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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
"There is a threat of extremism in the Fergana Valley and ... in Central Asia as a whole, in the sense that Central Asia borders Afghanistan," United Nations special envoy Miroslav Jenca told Reuters last week.
Uzbekistan's authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, has shown little inclination to intervene to protect the Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan, but analysts say that could change.
"Uzbekistan was completely unprepared for the influx of refugees from this disaster, bearing horror stories of their ordeal at the hands of Kyrgyz mobs," says Alexei Vlasov, an expert at Moscow State University. "It is now vital to get humanitarian aid in to help these refugees, as part of staving off the threat of destabilization across the Fergana Valley."
Kyrgyzstan's interim government has accused drug runners of working with agents of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to provoke the riots that broke out on June 10.
Mr. Bakiyev, in exile in Belarus, denies that. But experts agree that narco-barons, who mediate the flow of heroin and hashish out of Afghanistan, would be prime beneficiaries of any lasting breakdown of legal order.
"It will soon be time to reap the poppy crops in Afghanistan, and the best gift to the drug traffickers would be a black hole in southern Kyrgyzstan," says Mr. Vlasov.
A key test for the interim government will come June 27, when it stages a referendum on proposed constitutional changes that would weaken the presidency in favor of a stronger parliament. Officials say they will go ahead with the poll to establish the government's credibility.
But they are suggesting the referendum may not take place in the south. Alexander Knyazev, a Bishkek-based analyst, says the government has proposed a controversial decree that would cancel the voting in emergency-rule zones, and later award them average results for the country.
"They have to go ahead with it, because right now the interim government ... has no source of legitimacy at all," he says. "If they can't..., this period of instability will definitely go on."