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Kyrgyzstan uprising: What is behind it?
Tensions had been brewing for years
By Azamat Temirkulov
The tragic June events in southern Kyrgyzstan alarmed Central Asia and the global community. Three days of widespread violence might have killed as many as 2,000 and created 400,000 refugees. Several districts in Osh and Dzhalal-Abad lie in ruins, according to official reports. The worst of the violence is over, but a humanitarian catastrophe looms as refugees languish in camps along the border and in Uzbekistan.
Similar events struck the region 20 years ago in June 1990, though on a smaller scale. Soviet forces managed to stop the bloodshed. Observers long warned of a possible repeat, particularly after April’s ouster of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a native of the south.
It took only a day for the conflict to escalate into large-scale riots, but tensions had been brewing for years. Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and other Eurasians have lived side-by-side for centuries in the south, Kyrgyzstan's most populous region. However, unresolved social and economic problems have worsened ethnic tensions. Unemployment among young adults and poverty make fertile ground for extremism. Moreover, the region lacks arable land and water. It was precisely this lack of land that gave rise to 1990’s clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
The Uzbek diaspora, which predominantly inhabits the south's largest cities and focuses on commerce, has historically done better economically than its rural Kyrgyz counterparts. Wealth, however, was not the main source of tension; politics was.
Kyrgyzstan has the world's largest Uzbek diaspora — more than 1m — constituting a fifth of the country's population, according to some estimates.
Uzbek leaders in Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly advocated cultural development. As a result, Uzbek schools, universities, radio and television channels, cultural centres and theatres have opened in each of the south's large cities. The government also promoted local self-governance.
Periodic calls to establish Uzbek as an official language have created tension, however. The demand has irritated many Kyrgyz, who look askance at Uzbek political activism and mobilisation. Such worries informed the state's efforts to promote cultural development through former president Askar Akayev’s programme “Kyrgyzstan, Our Common Home”.
The 2005 Tulip Revolution led to a de-emphasis of such steps, with the government focusing instead on a composite nation and promoting the study of Kyrgyz.
The opposition, led by Roza Otunbayeva, took power April 7, after demonstrations and bloodshed. Deposed president Bakiyev, who had taken refuge in his hometown in Dzhalal-Abad Oblast, attempted to restore the former government with his entourage on April 12th.
However, in that showdown, the leaders of the Uzbek diaspora sided with the interim government. Among them were businessman and former MP Kadyrjan Batyrov. Bakiyev's supporters claimed that Batyrov aroused Uzbeks into burning down several houses belonging to the Bakiyev family. But that confrontation ended before any ethnic rhetoric could take hold.
Many southern Kyrgyz regard Batyrov with suspicion, accusing him of favouring the elevation of Uzbek to an official language and of urging Uzbek political mobilisation. A crowd of young Kyrgyz men marched May 19 on People’s Friendship University in Dzhalal-Abad, founded by Batyrov, demanding an apology.
The ensuing riot led to at least two deaths. The government promised to press criminal charges against Batyrov for incitement of ethnic hatred. Batyrov publicly apologised to the Kyrgyz people before going into hiding. The south was primed to explode. Not helping matters were the weakness of the interim government, numerous small-scale incidents, and the erosion of respect for the rule of law after two presidents' overthrows in five years.
Sources do not agree on the proximate cause of the June 11-14 events. Some say it was a confrontation between two groups of young people that escalated; others point to the alleged brutalisation of women from rural areas living in an all-female dormitory.
However, the speed with which the violence spread has observers saying it was planned. Ethnic Uzbeks complain that men in uniform — soldiers and police — sided with ethnic Kyrgyz rioters, while the interim government accuses Bakiyev supporters of inflaming the conflict in order to discredit the government before the June 27 referendum.
Yet another school of thought argues that religious radicals may have played a role. Organisations such as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (formerly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and Hizb ut-Tahrir seek to build an Islamic state in Central Asia. For them, Kyrgyzstan in its disarray has become the weakest link of the region's five secular governments.
Thus, two communities, Kyrgyz and Uzbek, who lived side by side for generations may find themselves hostage to others' agendas. Understanding this threat will enable the Central Asian governments to contain the crisis and to prevent a confrontation between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The future of Kyrgyzstan and the region depends on the ability of ordinary people not to succumb to the blandishments of those with ulterior motives.
Azamat Temirkulov is an assistant professor in the Department of International and Comparative Politics of American University of Central Asia. He is also a specialist on conflicts in the Fergana Valley.