July/Aug 10: Eurasian security arrangements face reality check after Kyrgyzstan crisis

Neil Melvin

The bloody events in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2010 have created a new security situation in Eurasia. The conflict in the south of the country involving Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in June, following the violent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, has raised the prospect that Kyrgyzstan is becoming a failed state and that the country may descend into a civil war with regional implications. Addressing the causes of the violence in Kyrgyzstan and ensuring that there is no repeat of conflict is an urgent matter. To date, however, the international community has been found seriously wanting in terms of its response to the unfolding crisis in the country.

Early in the morning of 11 June 2010 localized fighting broke out in the predominately ethnic Uzbek city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. The fighting quickly spread to neighbouring areas also heavily populated by Uzbeks. In a repeat of the Kyrgyz and Uzbek violence of 1990, within a few days hundreds were dead and hundreds of thousands had fled to the Uzbekistan–Kyrgyzstan border, seeking protection in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.

As the conflict spread, the provisional government in Bishkek---newly established following the overthrow of Bakiyev---seemed powerless to influence events, much less to stop the violence. In a televised address, the acting president, Roza Otunbayeva, indicated that she had sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asking him to send military reinforcements. She described the situation in Osh as ‘out of control‘.

The Russian response surprised many. ‘It is an internal conflict and for now Russia does not see the conditions for taking part in its resolution‘, Medvedev’s spokeswoman was quoted as saying in reply to Otunbayeva’s appeal. Medvedev instead chose to consult with other members of the regional security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which by chance was meeting in Tashkent, about a response to the crisis.

Finally, Russia, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the SCO were not prepared to intervene to stop the bloodshed in Kyrgyzstan. Eventually, the Kyrgyz authorities were able to restore a degree of order, but over 300 people died in the violence according to official estimates, while the unofficial death toll was nearer 1000. Large parts of the leading southern cities and towns were destroyed and over 400 000 people, primarily Uzbeks, were displaced.

Non-intervention by Russia was unexpected because it seemed to run counter to its position and actions over the past decade. The Russian foreign and security policy, advocated first by President Vladimir Putin and then by his successor Medvedev, has been based on the view that the former Soviet territories are Russia’s ‘privileged sphere of influence’ and the CSTO is the principal multilateral vehicle to address security and conflict issues in the region.

Russia’s determination to pursue this vision of Eurasian security was apparent in the summer of 2008 when Russian troops entered the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia as fighting escalated between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militias. Russia justified its intervention in part on the basis of the need to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing. Immediately following the conflict, Russia unilaterally recognized the independence of the two regions and subsequently sought de facto to incorporate these regions politically, economically and militarily into Russia.

Russia has sought to institutionalize its vision of regional security through the promotion of a European security treaty. This new arrangement would in effect displace the increasingly impotent Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), recognize Russia’s role as the regional power in Eurasia and restrict NATO to its existing membership.

In the wake of the conflict with Georgia, this approach appeared to bear fruit. Under US President Barack Obama, the ‘reset’ with Moscow has seen the United States pursuing a Russia-first policy in Eurasia, replacing the Bush-era focus on Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has been given further latitude in the region as the USA’s focus has increasingly shifted to Afghanistan, China, East Asia, and the Middle East. Although the European Union has followed the US lead with its ‘modernization partnership’ with Russia, its flagship initiatives in Eurasia---the European Neighbourhood Policy, the Central Asia Strategy, the Black Sea Synergy and the Eastern Partnership---have looked increasingly irrelevant to the situation on the ground.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have, however, highlighted the shortcomings of the Russian proposals for a new security order and the inadequate understanding of the sources and nature of conflict in contemporary Eurasia that underpin it. As leading Russian writer on international relations Fyodor Lukyanov noted recently, with the sphere of privileged influence also comes a ‘zone of responsibility’. When the time came for Russia to assert its leadership in the region, it was unprepared to engage in the complex questions of intervention and peacebuilding in Kyrgyzstan and lacking the military and civilian capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, the political capacity to take up its long dreamt of role.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have also raised questions about the Russian thinking and undertanding of the sources of conflict in Eurasia. With their focus on hard (military) security and traditional state-to-state relations, these proposals appear to offer nothing to challenge of situations like Kyrgyzstan. Yet, it is the issues of violence and civil war involving non-state actors that has characterized the conflicts of Eurasia---Abkhazia, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, the North Caucasus, South Ossetia, Tajikistan, Trans-Dneister, and southern Kyrgyzstan (1990 and 2010)---since the demise of the Soviet Unionand which looks set to continue to affect the region in the future.

Above all, the Kyrgyz case has highlighted that it is precisely the sudden collapse of apparently outwardly stable authoritarian orders that constitutes the main threat to regional peace and security. In Kyrgyzstan the regime disintegrated in a few days leading to chaos, violence and conflict. Yet is it is regimes of this type that Russia has backed (e.g. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) as the pillars of its status quo-based approach to promoting stability in its ‘neighbourhood’.

All of this suggests that the post-Soviet world is entering a new and dangerous phase that requires a careful response from the international community. While Russia has effectively blocked serious Western engagement in the region, it has not fashioned a credible regional institution to address such concerns and is unable to take the lead on security questions itself. At the same time, there is currently no realistic alternative. The OSCE, despite having a peacekeeping mandate, has deployed only an inadequate police mission to Kyrgyzstan. The organization remains paralysed by the struggle between Russia and its allies, on one side, and Europe and the USA, on the other, over the future shape of European security.

However, there are signs of movement. Spurred in part by its own failings over the Kyrgyzstan crisis, the OSCE agreed to hold its first summit meeting in over a decade later this year. The summit is a clear opportunity to begin to set in place functioning security and political relationships that can address the challenges of Eurasia.

Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated that forging a new cooperative security partnership should be Eurasia’s top priority. Russia is the leading power in Eurasia, and the USA and its allies lack the leverage and the will to displace it. At the same time, Russia is not in a position to function as a regional hegemon. Effective conflict prevention, conflict management and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction can only function with the expertise, capacities and the political support of Europe and the USA. For a new partnership to emerge, all parties will have to recognize the reality of the security and conflict situation in the region today.

About the author

Dr Neil Melvin (UK) was appointed the Director of the SIPRI Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme earlier this year. He was previously the Senior Adviser to the Secretary General of the Energy Charter. He has considerable experience with conflict and security issues in the former Soviet Union and has served as a Senior Adviser in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

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