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Breaking Kyrgyzstan's Cycle Of Violence

An ethnic Uzbek man walks through the ruins of his house, which was destroyed during ethnic clashes in Osh, on June 17.
It has been a few days now that the Kyrgyz interim government has been trying to restore order in the southern region of the impoverished republic of Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds died and as many as 200,000 refugees fled to the border with Uzbekistan following clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The violence, clearly orchestrated by third parties to derail the upcoming referendum on the constitution and expose the ineffectiveness of the interim government, has subsided, although tensions are still running high and security conditions remain extremely grave. The interim government and the United Nations have both confirmed that groups of gunmen in ski masks attacked both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in efforts to sow violence and discord between the two groups.

The interim government, headed by Roza Otunbaeva in the aftermath of the protests in April that forced the President Kurmanbek Bakiev out of power, gave hope to millions of people -- including both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz -- that a more democratic and worthy future would ensue after years of misery and ineffective public policies. This hope is now being dissipated as the clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz threaten the integrity and sovereignty of a nation that already experienced violent conflicts between the two groups in 1990 -- as the Soviet Union was taking its last breaths.

The complexities of the densely populated Ferghana Valley, which is home to diverse ethnic groups and scarce resources, make the conflict in Kyrgyzstan especially dangerous, given the risk of violence flowing across national borders. Harsh social and economic conditions observed across all three countries sharing the Fergana Valley -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- make the situation particularly dangerous. Add to this the region's proximity to unstable Afghanistan, local operations of organized crime and drugs cartels, and the presence of extremist and terrorist organizations including Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda, and others.

Worst-Case Scenario

The interim government has acknowledged its lack of control on the ground and has appealed for a peacekeeping force. Thus far, no affirmative response has been forthcoming. Partly, this reflects concerns about likely heavy financial and political burden in of any intervention. Some still hope the shaky interim government will bring the situation under control.

But there is a risk. Not only are significantly more people likely to die in the continuing clashes, but the situation could spiral out of control completely, substantially undermining security in the volatile region and requiring the deployment of even larger contingents of troops and equipment to quell the violence.

Whether Russia indeed views Central Asia as its "sphere of influence" or not, it needs to step up. And so does the United States, which vigorously promotes human rights and security in principle but is often slow to do so in practice.

Both countries have military bases in Kyrgyzstan, with the U.S. transit center at Manas critical to NATO's war effort in Afghanistan. Both also have an opportunity to work together -- bilaterally or multilaterally -- to help stabilize this part of the world. Geopolitical competition between the two countries, which has seriously affected recent developments in Kyrgyzstan, could now be transformed into cooperation. But the failure to do so would invite more violence and insecurity.

Kyrgyz Fragility

What accounts for the ongoing instability in the country, and what needs to be done to fix Kyrgyzstan? Ethnic tensions have always been present, especially in the southern region that is home to a comparatively young population facing high unemployment and meager living conditions. In many ways, the southern region is also economically and culturally detached from the northern areas of the country. Clearly, the so-called ethnic tensions have socioeconomic roots, and it is much better to work on them in peace rather than seek to resolve them in violence. The sequence of events in Kyrgyzstan -- the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflicts in 1990, the "Tulip Revolution" in 2005, the protests in 2010, and the ongoing clashes -- all demonstrate the instability and fragility of this authoritarian country.

Indeed, it is the authoritarian nature of the regimes and politics in Kyrgyzstan – characterized by corruption, nepotism, and failed domestic and foreign policies -- that has deprived the people of the possibilities of economic development and social stability. And now it has brought the very viability of the Kyrgyz state into question.

The lessons are clear. Kyrgyzstan needs to implement a large-scale national development program focusing on the economic integration of its regions and the consolidation of national identity. It must build effective and accountable public institutions capable of addressing the social and economic needs of the people and of fostering a democratic and inclusive political culture. Breaking the cycle of poverty and authoritarianism is a must. Stopping the ongoing bloodshed now is an obligation.

Roman Muzalevsky ( is an international affairs and security analyst on Central Asia and the Caucasus. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL