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Kyrghyz and Uzbeks in Osh: Just another local interethnic conflict?

20.06.2010 23:39 msk

Boris Petric (Paris)

Analytics Kyrgyzstan

Just a short time ago, Kyrgyzstan, otherwise known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” or as an “island of democracy”, had an excellent reputation in the international community. Kyrgyzstan was even branded the best student of the class by donors. It had received more assistance than any other countries in the region to undertake political and economic reforms. Political change was largely co-piloted by international organisations, NGOs and aid agencies from powerful nations like the United States, which promoted a Wilson-style democratization and a free market economy.

Taking into consideration this massive international support, how is it possible to understand the chaos currently affecting this young independent state?

I have observed political events in the region for the last 15 years, and it is clear to me that, following lessons from Yugoslavia, this is not a new interethnic conflict which is rooted in a traditional and exotic political system such as tribalism or ethnicism. Nor is it an ancestral hatred between two populations forced to live in close proximity that has reached the boiling point. Instead, it appears to be an ethnic pogrom, although it shares some similarities with other recent interethnic conflicts. This new kind of modern conflict is in part due to the global governance policies put in place at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, in my somewhat unorthodox opinion, events in Kyrgyzstan can be explained by examining the influence of governance promoted by international aid organisations.

Before discussing this point I would like to clarify some points concerning ethnicity. Surprisingly, very few modern ethnic conflicts arise between groups presenting clear ethnic differences. Instead, ethnic conflicts generally arise between groups sharing the same territory and sharing common cultural patterns. Ethnic differences are built during daily life and social interactions. In these situations, ethnic boundaries must be generated by individuals and groups through discourse and various social behaviors. The social exchanges between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the Osh Region, for instance, are multiple and the two groups are very embedded with economic, matrimonial, cultural and religious ties. Differences, which organize ethnicity, are not in themselves a source of problems, and do not always give rise to conflict and violence. These differences are not based on stable or fixed categories (such as language or culture) that a social anthropologist could objectively isolate. The terms Uzbek and Kyrgyz, for instance, have referred to different realities over the course of history. They meant different things under the Khanate of Kokand, the Soviet era and today’s rulers. Social and political significance changes over time.

Individuals and groups can use cultural markers (such as religion, language and traditions), physical markers (such as skin colour and phenotypes) and social markers (nomads/settlers, herders/farmers) to distinguish themselves, without this having direct political repercussions. Differences are also dependent on social context. Some individuals seek to exacerbate their ethnic difference locally. In Kyrgyzstan, regional differences (for example, between Southerners/Northerners) can be more important than ethnic differences.

Problems arise when the political system uses these kinds of references to establish the legitimacy of political powers. Conflicts emerge when there is a kind of political instrumentalization of ethnicity. This can give rise to a form of hierarchy, and to the unequal distribution of political and economic wealth amongst citizens and ethnic groups. This type of perception of political legitimacy already caused problems between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Osh region at the end of Soviet Union.

Under the USSR, nationality was used to establish political legitimacy: one nation, for one territory in a context where the common Communist ideology unified people. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the increased freedom of public speech led to more nationalist discourses, all over the Union. In the Kyrgyz Republic, several different movements emerged, all demanding new sources of political legitimacy. Considering themselves second-rate citizens in their own country, the Kyrgyz sought a new balance of power: Kyrgyzstan should be ruled by the Kyrgyz. While the Union’s other sources of legitimacy were decaying, these new movements claimed more economic, cultural and political power for Kyrgyz, to the detriment of others living in this multicultural society. Uzbeks living in the southern cities were particularly targeted by this new political vision. They were mainly urban and often successful in trade. As such, they were seen as having a better economic situation than most Kyrgyz citizens, who were confined to rural areas affected by overpopulation and scarce resources (land and water). This was not necessarily an accurate vision of the situation, especially given the rural exodus, the high number of mixed marriages and Kyrgyz political and social mobility. However, for many people, this unequal view of interethnic relations prevailed. Despite few linguistic differences, a shared religion (Sunnite Muslim) and many cultural similarities, ethnic differences between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were encouraged by new ethnic political entrepreneurs. However, a clear distinction between the two groups is not evident. It is interesting to note the case of those accused of ethnic violence during the Osh riots in the 1990s. On trial, most admitted they had difficulty distinguishing between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz when committing their crimes.

The conflict was triggered by a rumor, a minor event. A Kyrgyz woman was raped by Uzbeks; a Kyrgyz man was beaten up by Uzbeks. Given the tense political and economic context, these events took on astronomic proportions. Interethnic violence caused several thousand deaths before the Soviet Army intervened to restore an uneasy calm.

Since then, after each major political shift, the Uzbek question has become a political minefield in independent Kyrgyzstan. Maintaining or reinforcing the ethnic boundary is directly linked to the evolution of the political and economic system. Ethnic identity can be used politically by representatives of the majority (in government or political parties) or by minority ethnic entrepreneurs.

The country’s independence gave credence to a system of political representation based on ethno-national identity. It was used to legitimize the supremacy of Kyrgyz citizens in the political sphere to the detriment of other population groups. Established via ethnic censuses during the Soviet time, this conception of power was perpetuated by elections. At the beginning of his mandate, President Akayev launched an intensive Kyrgyzification campaign, despite claims to the contrary. It was first evident in political circles, and then affected the privatization of economic resources. However, some non Kyrgyz, especially in the south of the country, were also given access to politico-economic power. This meant the campaign operated on two fronts. On the one hand, Akayev established an ethno-national discourse using the figure of Manas, the new national hero. This discourse flattered the majority while scaring other population groups. On the other hand, he drew on an emerging group of influential Uzbeks involved in southern political circles. This allowed him to maintain his influence in the south, while weakening southern opposition groups – an important move in a political system where regional factions fight to gain supremacy.

