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Kyrgyzstan on the Brink

International help needed.

12:00 AM, Aug 11, 2010 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Reconciliation between the two groups will take years, and ultimately depend upon the willingness of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to live together. But in the short term there is a role that the international community can play in averting further violence. Unlike some other conflict situations, where combatants pay no heed to the neutral missions of international aid workers, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan could be defused by a heavy contingent of international peacekeepers or even unarmed observers. This has something to do with the fact that Kyrgyzstan, with a security apparatus that isn't nearly as ruthless or well organized as those in the neighboring police states, has always been the most open society in Central Asia. My own experience suggests that the mere presence of foreigners here plays a crucial, mitigating role. Last month, I rushed to an Uzbek merchant's home being searched by the military for illegal arms. (I’m told that these are the sort of trumped-up claims that are repeatedly employed to intimidate the Uzbek population.) Arriving on the scene, I encountered a horde of angry Uzbek women who literally pushed me through the doors and into the house. Soon thereafter, a small delegation from the UN High Commission for Human Rights appeared on the scene, and the situation defused.

As of now, the only such outside force being considered is a contingent of 52 unarmed police officers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is a good start, but hardly sufficient. Moreover, its deployment is actively opposed by the mayor of Osh, a Bakiyev appointee whose former deputies have been accused of playing a hand in the June violence, and who has discouraged international aid organizations from entering the city. The United States, along with the United Nations, needs to make clear to Bishkek that continued support for its aspirations as the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia is contingent upon its maintaining law and order in the south.

That will require replacing government officials deemed responsible for stoking the riots and arresting those individuals – Kyrgyz or Uzbek – who looted and destroyed property. I asked Otunbayeva if she had confidence in Osh’s mayor. She allowed that this was “quite a controversial question,” potentially preparing the way for a showdown between the central government and the warlord-like authorities in the south. Addressing a public forum recently in Osh, she warned the country that “We are only one step away from a partisan war now.” Given the shakiness of Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker government, stabilizing the country will require a robust international presence at least through the October election.

The SOS messages ubiquitous in this city's Uzbek neighborhoods remain for a reason. Should pogroms break out here again, the world won't be able to offer the excuse that it hadn't been warned.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to The New Republic.

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