On Thursday 10 June 2010 localised tensions in and around the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan became widespread violence – an apparent ethnic conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Whilst the official death toll is around 200, Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader suggests up to 2,000 may have been killed. Some 100,000 mainly ethnic Uzbeks crossed the border into Uzbekistan before it was closed. Others gathered and are beginning to receive aid at the Dostuk border crossing just a few kilometers from Osh.
I write “mainly ethnic Uzbeks” because many of these people will be from the many mixed Kyrgyz-Uzbek families in this complex locale. Doubtless, Kyrgyz people will be travelling with Uzbeks in some places and there will be some cases of mistaken identity where a person of the 'wrong' ethnicity is attacked.
This is not to draw attention away from the hardening of ethnic divides which occurs in such times of violence but to point to the exceptional complexity of what is known as ethnic violence. For more on this, see Madeleine’s Reeves excellent article (http://tinyurl.com/3a8cl9l ) for openDemocracy.
Unfortunately, this exceptional complexity is not manifest in the reporting of the violence from the international press and the commentary on events from so-called experts. A crescendo of clichés has burst forth from the Moscow-based reporters and global news agencies reporting the crisis.
We are told that an “old-fashioned Central Asian pogrom” is taking place – despite the fact that this region has not experienced such widespread violence since the late-Soviet riots of 1990.
We are warned the “spillover” may lead to a “full-blown conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan” – despite no history of war between the two states and little evidence that Uzbekistan cares a great deal about its co-ethnics abroad.
We are reminded of the Great Game between colonial powers in the region which has apparently been renewed – despite a great deal of cooperation between great powers, and certain shared interests and common positions on many topics.
And these three examples come from just one issue of one newspaper, Tuesday 15 June’s Guardian.
All this seems to reflect a particular geopolitical vision of Central Asia where such violence is inevitable due to great power and regional rivalries, local despots and underlying ethnic tensions. The Ferghana Valley region, where Osh is located, seems to be the exemplar where all these factors come together. We are thus told of the valley’s inherent instability which flows directly from the inconvenient geographical fact that all Kyrgyz don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, all Uzbeks don’t live in Uzbekistan and all Tajiks don’t live in Tajikistan.
Yet ethno-national complexity of this kind is commonplace across the world and has been part of the Ferghana Valley’s geography at least since the Russian colonists and Soviets began to classify ethnic groups and provide the vocabulary to identify these divides. This is not to say that such divides come about due directly to colonisation, but that any ethnic divides that are present have been understood differently in different places and different times of the region’s history.
The point here is that violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz is exceptional. It is not without precedent and it has not come from nowhere, but it must be understood in its uniqueness.
Better analyses of what is occurring in Osh speak of the broader political, economic and social contexts.
The insecurity generated by the removal of the Bakiev government in April 2010 and attempts by his supporters to retake provincial administrations in Osh and Jalalabad has prompted an ethnic security dilemma – where militias organise locally along ethnic lines to defend their communities.
Businessmen, embedded in a shadow economy which is far more significant than the formal economy, have sought to protect their own assets and capture those of others. This competition has its own history with local criminal groups fighting over control of trading routes and bazaars. They have struck deals with politicians during the Akaev (1990-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010) regimes. Political instability worsens these economic conflicts.
Finally, it is undoubtedly true that tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz which lie beneath the surface, based partly on communal memories of the violence of 1990, have been exacerbated in recent months. Unlike after the removal of the Akaev in March 2005, which did not spark serious ethnic violence, the Uzbek community was mobilised this time. Many Uzbek leaders came to fear the Bakiev regime during its tenure.
In Jalalabat, which neighbours Osh, Kadyrjan Batyrov, an Uzbek community leader has held many rallies since April. Two people were killed there in mid-May. The fear now must be that sporadic violence will spread to Jalalabat province – a fear that has led the interim government under Roza Otunbaeva to declare a curfew in that province immediately following the outbreak of violence.
However, this should not lead us to analyses of general “spillover” and fears of regional conflict. Osh’s exceptional ethnic violence has exceptional causes which go far beyond tensions between ethnic [groups] and demonstrate the specific insecurities brought about by months and years of political instability in Kyrgyzstan. There’s no reason right now to think it will spread across the border.
With so much uncertain, it is difficult to tell whether a multinational force, perhaps some kind of peacekeeping or monitoring group under the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation as has been considered and refused, is really necessary. Such a force may exacerbate some tensions and will certainly bring its own baggage, with Russia trying to reassert its own hegemony across the region. It may, however, become an unfortunate necessity if the violence intensifies.
More important will be local groups that seek to cross ethnic divides, perhaps in partnership with international organisations. Reports are beginning to emerge of informal acts of solidarity and care. Uzbeks tell of the assistance and shelter they received from Kyrgyz friends and family. Kyrgyz are calling their Uzbek neighbours back in the mixed districts of Osh. Men of both faiths informally discuss the need for the refugees to return outside of mosques. Some civil society and religious groups are working tirelessly to provide aid to Uzbeks in Osh and those, many of whom are beginning to return home, gathered at the border with Uzbekistan.
We should be conscious of the political limits of such acts of conflict resolution. They can easily be undermined by further political conflict. This Sunday’s nationwide referendum on constitutional reform – with the proposition to shift to a parliamentary system – will go ahead and we must pray that it passes off peacefully. But an awareness of massive political risks and an appreciation of injustices should not lead us to cynicism.
It is easy to explain what’s happening in Osh as part of a long line of 'pogroms' or as a repeat of what happened in 1990. Some groups, in their understandable desire for justice, are highlighting the ethnic nature of the violence and the failures of the Kyrgyz military to prevent the violence. References back to the violence of 1990 are commonplace.
It is important that various societal, governmental and international investigations take place to reveal the nature and extent of the violence between groups and particularly against Uzbeks. These can themselves serve to build peace if done with sensitivity, integrity and attention to complexity. Ethnic conflict is the tip of the iceberg of what has happened in Osh. We must delve beneath the surface to inform better analysis and shape a better response.
© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Exeter. His recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order  (London: Routledge, 2009). It will be released in paperback later in 2010.
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