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Kyrgyzstan failure could boost Afghan drug trade, Islamist radicals

The recent wave of ethnic violence is Kyrgyzstan's second violent upheaval in five years. A June 27 referendum could bolster the weak government, but lingering security problems may hamper the vote.

By Correspondent / June 25, 2010

Two Uzbek refugees from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh wait for permission to cross into Uzbekistan at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. Recent ethnic violence displaced 200,000 people.

Sergei Grits/AP



A wave of brutal ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, which officials now admit killed as many as 2,000 people, threatens to turn the mountainous Central Asian nation of 5 million into a failed state. A failed Kyrgyztan could destabilize its neighborhood, offer a target for the region's Islamist radicals, and provide a haven for narcotraffickers working the opium pipeline from Afghanistan, experts warn.

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The crisis has also pointed up the limitations of the international community – especially Russia – when responding to civic emergencies in that volatile part of the world. While the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabad burned, sending almost 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks fleeing into Uzbekistan, Moscow dithered and then sent a few planeloads of humanitarian aid.

"People often frame the discussion about Central Asia in terms of competition between the big powers, but at this point it's not about geopolitical struggle: It's about who will take responsibility for providing regional security," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal. "I think just about everyone now hopes Russia will do it, but it is not at all clear that Russia has the capacity or the will to do much."

Concern about the Kyrgyz interim government

Observers on the ground say it's increasingly apparent that the Kyrgyz interim government, which came to power athwart a street revolt last April, is not able to cope with the crisis, and that some of its security forces may have sided with mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz who fatally attacked Uzbek neighborhoods.

"Things are relatively quiet at the moment, but many signs suggest that the interim government is not even capable of providing effective security, much less restoring any measure of ... functionality to these communities," says Anna Neistat of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's emergency unit, reached by phone in Osh on Thursday.

"An international peace force, mandated by the [United Nations], would be the only way to bring reliable security to these streets," she says. "Whether or not the Kyrgyz security forces were complicit, ... there is no doubt that's what the Uzbek population believes."

Opportunity for Islamist radicals?

Without decisive international intervention, analysts say the crisis is likely to simmer on and worsen.

The evident failure of governance in Kyrgyzstan, which has seen two upheavals in barely five years, could provide opportunities for Islamist radicals, particularly in the multiethnic and overpopulated Fergana Valley, which extends across Uzbekistan into southern Kyrgyzstan. Local Islamists were accused of being behind a 2005 rebellion in the Fergana Valley area of Andijan that led to a savage crackdown and several hundred deaths.