Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Regional Stability

Global Politician, by Christian Wipperfuerth – 6/15/2010

Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Regional StabilityThe regime change in Kyrgyzstan, a tiny, distant country of barely five million inhabitants, is much more than a footnote in global politics. The important transport hub there, used primarily by the US, France and Spain to supply Western troops in Afghanistan, is safe for now. But the stability of Kyrgyzstan is uncertain, as is the capacity of its government to act, and both are of considerable importance beyond Central Asia.

According to UN figures, 90% of the heroin produced worldwide comes from Afghanistan. It is transported through neighboring regions on its way to Western Europe, North America and Russia. The international organisation estimates that the heroin produced in Afghanistan causes 100,000 deaths every year, with 10,000 in NATO countries alone — far more than the number of Western troops killed in the Hindu Kush since 2001. And Kyrgyzstan is an important transit country for the drug trade, a fact that is seldom addressed.

The revolt began in early April, when the former Kyrgyz government was driven out of the capital city of Bishkek, in the north of the country. Over 80 people were killed in the uprising. The deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, retreated to his stronghold in southern Kyrgyzstan and threatened a civil war, while the new government insisted on accusing Bakiyev and others. It looked as if further bloodshed was imminent, and Kazakhstan stepped in to mediate. Not only does Kazakhstan share a border with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan also assumed the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this year. All European and North American countries belong to the OSCE, as do all former members of the Soviet Union, including those in Central Asia. With the approval of the OSCE, the UN, the EU, Russia, the United States, Germany, France, Spain and other countries, the Kazakh government mediated a dialogue between the present and former leaders of Kyrgyzstan. In the end the deposed President Bakiyev agreed to leave the country, and on 15 April the Kazakhstan air force flew him out of Kyrgyzstan. He then entered exile in Belarus.

Kazakhstan was perhaps the only entity in a position to mediate the exchange and thereby prevent further strife in Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan has trustworthy relations with Russia, as well as with the United States and China, Kyrgyzstan’s neighbor to the east. There was particular danger that Russia and the United States would end up fighting over Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan, as Kyrgyzstan northern neighbor, was also able to send substantial aid to the country, such as 3,000 tons of fuel, which must have heightened the willingness to compromise among the conflicting Kyrgyz sides. It is a stroke of luck that Kazakhstan has held the OSCE Chairmanship during this period.

On 19 May, however, conflict broke out again in southern Kyrgyzstan, claiming two lives. There are certainly forces that would like to see the instability in the country continue. Chief among these is the drug mafia, but common criminals would benefit as well: hundreds, if not thousands of weapons fell into their hands during the revolt, which was accompanied by looting that lasted for days.

Some observers believe that Kyrgyzstan could become a democratic model in the region following the change in government. There is ample evidence for this view. Roza Otunbayeva, for example, the new interim president, has suggested a radical transformation of the Kyrgyzstan constitution, modelled on Germany. The hopes for a democratic reconstruction, however, are already being dashed by Bakiyev’s deposed regime, which came to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of spring 2005. Not only was the former government notorious for its corruption and mismanagement, Kyrgyzstan was also the only country in Central Asia whose people could not count on physical security on a daily basis. The drug trade has benefited mightily in recent years from the Kyrgyz government’s limited capacity to act.

Roza Otunbayeva has been described as a person of integrity, and it is entirely possible that the new regime is serious about its plans for democratic renewal. But the preconditions for democracy could not be worse. Kyrgyzstan is a poor and deeply divided country, and this, its second coup in a handful of years, will probably further limit the ability of government agencies to move against the drug trade. This is not the time to indulge in fantasies, but rather to contribute to the establishment of stable relations. It also presents a challenge to the OSCE, an organization that has yet to utilize its full potential for containing and solving crises. What is important now is to develop a mechanism along these lines. Kazakhstan has put forward an idea of an OSCE summit this year, and enhancing the OSCE’s potential in dealing, or rather preventing, crises, could well become one of the items on its agenda. The situation in Kyrgyzstan offers an excellent reason to do so.

Released by the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United States of America