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The Balkans of the 21st Century?

June 21, 2010 1 comment

“Why should we care about all those ‘stan’ countries?” – A fictional, but accurate, John Smitherson

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. These are the former Soviet republics that seem so ostensibly foreign to the average American. Yet, in the years, and quite possibly decades to come, Central Asia will be a hot-button region; combustible because of ethnic, religious and regional tension. I obviously cannot do justice to the entire region in a truncated blog post, but through the lense of the current humanitarian crisis in Kyrgyzstan I’ll convince you why you should know and care about Central Asia and it’s conflicts.

Central Asia and the Causasus - The 21st Century Balkans?

About two weeks ago in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, simmering ethnic tensions between minority Uzbeks and the majority Kyrgyz erupted into violence. The death toll continues to grow, new clashes are continually flaring and a full scale refugee crisis is developing on the Uzbekistan side of the border. The U.N. has accelerated its aid delivery but that has not stopped the crisis from deepening. The root causes of these tensions remain unclear. It is, however, clear that they run deep and are not isolated within the general population. Fears that the military participated in the persecution point to a distrust and hatred deeply rooted in society rather than anything momentarily stoked by political, economic or policy fervor. This crisis is unfortunately only in its infancy. We don’t yet know what scale it will take on. But please, keep an eye on it.

While the Kyrgyz situation is the most current, and most influential, conflict in the region, it is but a warning of what could come in the volatile arena. Uzbekistan, one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, continues with its repressive practices. With a single party system and meeting only the most basic requirements of democracy, Turkmenistan continues to quash the press and political freedom. Resentment lingering from the Azerbaijani-Armenian War is seeing a renewal in Azerbaijan. Tajikistan is still recovering from its devastating civil war that ended in 1997. All of these conflictual tinderboxes, along with the exacerbation of the current economic malaise, have the potential to flare into a regional disturbance.

In the 1990s, the world arguably had a mirror like region in the Balkans. A handful of countries, bordering one another with economic, ethnic and political tensions boiling just underneath the surface. Those pressures erupted into a multitude of conflicts culminating in the NATO operation in Kosovo. Could we see the same in Central Asia? I don’t believe it’s out of the question. An unsettled region, an unwilling power broker in Russia and continued economic worries look ready to make Central Asia one of the focal points of international attention in years to come.

*Note 1: If you’re feeling up to it, donate to the UNHCR to help those in dire straights due to the Kyrgyz violence.

**Note 2: I don’t discuss the Caucasus region, equally as noteworthy in it’s international importance, in fear of not doing it justice. If you’re interested a post on the arena, email us and let us know!