Fighting for ourselves, we are fighting against…? On the Role of Ethnicity in the Tragic Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan
Today, many judgments, opinions, attempts at explanation, analyses of the situation and clarifications of the main active powers and the determining factors have arisen around the tragic events in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Many of these do not lack for objectivity and thoughtful method toward explaining the events. But they still have not met with any clear model that would explain the behavior of people, not only as a form of reaction to one or another external summons (the provocations of a third power, the asymmetry of the ethnic balance of in the political and economic spheres in recent years, and so forth), but in the form of motives that are meaningful to a concrete person.
It makes sense that the circumstances of the actions of third parties, and the mechanisms for forming cadre politics in Southern Kyrgyzstan must and should be examined. But for us, it is more important to obtain answers to several other questions: why did people so readily get diverted by these provocations, whichever side they emanated from? Why did they so rapidly believe that the enemy is always “they,” the ethnic other, or more accurately, the stranger? How did the disproportion in political and economic status seep into the arena of personal thought, emotions, and actions of ordinary people?
In order to attempt to answer these questions, one has to observe the situation not from the heights of the capitals of foreign countries, but closer to the ground and to the people. More than once up until last year, I happened to stay in Osh for a few days at a time, and in Jalal-Abad, and in Uzgen. More than once I stood at the top of Sulaiman Mountain in Osh, and on the heights of Ayub in Jalal-Abad, looking at the surroundings and attempting to understand this land and these people.
What has happened has shaken me no less than other people, and no less than others I turned out to be unprepared to recognize all the tragedy of the situation. Upon this, remembering the atmosphere of Osh in past years, I attempted to imagine the shifting forces of misfortune.
Ethnicity as a main social category, as a main principle of determining self/other was laid down at the beginning of the 1990s as the basis of political ideology in all countries of the CIS, except for Russia. More precisely, in Russia this process always went on, but on the level of the so-called “national” republics. The new governments brought their social transformation into existence in the name of the “titular” population of this or that region. And in those places where there were several aspirants to the role of “titular”, problems inevitably arose. Southern Kyrgyzstan did not escape this. And the issue was not only in the joint residence of different communities.
Ethnicity became a characteristic upon which depended both social status, and one’s level of claims, and access to administrative and economic resources. Precisely because of this in June 1990 a group of landless Kyrgyz, residents of Osh Oblast’, joined together, in the spirit of the time, in a social organization, considering themselves entitled to declare a suburban kolkhoz as their land. In response to the perplexed questions of the kolkhoz members, mainly Uzbeks, as to the basis on which they put forth such demands, the initiators made known, entirely openly, certain of their rightness, answering: on the basis that we are in “our” country and until now we don’t have our own land. Such an answer did not convince the Uzbeks who had been cultivating that very land for decades up to one hundred years, and a fight broke out which expanded to the level of a major conflict.
And precisely then Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, from “cultural others” became “strangers”: it turned out the general citizen style of belonging could not overcome differing political status and varying social resources that the various communities made use of. Earlier, in the pre-Soviet period, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, living together for centuries, did not clash so massively, while each of these peoples were making use of their own means of appropriating the surrounding lands.
Kyrgyz, occupied in nomadic husbandry, dispersed primarily on the territories that were not being used then by agriculturalists: the mountains and foothills. Uzbeks preferred to sow seed in fields on plains along river valleys. The ideology of state formation which controlled these territories never was based on ethnicity, and mass mobilization of friend against friend did not take place. People thought of themselves not in ethnic categories, but in categories of tribe, geography and vassel-like belonging. The dominant forms of administration were various hierarchical feudal forms, and loyalty to one or another ruler was always personal and was determined in concrete situations of mutual dependence between people: the suzerain became more powerful and the vassel weaker. At that time there was no reason to explain, for example, to a Kyrgyz dependent on the Kokand Khanate, why he was “closer” to a Kyrgyz living in the territory of the Bukharan Khanate [sic--Emirate] than to an Uzbek who lived as his neighbor. Cultural closeness did not mean political or social unity. Every person was loyal, first and foremost, to his closest relatives or the neighbors around him, and then to the political suzerain, and so on.
The situation changed when a government of a “national” type came into the region, as did Russia. Every one of the countries that held juridical control over this or that territory according to international agreements spread among their populations the concept of “poddanstvo” [belonging as a national subject] (and not due to personal vassalage as previously). The criteria for nationality, in relationship to the dominant 19th and early 20th century theories of nationality in “national” governments in Europe, were already linked to religious and cultural belonging, even in conditions of multi-national empires.
Gradually the “politicization of ethnicity” or cultural difference came into being. That is, situations formed when people perceived their cultural differences (external appearance, language, way of life, traditions, values and norms) not simply as the result of the history of their ancestors living in different conditions and forming differing adaptations to those conditions, in the course of realizing the necessities of human life. No, now these differences are perceived as the result of deep essential differences among groups of people, who, because of those essential differences, have differing social demands and political interests, and cannot live together and are in need of different political statuses, organizations, and institutions.
