Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Addressing Roots of Conflict in Kyrgyzstan

Expert argues that ethnic tensions have been simmering for years, and radical new policies are needed to prevent conflict repeating itself.
By Pavel Dyatlenko

The violence involving Kyrgyz and Uzbeks has already had catastrophic consequences for Kyrgyzstan. But there is a risk of worse to come, if the unrest spreads from the south to northern Kyrgyzstan, or even to neighbouring countries. 

At that point, centralised control of the country would become even more tenuous.

The fighting exposed serious faultlines between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, as well as political divisions that have been exploited by forces with an interest in creating instability.

There are strong indications of an organising force behind the violence, which spread rumours to instil panic among the population, and attacked military facilities to steal firearms. One likely place to look for suspects is among supporters of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiev, making a bid to regain power by sowing chaos.

But whoever incited the violence, the fact that it spread so rapidly is a sad reflection on underlying tensions between the two communities.

The latest conflict has a lot in common with the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes that rocked Osh in summer 1990, and it is more than an abstract comparison – the earlier violence left a legacy of mistrust that was never fully overcome. Hundreds of people were killed before the Soviet military stepped in to quell the violence.

The trigger for the 1990 riots was a land dispute, when the Soviet administration in Osh parcelled out areas owned by Uzbek collective farms for use as housing plots. The plots were allocated to Kyrgyz, who had been migrating in large numbers into the town from rural areas. This took place against the wider context of growing unemployment and resurgent national identities in the latter years of the Soviet Union.

Neither the factors that led to the violence nor the problems that resulted from it, such as lingering mistrust and negative ethnic stereotyping, were ever properly addressed by the post-independence leadership of Kyrgyzstan. At best, simmering tensions were ignored; at worst, they were quietly exploited by politicians seeking to shore up support within their own constituencies.

Ethnic Kyrgyz dominated in the nation-building process of the newly independent state, and were awarded the bulk of jobs in the government, police and other state structures. Minorities, of which the Uzbeks are easily the largest, felt they had little stake in the process.

One practical consequence of this imbalance is that unrepresentative security forces do not make an effective and reliable instrument for resolving an ethnic crisis like the one we are facing. If police and soldiers are ethnic Kyrgyz, they may be reluctant to step in to curb kinsmen involved in violence. That explains why some Uzbek community leaders were so keen on the idea of asking Russia to send peacekeepers.

Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akaev, at least made an official policy of equality and harmonious co-existence for all ethnic groups. Not only the policy, but even the rhetoric faded under Bakiev, and communities fell back into their traditional methods of self-identification – Kyrgyz along tribal lines and Uzbeks organising around their “mahallas” or neighbourhoods.

The history of this part of Central Asia, as well as more recent political developments in Kyrgyzstan, means that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have tended to occupy distinct niches in the social fabric.

The political dominance of the Kyrgyz has left them with top posts in local government, as governors, mayors and senior prosecutors. But many Kyrgyz are in the lowest income bracket, among the rural population and as recent migrants to urban areas.

The Uzbeks are broadly in the middle, playing a major role in business and commerce, and in urban life generally. Despite their economic power, they feel sidelined from political decision-making. It is significant that the interim national government as well as local government lack Uzbek figures who could represent their community’s interests and serve as mediators. Attempts to lobby for greater recognition for the Uzbek language in the south have been both ignored and resented.

Meanwhile, those Kyrgyz who move from village to town also feel marginalised, with a sense that they are worse off than the Uzbeks, especially if the latter are their employers.

A third community, the Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and others commonly grouped together as the “Russian-speaking population”, has dwindled rapidly in recent years. This not only removes a fairly neutral group from the ethnic equation, but also reduces the currency of Russian as lingua franca used by all, which sharpens the Uzbek-Kyrgyz linguistic rivalry.

Another factor is generational change. Younger people have grown up in a different environment from their parents, who had ethnic tolerance inculcated in them in Soviet times. This is particularly true of young Kyrgyz from a mono-ethnic rural background, and their mistrust of other groups appears to have been manipulated in the recent violence.

As a country, Kyrgyzstan still lacks a strong sense of inclusivity based on common citizenship rather than ethnicity. What is more, some politicians seem to be more than happy to play the ethnic card. The boundaries of electoral constituencies seem to be drawn in a way that ensures Kyrgyz candidates will win, and a number of laws contain discriminatory provisions, such as that civil servants should have a command of Kyrgyz, and that presidential candidates must sit a Kyrgyz language test.

If the scars are to heal and a repetition of the violence is to be avoided, some major changes need to happen. Uzbeks have to be given more opportunities to participate in political decision-making, they should be represented at senior level in local government and police, and the invisible barriers that mean Kyrgyz monopolise big business should be removed.

The Kyrgyz language requirement for public sector jobs should be dropped, and Uzbek should be made an official language, second to Kyrgyz, in predominantly Uzbek areas. Finally, the government should start building a common identity for Kyrgyzstan’s citizens and head off nationalist moves. One practical step would be to change the country’s name from the Kyrgyz Republic to the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.

There are lessons to be learned from other countries with significant minorities, which have worked towards equality through fair policies on recruitment, political representation, policing and language.

No real change is going to come until the elite in Kyrgyzstan realise that this small, resource-poor state can only move forward as a democracy in which ethnic, linguistic, cultural and other differences are no impediment to success. Getting there will be an uphill struggle.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank in Bishkek

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?