Kyrgyzstan is a nation divided, burning and hard to find on a map. Its southern half has rejected the rule of its government, centred in the northern capital of Bishkek. Weakened central authority has allowed long-standing ethnic differences between the Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks to flare into violence. It could be a long time before stability is re-established. Neither the rebels nor the government are strong enough to defeat the other. Consensus is difficult in a polity based on local clans, many of whom seek support from outside groups. Which is why the world is looking to Moscow, and to a lesser extent Tashkent, when it comes to intervention.
Like most ex-Soviet Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is an artificial nation deliberately crafted by Joseph Stalin, and thus doomed to be unstable and ethnically volatile. Being the smallest, most isolated and poorest Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan has been less of a front page political story than its neighbours. With the present ethnic unrest, this mountainous nation has, at last, fallen afoul of the same problems that beset all of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s fragmented polity makes it similar to Tajikistan. The larger Central Asian countries have tackled their patchwork nationhood through one-family dictatorships. They run a spectrum from a relatively benign Kazakhstan to a fiercely repressive Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz troubles will not give an immediate fillip to Islamic extremism — a constant concern in this area. However, they do raise concerns about the long-standing tension between Russia and the most powerful Central Asian nation, Uzbekistan. Recent Kyrgyz politics can crudely be described as pro- and anti-Russian governments taking turns at toppling each other. In this zero-sum game, a Russian gain is often seen as an Uzbek loss. The fear of alarming Uzbekistan is probably one reason Moscow is still weighing military intervention.
A long-term view of the region cannot ignore Islamic extremism. Uzbekistan aside, the Fergana Valley has not been a fertile ground for militancy. However, Islamicism’s fortunes have tended to be in inverse proportion to those of representative government. A key criticism of the last Kyrgyz regime was its anti-Islamic bent — in a country that is nearly 80 per cent Muslim. Unfortunately, untangling a cynical Soviet legacy and surviving a regional balance of power game so consume Central Asian leaders that few can even contemplate a reformist vision.