Kyrgyzstan Falls Apart Can Democracy Work in Central Asia?

Kyrgyzstan was once seen as a model of democracy in Central Asia. Now it appears to have become ungovernable, with tens of thousands of residents fleeing the country after deadly ethnic clashes. Is this the end of democracy in the region?

By and

REUTERS

Young Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and Kyrgyzs study at the Kyrgyzstan campus of the University of Central Asia, which is housed in an attractive new building with a red-tiled roof. The university brings together people from a region plagued by sharp ethnic differences, where borders sometimes bisect villages in such a way that local farmers have their houses in one country and their plots of land in another.

The university is in Tokmok, a peaceful city in northern Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Kazakhstan. Tokmok is an island of ethnic harmony in this explosive region between the Caspian Sea and the Tian Shan mountains. Russia, China and the United States have been competing for influence in the region for the last 20 years. Drug barons use the region as a supply route for Western Europe, while Islamist underground movements are seeking to establish a Taliban-style caliphate there. The region has oil, gas, gold and uranium. It also has a time bomb that has been ticking for a long time, in the form of the fertile Fergana Valley, which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin arbitrarily carved up among Uzbeks, Kyrgyzs and Tajiks.

The university was a glimmer of hope. But now the 55,000 residents of Tokmok, particularly in the neighborhoods populated by the Uzbek minority, live in fear of the pogroms that have been shaking the country's south.

No Longer in Control

Abdimovlan Abdezov, a 51-year-old Uzbek builder and restaurant owner, has hidden his expensive German porcelain, parked his Mercedes in a guarded garage and sent his wife and children abroad. Kyrgyz neighbors shouting "Uzbeks out" burned down his restaurant in the spring. "All it takes is a single spark, and we will have a second Osh on our hands here," he says fearfully.

The central government is no longer in control of Osh, the country's second-largest city. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva protested in vain last week when mobs rampaged in the streets there. She forced her corrupt predecessor Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of office in April but has been relatively powerless since then. Instead of sending sufficient numbers of troops loyal to the government to the crisis region, she had flyers with pacifist slogans dropped over the area. It wasn't until Friday that she finally made an appearance in Osh.

By that time, according to the president's office, the violence had already claimed about 2,000 lives. Tens of thousands of Uzbeks are believed to have fled the country, most of them to Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzs living in Uzbekistan are fleeing home to Kyrgyzstan, which is officially known as the Kyrgyz Republic. The violence there threatens to spread to other parts of Central Asia. In Moscow last Friday, it was revealed that the Russian Defense Ministry plans to send troops to protect key strategic facilities in the region.

'I Don't Need Democracy'

Meanwhile, in Tokmok, restaurant owner Abdezov is trying to sell his battered property. He too wants to move to Uzbekistan and start a new life there, in a country that, ironically, is ruled by a dictator, President Islam Karimov, who has eliminated the opposition, imprisoned human rights activists and harassed Islamic clerics. Kyrgyzstan, sometimes dubbed the "Switzerland of Central Asia," was long viewed as a model of democracy in the region. "I don't need democracy," says Abdezov. "I want safety for my wife and children."

The chaos in Kyrgyzstan seems to prove that the autocrats in neighboring countries were right all along. For much of its history, the region has only seen stability when despots -- first Genghis Khan, then the Russian czars and finally Stalin, who subjected the region to Soviet rule -- maintained an iron grip.

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