Wanted: OSCE Leadership in Kyrgyzstan

June 23. Wall Street Journal


Wanted: OSCE Leadership in KyrgyzstanAn initiative led by Kazakhstan could give the interim authorities the legitimacy they need.

If April’s violent regime change in Kyrgyzstan suggested international assistance is needed, the recent bloodshed in the country’s south confirmed it. Regional powers as well as the United States have an interest in ensuring the ethnic violence does not recur. But local leadership offers the best chance of enlisting the help needed. Neighboring Kazakhstan has an opportunity to use its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a constructive solution.

Events over the past week showed how tenuous Kyrgyzstan’s security truly is. If just 500 marauding bandits, some in Kyrgyz military uniforms, are really to blame for the ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks, the inability of the interim government to prevent the atrocities is deeply worrying. It is particularly disturbing that plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution this Sunday are still going ahead, despite the lack of security.

The major powers have reacted slowly, which may seem surprising considering both the U.S. and Russia maintain military bases in Kyrgyzstan. After forcefully “defending” South Ossetians in August 2008 when it invaded Georgia, Russia seems hesitant to get involved. The U.S., meanwhile, has essentially ceded Central Asia to Russia’s sphere of influence and is being careful not to upset an already wobbly cart. Neighboring states are equally wary. Outside of Russia and the U.S., the world sees Kyrgyzstan more as a problem than as a strategic piece on the chessboard.

In many respects, however, last week’s bloodletting in Kyrgyzstan has the potential to lead to positive developments in Central Asia if the OSCE can step into the breach. A coordinated response could lead to better security, sounder economies and the protection of civil rights—precisely the three underpinning concepts of the OSCE.

The other available options all have drawbacks. The Collective Security Treaty Organization has done little to backstop independent states and relies heavily on Moscow for direction. The United Nations would take too much time to deploy a peacekeeping mission. Empowering the OSCE to assemble its own, multinational contingent—including both CSTO and NATO member-state peacekeepers—would provide a truly collective solution.

The OSCE is unique among multilateral organizations in the region because of its third “human dimension,” which incorporates human rights and democratic values. The targeting of ethnic Uzbeks underscores how serious human rights abuses are in Kyrgyzstan. For those displaced within the country as well as an estimated 100,000 who have fled to Uzbekistan, guarantees of restorative justice are needed. The interim government must ensure that property is returned and what has been destroyed can be quickly and safely rebuilt. A fair investigation of how the systematic abuses occurred and punishment of the offenders is also necessary.

Deeper issues can then be addressed. At the root of April’s crisis was corruption so vast it decimated the country’s $2,100 GDP per capita economy. Toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev used state coffers as a personal ATM machine. Narcotics trafficking and other criminal activities feed a thriving shadow economy.

Meaningfully tackling corruption must begin with budget transparency, including that of any donor funds, and a bottom-up review of business regulation as well as straight talk about major projects like re-building the valuable hydro-dams. This will require greater sunlight in an economy that has been purposely kept in the dark. Independent media and civil society help provide this, which is why both came under attack by the Bakiev regime. OSCE members should commit themselves to strengthening these non-governmental checks on the public purse, which may also empower NGO counterparts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to step up their own anticorruption efforts.

The security forces and judiciary are also in need of reform. So far, cases like that of human rights activist Azimjon Askarov point only to a mockery of justice. Mr. Askarov was arrested, beaten and charged with “inciting unrest” for filming Kyrgyz police standing by while looters burned and sacked Bazar Kurgon. The OSCE can provide the necessary third-party review to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice. Although Freedom House was skeptical about allowing Kazakhstan to take the chairmanship, the silver lining in the continuing crisis with its neighbor is that the burden of leadership may now provide valuable learning opportunities.

When Kazakhstan took the reins of the OSCE in January, it pledged to reinvigorate what it called a “moribund” organization. By creating and deploying a multinational, rapid reaction force to restore order and by collectively working with international organizations to promote reform, Kazakhstan could show true leadership and give the Kyrgyz interim authorities the legitimacy they so badly need.

A new commitment to protecting human rights can put Kyrgyzstan back track as the country in the region with the best prospects for democratic reform. More than the survival of the Kyrgyz state is at stake. For the region as a whole, this crisis offers a test of real independence.