Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan—Smiling in a conference room of her aging Soviet-era office suite, Roza Otunbayeva appeared confident—possibly for the first time in her short presidency. It was only two weeks after June 10, when ethnic violence had begun engulfing the south of her country, but Kyrgyzstan's diminutive leader, a bespectacled former diplomat with a bob cut and the good-natured manner of a high-school principal, announced that the bloodshed had failed to discourage people from participating in a nationwide referendum. Its single yes-or-no question asked voters to keep her in office until the end of next year and to approve a new constitution that would make Kyrgyzstan a parliamentary republic. Otunbayeva said it would transform the country from a corrupt autocracy into a prospering democracy.
Otunbayeva, who has been in power only since April, when street protests forced her predecessor from power, called it an historic moment. But she lacked a crucial piece of information: how many people had actually voted for the measure. That number hadn’t been tallied. So Otunbayeva offered her own informal survey instead, prodding journalists in the room who had voted in favor to raise their hands. "See," she concluded, wrinkling her nose as hands went up, "let's just say it was a positive result."
As it happened, more than 90 percent of people who cast ballots voted “yes.” But Otunbayeva's optimism about the vote and her government's prospects in general, regardless of what hard data were available, flew in the face of the great odds facing her impoverished Central Asian country, once part of the Soviet Union. The president's confidence also belied her own government's refusal to admit or adequately investigate the real causes of, and possibly its own complicity in, the recent violence between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks.
Beyond the understandable blundering of an inexperienced authority, that serious failure is fuelling a dangerous mythologizing of events that threatens the country's fragile democratic experiment—an extraordinary first in a region of authoritarian regimes. "It's a question of responsibility," says Khadyr Malikov, a political expert who advises Otunbayeva. "That's the government's main problem. The risks are huge and no one can say how it will all end."
Lying in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, Kyrgyzstan’s dusty capital Bishkek is a low sprawl of mostly Soviet-era buildings. Ancient Mercedes and Toyotas ply the cracked asphalt roads of a city that appears largely destitute. But in recent years, many restaurants and nightspots have opened around town, including a brand-new lounge-bar with a plush terrace that looks more suited to Manhattan than where it stands across from a crumbling old circus. On the streets, young women wear matchstick jeans and dye their hair blond.
Much like its capital, Kyrgyzstan stands out in Central Asia—a region arbitrarily carved into states by Josef Stalin in 1924—for its relatively open and vibrant society. It doesn’t suffer under the kind of despotism plaguing Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and its people have twice unseated their country's leaders. The first time was in 2005, when longtime dictator Askar Askaev was ousted in what’s known as the Tulip Revolution, which brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. However, Bakiyev’s rule grew steadily more corrupt and authoritarian, and he was overthrown this April, after his guards fired on political demonstrators outside the presidential administration building. Members of the feuding opposition who suddenly found themselves in power picked Otunbayeva to lead the country, and they set the date for the constitutional referendum in June.
But the new government's control never fully extended to Bakiyev's stronghold in southern Kyrgyzstan, where he fled before eventually taking refuge in Belarus. When violence exploded in the south in June, Otunbayeva and her allies were ill-prepared to deal with it.
Officially, the government claims Bakiyev's relatives colluded with the Taliban and other Islamist movements to provoke fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which the organizers hoped would disrupt the coming referendum and destabilize the new government. Most of those killed—officially almost 400 and up to 2,000 by some accounts—or forced from their homes were Uzbek; more than 1,000 burned and looted Uzbek houses and shops stand ruined in the southern city of Osh, the epicenter of the violence, and upwards of 400,000 Uzbeks fled across the border to refugee camps in Uzbekistan.
But in contrast to the government’s version of events, numerous witnesses say police and national military units were among the attackers. On August 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that government security forces “facilitate[d] attacks on ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods” and “failed to provide appropriate protection to the Uzbek community.” However, government officials don’t want to talk about Uzbeks being murdered or the accusations that some of their own forces may be partly to blame. In an interview in June, Almazbek Atanbayev, the dapper deputy prime minister of Otunbayeva's interim government—who has since stepped down to lead his Social Democratic Party in parliamentary elections—insisted the government has plenty of proof that the violence was a well-funded campaign (“not even close to ethnic cleansing”). It just doesn’t want to publicize the information for fear of stoking more violence.
