Robert Blake, US State Department assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs. (Photo: US State Department)
Kyrgyzstan's government has failed to win the confidence of its Uzbek minority after ethnic violence in the southern part of the country forced hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks to flee earlier this summer, a top US State Department official has said.
The official, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, declined to criticize directly Kyrgyzstan's new government. But, describing a recent trip to Bishkek and Osh, he drew attention to episodes that have caused unease among ethnic Uzbeks.
“Fear and tension remain, especially among ethnic Uzbeks in the south. In Uzbekistan’s displaced persons camps, although there were no reports of force to promote returns, reports of psychological pressure, monetary incentives, threats of loss of citizenship, coercion and/or encouragement to participate in the June 27 referendum, and concerns for family members who remained in Kyrgyzstan may have factored into the rapid repatriation of those who were displaced,” Blake told a July 27 hearing of the US Helsinki Commission.
“Reports that the Kyrgyz government intends to expropriate property in destroyed Uzbek neighborhoods, as part of an urban renewal effort, replacing traditional houses organized into ethnic neighborhoods with modern apartments for ethnically mixed communities, are feeding fears of disenfranchisement and possible renewed violence,” Blake said. “I also heard complaints that the mayor of Osh does not act in a balanced manner and that he is pursuing a nationalist agenda. I shared these concerns with government officials and urged that they be addressed on an urgent basis,” he added.
Another witness at the hearing, Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, more explicitly blamed Bishkek for encouraging anti-Uzbek sentiment. “In the aftermath of the ethnic violence, local groups and the local governments in southern Kyrgyzstan have chosen to make Uzbeks the scapegoats for a lot of this violence,” she said. “The leadership has de facto . . . consented to this . . . finding blame among the Uzbeks through their silence on these questions.” Arslan Anarbaev, the head of the Kyrgyz mission in Washington, also testified, but did not mention ethnic violence at all.
The US is providing $48 million in additional aid to Kyrgyzstan to help it recover from the violence, Blake said. While most of that is targeted to humanitarian needs, about $5 million is “for democracy” and helping prepare Kyrgyzstan for upcoming parliamentary elections in October. The US aid will include “Central Election Committee capacity building, local election officials’ training, civil society support for elections outreach, journalist training, media monitoring and coverage, voter list review, public information campaigns, elections observation by domestic and international observers, parallel vote tabulation, dispute resolution training and assistance, and voter education,” Blake said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s promised international police monitoring mission is intended to help residents of southern Kyrgyzstan gain confidence ahead of the elections. “That [police mission] will help a lot to encourage a more accountable police force, particularly in the south where it's going to be needed, and that will help voter turnout there,” Blake said.
But more important than capacity building will be a strong political will to keep Kyrgyzstan’s government accountable for holding a fair election, Olcott said. “To me, it's not a matter of training, as Secretary Blake said. It's also a matter of holding the government responsible for holding transparent elections, and to think about using conditionality on further assistance if the government doesn't meet the standards that [the OSCE] holds before them.”
The issue of the air base that the US maintains in Kyrgyzstan, the Manas Transit Center, was barely raised at the hearing. Blake was not asked about the air base, and his opening remarks only briefly mentioned it. “Maintaining the Manas Transit Center is an important national security priority for the United States, but that Center can only be maintained if Kyrgyzstan itself is a stable and reliable partner and we ourselves are totally transparent in the functioning of the Center,” he said.
On the same day as the testimony in Washington, international donors, including representatives from 15 international organizations and 26 countries, met in Bishkek and agreed to offer $1.1 billion in aid to prop up Kyrgyzstan’s economy. Kyrgyzstan faces a budget deficit of $619 million in 2010, and a drop of 5 percent in the country’s Gross Domestic Product growth rate. With these kinds of obstacles before them, Kyrgyzstan’s politicians are likely to keep up pressure on the US to provide an increasing assistance stream, especially as they believe that a US military presence in the country creates special responsibilities on Washington’s part.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.