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'Bishkek Blunder' -- Feifer In 'The New Republic'

RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer looks at Kyrgyzstan's still-fragile democracy for "The New Republic." An excerpt is reprinted below. Read the full article here.

Bishkek Blunder

Gregory Feifer | The New Republic

August 28, 2010


Lying in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, Kyrgyzstan’s dusty capital Bishkek is a low sprawl of mostly Soviet-era buildings. Ancient Mercedes and Toyotas ply the cracked asphalt roads of a city that appears largely destitute. But in recent years, many restaurants and nightspots have opened around town, including a brand-new lounge-bar with a plush terrace that looks more suited to Manhattan than where it stands across from a crumbling old circus. On the streets, young women wear matchstick jeans and dye their hair blond.

Much like its capital, Kyrgyzstan stands out in Central Asia—a region arbitrarily carved into states by Josef Stalin in 1924—for its relatively open and vibrant society. It doesn’t suffer under the kind of despotism plaguing Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and its people have twice unseated their country's leaders. The first time was in 2005, when longtime dictator Askar Askaev was ousted in what’s known as the Tulip Revolution, which brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. However, Bakiyev’s rule grew steadily more corrupt and authoritarian, and he was overthrown this April, after his guards fired on political demonstrators outside the presidential administration building. Members of the feuding opposition who suddenly found themselves in power picked Otunbayeva to lead the country, and they set the date for the constitutional referendum in June.

But the new government's control never fully extended to Bakiyev's stronghold in southern Kyrgyzstan, where he fled before eventually taking refuge in Belarus. When violence exploded in the south in June, Otunbayeva and her allies were ill-prepared to deal with it.

Officially, the government claims Bakiyev's relatives colluded with the Taliban and other Islamist movements to provoke fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which the organizers hoped would disrupt the coming referendum and destabilize the new government. Most of those killed—officially almost 400 and up to 2,000 by some accounts—or forced from their homes were Uzbek; more than 1,000 burned and looted Uzbek houses and shops stand ruined in the southern city of Osh, the epicenter of the violence, and upwards of 400,000 Uzbeks fled across the border to refugee camps in Uzbekistan.

But in contrast to the government’s version of events, numerous witnesses say police and national military units were among the attackers. On August 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that government security forces “facilitate[d] attacks on ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods” and “failed to provide appropriate protection to the Uzbek community.” However, government officials don’t want to talk about Uzbeks being murdered or the accusations that some of their own forces may be partly to blame. In an interview in June, Almazbek Atanbayev, the dapper deputy prime minister of Otunbayeva's interim government—who has since stepped down to lead his Social Democratic Party in parliamentary elections—insisted the government has plenty of proof that the violence was a well-funded campaign (“not even close to ethnic cleansing”). It just doesn’t want to publicize the information for fear of stoking more violence.