Kyrgyz crisis poses risks for wary Uzbekistan
The crisis in Kyrgyzstan is raising fears of volatility in its powerful neighbour Uzbekistan that could spark wider instability in strategically important Central Asia, analysts said.
The ethnic violence on its border and a massive influx of refugees threatens to destabilise Uzbekistan, the most populous of the ex-Soviet states in Central Asia, a battleground for influence between Russia and the West and a key supply hub for US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Analysts warned that the unrest could also spark a rise in Islamic militancy in the mainly Muslim region and increase tensions between Uzbekistan and Russia if Moscow decides to deploy forces in Kyrgyzstan.
"There are a number of worries for Uzbekistan that could certainly provoke instability," said Svante Cornell, research director at the Stockholm-based Central Asia -- Caucasus Institute.
"Especially frustrations among people in Uzbekistan who want the government to do more to help ethnic Uzbeks across the border," he added.
Inter-ethnic fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan last week, leaving nearly 190 dead and prompting more than 75,000 ethnic Uzbeks to flee to Uzbekistan.
If the violence continues or grows, analysts said Uzbekistan's government will come under increasing pressure, in particular from refugees who have flooded over the border, to do more to protect the country's ethnic brethren in Kyrgyzstan.
"The greatest challenge to them will be mounting pressure for Uzbek intervention. It's not good for the government to appear to be ignoring the situation in Kyrgyzstan," Cornell said.
With Tashkent unlikely to intervene across the border, analysts said outrage over the violence could be transferred to the government of strongman President Islam Karimov, who has shown no tolerance for dissent.
Demonstrations in the Uzbek city of Andijan near the Kyrgyz border five years ago were violently suppressed by security forces, with dozens killed according to rights groups.
Another danger for stability in Uzbekistan, analysts said, is that Islamic extremists operating in the region take advantage of anger over the violence and the growing humanitarian crisis to gain new recruits.
The Uzbek government says the country faces a serious threat of Islamic extremism and has accused militants of being behind a series of attacks in 1999 and 2004.
"This is a humanitarian catastrophe and radical Islam, which is strong in this region, could take advantage of it," said Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"If the situation gets worse in Uzbekistan, which is very likely, there will be very serious problems," he said.
Tashkent's often-tense relations with Moscow could also come into play, analysts said, if Russia eventually decides to deploy peacekeepers to the region.
"The potential for a Russian troop deployment to Kyrgyzstan has not been welcomed by the country's more powerful neighbour, Uzbekistan," the Stratfor global intelligence group said in a briefing this week.
"Tashkent has indicated that it will consider a Russian troop deployment... as a precursor to a larger military push against Uzbekistan."
The biggest danger, analysts said, is that the unrest spreads beyond the Ferghana Valley that is split between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
That could pull not only Uzbekistan, but also Kazakhstan into what has so far been a localised conflict, said Daniil Kislov, the editor-in-chief of Fergana.ru, a Moscow-based news site specialising in Central Asia.
"It's a regional conflict and I hope it won't go beyond Ferghana. But if northern Kyrgyzstan is affected, this risks to touch Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan. And that would be a major conflict in Central Asia," he said.
© 2010 AFP