The lack of a credible, evidence-based explanation from the government for what really happened has helped feed a wave of conspiracy theories. Djildiz Djildosheva, vice president of a non-governmental organization called the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Friendship Society, propounds the most common theory: Uzbeks—who own many businesses and hold significant influence in the south—were incited to violence by unknown professional mercenaries wearing black T-shirts. "Local Uzbeks told us they were armed in advance and instructed to take to the streets," Djildosheva says. "They were led to a university dormitory, where they brutally raped and killed Kyrgyz girls." That version of the story, broadcast by state media, has helped shape the overwhelming public view that Kyrgyz began murdering Uzbeks only after the latter attempted to seize power.
But a handful of people say the government is allowing fiction to spread in order to hide its own involvement in the violence. Among the doubters is opposition leader Omurbek Suvanaliyev, the head of the Ata-Jurt Party and a widely respected former interior minister who temporarily acted as police chief in the Osh region after the violence broke out. "There's all sorts of talk about Muslim extremists and mercenaries," he says, "but that's all fantasy." Instead of getting to the bottom of the truth, Suvanaliyev says, the government invented a "third force" to conceal its own responsibility.
One of the real triggers of the violence, he says, took place in May, shortly after Bakiyev fled Bishkek. When his supporters stormed a local administration building in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, the government, threatened with a regional revolt and unable to rely on the local authorities, appealed to Uzbek leaders help put down the insurrection. Human rights activist Aziza Abdurasulova says she feared reprisals against Uzbeks at the time and appealed to Omurbek Tekebayev, a deputy prime minister of the new government, to call off the plans. "I was crying and pleading in his office," she says, "but when Tekebayev finally picked up the phone, all he did was request them to stop. The government was exploiting the ethnic tensions, and it had no right."
Abdurasulova and others have been unwilling to speak out publicly for fear of undermining the country's fragile government, which remains Kyrgyzstan’s best hope to emerge from the authoritarianism that shackles Central Asia. Yet Abdurasulova says she has been accused by the government's human rights ombudsman of providing "unproven information" to Human Rights Watch, and that she now fears for her safety.
Although the mass killings and displacement have ended, violence is still ongoing. Critics of the government say its version of what happened in June is encouraging dangerous Kyrgyz nationalism. Uzbeks in the south say they face sporadic threats and shows of force, some carried out by rogue government security officers, a claim even the United Nations has cited publicly. There are stories of forced confessions, removal of fingernails, burning with cigarettes, and beatings. And people across the country are increasingly unhappy with the government's lack of control. "They’re upset nothing has changed, that there's still corruption and a struggle for power,” says analyst Malikov.
Many observers, including supporters of the government, say any hope that Kyrgyzstan will emerge from these turbulent months as an established democracy depends on a credible investigation of the violence. But so far, Otunbayeva has declined to host an independent inquiry into what happened, and instead appointed a government commission that includes politicians and human rights activists. Political analysts say they doubt the commission will be seen as truly independent. Its chairman has already criticized the recent Human Rights Watch report, saying Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders in the south are equally responsible for the violence.
Signs that the government will change course aren't encouraging. Otunbayeva’s allies are splintering as her opposition gains strength. Earlier this month, police arrested an ultranationalist leader they accused of trying to stage a coup d’etat after thousands of his supporters rallied in Bishkek. And the powerful mayor of Osh, a onetime close ally of Bakiyev, has announced that government directives have no legal power in the south. Inevitably, Otunbayeva is feeling pressure to present an image of her government as the good guy working against nefarious forces out to undermine the state. That means she's unlikely to address the country’s growing ethnic tensions or expose how the government's ranks may have exploited them.
Despite Otunbayeva's optimism about her country's future, her government's stalwart silence is likely to work against it as the south continues to seethe. "There will be a permanent crisis in the south," says a political analyst named Mars Sariyev, "that could flare up any time." A new crisis would be proof too late that Kyrgyzstan’s democratic experiment is already failing.
Gregory Feifer is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Prague. His book The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan was released in paperback in January.