The ferocity of the interethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan has caught many international players off guard. The OSCE could be an obvious candidate for an unbiased and trusted mediator and a key international coordinator for the stabilization efforts, however, Kyrgyz experts are deeply divided over its role. Some believe that this organization has played a positive role in stabilizing the country, pointing to the quick response in negotiating a deal with ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to leave the country and thus averting a possible civil war. Others believe that the OSCE was quite ineffective in responding to the conflict in Kyrgyzstan, as it failed to prevent conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.
BACKGROUND: The intensity of the interethnic conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan in June exceeded anything the newly independent republics in the region have seen since their independence in 1991. The number of deaths, according to international estimates, reached more than 200 (although acting President Dr. Roza Otunbayeva has stated the number could reach 2,000), and between 100,000 and 220,000 people were forced to abandon their homes; these numbers are considerably higher than during the interethnic conflicts in Osh and Uzgen in 1990. The scale of the humanitarian disaster, even though concentrated to a few days, might well exceed most of the separate episodes of the civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997). This is not, of course, to deny that the civil war in Tajikistan, which dragged for five long years, remains one of the most tragic events in the history of post-Soviet Central Asia. And exactly because of the memory of the atrocities of that civil war, many Central Asian players expected that international organizations, especially the OSCE, would be in a position to prevent conflict escalation in Kyrgyzstan or to play a stabilizing role in preventing the country from sliding into a large-scale confrontation.
The OSCE does indeed have a large presence in Central Asia, with offices in every republic of the region, and there is even an OSCE Academy in Bishkek. However, the OSCE’s past experiences in dealing with interethnic conflicts have produced mixed results: It was quite slow in reacting to the tragic development and escalation of conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, but fairly successful in conflict prevention and conflict resolution in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the 1990s.
Many observers expected the OSCE to be effective in Kyrgyzstan. After all, the Organization has accumulated extensive experience and expertise in mitigating various interethnic conflicts in the former socialist world. On top of this, Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan’s neighbor and a country with very close cultural, social and political links – has held the rotating chairmanship since January 2010 and has been promoting what OSCE Chairman Kanat Saudabayev called a ‘Four-T model” in conflict resolution (development of Trust, Traditions, Transparency and Tolerance). It was widely expected that Kazakhstan, which knows and understands the nuances of the political development in Kyrgyzstan better than anyone, would be able to effectively address the conflict – in sharp contrast to the actions of the OSCE in Yugoslavia where it was blamed for its inability to understand and address the nuances of political developments.
Thus, the expectations were high from the beginning of the political coup in April 2010. As Kyrgyzstan continued experiencing instability and growing confrontation in April and May, some experts expressed frustration at the slow progress made by the OSCE. Freedom House’s experts publicly accused Kazakhstan’s OSCE leadership of “failing” and being unable to deal effectively with the situation in Kyrgyzstan. Other experts disagreed, pointing out several important developments and efforts in stabilizing the country. First, it was the OSCE which brokered concessions from ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and arranged his departure from the country, thus preventing the escalation of the conflict into a civil war. Second, the OSCE coordinated humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyz communities, especially in spring 2010. Third, the OSCE continued providing training to government entities and NGOs at all levels in both northern and southern Kyrgyzstan even at the height of the political confrontation in April and May 2010, including on “policing in multi-ethnic communities.” Yet, like in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the intervention lacked speed and depth, which some experts explained by the absence of peacekeeping units under the OSCE’s auspices.
IMPLICATIONS: The ethnic clashes and violence in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the OSCE’s conflict monitoring, conflict prevention and conflict mediation systems and mechanisms. Many experts and politicians in Bishkek, Jalalabad and Osh still ponder the question, how could it have happened that a small street fight – or dispute over business and property deals – or provocation (a special commission is still investigating the events) escalated into such violence in communities that had lived side by side for centuries? At the same time, there is much worry and uncertainty about the effectiveness of international intervention and the role of international organizations, especially the OSCE, in conflict mediation and stabilization of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
Political and international evaluation of the developments in Kyrgyzstan, and of the OSCE’s relations with the interim government and major partners in the country, is open for discussion. However, it is clear that the Organization has to deal with several major implications of the June 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan. First is a fundamental issue of potential long-term destabilization of the political situation and interethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan, as the very fabric of delicate relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities and numerous checks and balances were significantly undermined if not destroyed. Second is an issue of trust and building working relations between various communities in Kyrgyzstan on the one hand and the OSCE and Kazakhstan on the other hand, as at least at the local level many community members have lost their trust in international organizations, specifically in their ability to prevent conflicts and stabilize the situation. Third, the political turbulence, which shook the very foundation of the Kyrgyz state and society, significantly weakened both political institutions and institutions of the civil society. In addition, the continuing instability contributed to the weakening of human capital in the country as many professional and business people left for foreign countries thus creating enormous shortages of much-needed highly qualified experts in various fields.
CONCLUSIONS: Political stabilization is a very difficult process, especially in a country divided by many lines of conflicts – not only political but also interethnic, regional and clan – as well as a deep urban–rural divide.
In this environment, the role of international unbiased players is critical, as it seems that Kyrgyzstan faces a great struggle to stabilize the situation and to transform itself from what political scientists call a 'super-presidential political system' into a parliamentary democracy. In this regard, the OSCE may play a key role, especially if it works on its strengths.
The first step is to mobilize assistance and all possible resources to prepare and organize fair parliamentary elections. The OSCE’s strength and authority in the post-Soviet space have been in providing various forms of assistance – from training and monitoring to evaluating and reporting of the electoral process. Only fair elections accepted by all competing political and ethnic groups can stabilize the country in the long run. The second step is to mobilize and coordinate international humanitarian assistance to forced migrants and communities affected by violence before the coming winter, especially training and preparing local communities to become self-efficient and independent entities capable of restoring some form of normal life with help from international communities. The third step is to establish effective and efficient conflict monitoring, conflict mediation and prevention mechanisms, not only to stabilize the situation now and achieve some level of reconciliation but also to prevent escalation and outburst of conflict in the future, particularly during the parliamentary elections. The fourth step, for Kazakhstan as head of the OSCE, is to draw important lessons from the conflict, to develop a new model for conflict prevention and conflict resolution and to update the OSCE’s standard operating procedures in the region to be prepared to respond more effectively and quickly.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University (New York). He is author of Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2004), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008). In 2008 and 2009 he contributed to the UNDP and UNFEM reports on the impact of the global economic crisis on migration in Central Asia and the CIS.