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Why Kyrgyzstan matters more than you think

By Ana Jelenkovic and Willis Sparks

You may not have heard much about the growing violence in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished and corruption-plagued former Soviet republic that's home to 5.5 million people and a delicate ethnic balance that has now completely broken down. But the deteriorating security situation and growing ethnic conflict there matters-for the people who live there, for the region, for Russia, and for the United States.

Kyrgyzstan has been in turmoil since April, when a bloody confrontation between an increasingly unpopular government and opposition activists ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who is now in exile in Belarus. A government led by interim president Roza Otunbaeva took power, but it hasn't been able to establish full control in the south of the country, home to most of Bakiyev's supporters and much of the country's Uzbek minority.

There's a long history of ethnic tension in the region -- the current unrest is reminiscent of a 1990 bloody conflict which was resolved with Soviet troops -- and the power vacuum that emerged in the region in the wake of Bakiyev's ouster in April has helped reignite ethnic resentment.

Last weekend, Kyrgyz gangs, began attacking ethnic Uzbeks in house-to-house raids. The interim government was unable to contain the violence, which quickly spiraled out of control. Reports of large-scale rape and murder have drawn the attention of neighboring governments, international institutions, Washington, and Moscow.

Why should the world be watching more closely?

First, what began as thuggery reached ethnic cleansing levels of violence. While the situation appears to have calmed down somewhat after a nasty weekend, violence is likely to continue. Under attack, huge numbers of the country's Uzbeks have fled in fear for their lives. U.N. officials have called on Kyrgyzstan's interim government to provide refugees with safe passage. It remains unclear if state officials can or will do that.

Second, the current violence is starting to look a bit like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: It won't stop until someone stops it. The new Kyrgyz government appears to believe that only Russian soldiers can accomplish that and has called on the Kremlin for help. Though interim leader Otunbaeva today says that international peacekeepers are no longer needed, it is clear that international support is necessary to ensure the safe passage of refugees and the delivery of humanitarian aid to all communities in need.

Third, Russia remains reluctant to wade into a conflict that might turn into a quagmire. But the risks generated by violence so close to Russia's borders and the fear that the country could become a safe haven for anti-Russian militants/terrorists will probably compel Moscow to move forward.

Fourth, to persuade a reluctant Russia, the Kyrgyz foreign minister has now suggested that his government might be willing to revisit a decision to extend the lease on an airbase used by U.S. forces as a vital line of supply for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Moscow holds the cards and could insist that the Americans leave. In what has become typical for the provisional government, individual leaders are sending mixed signals. Otunbaeva, for instance, insists that the lease will be extended, and Russia and the U.S. share an interest in the stability of Afghanistan.  

Finally, the governments of the largest of the Central Asia republics-Uzbekistan and energy-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have done well for themselves politically and economically by playing Russia, America and China off one another. If Russian troops enter Kyrgyz territory in large numbers, that delicate balance could be overthrown in Russia's favor. At the very least, the leaders of countries neighboring Kyrgyzstan will have to weigh Russia's capacity for mischief with each decision of regional importance.

Things are looking up for those in Moscow who would like to rebuild Russian influence across former Soviet territory. A brief war with Georgia in August 2008 proved that Russia could assert itself with a minimum of lasting international outcry. The most recent presidential election in Ukraine produced a more Moscow-friendly government in Kiev. Now a Central Asian government is offering the Kremlin concessions in return for an armed intervention in its territory.

Obscure though the players may be, this conflict is one to watch.

Ana Jelenkovic is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe and Eurasia practice. Willis Sparks is a global macro analyst.

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