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Analysis: Stalin's ethnic tinderbox alight in Kyrgyzstan

By Nic Robertson, Senior International Correspondent
Kyrgyzstan's interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva speaks to a wounded ethnic Kyrgyz citizen in Osh on June 18, 2010.
Kyrgyzstan's interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva speaks to a wounded ethnic Kyrgyz citizen in Osh on June 18, 2010.
  • Kyrgyzstan president traveled to Osh to exert her authority after ethnic tension flared
  • Otunbayeva issued 48-hour deadline for barricades to be removed
  • President trying to quell violence ahead of a national referendum on June 27
  • Otunbayeva needs the Uzbeks back home to give the referendum legitimacy

Osh, Kyrgyzstan (CNN) -- When Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva set a two-day limit to get barricades down in Osh, she was testing the limits of her power.

It was the June 18, more than week after violence first flared that she made her initial foray into the seething ethnic tensions in the country's south.

The capital Bishkek, seat of her interim government, is a day's drive, several mountain ranges to the north. She flew into Osh's dilapidated Soviet-era airport a few miles out of town and hopped on a helicopter for the rest of the journey.

Lenin's statue still towers over the square where she touched down; a monument to how far this forgotten corner of the globe has been left behind.

Lenin's successor, Josef Stalin, carved up the region creating countries no rational cartographer would dare. He took a patchwork of ethnic idiosyncrasies, nomadic Kyrgyz, more settled Uzbeks and others drawing lines that would guarantee a tinderbox.

Explainer: Kyrgyzstan's ethnic unrest

A spark was all it took for Osh, Jalal Abad and the surrounding villages to quite literally erupt in flames. While many, both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan, want answers as to why and how it happened, the interim president had another imperative for her visit.

Video: Front lines of Kyrgyzstan crisis
Video: Kyrgyzstan peace hopes
Video: Kyrgyzstan troops

She wasn't just coming to stamp out the glowing embers of hatred that sent close to half the nation's sizable Uzbek minority fleeing for their lives. Otunbayeva faces a national referendum on her interim government on June 27.

For it to have any sense of legitimacy she needs the Uzbeks back home. For many that will be impossible. No one has figures for how many homes were consumed by fire. In some cases whole streets have been reduced to ash and rubble.

What Otunbayeva was focusing on in her June 18 speech were the majority of the 400,000 displaced, the 100,000 others who fled to neighboring Uzbekistan, and the rest holed up behind barricades in enclaves surrounded by government troops.

Her gamble was to tell commanders they had two days to reverse the worst rift the community has seen. They set deadlines, demanding barricades come down within 48 hours -- shock therapy for the frightened Uzbeks behind.

Otunbayeva wasn't about to let the situation fester, with the events of the moment taking on an aura of permanency. Frontlines that might at worst form the first frontiers of Uzbek autonomy sought by some in that community, or at least create barriers behind which fear and distrust of ethnic Kyrgyz would grow.

Politically disenfranchised Uzbeks are a potential foe that once allowed to gain a political foothold could threaten the near monopoly ethnic Kyrgyz hold on the instruments of power: police, army, government.

These are the stakes. Otunbayeva's gamble of pushing hard now and restoring the city to a place where authorities exercise control over all roads and neighborhoods. The push has already precipitated at least one shoot-out.

A more protracted return to open streets might have been more peaceful. It may also have been more pragmatic had the president been playing a longer game and even won her support and understanding in the long run. As it is her aims are clear; a June 27 referendum at all costs.

The question that has gone unanswered for many Uzbeks is how much they can trust the army and the government. The speedy removal of the road blocks will not have helped. The coming days will tell their own tale.

Otunbayeva's arrival in Osh lit a fire under local officials. It put them on notice they needed to act.

Her tough stance might have won her more plaudits but by showing up as she did, a week after the fighting and wearing a flak jacket, will not have created the image of a robust leader that many Kyrgyz will have been looking for.

For all sides in this there is no returning to the past and they all know it, and that's part of the problem. Trust has been lost. Stalin's ethnic tinderbox has been dried out and given fresh combustible kindling. The new normal will not resemble the old.