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How to Understand Osh

As some of the underlying causes of the violence in Kyrgyzstan come to light, so does the realization that they will not be easy to fix.

by TOL 25 June 2010

The outburst of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan was shocking not just for the cruel and methodical nature of the attacks targeting Uzbek residential areas in Osh, but also because it was so unexpected – at least to most outside observers.


The causes of the tragedy are slowly coming into focus. Some of them have been identified in mainstream press coverage of the unrest, others have remained largely hidden from view.


First, there is the chronic weakness of the Kyrgyz state. The state rests on a desperately poor economy, one kept afloat by remittances from workers in Russia, and by aid and investments from Russia and Western powers. In the 1990s, Western aid was a reward for President Askar Akaev’s ostensible embrace of a neoliberal reform strategy. Since 9/11, it has been connected to Kyrgyzstan’s strategic location and the U.S. air base at Manas. With a stagnant economy, corruption was the only thing holding the political elite together: a consensus that was increasingly riven by clan and regional differences. Those were shaky foundations on which to build social solidarity, and a solid basis for the rise of grievances that contributed to messy street-led revolts against first Akaev, in 2005, and then in April against his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev.


Second, there are the ethnic divisions between the 4 million Kyrgyz and 800,000 Uzbeks, who make up close to half the population of the southern regions fringing the Ferghana Valley. Akaev embarked on a nation-building strategy that entailed reserving political power (and the economic benefits that went with it) for the Kyrgyz majority. Pro-Kyrgyz policies were even more emphasized under Bakiev. The Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan developed their own vibrant business sector, which was resented by some of the unemployed Kyrgyz youth who had migrated from the countryside. Although Uzbeks never called for political autonomy in the south, they were pressing for more recognition of minority rights. Sam Khan reported for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 22 June that in early May an ethnic Uzbek delegation met with interim government leaders and called for guaranteed quotas for Uzbeks at all levels of government, state recognition of the Uzbek language, and the removal of the ethnic identifier from passports.


Yet many Western reports (and some local observers) did not want dig too deeply into the ethnic dimension of the conflict – see for example the 14 June article by The New York Times’ Andrew Kramer headlined “Kyrgyz Tensions Rooted in Class, Not Ethnicity, Experts Say.” Appeals to ethnicity violate Western sensibilities regarding the universality of human rights. Also there is an understandable desire to avoid appeals to crude notions of “primordial hatreds.” Indeed, by all accounts there was no deep personal antagonism between Uzbek and Kyrgyz (they are of the same religion, and speak similar languages) – but there was awareness of their distinct identities, and the existence of what amounted to parallel social networks.


The official position of the Kyrgyz government is that the riots were provoked by a “third force” sponsored by the family of ex-president Bakiev, now in exile in Belarus. Initially, they claimed that mercenaries had been brought in from Tajikistan to start sniping at members of the two ethnic groups, with the goal of sparking a spiral of reprisals. The latest spin came in a 24 June press briefing by National Security Service head Keneshbek Dushebaev. He claims that the unrest was carried out by militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Union of Islamic Jihad – with money provided by the Bakiev clan, via secret meetings in Dubai and Afghanistan. Maybe Dushebaev thinks that blaming radical Islam will gain more sympathy from Russia and the United States – and will give a legal pretext for international intervention. For his part, Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, is happy to go along with the outside agitator narrative, which he has often used as cover for his own authoritarian regime.


It seems clear that there was some deliberate provocation of the unrest – though the culprits seem more likely to have been local political bosses rather than internationally based Islamic militants. The fall of Bakiev meant the ejection from power of his backers in the south – and the opportunity for Uzbek groups in the region to press for more concessions. One element missing from most Western reports is that these political clans have close ties with organized crime groups. Details are fuzzy, but one can assume that some of these groups are involved with the Afghan heroin trade. Sanobar Shermatova, writing for the very informative website, argued that a key development was the murder on 7 June of the ethnic Uzbek mafia boss Aibek Mirsidikov, a Bakiev supporter and rival of fellow-Uzbek business leader Kadyrzhan Batyrov.


Another striking feature of this crisis has been the paralysis of the international community. Given the complexity of the situation on the ground, one can understand why Russia and the United States might be reluctant to act. Neither power has a direct national interest in trying to fix Kyrgyzstan's structural failings; their stakes are limited to strategic jousting over the U.S. transit base. Still, Russia’s refusal to assist lays bare Moscow’s pretense to playing a leading role in Central Asia. One can perhaps understand – even welcome – Karimov’s reluctance to send his own troops to protect the Uzbeks. But his decision to close the border after 80,000 refugees had managed to get across defies common understandings of ethnic solidarity and plain human decency. It must be rooted in his paranoiac fear of his own people, a reluctance to tolerate any possible source of change lest it trigger a mass uprising of the sort that gripped nearby Andijan in 2005.


The intersection of politics, regionalism, ethnicity, crime, and corruption is an all-too familiar pattern in many corners of the world. It is a witches’ brew that often defeats the best intentions of humanitarian intervention.

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