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Is Kyrgyzstan's Interim Government Equal To The Crisis?

Ethnic Uzbek refugees stand at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border crossing near Osh. Some 400,000 people have fled the violence.
Ethnic Uzbek refugees stand at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border crossing near Osh. Some 400,000 people have fled the violence.
The fast-moving crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan -- where some 400,000 people have been displaced amid deadly ethnic violence -- would be enough to challenge even the most stable government.

But the interim administration of Roza Otunbaeva, propelled to power amid street fighting in Bishkek two months ago, often seems particularly ill-prepared for the task.

The government's difficulties were highlighted today as acting Prime Minister Otunbaeva flew to Osh to reassure her countrymen the worst was over. But as she met with officials and visited a hospital, she stayed away from the city's devastated Uzbek neighborhoods, where hundreds of Uzbeks remain huddled behind massive barricades and unidentified gunmen continue to fire rounds.

Otunbaeva gave no reason for staying out of the danger zone. But her decision risked giving the impression that neither she nor the military commanders who report to her have the power to move freely through the city.

All this can't help but raise the question of how much authority the interim government actually does exercise in the south of Kyrgyzstan or, even more broadly, across the country.

The question has come up repeatedly almost since the moment the interim government formed on April 8, one day after mass riots and looting toppled the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Leaked Conversations

At that time, Otunbaeva announced the country would hold a referendum in six months to approve a new constitution and pave the way for general elections. That referendum, which the government has said it still intends to hold, is scheduled for June 27.

But if the interim government appeared to get off to a smooth and popular start, it soon became evident that it lacked cohesion.

Military reservists line up outside Bishkek as troops are mobilized to deploy to the south.
Its strongest personalities almost immediately began feuding among themselves over top government appointments -- raising questions over who had authority over what.

In one highly public case, the powerful position of head of the customs division changed hands three times in May.

The feuding was caught in leaked tapes of phone conversations, like one between the two deputy heads of the interim government, Azimbek Beknazarov and Almazbek Atambayev.

“You started the election campaign already announcing your 'Big Party!' Big Party!' I will also establish my party,” Beknazarov tells his rival. “And if you ignore me, I will organize the third revolution. I have enough power for that."

Both Beknazarov and Atambayev later claimed that the recording was heavily edited and leaked by political opponents.

In the leaked tape, Beknazarov also accused his fellow deputy head of government of accepting money to make official appointments and then not honoring the deals. "It’s not just about two customs officers, even [acting governor of Osh Sooronbai] Jeenbekov asked you to appoint his people, and you just took $400,000 and appointed a different person instead."

The recording, and similar leaked conversations involving Deputy Prime Minister Temir Sariyev that critics say discuss the embezzlement of budget funds, created an uproar when they were released. But in retrospect, the most worrisome thing they signal may be the inability of the government to forge itself into a single unit.

Pluralistic Government?

At first, and particularly in comparison to Bakiev, who monopolized power for his own clan, such a free-for-all did not necessarily seem like a bad thing. Otunbaeva herself defended the way the individual members of the government often gave their widely varying visions of the administration's goals to the media as a welcome dose of plurality.

But the effects of so little cohesion may now be felt more sharply as the government confronts the greatest challenges to Kyrgyzstan since it became independent in 1991.

The biggest question is how much authority the government has over the security forces.

John MacLeod, a Central Asia expert at the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, says that relations between the interim government and the police are guarded.

"The police force in particular was unhappy about the change [of government on April 8] and was not necessarily disloyal, but was reluctant to throw its weight behind the new government,” MacLeod says. “There were allegations that, in the initial unrest in and around Bishkek, that the police didn't do quite as much as they could have done."

In April, as many as 100 people died as crowds stormed government offices in Bishkek to evict Bakiev. The interim government said afterward it would look into why the police failed to keep better order, effectively placing the police on the defensive.

By contrast, MacLeod says, the interim government's relationship with the military is less fraught. He says the military has tended to stay offstage in Bishkek's revolutions, which began with protestors overthrowing President Askar Akayev in 2005.

How much the interim government has been able to exert central control over the security forces in southern Kyrgyzstan during the past days is still uncertain.

Bishkek ordered security forces to block the roads to Osh immediately after the first fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth gangs broke out on June 10. The order came as Otunbaeva told reporters that crowds of "weird and suspicious-looking people" were streaming down to Osh from all directions. She did not specify whether those people were ethnic Kyrgyz or Uzbeks.

Otunbaeva later said the roads were blocked, but that did not prevent the violence from rapidly spiraling to cataclysmic levels. Uzbek refugees have charged that elements of the security forces cleared the way for Kyrgyz attacks on their neighborhoods, but security officials deny the charges, blaming the violence on provocateurs funded by Bakiev.

Time For Decisive Action

The immediate challenge for the government now is to demonstrate it has enough authority to restore security in the south.

"There is no unanimity within the interim government itself. The absence of the unanimity affects the military sector,” Imamberdi Jalilov, the former head of the Kyrgyz State Security Service branch in Osh and a former parliamentarian, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service today. “In Osh, for instance, the soldiers are sitting doing nothing, while citizens are being taken hostages. The interim government does not do anything in this extraordinary situation.”

He continued: “We have special laws defining measures during extraordinary situations. Why don’t we follow those laws and implement the necessary measures? That is the lack of coordination within the interim government.""

If the interim government has trouble restoring order in the south, that will only bode ill for what might happen next.

Any continuing power vacuum in the south increases the chances that unrest could also break out in the north in the future -- although over different issues.

Analysts note that the initial unrest that broke out in Kyrgyzstan after the April revolution in Bishkek were in the north, not in the south.

During those protests, rural poor who had migrated to Bishkek in search of work seized land they claimed was unoccupied and try to settle on it. The land grabs created huge friction with the local population.

MacLeod puts the danger of unrest now facing Kyrgyzstan as a whole this way

"There is certainly a risk that if they don't get hold of the south quite quickly, then [violence] could break out in the north,” says MacLeod of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. Such an outbreak could be sparked by a sense that “people in the south have been able to seize the opportunity, so we will do the same,” he says. “And, obviously, if there are political forces behind them, even funding them, that makes it all the more likely."

While visiting Osh today, Otunbaeva vowed to reconstruct the city to allow people to return to their homes. She also said that some 2,000 people -- or 10 times more than the official figure -- could have been killed in the violence that engulfed the city.

RFE/RL Central Newsroom correspondent Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.

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