Remote as it seems, Kyrgyzstan poses a prickly dilemma for the international community. Ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south has killed more than 100, and driven thousands of refugees across the border to Uzbekistan. It threatens to escalate into a civil war, which could ignite a wider regional conflict.

That is an alarming prospect. This region’s tortuous borders were sketched out decades ago according to the divide-and-rule whims of Joseph Stalin. Disputes over land and scarce water resources fester as a consequence. Islamist militants shelter in the fertile Fergana Valley, whose upper reaches Kyrgyzstan controls. It sits astride a key drug trafficking route. And Kyrgyzstan hosts the US base at Manas, vital to Nato operations in Afghanistan.

The provisional Kyrgyz government that toppled discredited president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April has little chance, alone, of snuffing out the violence. The interim administration has not yet won legitimacy through elections, not due until October. It has warned it cannot control the situation – and urged Russia to intervene.

Such Russian involvement would provoke deep discomfort. It would stir uneasy memories of Georgia two years ago, when Russia cloaked invasion of South Ossetia in a humanitarian mantle. Moscow, for its part, has shown reluctance to intervene unilaterally. It insists it can do so only as part of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a security grouping including half a dozen other former Soviet states. President Dmitry Medvedev may be wary of jeopardising the “reset” with the US and souring a visit to Washington next week.

With time of the essence, however, and external countries ill-placed to provide fast support, all sides may have no alternative but to accept Russia’s participation. Its involvement should be subject to conditions. It must be part of, at the very least, a CSTO or broader multilateral force. Ideally, it should be legitimised by a United Nations mandate, and later give way to UN peacekeepers, if needed.

Moscow must also view any involvement as an important test. Its role should be to stabilise the country and prepare it for genuinely free elections. It should resist the temptation to use its involvement to reassert authority over Kyrgyzstan, or settle old scores by slinging the US out of the Manas base, as it pressured former president Bakiyev to do. Then the “reset” might be seen to be delivering something concrete.

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