The development of this new ethno-national state was strongly supported by international organizations in the country. These organizations gave official backing to the ethno-nationalist vision and the commemoration of Manas, the new father of the nation, was officially funded by UNESCO, the UNDP and other international organizations. This conception of political ideology made it impossible for a political system bringing together all citizens to emerge. Indeed, the international community was willing to accept an ethno-national democracy as long as Kyrgyzstan put in place mechanisms to recognize minority rights. However, the Russian speaking population was largely ignored as it was not considered indigenous, and hundreds of thousands of these citizens (Russians, Germans, Jews and Ukrainians) chose to leave the country. Meanwhile, hundreds of projects were launched to protect minority rights, but most benefited Uzbeks living in the south of the country. Uzbek NGOs, schools, a university, cultural centers and associations, radio stations and television channels were set up. All these new institutions have been clearly targeted and destroyed during violence over the last few days in Osh. In political reforms, the OSCE, UNDP, European Council and powerful international NGOs requested the government guarantee an Uzbek representation in Jogorko Kenesh, the new Kyrgyz parliament. This approach supported the creation of ethnic political communities and reinforced boundaries between the two groups. Uzbeks were given more public and political visibility, making it impossible to develop public spaces and public institutions open to all citizens despite their ethnic identity.

Wilson-style democracies therefore put forward a political system where political representation favors the majority nationality/nation, despite the existence of a multicultural society. In this situation, minority rights become a kind of corrective mechanism used by other groups. This can lead to fixed views of what constitutes citizenship and ethnic groups, and may provoke major conflicts between different groups of society. In the current situation, many southern Kyrgyz consider the economic position of Osh citizens, who are mostly Uzbeks, illegitimate.

During periods of political change, therefore, Uzbeks are often stigmatized and held responsible for the socio-economic crises affecting the south of the country. Even during the events of April 2010, “non Kyrgyz citizens” (Russians, meskhets, and other ethnic groups) were attacked in Bishkek by informal Kyrgyz groups, which wanted to take their lands or houses.

During the Soviet era, when tensions appeared in society, the government was able to ease social relations. As it controlled economic and political resources, the government was able to influence the balance of power by using nominations to the state apparatus. Now, in the new system, the government’s legal options to influence the balance of power are few and far between. Since independence, successive governments have continued to influence economic life using radically different methods, based on cyclical expropriations and physical eliminations.

As the free market ideology gained ground internationally, Kyrgyzstan launched massive privatization initiatives and opened its borders. This led to the collapse of industry and the agricultural sector, as well as causing increased social inequality. With new opportunities in cross-border trading, a new upper class formed, while most of the population lived below the poverty threshold. Structural adjustment policies, which Akayev followed to the letter, encouraged the emergence of new familial economic powers. In the south of the country, and particularly in Osh, many Kyrgyz often associated these economic powers with urban Uzbeks.

After the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev quickly put an end to the advantages gained by some Uzbeks in Osh during the privatization period. These politico-economic entrepreneurs, of which Deputy Batyrov is a good example, were gradually marginalized. The Bakiyev brothers then set about gaining control of the economy, and encouraged other “Uzbeks” to monopolize major economic resources from the Akayev administration’s former protégés. Control of the economy passed into the hands of Bakiyev’s allies. These new economic leaders were soon required to set up various dummy companies benefiting the presidential entourage.

Events took another turn when Roza Otunbayeva came to power in April 2010. President Bakiyev’s allies in the Osh region were quickly dispossessed of the advantages they had enjoyed. The situation deteriorated rapidly and tensions arose between different groups which aspired to control economic activities. An Uzbek businessman, Aibek Mirsidikov, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. According to rumor, Mirsidikov was involved in Mafia and other criminal activities. He was closely linked to the Bakiyev family, and it was even said that the President’s brother put him in charge of the lucrative Afghan drug trade and reorganizing economic relations in Osh. The fall of President Bakiyev therefore led to a new politico-economic shakeup in the region. The current conflict was probably triggered by the rise to power of some politico-Mafia groups, and the fall of others. The groups that had flourished under the previous government were not willing to accept defeat. Adopting extremely violent tactics, they began settling scores, aided and abetted by the Bakiyev brothers. The extent of these retaliations meant the conflict finally took an interethnic turn.

This time, however, Kyrgyzstan does not seem to have the institutions required to restore order through legitimate force. Indeed, over the last few years, the country has dismantled its institutions as a result of international pressure. There is no real army or police force. Politico-Mafia groups organize largely social regulations. Battle between them for economic influence is linked to the political tensions. Despite having both Kyrgyz and Uzbek members, these groups have transformed their rivalry into a major interethnic conflict.

Obviously, Kyrgyz political leaders, especially Bakiyev, are partially responsible for the current conflict. However, international organizations and NGOs in Kyrgyzstan are also indirectly responsible. These organizations have been present in the country for over 20 years promoting a certain conception of society and political system. Their role in co-producing a policy that has exacerbated and strengthened ethnic differences instead of producing a common social contract should be questioned. Economic liberalization and Wilson-type democracies, promoted by international donors, have not led to social peace. Roza Otunbayeva, the muse of the Tulip Revolution and now President, seems unable to restore order. She has had to request assistance from Russian and international forces to fulfill one of the state’s primary responsibilities: the safety of its citizens. But we should question whether Kyrgyzstan is still a state or the incarnation of a new kind of political arena, which emerged in the last decade in different parts of the world. I propose to call this new political arena a globalised protectorate, where the governance of the political system is strongly embedded within transnational economic networks, NGOs and international organizations.

Boris Petric, Social anthropologist. Paris, 15 June 2010