When Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva announced last month that the country would be building two ‘counter-terror training centres’ in the south of the country – one with US help, and the other with Russian assistance – there were few details available. One thing that was clear, though, was that the delicate position that the country occupies, both geographically and geopolitically, has forced the United States into a careful balancing act between its two closest military allies in Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The purported need for such centres is the threat of Islamist terrorists entering the region from Afghanistan, via Tajikistan. But so far, there’s scant evidence that even Tajikistan – which borders Afghanistan – has seen such an influx, let alone Kyrgyzstan.
Yet some in the government genuinely fear that southern Kyrgyzstan is a potential breeding ground for Islamist radicalism, in particular among the ethnic Uzbek population in the south. More than 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is ethnic Uzbek, and they are concentrated in the southern part of the country. There have been two episodes of massive interethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, in 1990 and 2010. The death toll from last year’s pogroms is still unknown, but is estimated at more than 2,000.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The recent spate of violence has prompted speculation that disaffected Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan could be ripe targets for recruitment by Islamist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Ferghana Valley, which includes southern Kyrgyzstan and parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is conservative and religious, and has been the site of most of Central Asia’s radical Islamist activity. That activity, while relatively small in scale, has frequently been seized upon by the region’s governments to justify extreme security measures.
And, while the spectre of instability spilling over from Afghanistan may well be part of the motivation for setting up the centres, the fear of neighbouring Uzbekistan also weighs heavily in Bishkek’s considerations. In fact, some observers believe it’s foremost in the minds of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders.
Relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have, after all, been difficult since the two republics gained independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago. Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have long suspected Uzbekistan of having designs on their territory, and in one notorious episode in 2000, Uzbekistan’s military carried out military exercises aimed at taking over a reservoir across the border in Kyrgyzstan.
Such fears have grown over the last year as a result of the interethnic violence. Kyrgyzstan was concerned that Uzbekistan might use the violence as a pretext to invade. And while Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, got rare international acclaim for his measured handling of the crisis, the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan has nevertheless roused Uzbek nationalism. Karimov has tried hard to prevent that anger from boiling over, including by closing the border between the two countries. But that in turn has angered residents of southern Kyrgyzstan, who rely heavily on trade with Uzbekistan, further heightening tensions.
The two proposed training centres would be close to the Uzbekistan border – the US-built centre would be in the village of Kyzyl-Kiya, in the far south-western Batken region, while the Russian one would be located in Osh, the main city of southern Kyrgyzstan. And their location near Uzbekistan isn’t an accident, says Alisher Khamidov, an expert on southern Kyrgyzstan.