A reflection of the past in Kyrgyzstan violence

Kyrgyzstan’s recent internal political crisis has exploded in a new direction with an increase in ethnic violence. On June 10-11, the southern city of Osh, home to a significant number of ethnic Uzbeks, saw a mass brawl among young people escalate into disturbances around the city.

As a result Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government decided to declare a state of emergency in various populated parts of the south. Outside intervention was also discussed as a possible means of averting a further escalation of the violence. By June 13 some 75,000 ethnic Uzbeks had abandoned their homes in Kyrgyzstan and crossed into neighboring Uzbekistan. Today they are living mainly in the Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan regions. What caused this bloody clash whose final outcome is still so very difficult to predict?

To begin with, this is not the first time in recent history that the Kyrgyz-Uzbek contradictions have shown themselves, including in the form of bloody clashes. Violence broke out among the groups in June 1990.

The composition of Kyrgyzstan’s population is notable not only for its variety, but also for the concentrations of ethnic groups in different regions of the country. The Kyrgyz make up slightly more than 70 percent of the population, while the Uzbeks, the second largest ethnic group in the country, are about 15 percent. The Uzbeks are settled mainly in the country’s southern and southwestern territories. Given their physical proximity to their own republic of Uzbekistan, ethnic Uzbeks have traditionally kept somewhat aloof inside Kyrgyzstan, determined to preserve their language, culture and administrative positions for representatives of their ethnos.

The events of June 1990 are referred to as the “Osh slaughter.” The situation is now repeating with very few differences, although in 1990, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz were citizens of the Soviet Union. Both then and now the confrontation arose on similar grounds: A shortage of land resources, underrepresentation in government and drugs. In 1990, providing people with parcels of land was a key question for the unofficial organizations, Adolat (Uzbek) and Osh-aimagi (Kyrgyz). Since the 2005 Tulip Revolution, only one Uzbek has held a post in the Kyrgyz government, and then only briefly and only as a governor. Both then and now the narcotics factor has played a role. The fight for control over the flows of narcotics has been hidden and is hidden still, although the presence of numerous interethnic contradictions is, in and of itself, dangerously explosive. Both in 1990 and in 2010 the population’s impoverishment objectively helped the radicals on both sides.

Twenty years ago, at the cost of enormous exertions of the part of the Soviet Army and police, Uzbekistan’s full-fledged involvement in the conflict was avoided. However, according to the investigating committee in the Soviet Prosecutor’s Office, some 1,200 Kyrgyz died in the conflict in the cities of Uzgen and Osh, as well as in villages in the Osh region. The investigators identified some 10,000 episodes of criminal activity. Some 1,500 criminal cases were sent to the courts. Some 30,000-35,000 people took part in the 1990 conflict.

After the “Osh slaughter” this conflict was quieted, but the systemic problems were not resolved. During the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Askar Akayev, the head of independent Kyrgyzstan tried to conduct a policy of integrating the Uzbek minority. In 1994, under the slogan “Kyrgyzstan is our common home,” Akayev instituted the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan. He also made Russian the official language. The authorities accommodated regional elites, including those of ethnic Uzbeks. However, as time went on the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of Akayev’s circle combined with the central authorities’ continuing disagreements with the regions substantially lowered the effectiveness of efforts aimed at uniting the country. As a result, the emigration of ethnic Uzbeks increased in the years after 2000. In 2002, an opinion poll conducted by an Uzbek cultural center in Osh showed that more than 60 percent of the respondents (1,436 ethnic Uzbeks) considered the policies of the central government inadequate with respect to them.

In the years after 2000, the central authorities of Kyrgyzstan simply did not pay enough attention to the country’s south, which was developing largely according to its own laws and rules. Add to this the fact that two “revolutions” in the last five years — accompanied by mass disturbances, lawlessness and looting — created the illusion that the best way of solving serious problems is street fights and pogroms.

Adding to the difficulties in the country is the complex geopolitical situation in the whole region. In 1990, Afghanistan was far more stable and was not seen as a global challenge from the point of view of either narcotics or terror. And although the Soviet Union was already breathing its last, it resources were sufficient to stop the slaughter between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. The authorities in today’s Kyrgyzstan look far weaker and far less able to normalize the situation inside the country without outside help. But to what extent is effective action from outside possible? Today’s Kyrgyzstan has many competing interests, often at odds with one another. It is clear that the positions of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, each of which claims regional leadership in Central Asia, often do not coincide. For Uzbekistan, stabilizing the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan is not only a matter of geopolitics, but of internal prestige. Kazakhstan, on the one hand, not wanting to turn a neighboring country into a second Afghanistan, would be happy to see the situation in Osh and environs stabilized. But for the Kazakh elite, a unilateral strengthening of Tashkent’s position would also be dangerous.

Russia and the United States have their reasons as well. Exporting the “Afghan model” would suit neither Washington nor Moscow. However, as in the case of countries of Central Asia, Russia and the United States are not used to playing a zero-sum game. And it remains an open question what will become of Central Asia after 2011 when Washington leaves Afghanistan. However, no matter what geopolitical games are played around Kyrgyzstan, it is evident that without an adequate conception of nation-building and without achieving a consensus inside Kyrgyzstan’s political class, nothing constructive will come of the efforts of outside players. Until the central authorities become legitimate and, as such, develop an acceptable model of relations with the Uzbek minority, the ghost of Osh will haunt them.

Sergei Markedonov is an expert on the Caucasus and Central Asia

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