Nearly a week of politically charged ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan has left hundreds dead and more than 200,000 displaced in what human rights workers on the ground are describing as a growing humanitarian catastrophe.
Officials of the interim government in the capital, Bishkek, are adamant that the six days of rioting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan's impoverished south were triggered by agents of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a bloody April street revolt, and subsequently went into exile in Belarus.
"This was a carefully planned action by the enemies of the interim government, aimed at undermining authority and disrupting the constitutional referendum," interim government member Almazbek Atambayev told journalists in Bishkek. "The information available to our special services confirms that all of these measures were funded by the Bakiyev family, particularly Bakiyev’s youngest son, Maxim."
Ex-president Bakiyev has denied any connection to the upheavals. A constitutional referendum is scheduled for next week.
No matter who's responsible, analysts say a massive ethnic cleansing has effectively taken place in the southern city of Osh that could affect the demographics of Kyrgyzstan and its internal stability for years to come. The country is home to Russian military installations and the only remaining US air base in Central Asia, which is a crucial supply depot for the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. The near destruction of Osh's ancient Uzbek community will be difficult to reverse, they say.
The official death toll stands at 179, but interim government head Roza Otunbayeva said Tuesday that the actual figure is probably many times higher. The head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told journalists in Germany Wednesday that the riots have displaced 200,000 people and sent an additional 75,000 fleeing into neighboring Uzbekistan. "What is happening is already a tragedy and it could become a catastrophe," he said.
Human rights workers on the ground use more forceful descriptions of conditions in the regional capital, Osh, which has borne the brunt of the violence.
"This is an accelerating catastrophe," says Andrea Berg, a central Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who has spent the past several days in Osh. "Whole quarters of the city have been burned down and all the shops looted. So there's no food. Gas was cut off last week to avoid explosions, and many areas have no electricity.... Those Uzbeks who haven't fled have barricaded themselves into their neighborhoods, and there's no way to get humanitarian aid in to them. Everyone is traumatized, no one trusts anyone, and it's not clear how these communities will ever be able to live together again."
The riots are a more devastating replay of upheavals that took place in northern Kyrgyzstan immediately following the April revolution, in which Kyrgyz mobs targeted mainly ethnic Russians.
The interim government insists the unrest is now subsiding, and has withdrawn an earlier request for Russian assistance. On Tuesday, the Kremlin decided not to send any troops beyond a small force that's already guarding the Russian military base at Kant, about 12 miles from Bishkek. The US maintains its only remaining central Asian airbase nearby, adjacent to Bishkek's Manas airport.
Maxim Bakiyev, the former president's son whose whereabouts have been unknown for weeks, was arrested Monday in Farnborough, England, after arriving in a private plane and asking British authorities to grant him asylum. Kyrgyzstan has reportedly requested he be extradited.
Next week's constitutional referendum is an attempt by the country's provisional leader, Roza Otunbayeva, to end Kyrgyzstan's cycle of corrupt authoritarian governance that has twice resulted in wrenching revolutions. The reforms she is proposing would radically weaken the presidency and vest greater powers in the parliament.
"The Bakiyev family used their power to gain control over virtually the entire Kyrgyz economy," says Alexander Knyazev, a Bishkek-based analyst with the Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States. "The Bakiyevs also controlled drug trafficking in the country, and brought in mercenaries to protect their interests. We are quite sure that these riots were an attempt to inflame ethnic sentiments, undermine the interim government, and bring the Bakiyevs back to power."
Though the motives for the past week's violence may have been political, they were calculated to inflame longstanding ethnic tensions in the volatile Fergana Valley, where ethnic Uzbeks comprise some 15 percent of the population. Clashes have erupted repeatedly since the twilight of Soviet power in the region, including bloody riots between Uzbeks and ethnic Meshkets in 1989, which killed more than 100 people and prompted a massive crackdown by Soviet Special Forces.
"This is an area with an overwhelmingly youthful population of all ethnic groups who have virtually no economic prospects. They have big families and no way to feed them," says Yevgeny Minchenko, a central Asia analyst with the independent International Institute of Political Expertise in Moscow. "It's easy to stir them up, to battle over land, access to water and other resources. I fear this conflict is far from over."
"It's very difficult to say whether [these riots] happened because the interim government didn't want to act in a timely fashion, but such allegations are out there and should be thoroughly investigated," says Ms. Berg of Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Minchenko says that an international force may be needed to prevent the conflict from spinning out of control again.
"It would be good to put international peacekeepers in there, and probably they should not be only Russian ones. Moscow is very shy about this in any case, because it doesn't want to be suspected of neo-imperialist motives," he says. "But all the signs suggest this conflict will return unless there is intervention from outside. Certainly the interim government is too weak to provide security for ethnic minorities on its own. It simply lacks sufficient strength or legitimacy."