Behind the violence in Kyrgyzstan

Submitted by cathy n on 21 June, 2010 - 11:13 Author: Dale Street

At the time of writing, the official death toll from the ethnic violence which broke out in the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in the night of 11/12 June stands at over 200. With so many corpses still to be recovered, the real figure is doubtless a lot higher, and possibly as high as 2,000.

Some 400,000 Uzbeks, the ethnic minority which has been the target of the violence, have fled from their homes. Around 300,000 are internally displaced within Kyrgyzstan, and the other 100,000 have fled across the border into Uzbekistan.

There are contradictory reports about the immediate ‘trigger’ for the violence – fighting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in a casino in Osh, or an attack by a rival gang on a gym run by criminals in the same city, with the initial clash quickly escalating into street fighting between gangs of Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth, and from there into full-scale pogroms.

One Kyrgyz blogger summed up in the violence in Osh: “Call it whatever you want, but I name it a massacre of Uzbeks, which is at the moment still going on, and the interim government cannot do anything to prevent it.“

“Grave reports continue coming from friends in Osh. Videos and photos of killed Uzbeks, burning houses, restaurants and shops that belonged to Uzbeks started appearing on the internet. … People are still finding corpses around Osh, and many were burnt to death in their houses.”

Some eye-witnesses reported three ‘waves’ to the attacks: firstly, military personnel in personnel carriers (although this may have been civilians who had plundered uniforms and carriers from military depots), then armed youths, and finally looters, who included women and young boys.

From Osh the clashes spread to the neighbouring city of Jalal-Abad, where an Uzbek university and the local TV station were burnt down, police stations attacked, and weapons and an armoured carrier seized from a local military unit. 5,000 Kyrgyz youth rallied in the city centre, demanding transport to Osh.

The interim Kyrgyz government, headed by interim President Roza Otunbayeva, responded to the bloodshed by declaring a curfew and a state of emergency in Osh and Jalal-Abad until 20th June.

Extra army and police units were sent to the cities, with orders to shoot rioters on sight. The government described the situation as “out of control” and appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Russian government to send troops to restore order.

Otunbayeva has blamed her presidential predecessor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled the country after a popular uprising in April of this year, for the outbreak of violence. According to Otunbayeva, Bakiyev’s supporters instigated the violence in order to make impossible a referendum on a new constitution (due to be held on 27th June) and parliamentary and presidential elections in October.

Otunbayeva’s claim has been backed up by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, whose spokesperson has blamed (unspecified) “shadowy outside groups” for the clashes, which were “to some degree orchestrated, targeted and well planned.”

Bakiyev may have been behind the violence – support for Bakiyev among Krygyz in and around Osh and Jalal-Abad has always been stronger than in the rest of the country. But there is not, at least as yet, any ‘hard evidence’ that Bakiyev’s hand is behind the violence. In fact, Bakiyev’s response to the violence mirrored Otunbayeva’s: he too called for Russian intervention.

And even if Bakiyev did play a role in triggering the initial violence, this cannot explain the speed with which the violence spread nor the level of intensity which the violence reached: hundreds, maybe thousands, have been killed in a matter of days, and hundreds of thousands have fled from their homes in the same space of time.

Whatever may have been the immediate ‘trigger’ for the violence, it was able to take root so quickly and so brutally because a long-standing socio-economic differentiation along ethnic lines, made worse by an ongoing economic and political crisis, had already resulted in increasingly antagonistic communal relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Uzbeks constitute about 15% of the population of Kyrgyzstan. But in the south of the country, where the pogroms took place, they make up about half of the population.

Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan are more likely than Kyrgyz to be farmers, landowners, traders and (small) business owners. 89% of workers in manufacturing are Uzbeks, as are 79% of taxi drivers. By contrast, Uzbeks account for only 5.5% of police officers in the region, and only eight out of 128 tax collectors. In large businesses dependent on state aid – in contrast to smaller private businesses – Uzbeks are also a small minority of the workforce

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union all Kyrgyz governments have publicly supported the idea of a multi-ethnic Kyrgyzstan. But their actions have generally fallen well short of their words.

A recent poll conducted by an Uzbek community organisation in Osh found that 60% of Uzbeks polled did not find the government’s policies towards them adequate, 79% felt that Uzbeks needed a political party of their own, and 78% wanted Uzbek to be given the status of an offical state language.

Bakiyev in particular did nothing to deal with Kyrgyz grievances and allowed patterns of discrimination to continue unchallenged. Kyrgyz in the south of the country have generally remained loyal to Bakiyev, whereas Uzbeks are more likely to support Otunbayeva’s interim government.

This political and socio-economic differentiation along ethnic lines has become all the more volatile under the impact of economic stagnation and political instability. According to one newspaper report: “Perceived and real discrimination among ethnic groups, scarce resources and ineffective local administration are aggravating ethnic relations. Competition for scarce economic resources … is taking increasingly ethnic lines.”

The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) went into decline last year, as too did its industrial output – by 20%. Compared with 2008, the value of Kyrgyz exports last year fell by a third. Kyrgyz GDP per capita now ranks at position 135 out of 152 in the world. Unemployment is currently running at well over 20%.

Government corruption has been an added drain on the economy: Bakiyev’s son, who recently claimed asylum in Britain, is wanted for prosecution in Kyrgyzstan, to answer charges that he avoided $80 millions worth of tax payments on aviation fuel which he sold to companies supplying it to a US airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

Popular anger over government corruption, its pro-privatisation policies, and its failure to restore economic growth resulted in the overthrow of Bakiyev earlier this year. But the interim government lacks any real authority and is essentially an unstable coalition of competing political parties and personalities, with the leading figures in the coalition frequently contradicting each other as they position themselves for the elections scheduled for later this year.

Although the recent outburst of violence seems to have now spent itself, it is unclear what political and social forces exist to prevent further such outbursts, and to prevent a further breakdown in communal relations under the impact of economic crisis.

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