiness of frontline military units that needed at least a day or more of preparation before they could move out of their base (RIA Novosti, January 20). The present radical military reform in Russia that began after August 2008, is specifically aimed to drastically increase combat readiness, but it is far from completion.
The ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan has caught the Russian leadership unprepared politically and militarily. President, Dmitry Medvedev, announced that the bloodshed in Kyrgyzstan must stop while insisting it is a “domestic matter” and the Kyrgyz must deal with it themselves. If the interim government fails to quell the conflict, Medvedev promised to “consider additional measures.” At present Moscow is consulting other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) about a joint response, but there seems to be no agreement about putting together a joint peacekeeping force (Interfax, June 15). There have been reports, later officially dismissed, that the defense ministry is scrambling to put together an armed task force to possibly send to Kyrgyzstan if a political decision is approved (www.newsru.com, June 14).
Moscow clearly did not foresee the possibility of a massive peacekeeping operation in the Ferghana Valley and is reluctant to send conscript soldiers into the Kyrgyz bloody mess. The Russian mass media and internet do not support a humanitarian intervention that may put Russian conscript soldiers in harms-way (ITAR-TASS, June 16). The mostly xenophobic Russian blogger community tends to consider Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as unwanted aliens that do not deserve support or sacrifice (www.lenta.ru, June 15). Of course, the state propaganda machine could easily turn around public opinion as it did during August 2008, by spreading stories of gallant Russian soldiers bringing peace and security, saving Russian-speaking women, children and the elderly. The message would have been,, to a large extent, true, but the top leadership seems to be undecided.
The Ferghana Valley is a strategic dead end where military deployment cannot bring Russia any additional advantage. The only rail link from Russia to Ferghana to bring in heavy weapons for peacekeeping goes through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, again Uzbekistan and only then to Kyrgyzstan –a logistical nightmare with additional serious diplomatic problems to overcome. A possible Kyrgyz deployment would consume some of the best Russian combat airborne units, while Moscow could have other plans to use them this summer –maybe in the Caucasus.
The interim Kyrgyz authorities have blamed supporters of the ousted President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of fermenting the ethnic bloodshed without providing much solid evidence. Bakiyev has been granted asylum in Belarus, a CSTO member that has refused a Kyrgyz extradition request (Interfax, June 16). Moscow has expressed its anger by threatening to cut natural gas supplies to Belarus next week because of a payments dispute (RIA Novosti, June 16). A gas war with a CSTO member would make any consensus decision on action in Kyrgyzstan less likely. This may be an expression of Moscow’s frustration with an unruly ally, or a deliberate move to have a good pretext to do nothing in the Fergana Valley.