There’s an important geopolitical lesson to be learned in the tumultuous events taking place now in Kyrgyzstan. Last Friday, the interim president of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva, appealed to Russia for help. The southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad were in the throes of deadly violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the worst since 1990 when 300 people died, and it took thousands of Soviet troops several weeks to calm things down. Today, the official death toll stands at nearly 200 , but many more are feared to have perished, and thousands have been injured. Last Friday, Otunbayeva declared a state of emergency and admitted that the government had completely lost control of the southern part of the country. That region — a stronghold of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — has been unstable since protestors violently ousted him from power in April (Bakiyev initially fled to his southern stronghold, and is now in exile in Belarus).
A former republic of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both Russia and American military bases (the Transit Center at Manas, which lies on the outskirts of Bishkek, the capital, is a major point in the NATO supply chain for the war in Afghanistan). Most of Kyrgyzstan’s political elite — Otunbayeva, who served as her country’s ambassador to Moscow, included — were educated in Russia. Having visited the country in April, I can personally attest to the warm feelings that most Kyrgyz have toward Russia, feelings that are rather distinctive for citizens of a former republic of the Soviet Union, where the memories of occupation, repression, and cultural suppression tend not to die easily.