While the country limps towards political and economic recovery in 2011, it is worth asking - was it indeed ethnic conflict that led to the humanitarian crisis, or was it systemic development failure that led to the conflict and the ongoing humanitarian crisis?
Landlocked, mountainous and ruggedly beautiful, Kyrgyzstan has essentially been in socio-economic crises since 2005. A third of the population lives below the poverty line, the state of energy infrastructure is weak, the cost of food, energy and water is high and domestic governance concerns plague work force productivity.
Kyrgyzstan is primarily agrarian but more than 88% of its agricultural lands are degraded and affected by desertification. Rural poverty is pronounced and in places like Osh (46.6% poor) and Jalal-Abad (53% poor), rampant. People live in areas that are at high-risk from flood (2005), earthquake (2006, 2008), drought (2009) and landslide (2010), with no access to safe housing, social protection or state sponsored welfare assistance. The severe winters of 2007-2008 and 2009 exacerbated people’s vulnerability – across urban and rural areas alike. Between 2007 and 2010, the country has sought much international aid and humanitarian assistance.
The deteriorating energy infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan, which is solely dependent on its dams to generate electricity, led to a nation-wide crisis during the severe winter of 2007-2008. While temperatures plunged to a minimum of -20 degrees Celsius in Bishkek, there were sharp reductions of electricity and heating supplies for households, schools, hospitals and commercial enterprises all over the country.
An already emaciated population was pushed to the brink when the government attempted to raise energy tariffs in April 2010. What resulted was more than an uprising against the government’s decision – it was an uprising against the systemic failure of development. President Kumranbek Bakiyev’s Government was overthrown in April 2010. Soon after, ethnic conflict in the south of Kyrgyzstan erupted, leading to a new humanitarian crisis and large-scale involvement of the international community in June 2010.
Though this conflict assumed an ethnic character, it had little to do with ethnic strife. Like most conflicts, it had a lot more to do with unequal access to basic resources, absence of public infrastructure and a governance vacuum.
Kyrgyzstan does not have abundant uranium, oil or natural gas - resources that neighbors such as Kazakhstan have enough of. But, with its abundant water resources, enormous tourism potential and a population of 5.5 million (of which 63% is a productive workforce), Kyrgyzstan has no excuses from hereon.
With constitutional reforms, peaceful country-wide elections in 2010 and Presidential elections scheduled for October 2011, Kyrgyzstan could be on its way to becoming a democratic oasis in Central Asia.
There are many caveats. Kyrgyzstan is still dependent on its neighbors – the geo-politics of the region demand resource dependency. It is also largely dependent on international assistance to deal with the ongoing humanitarian crises, including many unaddressed civil, human and economic right issues.
The story of Kyrgyzstan is a strong reminder that compounded humanitarian crises - a result of severe socio-economic inequality, unrelenting exposure to natural hazards, and conflict - need to be explicitly recognized as being rooted in weak governance structures and vulnerable economies that are easily played to geo-political interests.