Worsening Ethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan

We’re heading into the fifth day of ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan, and it just keeps getting worse. There are said to be as many as 100,000 ethnic Uzbek refugees fleeing Kyrgyzstan for the Uzbek border. Uzbekistan’s border guards are alternating between helping them cross and sending them back. The city of Osh is in flames in many areas, and the remaining ethnic Uzbeks are starting to use the word genocide to describe their situation. The global media is starting to call this a war.

The violence started on June 10th, when “Uzbek-looking” individuals committed acts of violence in Osh city, the center of Southern Kyrgyzstan. There was rapid retaliation from young Kyrgyz men, and the situation grew from single attacks to riots and then widespread violence. Russian television showed footage of gangs of armed Kyrgyz men roaming the city.

Kyrgyzstan is currently governed by an interim administration that came suddenly into power in early April after a coup. The interim president, Roza Otunbayeva appealed to Russia for troops to quell the violence and was refused. Russian president Dmitri Medvedyev called the violence an internal issue and refused to intervene. He also denied any plans for a response from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the NATO-like treaty group Russia founded – on the same grounds.

The Otunbayeva government seems helpless to stop the violence. The police role in Osh seems to be nonexistent. A state of emergency including a strict curfew has been declared for all of Jalal-Abad province, where Osh is located, but that has had little impact on the situation. Kyrgyzstan has now begun a partial mobilization of military reservists. That may or may not improve the situation. As well as the risk of stoking the violence rather than ending it, there is some question of whether the interim government can control the reservists, or the military in general.

That was my unbiased – as best I can – review of events to date. Now I’ll add my own opinion. I am not an expert, but I am familiar with this territory. I’ve lived and worked in Central Asia for eight years, and I have been to Osh more times than I can count. It’s a city I have deep affection for – a bustling commercial hub that included both Kyrgyz charm and traditional Uzbek hospitality.

I think there is something hinky going on here. This is not the first time we’ve seen ethnic violence in South Kyrgyzstan. In June 1990 (maybe June is a bad month for the area?), shortly before Kyrgyzstan’s independence, there was violence between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz in Osh. More than 300 people were killed and several dozen simply disappeared. It was ugly conflict, rife with rape and other brutality. However, it was brief, and nobody burned down Osh.

Maybe we can attribute that to better Soviet control over the region. Police were better organized and able to get in faster to shut down the violence. It’s a very plausible argument. But the speed with which this conflict blew up makes me wonder what else might be going on. This could well be a situation where existing ethnic tension is being manipulated into something bigger.

One thought: ex-president Bakiev’s major power base was in Osh. Are his people stirring up trouble in an attempt to weaken the new government? Bakiev never gave up his claim to power, and he is now vocally calling for CSTO intervention in Kyrgyzstan. He could be hoping to be invited to return and end this crisis, or he could be trying to force the new government to make some kind of deal with him.

Another thought: Osh is close to 50% Uzbek and it’s very close to the Uzbek border. Could the government of Uzbekistan be looking for a chance to grab a wealthy city away from a weak government? There were Uzbek troops in Southern Kyrgyzstan until June 3rd, sent in order to protect ethnic Uzbeks. This is an ideal opportunity to send in a large force of Uzbek peacekeepers to take control of the city and surrounding territory for some indefinite amount of time.

Last thought: Everyone likes to blame the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) –  for everything that goes wrong in the Ferghana valley, the vast fertile bowl that includes parts of Southern Kyrgyzstan and Eastern Uzbekistan. And it is true that the IMU is a violent group that’s close buddies with Al-Qaeda. That being said, there is no logical reason for the IMU to be part of this. They opposed the Bakiev government, and they oppose the current Uzbek government. The new government of Kyrgyzstan is an opportunity for the IMU to gain some political rights – or at least see its members tortured less often. It’s not in their interest to weaken the current administration.


(photo credit: cercamon)