That is, now a Kyrgyz should be more loyal to Kyrgyz, since their cultural similarity postulates and means the presence among them of their “own” social demands and political interests, separate from those of, for example, Uzbeks. Soviet power objectified these outlooks, attempting to establish “national” governments where cultural belonging of citizens was generally the same as political belonging. As is known, this was not fully brought into reality, but the idea that different peoples have their “own” government was taken strongly to heart.
Toward the end of the Soviet period, ever more Kyrgyz revealed their need to settle in the plain, leaving behind the decreasingly viable conditions of mountain nomadic herding. And ever more often they made known that in “their” country were living other people who are not Kyrgyz, but who live in the most fertile lands, those most appropriate for planting. Thus Uzbeks, without even stepping outside the villages where they were born, where generations of their ancestors had lived, became “new-comers” who had seized “our” land in our country.
Of course, both Soviet and post-Soviet government tried to smooth over such collisions by means of satisfying Uzbek cultural rights, balancing political cardres who were appointed and by spreading the concept that “Kyrgyzstan is our common home.” But the primary contradiction underlying “ethnic” ideology continued to produce embitterment and a feeling of inequality, understood differently in the interpretations of the various sides. Kyrgyz were perplexed at how Kyrgyzstan might be our common home if we have our Kyrgyzstan and they have their home—Uzbekistan. Uzbeks doubted the reality of that slogan, inasmuch as it is unclear how Kyrgyzstan can be our common home if all of the copies of the Constitution of the country (including the most recent, from 2007) stress the special role of Kyrgyz and this allows everyone, including Kyrgyz, to view Kyrgyzstan first of all as “their” country.
In reality it would be difficult to establish an effective doctrine of a citizen nation where, in reality, there is a concept that “Kyrgyzstan is our common home,” when at the basis of government are laid the ethno-cultural markers of only one part of the population. This is the case even though considerable effort has been exerted: this is seen in the formation of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, and the development of its program, and the signing by the country of the Framework Convention on the Protection of Minority Rights, and the establishment on city and village levels of “Councils of ethnic development” and so forth.
All of this helped to hold back strains, but they did not entirely disappear. As unemployed youths who recently arrived from villages explained, why is it that the most popular and luxurious cafes in the center of Osh belong to Uzbeks, who in their understanding are not “we”—Kyrgyzstanis, but “they”—Uzbeks? How does one explain to a young Uzbek who completed university that in the best case he could make a career as a mid-level functionary in the depths of oblast administration, or else go to work in the commercial structure, where the owner is also Uzbek? How does one explain to the residents of a village with mixed or primarily Uzbek population why most of their officials, their tax inspectors, regional inspectors, etc. are Kyrgyz? And this when there is no formal restriction for Uzbeks to enter government service. Simply in the circumstances of non-transparent decisions about cadres, every leader preferred to choose his workers from among “his own”, and they turn out in almost all situations to be his fellow tribesmen.
During the 1990s the system of appointing cadres took into consideration the differently positioned ambitions of the leaders of Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities: some Uzbeks were elected to the Supreme Soviet (Zhogorku Kenesh) of the republic, increasing the number of Uzbeks among workers in local administration. But gradually they were ousted as the result of under-the-covers bureaucratic struggles. Two communities became more separate from each other, and increasingly saw in each other not friends, but strangers, in as much as they could count on the support only of “their own”. Accordingly, all those who were “not ours” became, very nearly, enemies.
At the same time, inter-cultural integration also went on; people were happy to make use of the accomplishments of their neighbors. At Kyrgyz dinners, Uzbek music and Uzbek cuisine had a noticeable place. Uzbeks preferred Kyrgyz kumiss. And the interweaving of the fate of many young people also went on, with their neighbors, new relatives, co-workers, partners in business, etc.
All these paradoxes were acutely sensed in interactions with ordinary people whether in Osh or in Uzgen. No, people did not glare at each other with hostility, they interacted in perfectly friendly style in the framework of general themes, but it was evident that often uncomfortable pauses would hang, as people often would be silent in order to avoid slippery topics of discussion. But this happened in the situation of one dinner, or in general matters. The most frightening was that such “general themes”, common tables, opportunities for common activity which become the basis for holding the same positions, became ever fewer. That one social space, where everyone lives within a single boundary, at least with rules that are understandable to each other, using similar strategies for social improvement and making resources available to each other,--that space disintegrated. People today live in different social worlds that scarcely touch one another.
Only in this context does it make sense to talk about interethnic conflict. Those who are fighting between themselves are not ethnicities and not cultures, not Kyrgyzness with Uzbekness, not plov [pilaf] with kumiss, although that is the image that popular Uzbek singer Yulduz Usmanova used in her song about the tragedy in Osh. People are fighting between themselves, certain that if they can rid themselves of “strangers” (throw them out, destroy them) they will gain a better life for themselves. The moreso because for many, no other avenues to attain that life remain. Cultural differences did not give birth to these convictions, but rather the social and political boundaries that were built on [those differences] over the course of decades.
Article by Igor Savin, Candidate in Historical Sciences, expert for the network Ethnologic Monitering and Early Warning of Conflicts (EAWARN), Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Informational-Analytic Center (IATs) of Moscow State University, director of the NGO Dialogue (Southern Kazakhstan). Article written for the information agency Fergana.ru
Translated by Marianne Kamp, Associate Professor of History, University of Wyoming; President-elect of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS)