This summer's Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan presented the gravest threat to Central Asian security since the Tajik civil war of the 1990s. Reportedly, about 3,000 people died and more than 300,000 were displaced in the violence. While some stability emerged after the bloodshed and following a national referendum legitimizing the new government, the urgent needs for speedy reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure and for reconciliation between the two ethnic groups present daunting security challenges.
Kazahkstan -- as the first Central Asian state to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Kyrgyzstan's key regional economic partner -- is well-positioned to lead these efforts, despite Astana's purportedly ineffective and PR-driven response to the crisis.
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At the outset, Kazakhstan played a key role in resolving the temporary standoff between ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the new interim government that came to power following the riots on April 7. This confrontation was undermining the legitimacy of the government at a time when Bakiev still commanded support in some parts of the south and intended to hold on power. To deescalate the situation, Kazakhstan sent Zhanybek Karibzhanov, special envoy of the OSCE chairman in office, to Bishkek and worked closely with international organizations and regional actors.
On April 15, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered Kazakh special forces to fly into southern Kyrgyzstan and bring Bakiev to Kazakhstan before later sending him on to Belarus. "It was extremely hard to make an agreement with the new government to get flight permission for our planes," Nazarbaev recalled, "And it was hard to convince President Bakiev to leave the country." After the operation Nazarbaev praised the servicemen with what many believe was a PR-loaded statement, saying they had prevented a "civil clash from growing into a clash between the southern and northern parts of the country."
The operation scored points for Nazarbaev, who purportedly pays excessive attention to his personal image and the international standing of Kazakhstan – more so against the backdrop of Kazakh chairmanship in the OSCE. "The OSCE presidency was supposed to signal Kazakhstan's emergence on the international stage. In fact they've done very little [concerning Kyrgyzstan]. They seem to be mostly interested in somehow burnishing their own image," said Paul Quinn-Judge, the regional project director of the International Crisis Group.
But while it will never be known whether Astana indeed averted a clash between the two regions, Kazakhstan's actions in diffusing the situation at that point, even with the alleged PR spin, speak for themselves. The level of trust and the "green light" for such a mission given by Washington and Moscow reinforce the view that no other entity was available or willing to play such a role. Referring to the crisis, Nazarbaev stated that Kazakhstan had become a key player in regional stability and "is already facilitating constructive cooperation between the United States, Russia, and China in Central Asia."
However, Astana's responses to the events in Kyrgyzstan were not always positive. Like other countries in the region, Kazakhstan was keen on preventing a similar "transfer of power" at home, so Astana closed its border with Kyrgyzstan for several days after the April 7 protests and downplayed the democratic impulses of the unrest. Nazarbaev also did not meet with provisional Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva until July 4, the day after her inauguration. The border closure damaged Kyrgyzstan's economy, and Nazarbaev's cold shoulder undermined the shaky interim government at a time when it faced a plethora of unaddressed economic and social problems.
Kazakhstan instituted similar measures when the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes flared up in the southern Kyrgyzstan. As the violence continued, none of the regional security institutions –the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shaghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the OSCE -- or main regional actors (Russia, the United States, China) coordinated an intervention in Kyrgyzstan, despite pleas from the Kyrgyz interim government and the dire security situation that eventually left hundreds dead and led to displacement of hundreds of thousands more.
Ready For Rehab
Some observers have concluded that lack of an effective response to the Kyrgyz crises is a reflection of Kazakhstan's unpreparedness to chair the OSCE. But to expect Kazakhstan to have played a major unilateral or multilateral stabilization role during these events is wishful thinking at best, all more so considering the inadequate responses from regional security institutions and the global powers.
To criticize Astana's chairmanship of the OSCE, an organization promoting security and cooperation from Vancouver to Vladivostok, is not entirely fair either. The OSCE comprises 56 member states that share joint responsibility for actions and inactions of the institution while operating exclusively by consensus. Kazakhstan, or any other chair for that matter, would have had a difficult job coordinating any rapid joint response.
But one thing is reassuring. Kazakhstan has every opportunity to lead in reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in Kyrgyzstan, both unilaterally and in the OSCE framework. As it seeks to do so, it should benefit from the OSCE's postconflict rehabilitation experience while working to enhance the conflict-prevention capacity of the institution.
The agenda coordinated by Kazakhstan for the heads of state OSCE summit that is planned for October should necessarily focus on ethnic and religious tolerance and conflict resolution and prevention, as well as stability measures in Kyrgyzstan, among other important issues. About 10 days after the violence subsided in Kyrgyzstan, Astana hosted a previously planned OSCE conference on tolerance and nondiscrimination.
"It is important that the political will of the 56 member states now be mobilized to offer Kyrgyzstan the assistance it so urgently needs," said Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev.
Kazakhstan and the OSCE should work to bolster security along Kyrgyzstan's borders to prevent regional terrorist and criminal networks from capitalizing on the instability. Initiating cash-for-weapons programs or similar initiatives in Kyrgyzstan might be another area of cooperation. As the OSCE chairman, Astana should also vigorously promote the work of the international inquiry commission headed by Kimmo Kiljunen, the special representative for Central Asia of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which will look into the June events in Kyrgyzstan.
It should further encourage the implementation of the agreement in principle reached by OSCE foreign ministers on July 16-17. That agreement envisions an unarmed 52-member Police Advisory Group to monitor the situation in Kyrgyzstan where ethnic tensions remain high.
Reconciliation is a difficult process and should go hand in hand with the rehabilitation of damaged and destroyed infrastructure. Doing so would provide the hope of a better future to locals of both ethnic groups. To that purpose, Kazakhstan recently announced a unilateral $10 million package of aid for Kyrgyzstan. It is further requesting international support for the upcoming donor conferences in Bishkek and Astana.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also set up a joint working group to stabilize the Kyrgyz economy and allocate funding for reconstruction projects. Some 2,500 homes, more than 100 commercial buildings, and 10 government buildings were damaged or destroyed during the conflict. The overall damage is estimated at $71 million.
As Kazakhstan continues to promote its enhanced role in Eurasia and global affairs, it should clearly see that its OSCE chairmanship is both a challenge and an opportunity. Utilizing each other's capacities to address global and regional security threats, including by supporting reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in Kyrgyzstan, will position both Kazakhstan and the OSCE as serious actors in Central Asia, and particularly in Kyrgyzstan where no other entity appears willing to lead. Only this will reinforce the status of Kazakhstan's regional capabilities -- both perceived and real.
By Roman Muzalevsky is an international affairs and security analyst specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus.