Kyrgyzstan on the Brink

Kyrgyzstan on the Brink

A toxic stew of nationalist jealousies, economic stagnation and drug-fueled mafia manipulation has brought this Central Asian republic to the brink of civil war.


Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Residents are hesitantly dismantling barricades and emerging from behind burned cars and felled trees, but the streets in central Osh remain painted with large white letters looking skyward: S-O-S. As violence engulfed the city June 11–14, ethnic Uzbeks scrawled the pleas hoping that some of the helicopters circling overhead might come to their aid, that the government might stop the pogroms. In their mahallas, or separate neighborhoods, small groups of Uzbek men mingle and reminisce, sharing news of family members taking shelter across the border in Uzbekistan and guarding what’s left of their homes. They worry that some Kyrgyz will return to finish the job.

On Internatsionalnaya Street, named after the Moscow-sponsored 1920s movement that pledged to bring the fruits of Communism to workers of any ethnicity in every country, Uktam Turdibayev pulls charred pieces of his neighbors’ bones from the smoking debris that was their house. He’s already retrieved a whole family – five children and two adults – dead, from the cinders. They were all Uzbeks, a minority in this post-Soviet state.

Led by armored military vehicles, Turdibayev says, several hundred young Kyrgyz men, some with Kalashnikovs, ransacked his neighborhood, methodically shooting, then looting, then setting the houses alight. I heard the same story a dozen times.

“The helicopters saw but didn’t help. The government doesn’t help. No one helps,” he said. Turdibayev stayed in the mahalla while his wife and children fled to a village outside of Osh. “If we had weapons, we would have defended ourselves, but we have no weapons. They’ll pay.”

Perhaps 2,000 died in the violence, according to interim President Roza Otunbayeva. Most were Uzbeks, but Kyrgyz died as well. Now there is no clear way forward for reconciliation. It appears the combatants were ordinary young men, reportedly aided on one side by a few Kyrgyz soldiers passing out weapons, or even jumping into the action.

Unaddressed stereotypes have allowed tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to fester ever since the only previously reported conflict between the two groups, in 1990. These typecasts were a breeding ground for the surge of rumors—spread by Internet chat rooms, text messages and word of mouth—that helped provoke the attacks: “Uzbek men raped a group of Kyrgyz girls”; “young men brawled over a restaurant bill”; “Uzbeks, in their efforts to declare autonomy, had armed themselves.”

But frictions between the two groups aren’t the result of some ancient ethnic hatred. They have waxed and waned for only a generation, as local elites, manipulating economic grievances, vie for control of resources. In recent times, that has meant Afghan heroin. In place of a functioning state, southern Kyrgyzstan has become a network of trafficking routes controlled by narco-barons and their extended families.

Although Otunbayeva’s interim government attributes the latest violence to the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a bloody revolt on April 7, and a handful of other bad guys such as Islamic terrorists or a mysterious regional “third force” seeking to weaken Kyrgyzstan, the most likely explanation is a mafia power struggle gone horribly wrong. A third of Afghan narcotics pass through Central Asia en route to Russia, and a majority of those through Osh. As weapons and drugs tend to travel along the same routes, lack of government oversight since Bakiyev’s overthrow has prompted widespread fears that the country has become overrun with guns. Local criminal bosses have used the instability to solidify their networks and increase control, effectively blackmailing the new government to preserve their Bakiyev-era concessions.

“We knew there were guns arriving [after Bakiyev’s ouster]. Osh is full of drug dealers, and we knew they had guns,” one frightened Kyrgyz NGO leader in Osh told me, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. “The Uzbeks controlled the drugs, the Kyrgyz controlled the politics. After Bakiyev was gone, it seemed the Kyrgyz mafia wanted the drugs and the Uzbeks wanted to be involved in politics.”

The country’s largest minority, Uzbeks make up almost a fifth of the population; the proportion is much higher in the south. Yet the region has few ethnic Uzbek officials; street signs are either in Kyrgyz or Russian, the country’s other official language, but rarely in Uzbek. The security forces are largely Kyrgyz, a policy inherited from the Soviet Union.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin carved up Central Asia in the 1920s, arbitrarily dividing the choicest morsel of Central Asian farmland, the lush Ferghana Valley, among three Soviet republics: the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, the Tajik SSR and the Uzbek SSR. The borders didn’t mean much, because all fell within the giant Soviet empire. Each was led by the so-called titular nationality, yet Moscow operated a conflicting policy of ethnic harmonization: While mixing groups that had lived separately, and offering upward mobility for the national elites, the Soviets highlighted the differences between them – for example, by labeling ethnicity on state-issued identification documents – thus ensuring that the multiethnic empire remained divided and beholden to the center.

