Why is this happening now?

Political scientist Eugene Huskey explains why Kyrgyzstan is engulfed in violence just weeks before a national referendum.
Fleeing neighbourhood violence, Uzbek refugees near the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon wait to cross the border into Uzbekistan on Monday, June 14, 2010. (Faruk Akkan,Associated Press)

No one said it was going to be easy. In April, when Kyrgyzstan's opposition leaders took control of the country, unseating an unpopular president after a brief uprising, some observers wondered how long it would take before the new government ran into serious problems.

Well, now we know. The southern part of the country is currently convulsed by violence, after fighting broke out between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, leaving more than 124 people dead and forcing tens of thousands to flee across the border to Uzbekistan.

One of the poorest of the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet empire, Kyrgyzstan is important to the world's great powers — Russia, the U.S. and China, on whose western border it sits.

U.S. political scientist Eugene Huskey, a frequent visitor to Kyrgyzstan.

Its strategic location and proximity to Afghanistan has led to the establishment of important U.S. and Russian airbases there. And the fate of these bases is something the outside world is keenly watching as events unfold.

Eugene Huskey, an American political scientist at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., first started travelling to Kyrgyzstan in 1992. He has written extensively about the country and just returned  from an eight-day stay in the capital, Bishkek.

He spoke with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon about some of the reasons for this most recent violence.

Clibbon: What sparked this current conflict?

Huskey: This was not a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic violence but a well-orchestrated and well-financed effort by armed groups to provoke conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

There are reports that these groups distributed weapons and ethnically explosive propaganda to each side with the aim of unleashing a conflict between the two communities.

Unfortunately, it seems, they have been very successful.

It is important to emphasize that although the ethnic Uzbek population appears to have suffered the most, with many now seeking safety in neighboring Uzbekistan, ethnic Kyrgyz have also been targets of the violence.

Who engineered the violence and why?

Huskey: We don't know for sure who is behind it at this point, but it seems likely that local drug lords and criminal groups joined forces with individuals close to the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Kyrgyz forces conduct house-to-house searches in the Anoshin neighborhood in the city of Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, Monday, June 14, 2010. Volunteer militias and the Russians were called in to help settle the unrest. (Alexander Merkushev/Associated Press)

Both groups have an interest in destabilizing the situation and not permitting the holding of a planned constitutional referendum on June 27.

The referendum in two weeks would almost certainly have solidified the position and legitimacy of the current government and paved the way for democratic parliamentary elections in the fall.

It is now doubtful that the referendum can be held on time and ballot papers that had been scheduled for delivery to the south are now being retained in the capital.

There is also speculation in some quarters that certain countries in the region, perhaps Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or even Russia, would themselves benefit from a destabilization of a regime that has sought to distance itself from the authoritarian politics dominant in the region.

Has there been longstanding tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz?

Huskey: Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have lived peacefully in the region's main Ferghana Valley for centuries.

It was only as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 that one witnessed a major outbreak of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. This conflict grew out of a land dispute that was poorly handled by local authorities.

As a young country still uncertain of its identity, there is an ongoing struggle between those who favour a Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz and those who support a multi-ethnic state with equal opportunities for all.

Although all governments of Kyrgyzstan have been publicly committed to the latter approach, many daily decisions of government move against this ideal. For example, hiring practices in defence and law enforcement institutions have led to the virtual exclusion of non-Kyrgyz from the ranks. 

How significant is the narcotics trade to what we are now seeing?

Huskey: Osh is the centre of the narcotics trade in Central Asia and has for many years served as a trans-shipment point for drugs travelling from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.

The drug trade is a major part of the economy in Osh and has led to the corruption of state institutions there.

What prevented an early resolution what we are seeing today?

Huskey: We must recognize that Kyrgyzstan is a small and relatively poor state, whose security personnel and equipment do not match the quality or quantity found in more prosperous countries.

Further complicating the situation is the political unreliability of many personnel in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and other law enforcement organs.

In the current crisis, therefore, the interim government has resorted to mobilizing volunteer militias and citizen patrols to assist state institutions in restoring order.

What is the geopolitical significance of the violence?

Huskey: To their great disappointment, the leaders of the interim government recognized on Saturday that they could not guarantee order in the country, and therefore they asked Russia to provide troops to keep the peace between the two warring communities.

Initially, Russia's public posture suggested a hesitance to intervene, but it is likely that Russian troops will be deployed once the situation is more stable. Delaying deployment minimizes Russian casualties and reduces the chance that they would be perceived as eager occupiers.

All indications now point to an early deployment of Russian troops in the south and, on Monday, the government appointed ethnic Russians to key deputy ministerial positions, which could facilitate liaison with Russian peacekeepers on the ground.

A heightened role for Russia in Kyrgyzstan could bring a further reduction of U.S. influence in the country and greater uncertainty about the future of the Western airbase at Manas.

It is not necessary, however, to see this as a zero-sum game.

The current crisis could be an opportunity for Russia and the West to co-operate in a way that hasn't happened in other post-Communist countries, like Georgia and Ukraine.

The U.S. and Russia have improved their bilateral relations in recent months and Kyrgyzstan may be the chance to expand that co-operation in a place that is in desperate need of help from all segments of the international community.

You just returned from the country. You have interviewed members of the interim government in the past, including the President Roza Otunbayeva. Will it be able to hold onto power?

Huskey: The Interim Government was dealt a very difficult hand by the April revolution.

Immediately upon assuming power, they confronted larger neighbours that restricted trade, discontented youth that wanted to enjoy immediately the fruits of revolution, anxious southerners concerned about their loss of influence, and criminal gangs and political enemies that sought to undo the changeover.

The interim government has also laboured under a lack of constitutional legitimacy and, at times, has been its own worst enemy: failing to present a sufficiently united front, exacting revenge against opponents, and making some unwise personnel appointments.

But without the events of recent days in the south, the government would almost certainly have been able to see the country through to the parliamentary elections in the fall, which promised to introduce a legitimate and more open regime.

Now it is struggling to hold on to power, and the next few days will be decisive.

If the Russians intervene, it is likely that they will be the king maker. If so, Roza Otunbayeva's future as president is not assured.

As a politician who seems to be out of favour with Russia, Otunbaeva understood that the decision on Saturday to invite in Russian troops to restore order may have sealed her own fate.