Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic or Class Violence?

The more I educate myself about events in Kyrgyzstan, it’s becoming apparent that people who actually know something about the place are skeptical of the “longstanding ethnic strife” narrative.  Michael Anderson, a Dutch journalist who covers the region, put it this way in an interview with, “Unfortunately, Western media fall back on stereotypes, describing events in Osh such as “interethnic violence” and “interethnic problems”, although you and I know that that is not really what is happening.’  He went on to add this: “I am ashamed that western media pay so little attention and produce such poor coverage. This is bad. Another bad thing is the constant use of stereotypes – often wrong.”  For an example, see this piece on Slate which goes with the deep seeded ethnic strife thesis.

Not all are taken with the marketable stereotypes that Anderson decries.  It’s nice to see that at least the NY Times does better job of capturing the nuances of Kyrgyzstan better than it does on Russia.  The Times actually learned a new word: class.

“I don’t believe in a narrative of long-simmering ethnic tension,” Alexander A. Cooley, a professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and an authority on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview.

Indeed, ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable, Professor Cooley and others say. Both are predominantly Muslim and they speak a mutually comprehensible Turkic language.

The most notable distinction, the one that is most responsible for the animosities that led to the recent violence, Central Asian experts say, is economic: Kyrgyz are traditional nomads, while Uzbeks are farmers.

That divide has translated today into a wide class distinction, as Uzbeks have prospered and now own many of the businesses in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has engendered resentment. Among the first buildings to burn in rioting over the weekend was the “People’s Friendship University,” singled out apparently because it was built with donations by wealthy Uzbek businessmen.

Eugene Huskey, a political scientist at Stetson University, also doubts the longstanding ethnic strife thesis.  He had this to say in an interview with CBC:

Has there been longstanding tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz?

Huskey: Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have lived peacefully in the region’s main Ferghana Valley for centuries.

It was only as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 that one witnessed a major outbreak of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. This conflict grew out of a land dispute that was poorly handled by local authorities.

As a young country still uncertain of its identity, there is an ongoing struggle between those who favour a Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz and those who support a multi-ethnic state with equal opportunities for all.

Although all governments of Kyrgyzstan have been publicly committed to the latter approach, many daily decisions of government move against this ideal. For example, hiring practices in defence and law enforcement institutions have led to the virtual exclusion of non-Kyrgyz from the ranks.

Huskey rejects the idea that the outbreak of ethnic violence was spontaneous.  Rather, it was “a well-orchestrated and well-financed effort by armed groups to provoke conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.”  Who, then, is behind it?

Huskey: We don’t know for sure who is behind it at this point, but it seems likely that local drug lords and criminal groups joined forces with individuals close to the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Both groups have an interest in destabilizing the situation and not permitting the holding of a planned constitutional referendum on June 27.

The referendum in two weeks would almost certainly have solidified the position and legitimacy of the current government and paved the way for democratic parliamentary elections in the fall.

It is now doubtful that the referendum can be held on time and ballot papers that had been scheduled for delivery to the south are now being retained in the capital.

There is also speculation in some quarters that certain countries in the region, perhaps Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or even Russia, would themselves benefit from a destabilization of a regime that has sought to distance itself from the authoritarian politics dominant in the region.

Christian Bleuer tackles the “third party” thesis on Registan:

So now can you see it? Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are not killing each other, rather “bandits” are killing Uzbeks and Kyrgyz as agents provocateurs in part of some elaborate, finely executed conspiracy. This is, of course, BS. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were completely capable of being killed by each other without the aid of criminals and bandits in 1990, and they still are now. For example, read Valery Tishkov’s article “`Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’: An Anthropological Analysis of Violence in the Osh Ethnic Conflict.” To put too much stress on criminal groups is to avoid, or lead the reader to miss, a discussion of ongoing tensions and conflicts in the community, whether they be based on elite-level politics, resentment over another group’s perceived economoic or political success, or the competition for land, water and a good spot in the bazaar (all of which are contentious at the ethnic level in Osh), or the meeting of these levels of competition in mutually beneficial mobilization.

Politicians and opposition leaders especially love the criminal version, as they can portray their opposing rivals as criminal leaders, or the tools/masters of criminals. But what was/is always needed in the Soviet Union and its successor states is the idea of a master manipulator.

I suggest reading the whole post for other insightful comments.

Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis rolls on, with the distribution of aid possibly exacerbating the tensions:

Cargo planes carrying food, medical supplies and other essentials were arriving at Osh Airport throughout June 14. The Ministry of Emergency Situations confirmed that the Osh Mayor’s office was trying to coordinate aid distribution. “At the moment we are receiving humanitarian aid from Bishkek. The aid came from businessmen, political parties and residents of Bishkek,” a spokesman for the Osh mayor told

“Neighborhood committees have lists of people who need aid the most and aid distributing takes place according to those lists. Regarding the barricaded neighborhoods, the distribution and delivery of aid to those neighborhoods will be taking place with the help of the [police],” he added. The city official did not provide any information about how the lists were created.

Rather than alleviate needs, some ethnic Uzbeks are complaining that the distribution of aid is exacerbating tension. Uzbek witnesses alleged that ethnic Kyrgyz officials were distributing much of the aid in areas that Uzbeks consider unsafe. As a result, some Uzbek neighborhoods are reportedly not receiving any aid.

“I haven’t seen any humanitarian aid. If it is coming, it is being distributed among the Kyrgyz, not the Uzbeks. We can’t even get outside our [neighborhoods],” said Husanboy Abdugofur, an ethnic Uzbek.

Some Kyrgyz in Uzbek neighborhoods also said they felt isolated. “We are all hungry because we haven’t eaten for days. Please come and rescue, if not us, then our children!” said one ethnic Kyrgyz living in a predominantly Uzbek neighborhood in the city.

Kyrgyz authorities reject accusations that discrimination is playing a role in the distribution of assistance. Several officials, in comments broadcast on state television June 14, attributed distribution difficulties to roadblocks and other obstacles that have been erected to protect various neighborhoods.