Q&A: Kyrgyzstan's ethnic violence

Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions have a history in Ferghana Valley that spans three countries.

    Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Kyrgyzstan in the worst ethnic violence in two decades [AFP]

    Violence in southern Kyrgyzstan started on June 10, when armed mobs attacked Uzbek neighbourhoods - called mahallas - in the city of Osh. Scores of people were killed, homes were set on fire, tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks fled towards the border with neighbouring Uzbekistan, and supplies of food and water are running low.

    The scale of the violence makes it the worst to hit Kyrgyzstan in decades - but tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have long been a problem in and around Osh.

    What started the violence?

    Rumours abound. There’s a lot of speculation that the violence was orchestrated by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former Kyrgyz president who was ousted following protests in April.

    Bishkek has blamed the violence on Bakiyev supporters looking to undermine the interim government and reinstate the former president. The government also claimed that the Bakiyevs hired "mercenaries" from neighbouring Tajikistan.

    The popular Web site Ferghanu.ru summed up the "third party" theories in a post on Sunday:

    Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that are killing each other on the streets of Osh and Jalalabat, are not shedding their blood in the honour of their nations nor for the sake of some high ideals of justice. They are random victims, martyrs, puppets in the hands of a cynical and violent Khan, who was ousted from his throne, cornered away and is now full of revenge.

    Ethnic tensions have long been a problem in southern Kyrgyzstan, though. More than 200 people were killed in Osh in 1990 in Uzbek-Kyrgyz fighting; despite rumours of Russian involvement, scholars believe the 1990 violence started over a series of land disputes and quickly escalated into riots.

    Christian Bleuer, a Central Asia scholar writing on the Registan blog, discounted the "third party" theories as a distraction from the long-running ethnic grievances.

    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 economic or political success, or the competition for land, water and a good spot in the bazaar.

    Bakiyev himself has denied any involvement in the violence. There are unconfirmed reports that his son was arrested on Monday in the United Kingdom.

    Is the violence unusual?

    There is a long history of ethnic violence in the Ferghana Valley, the region which includes Osh and spans three countries (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). In addition to the 1990 riots in Osh, the region has seen several other ethnic riots in the last two decades:

    • Clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Meshkets, a Turkic people, killed nearly 100 people in 1989. The Soviet government relocated tens of thousands of Meshkets from the valley after the fighting.

    • Also in 1989, several people were killed in Uzbek-Tajik fighting in the Uzbek part of the valley. The clashes were linked to water and land allocations.

    • Tajiks and Kyrgyz have attacked each other several times in Isfara, a region in Tajikistan on the Kyrgyz border. The fighting escalated into cross-border riots in 2003.

    Uzbeks are a minority in Kyrgyzstan, though they represent a plurality in some parts of the Ferghana. There is some resentment among the Kyrgyz population of the Uzbeks’ relative economic prosperity, which helps to fuel the tensions.

    Will Russia get involved?

    Bishkek has asked the Russian government to send troops to restore order in Osh and Jalal'abad.

    But the Russian government initially denied that request (for reasons that remain unclear), and an emergency meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) - a mutual defence alliance between Russia and six former Soviet republics - ended without a formal request for Russia to deploy in Kyrgyzstan.

    Still, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, called the situation in Kyrgyzstan "intolerable" after the CSTO meeting, and said the organisation would hold another summit if the violence worsens.

    The 1990 riots were stopped after the Soviet government in Moscow stationed troops throughout Osh and sealed off the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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