Features | Security | Central Asia

Central Asia Security Vacuum

The violence in Kyrgyzstan has revealed a worrying security vacuum in Central Asia. Is Russia biding its time to step in?

Earlier this month, six countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia—held exercises in southern Russia in which soldiers from each of the countries, as part of the organisation’s nascent ‘Rapid Reaction Force,’ cooperated to defeat a ‘terrorist’ threat.

Yet when brutal violence broke out in one of the CSTO member countries, Kyrgyzstan, just days later, the group didn’t respond rapidly at all. Kyrgyzstan’s interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, even asked Russia to intervene, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded that Russians would only do so under the auspices of the CSTO. And nearly a week after the start of the violence—which some estimate has killed more than 1000 people and threatens to tear the country apart—the CSTO has still not gotten involved, but says it is ‘considering’ intervening.

‘We did not rule out the use of any means which are in the CSTO’s potential, and the use of which is possible regardless of the development of the situation in Kyrgyzstan,’ Russian National Security Chief Nikolai Patrushev said Monday.

On June 10-11, another regional security group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, held its annual summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The SCO has similar collective security aims as the CSTO, and includes Russia, China and most of the Central Asian republics, including Kyrgyzstan. But despite the violence that was going on even as the SCO countries’ presidents met in Uzbekistan, that group also didn’t involve itself in the conflict, and made only a tepid statement calling for calm.

Civil society groups in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (much of the violence is directed toward ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, and the centre of the violence, the city of Osh, is right on the border of Uzbekistan) called on the United Nations to intervene. And Otunbayeva said she didn’t ask the US for help.

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Even Uzbekistan, which many in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere feared might try to intervene on behalf of ethnic Uzbeks, has instead opted to stay out of the fray, and issued a statement blaming outsiders for ‘provoking’ the brutal violence.

The violence has exposed a security vacuum in Central Asia that no one appears interested in filling. In spite of all of the armchair geopoliticians who have declared that a ‘new Great Game’ is on in Central Asia, the major powers seem distinctly reluctant to expand their spheres of influence there.

Why? It’s possible that, amid a tentative US-Russia rapprochement and an apparent pro-Western turn in Russian foreign policy, neither side wants to antagonize the other. The United States, obviously, also is overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan and has little interest in getting in the middle of an ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan. It’s possible that the CSTO Rapid Reaction Force isn’t ready for a serious intervention as would be required in Kyrgyzstan. (It’s also possible that Russia’s reluctance is merely a demure gesture to ensure that they don’t seem too eager to get involved; only time will tell.)

Is this hands-off policy good or bad for Kyrgyzstan? It remains to be seen whether the Kyrgyzstan government is able to stop the violence by itself. The fact that the security forces are dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, and have at least in some cases appeared to take the side of their Kyrgyz kin in the fighting, bodes ill for this. But if it does manage to tamp down tensions by itself, it would give the fledgling government much-needed legitimacy and authority.

And Russian involvement, while it could certainly bring a short-term reduction in violence, carries as much risk as promise for the people of Kyrgyzstan. Russia has intervened in conflicts in ex-Soviet republics before, and it usually results in a long-term Russian military presence, with a corresponding loss of sovereignty. It’s not yet clear if Kyrgyzstan is willing to make that trade. But if the violence continues much longer, a heavy Russian hand will look like a small price to pay to stop the bloodshed that is tearing the country apart.

Joshua Kucera is the editor of The Bug Pit, a blog on Eurasian security.