In the late 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika, or restructuring, led to national elites grabbing what they could, provoking ethnic tensions throughout the USSR. Plans to distribute more land to the Kyrgyz ran out of space. Kyrgyz, who had traditionally lived in the mountains and worked as shepherds, clashed with Uzbeks, who had populated the cities of the Ferghana basin such as Osh. In 1990 some ethnic Kyrgyz demanded that land belonging to an Uzbek-run collective farm be distributed to Kyrgyz farmers – this was the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, after all. In the violence that ensued, hundreds of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks died before Soviet troops restored order. The newly independent state of Kyrgyzstan, born in 1991, mostly ignored those events, instead fabricating creation myths for the Kyrgyz people and failing to address the us-versus-them stereotypes that grew out of the conflict.

“There was no proper investigation of the 1990 events, no discussion—no one wanted to talk about it,” said Nazira Satyvaldiyeva, an expert in conflict resolution and director of the Eurasia Foundation’s Osh field office. “Both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are responsible for the current crisis.”

Animosities persisted, but most Uzbeks and Kyrgyz continued living in mixed villages or adjoining neighborhoods. Yet as established farmers and traders, Uzbeks have traditionally been wealthier. Kyrgyzstan’s economy has been stagnant for a generation, fostering nationalist jealousies.

“Ninety percent of cafes, restaurants, shops and large trading centers belong to Uzbeks. They should have been happy with what they had, but they wanted more. They started to demand political rights,” said Dr. Shairbek Sulaymanov, director of the Osh Regional Hospital, on his tenth straight day working round-the-clock and sleeping in his office. “We need to make the policy stricter toward them. Uzbeks have become more assertive in promoting their rights. This is not correct. This must be changed.”

When Bakiyev was overthrown in April, minorities became worried about their place in the new order. “During the April 7 violence, we asked ourselves who were these wild people, these Kyrgyz [fighting in the streets of Bishkek]. It made the minorities insecure. ‘If the government cannot protect us from these wild people, what should we do?’” Satyvaldiyeva, a Kyrgyz, said, summarizing the fears of her Uzbek friends.

A turning point came in mid-May. When supporters of the ousted Bakiyev booted the interim governor from office in Bakiyev’s hometown of Jalal-Abad, the next day Uzbeks, led by a wealthy local businessman and politician, Kadyrjan Batyrov, fought back—with firearms. Several died, but the interim government returned to power. A few days later Batyrov—whom locals suspect is involved in drug trafficking—spoke on television and demanded better rights for Uzbeks. Many Kyrgyz living in the south, seeing Uzbeks enter politics with such violence, became scared. Lacking a government to address Kyrgyz concerns that they could lose power in the region, nationalist feelings spun out of control, Satyvaldiyeva said.

Kyrgyzstan is bracing for more violence as the country prepares a referendum to legitimize the fractured group of opposition leaders that came to power during the April uprising. The vast population displacement in the south—perhaps the worst refugee crisis the former Soviet Union has seen in twenty years—along with daily rumors of spreading violence, threaten to derail the vote, scheduled for June 27.

International donors are pushing for the government to move ahead with the vote, saying Bishkek will gain legitimacy by holding it, but with hundreds of thousands displaced, and even more afraid to leave their homes, it’s unlikely that enough southerners will turn out to validate the poll.

The international community has offered little tangible political or security support. During the fighting, Kyrgyz interim leaders begged for Russian military help under the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moscow refused, likely afraid of regional reactions, revealing itself to be a weak friend. The Americans, watching from their airbase outside of Bishkek—a vital way station for the war in Afghanistan—offered humanitarian aid, but were too afraid to offer peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, many Uzbeks are too terrified to go home. At least 400,000 have been displaced, the UN says. Kyrgyz troops are patrolling the streets, adding to their fear, but Bishkek does not control the south. Many now dread a partisan war.

Both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks claim atrocities occurred. And reconciliation is unlikely when men such as Osh Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov insist the state – meaning him – doesn’t need help understanding what happened. Myrzakmatov is a Bakiyev-appointee who is popular with Kyrgyz and blamed by many Uzbeks for inciting the bloodshed. The interim government appears unable to remove him.

“When they come back, we’ll tell them they should not be afraid,” said the mayor, marching around his office with a handgun on his hip and dismissing Uzbek fears of men such as his plainclothes Kyrgyz militia milling about the corridor. Myrzakmatov accused the usual, invisible boogeyman – Islamic radicals – for the violence, but when pressed, admitted it was merely a cry of “Allahu Akbar” – god is great – that fostered his conclusion.

On my way out of his office, a Kyrgyz police officer yelled at an elderly Uzbek lady, telling her to leave. “All I want is for them to be polite,” she complained. As she descended the cracked concrete stairs, she entered a crowd of Kyrgyz women shouting that Uzbeks don’t belong in the government building.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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