Kyrgyzstan has recently commemorated the fourth anniversary of the violence that shook the country’s south in the summer of 2010, resulting in hundreds dead, thousands injured, thousands of properties burnt to the ground and the displacement of 400,000 people, including 100,000 refugees in neighbouring Uzbekistan. For the occasion, Kyrgyzstan’s Grand Mufti Maksatbek Hajji Toktomushev invited all clerics around the country to focus their sermons on reconciliation and social harmony.
While the mayhem was seemingly sparked by a brawl between a group of Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth at a casino in the southern city of Osh, at its core lay deeper contradictions within the country’s polity. First, there is the competition over power and resources between the northern Kyrgyz elites in the capital Bishkek and their southern counterparts, mostly originating from the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
Second, the diffused poverty in the south, especially acute in the countryside, and the perception of wealth inequality between communities, lends itself to easy political manipulation.
Third, the under-representation of minorities at all levels of the state’s political and security apparatuses has created much tension. And finally, the widespread corruption plaguing the country’s institutions and politicians’ notorious links to the criminal underworld also played a role in the violence.
Unfortunately, few of these circumstances have been mitigated or changed, so the potential for conflict in Kyrgyzstan remains.
Following the April 2010 revolution that unseated former president of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev, himself a southerner, the northern Kyrgyz elites enrolled the Uzbek community to reassert formal control in the south of the country, which was slipping away from their grip due to opposition to the newly installed Interim Government (IG) in Bishkek. In the words of a former legal adviser to the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “without the Uzbeks, there is no way that the IG could have expelled the Bakiyevs from Jalal-Abad”.
In exchange, the Uzbek elites were promised a bigger role in the country’s political life for them and their community, as well as the possibility to run their businesses free of fear from illegal takeovers – in the local jargon, “raiding“ – by corrupt cronies of the former regime.
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For their part, the southern Kyrgyz elites mobilised the poor and uneducated southern Kyrgyz – mainly youth from the countryside – against the Uzbek community, in order to revert the effects of the April revolution and regain a foothold on the national political arena. The Kyrgyz populace rallied behind nationalist propaganda depicting Uzbeks as a disloyal minority, or even as a foreign “diaspora“ element in Kyrgyzstan, as well as accusing them of owning a far bigger share of the country’s wealth than their numbers justified.
It thus happened that an intra-elite fight turned into inter-communal violence on a massive scale. The pervasive corruption beleaguering all institutions in Kyrgyzstan further undermined the state’s response to violence, as did the chronic under-representation of Uzbeks at all levels of the political and security apparatus. There is evidence suggesting that police and army elements did not do enough to prevent attacks on Uzbeks or even participated in intimidating the Uzbek community.
Organised crime joined forces with the southern Kyrgyz elites to “keep the formal loyalty of the central government in Bishkek”, at a time when “the consolidation of the Uzbek population and the fact that it was turning into an active political force in the south of Kyrgyzstan was considered a threat to their interests.” As Osh city is one of the major drug hubs in Central Asia for Afghan heroin on its way to Europe and the Russian Federation, those interests have been estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
Despite both communities incurring loss in blood and treasure in the four days of rioting, once the dust settled, it quickly became clear that the Uzbeks had borne the brunt of the violence, which locals prefer to call “the war“.
Four years on, however, the structural contradictions at the root of the violence – elite competition over power- and resource-sharing; poverty and perceived wealth inequality; minority under-representation in state institutions; pervasive corruption – remain largely unaddressed.
On the contrary, the Uzbek community has been singled out as the culprit. In the aftermath of June 2010, police conducted sweep operations in Uzbek neighbourhoods and villages, where excessive use of force led to serious injuries and even casualties. Moreover, the country’s judiciary – marred by corruption and hardly independent from the political elite – has targeted the Uzbeks wholesale for the violence. As of December 2010, 79 percent of investigations which resulted in criminal charges were against Uzbek individuals.
The surge in Kyrgyz nationalism that followed the events has significantly shrunk the space for reconciliation. Keenly aware of the growing gap between the country’s communities, president Almazbek Atambayev has spearheaded a broad initiative in consultation with all political forces as well as civil society, which culminated in the April 2013 “Concept on strengthening national unity and inter-ethnic relations in the Kyrgyz Republic“.
While the Concept attempts to cater to nationalist sentiments with the recognition of the Kyrgyz people as the country’s unifying core, it simultaneously appeals to all of Kyrgyzstan’s constituencies by envisioning unity in diversity in a state where the new generation of citizens will be “multilingual, educated and open to innovations and contacts”.
However, the Concept falls short of providing any concrete actions on minority rights for the Uzbek community in the aftermath of the June 2010 violence. More ominously, the overall failure so far to bring those responsible for the events to justice bodes ill for the country’s future. This gives space to some groups within the elites to use again the same tactics of violence in order to score political points, for instance during the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, due to take place in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
In the words of one close observer: “It is not just about getting away with murder, it is actually about gaining from it.”
Likewise, the prevailing atmosphere of impunity decimates trust in the institutions of the state, alienating even further a significant segment of the country’s population.
Kyrgyzstan’s elites may choose to continue ignoring the dire need for justice and reforms, but they do so at their own – and the country’s – peril.