Two months ago I wrote about the crisis engulfing Kyrgyzstan; two days ago it took an appalling turn for the worse. The instability, poverty and desperation that has been steadily increasing since former-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted, exploded in ethnic violence across the South of Kyrgyzstan, where much of the countries large Uzbek community resides.
Uzbeks account for about 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s total population and there have been numerous incidents of ethnic tension over the years, often relating to housing and land. The recent break-down of order caused this to ignite with mobs of Kyrgyz attacking Uzbek citizens and ransacking their property. As of Sunday evening over 100 are dead and an estimated 30 000 have fled across the border into Uzbekistan with no food, water or shelter.
The world needs to act. This is a rapidly escalating humanitarian catastrophe that is costing lives on an hourly basis and the interim Kyrgyzstani government is not capable of stopping it. If that’s not bad enough the crisis has the potential to throw the whole of Central Asia into turmoil. Uzbekistan is ill-equipped to cope with such an influx of refugees; indeed, the dictatorship in charge of the country is so brutal and incompetent that it does not evenly adequately support Uzbeks already living there. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Uzbekistani military may cross the border in an attempt to stop the flow- thus triggering a war that will plunge this ill-fated region into even further poverty and misery.
The Kyrgyzstani government has already called on Russia to provide peacekeepers, but Moscow has refused. In some ways this may be positive; from Georgia to Moldova, Russia has used ‘peacekeepers’ to further its own political agenda rather than keep the peace, often to the detriment of the respective local population. It is perhaps a small blessing that Russia isn’t seizing the opportunity to cynically extend its political influence in Central Asia…but that won’t be any comfort to the Uzbeks being massacred by Kyrgyz mobs or the Kyrgyz being slaughtered in retaliatory attacks.
So the responsibility falls on the UN and on the democratic world; and the response has to be quick and effective. If the Security Council were to rapidly organise a peacekeeping force and offer it to the interim Kyrgyzstani government they would have little choice but to accept, even if they may prefer Russian-not Western- troops on their soil. Similarly if individual nations, or organisations such as NATO and the EU, were to readily offer up troops, this could provide a solution, at least in the short term.
In the meantime governments should be diverting emergency funds to help those flooding into the makeshift refugee camps in Uzbekistan, utilising diplomatic and NGO resources to ensure that aid reaches those who need it – rather than ending up in the pockets of Uzbekistan’s dictatorship.
On so many occasions our governments have shied away from the opportunity to conduct cooperative peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. We should rally together and ensure that this time they take it.