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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.

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Reader Comments

  • This is a good article exposing real facts. It is not what they say on KTR, concealing the truth from ordinary people. How could have we let an ethnic group to establish a separate country inside our country? All ethnic minorities must respect our laws and culture.

    November 17, 2010 @ 05:11:00AM Эрбол
  • During the upheaval in Jalal-Abad, a girl by the name of Kanykey Abdulova went missing. She was born in 1993 and is tall, has light hair and is nice looking. Here body has not been found. Help me, please. :(

    August 29, 2010 @ 05:08:00PM greshnik
  • This is a true-to-life story. A realistic account. This is true. Our authorities have always made concessions to the Uzbek diaspora, which was very big. A Kyrgyz candidate has never won a parliamentary election in Osh. The city council is also dominated by Uzbeks. Theaters, schools, TV, radio stations, high police posts, ministers, MPs, senior company executives, vice mayor and others. Isn't it too little for us? Let us love our Motherland, the land on which we live, and respect its language. Kyrgyzstan is home to all ethnic minorities living here. It depends on everyone how he or she treats the Motherland. If you treat it like your unloved stepmother, the lack of love will boomerang.

    July 6, 2010 @ 04:07:00AM ошанка
  • It is a shame that they turned the whole country to dust instead of making it more beautiful.

    June 29, 2010 @ 04:06:00AM Рано
  • democracy and mutual help is required for peace and progress

    June 23, 2010 @ 06:06:00AM sami
  • The conflict is described quite accurately because we have people who witnessed the start of the conflict in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Please, write in more detail because they are talking about the genocide abroad because of insufficient and one-sided information. Rumours have been circulating for several years among the Uzbeks about the establishment of an autonomous region in southern Kyrgyzstan. If fact, they do not face any discrimination. They have schools, universities, speak their language, they have radio, television stations and newspapers in Uzbek in Kyrgyzstan. What else do they need? On the other hand, many Kyrgyz live in Uzbekistan, but they do not have the things mentioned above. Even their passports say they are Uzbeks. Intimidation has been quite strong. I have close relatives who are Uzbeks by documents. They were oppressed there even in the Soviet Union. The conflict was masterminded by those who are well aware of those nuances. Anyway, Allah will judge them. Those people should suffer remorse! How many lives they took! May Allah severely punish them in the name of all mothers in Kyrgyzstan! In Kyrgyz: КАРГЫШ уюштуруучуларга!!!

    June 23, 2010 @ 05:06:00AM Тынара
  • A very populist article in the spirit of old Soviet ideology. Although the headline is very tendentious, but conclusions like "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" are weak for such a reputable expert. Poor ordinary people! What abilities (from both sides) they should have not to succumb to blandishments despite the murder of the loved ones and the destruction of property they have been accumulating all their life. There is an impression that both the former and interim authorities, and the so-called brotherly neighbors and strategic allies - all were interested in the chaos to a various degree! Mr. Temirkulov and others who work for reputable organizations should understand that it is early to point the finger of blame. The authorities should end this mess first and prevent a spillover!

    June 22, 2010 @ 09:06:00AM Ораз