A New Challenge in Central Asia

A New Challenge in Central Asia

The ethnic violence in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan is a worrying development in a world already struggling to cope with numerous other flashpoints of conflict. It has claimed more than 180 lives so far and caused a massive humanitarian crisis spilling over into neighbouring Uzbekistan. The roots of Kyrgyz-Uzbek hostility reach far back in history, but the current outbreak of violence along this old fault line appears linked with the sudden ouster in April of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The new regime, an interim government of 14 opposition political parties headed by former diplomat Roza Otunbayeva, holds him responsible for orchestrating the riots. The anti-Uzbek riots are taking place in the southern region, where the deposed leader retains a strong following among the Kyrgyz population. The region is home to large numbers of ethnic Uzbeks, whose loyalties lie with the political set-up that replaced the corrupt and nepotistic Mr. Bakiyev. In mid-May, barely a month after the upheaval that saw the exit of the old order, more than 80 people were killed when Bakiyev supporters clashed violently with groups allied to the new dispensation. That was in the same southern cities consumed by this new round of violence. That the country is led by an unelected and fractious coalition has only complicated matters. With the violence said to be abating, President Otunbayeva's plan for a June 27 referendum on a new Constitution and democratic elections later in the year will hopefully remain unaffected. But her urgent appeal to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev for military help as the crisis threatened to overtake the country of 5.5 millon people highlighted Moscow's crucial role in a region of strategic importance where several regional and international players, including the United States and China, wield considerable influence.

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