When human rights are expendable
When human rights are expendable
22 Jun 2010
Dr Luca Anceschi
The eruption of ethnic violence in the remote Kyrgyzstani section of the Ferghana valley poses a few interesting questions on the current state of global politics. Besides their obvious impact on Kyrgyzstani politics and their inevitable influence over the Central Asian regional balance, recent events in Osh and Jalalabad raised a number of reasonable doubts on the principles upon which the Great Powers – and the United States and the Russian Federation in particular – have built their interpretation of international humanitarian intervention.
In spite of its immediate relevance for the international politics of the 21st century, the ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan represents the long term effect of the controversial policies of a much more remote historical era, namely the 1920s and 1930s. In other words, it is Stalin, and not Bin Laden or some Central Asian despot, to be held responsible for what is currently happening in Southern Kyrgyzstan. To be properly understood, the deteriorating ethnic relations of the valley – a region often described by the Western media as the epicentre of religious radicalism in Central Asia – have to be related to the Soviet policy of nationalities, a tool used by the Kremlin to reinforce Moscow’s hegemony over the Soviet periphery. In Central Asia, Stalin’s policies of divide and rule placed a number of fictitious ethno-national communities within five artificial territories, whose extremely porous borders were systemically ignored by the local populations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s imaginary republics suddenly became fully fledged international actors, facing a series of transitional tasks, of which the promotion of national identity amongst the local population represented a rather insurmountable one. The ethnic balance of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia – including Kyrgyzstan – was compromised by the leaderships’ deliberate decisions of pursuing nationalist policies. In this sense, the resurgence of nationalism in post-Soviet Central Asia further complicated the relations between the titular ethnic groups and the minorities living in the region. The effect of nationalist policies was particularly felt in the Ferghana valley, which the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed into an extremely complex ethnic mosaic divided up between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
With the Tulip Revolution of 2005 and the more recent toppling of the Bakiev regime (April 2010), the Kyrgyzstani ethnic context significantly deteriorated, as instability at central level has not favoured a relaxation in ethnic relations in the country’s periphery. Ethnic violence in Ferghana – which, as it mainly involves Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnic groups, does seem to replicate the uprising of 1990s, in further confirmation of the deep historical roots of the problem – has this time reached unprecedented magnitude. It is not only the growing number of casualties and the large flow of ethnic Uzbek refugees – which the authoritarian regime in neighbouring Uzbekistan promptly welcomed, in order to score easy political points at international level – that attracted the attention of the international community onto Kyrgyzstan. A major role in this regard has been in fact played by the country’s increasing geopolitical importance.
The Kyrgyz Republic is the only state in the world that currently hosts on its soil both US and Russian troops, as the Kyrgyz government had successively granted to Moscow and Washington the concession of two air bases located no more than 30 kilometres apart. It is for this reason that both the White House and the Kremlin are looking with apprehension at the ethnic unrest that is taking place in Southern Kyrgyzstan.
The strategic priorities of the Great Powers seem to reduce the possibilities for an external intervention in resolution of the ethnic conflict in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Although the conflict clearly meets most criteria to ‘qualify’ for international intervention – its ethnic component; its devastating humanitarian impact; the impossibility of identifying viable option of internal resolution due to fragility of the Kyrgyzstani state; its destabilising impact over the security of a key region– it is largely unlikely that Moscow or Washington would promote or even extend their support to the deployment of international forces in Ferghana.
The United States – as clearly showed by the attitudes that two different Administrations adopted in the crises erupted in 2005 and 2010 – has traditionally abstained to engage in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs. In both cases, Washington opted for a low profile, not to put at risk the concession of the Manas military base. So far as the Kremlin is concerned, the current ethnic conflict seems to offer a welcomed opportunity to extend Moscow’s influence over the rapidly failing Kyrgyzstani state. In the Kremlin’s view, the more unstable the regime in Bishkek becomes, the closer it will get to Moscow. Russia’s reluctance to intervene seems also to be based on sound historical assessments of the conflict’s intractability. In the Soviet past, the resolution of ethnic conflicts in Ferghana has required the deployment of large missions over an extended timeframe. Politically, the current Russian government could not justify such a large mission, not even in the context of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation of the CIS.
Russia and the United States are hence looking with passivity at the Kyrgyzstani ethnic conflict and the humanitarian crisis which is rapidly erupting in the Ferghana valley. Such attitude is reminiscent of political strategies of the Cold War era, when international humanitarian intervention was systemically subordinated to the pragmatic priorities set by global competition between the Superpowers.