Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
More than a month after the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left some 330 people dead, no one is really clear why it happened.
Was it simply an ethnic conflict, a welling up of long-held animosities between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities? Or was it orchestrated by political, commercial or criminal forces seeking to exploit the chaos to advance their own position.
IWPR interviewed Raya Kadyrova, a conflict expert who heads the Foundation for International Tolerance in Kyrgyzstan, to try to shed greater light on the roots of the bloodshed.
“In order to understand what happened, we probably also have to identify why it happened. There are a great many reasons why it happened – starting from March, April, and May. And there are a great many actors involved as well,” she began.
“First of all, of course, the events of June are the consequence of long-unresolved social and economic problems affecting the whole population of Kyrgyzstan.
“This includes the failure to address a number of political issues facing the Uzbek ethnic group, which has for many years said that it is unhappy with personnel policy – their lack of representation in the institutions of state, despite the fact that nearly 15 per cent of the population is Uzbek. Second, they are unhappy that the Uzbek language is not accorded adequate scope for its use, especially in areas densely populated by Uzbeks. Third, there is an aspiration to increase their presence in the media and in education; in the schools and universities. And then there’s the fact that the government has produced virtually no textbooks in Uzbek.
“These demands were repeated from one year to the next but remained unfulfilled by the state…. This created the impression among Uzbeks that they were simply being ignored, that they weren’t being listened to.”
A second factor, said Kadyrova, was the overall destabilisation of Kyrgyz politics.
“We had too many different political elites, with big differences between them…. There was a realisation that the country was not moving in the direction that its citizens needed, but rather in a direction that was most advantageous and convenient for the political elites,” she said.
“There was a sense that we now had two classes of citizenry – the ordinary people who always lose out, and then the political elite stratum which always wins, and which is so amoral that it may support one corrupt authoritarian leader today and then back another one, just as corrupt and just as authoritarian, after a short interval of time. And all this gets portrayed as a battle for democracy, for the people’s aspirations.”
These conditions, said Kadyrova, provided the conditions among both Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities which “external actors – criminal groups, religious extremists, geopolitical actors” could move in and exploit.
She argues that the conflict was provoked as a way of creating trouble not so much in Kyrgyzstan as in Central Asia generally.
“On the basis of the available information, one forms the impression that this was not an ethnic conflict; it wasn’t about the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan.
“It wasn’t about Kyrgyzstan at all, in fact. My impression is that everything that happened was aimed against Uzbekistan, and against stability in the Central Asian region generally. As we [Kyrgyzstan] are the weakest link in the region, there was an attempt to poison Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks against one another in order to provoke Uzbekistan into some kind of military action in defence of its co-ethnics in Kyrgyzstan.
“But it seems that Mr [Islam] Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, did not fall for this provocation. And this restrained the whole Central Asian region.
“I think we have become hostage to large-scale geopolitical games here, and I fear it may play out next either in Tajikistan or in Uzbekistan.”
Kadyrova says nationalism exists in every country, and only becomes a problem when a critical mass of people are ready to exclude, even eliminate members of other groups.
In Kyrgyzstan, people succumbed to external provocation, and in the end, “One ethnic group effectively started exterminating the other, along ethnic lines.”
Different countries have adopted different ways of dealing with the aftermath of civil war. Tajikistan, for instance, chose to turn over a new page after its 1992-97 conflict drew to a close, and the subject is rarely raised in public.
Kadyrova believes that kind of deliberate amnesia would be fatal for Kyrgyzstan, because of the sharp ethnic divide that central to the June conflict.
“How the authorities, the state behaves is going to be very important,” she said. “If the state adopts a policy of seeking an enemy, a guilty party, a group that isn’t needed in Kyrgyzstan, then we will really turn into a fascist state that eliminates dissidents and anyone who isn’t like us, in order to make more room for ourselves. That would be a dead end. If one ethnic group tries to make more space for itself by removing another ethnic group, then the next time, the group that regards itself as the winner will begin fighting amongst itself, seeking enemies among its own number, for example along tribal, clan and regional lines.
“If, however, the state opts for another policy – that people in Kyrgyzstan are civilised members of the global community, that inter-ethnic accord is a priority, that every citizen is valued regardless of ethnicity or faith, that we are wealthy because we are diverse – if this message is chosen and put into practice, then the country has a future and we will escape from the current situation. But this will require a great deal of steps and actions to be taken.”
The audio programme, in Russian, went out on national radio stations in Kyrgyzstan, as part of IWPR project work funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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