Roughly 100,000 minority Uzbeks have fled to Kyrgyzstan's eastern border, displaced by a wave of ethnic violence that has killed about 200 people, seen Russian paratroopers dispatched to restore order, and raised questions about whether the ousted president is reaching out to gangsters to destabilize the country and engineer his return.
An interim government spokesman in Bishkek, the capital, says fighting in the southeastern city of Osh had cooled after a weekend in which Kyrgyz gangs destroyed Uzbek homes and shops and murdered many of their inhabitants. He says that violence in the nearby city of Jalalabad continues to rage and that the government is appealing to Russia to send troops to control the situation.
The interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva has struggled to control post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan since a wave of rioting and protests pushed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power in April. The US and Russia were both quick to recognize Kyrygzstan's new leaders, not least because of the country's strategic importance. The only US airbase in Central Asia is at Manas outside Bishkek and is a vital supply line to the war effort in Afghanistan. Russia, too, has bases in Kyrgyzstan, which prompted it to send troops to secure them.
Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold a referendum on constitutional changes on June 27. The government says the violence is being engineered by Mr. Bakiyev's supporters to head off that vote.
"People's moods have changed. At first they thought it was an inter-ethnic conflict but now they are more inclined to think that it was a provocation by criminal elements and destructive forces," says interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov. "These destructive forces have political tasks. Roza Otunbayeva has already mentioned the fact that among the organizers are members of Bakiyev's family."
Bakiyev has denied the charge.
Whether Kyrgyzstan is witnessing a spontaneous bout of ethnic violence – not unheard of in a country that is ethnically diverse, deeply poor, and filled with gangs involved in drug trafficking and extortion – or a situation arranged for political gain is still being teased out. The most likely answer at this point is that there's a little of both.
Bakiyev to blame?
Bakiyev, living in exile in Belarus, maintains that he is the country's rightful leader. Supporters have occasionally threatened to use violence in his support. His family grew wealthy during his five years in power, so paying for fighters would not be out of the realm of possibility. His power based is in the south, particularly Osh and Jalalabad.
Orozbek Moldaliev, an analyst at the Sedep Research Center in Bishkek, says he believes Bakiyev's "circle" was involved with starting the violence but that, from his perspective, it's petering out.
"I think the conflict is not as active as it was and is acquiring a local character," he says. "The public is participating in solving the conflict, youth organizations and religious leaders are participating in talks, and popular diplomacy is working."
Sanobar Shermatova, who covers Central Asia for Russian news agency RIA-Novosti and is now in southern Kyrgyzstan, says she's convinced events were not spontaneous. "Young people from mountain villages were recruited and there were some criminal elements involved," she charges. "All these events were well prepared."
What is clear now, say analysts, is that the unrest will reverberate beyond Kyrgyzstan's borders.
"These events will have a negative influence on the stability of the region," says Zharikhin Vladimir, deputy director of the Commonwealth of Independent State's Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "The likelihood that Kyrgyzstan will disintegrate has grown considerably."
Mr. Vladimir says that trouble in Kyrgyzstan can reverberate far beyond its borders. "South Kyrgyzstan borders Uzbekistan and the border of Afghanistan is nearby. The region is a knot of nerves for the whole of Central Asia."