Central Asia's Simmering Instability

The threat of another pogram in Kyrgyzstan looms over the troubled region.

Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev.There is potential for bloodshed in Central Asia. While it is unlikely that mountainous Kyrgyzstan will turn from an ethnographic documentary to something more like a Japanese monster movie, other less extreme but likely scenarios could cripple the prospects for post-Soviet Central Asia stability: more ethnic strife, the displacement of large numbers of aggrieved ethnic Uzbeks to countries elsewhere in the region that are unable to assimilate migrants, a sanctuary for the drug trade and the entrenchment of a desiccated economy with the potential to dry out more of the thirsty economies all around it.

The present instability has roots in clashes that took place in the summer of 2010. Two months after public protests overthrew the widely despised government of Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and an interim administration had been installed, the South of Kyrgyzstan erupted in days of lethal violence and destruction.

Bakiyev had made news before. In 2009, he threatened to evict the U.S. transit air base, called Manas, from the Kyrgyz capital, only to reverse course and announce the reinstatement of its lease in return for lucrative new rents. The populist revolt against Bakiyev and the subsequent upheaval in the South of the country received media attention, but many policy makers have minimized the peril of Kyrgyzstan’s continuing instability and ethnic tensions. Yet the situation feeds concerns about possible scenarios ranging from increased Islamic radicalization among oppressed minorities to the (albeit unlikely) military intervention of Uzbekistan if the Kyrgyz South were to violently unspool again.

Kyrgyzstan’s South is a checkerboard of cheek-by-jowl ethnic communities, predominantly Kyrgyz, who also dominate the country’s North, and Uzbeks, many living just over the zigzag valley border from Uzbekistan. On June 10, 2010, a dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth touched off a night of street brawls across southern Kyrgyzstan. Although the two ethnicities have a history of animosity, including a deadly clash in 1990 when Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union, few anticipated what followed: two days of roiling attacks on Uzbek communities; large and organized mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz, some armed with automatic weapons and joined by police on foot, horseback and in armored personnel carriers, streamed into tight-knit Uzbek neighborhoods, called mahallas, to loot, burn and kill. By time the carnage ended, there were more than 450 fatalities—about 75 percent were ethnic Uzbek—more than 110,000 people fled for their lives into Uzbekistan and an additional 300,000 Uzbeks found refuge elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan.

Two years later, the situation is again ominous.

Most of the worst violence occurred in the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and, historically, a center of Uzbek business, trade and culture. An International Crisis Group (ICG) report released in March 2012 on widening ethnic divisions in Kyrgyzstan’s South found “while a superficial quiet has settled on the city, neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold.”

Since “the June events,” as the pogrom against Uzbeks was quickly euphemized, ethnic Uzbek citizens have been subordinated to a shadow population: patrolling police and soldiers enforce an after-dark curfew on Uzbeks, corralling them into their mahallas, while during the daytime police break up small gatherings of Uzbek men on sidewalks or in markets; the government has shut down almost all Uzbek-language media; credible photographic evidence of the torture of Uzbek men arbitrarily arrested on village streets is circulated widely; Kyrgyz have seized Uzbek-owned businesses and taken over entire segments of the economy previously captured by Uzbeks, such as taxis and restaurants; even the powerful criminal cartels responsible for smuggling poppy from Afghanistan through Kyrgyzstan to points west are thought to have switched from Uzbek control to Kyrgyz. The result, said the ICG report, is “the sense of physical and social isolation is breeding a quiet, inchoate anger among all segments of the community—not just the youth, who could be expected to respond more viscerally to the situation, but also among the Uzbek elite and middle class. This is increased by an acute awareness that they have nowhere to go.”

By tradition, the Kyrgyz, who now number about 70 percent of the nation’s population, are rural and pastoral nomads; the Uzbeks, who make up only about 15 percent of the population or about 750,000 people but are urbanized, are heavily represented in the big southern cities of Osh and neighboring Jalalabad. Tension between the two ethnicities dates to long before the Soviet era, and during the past twenty years of Kyrgyzstan’s existence as an independent state, successive governments allowed and at times encouraged tensions to fester. When a political scuffle in Jalalabad in April 2010 instigated a power grab by a local ethnic-Uzbek politician that resulted in unsubstantiated accusations that Uzbeks had burned down property owned by the president and were preparing to fight for southern secession from the country, the June events were all but ordained.

Hypernationalism and Ethnic Supremacy

Ethnic unrest, given horrifying expression in the June events and hardened by two years of systemic anti-Uzbek repression, is further fueled by competing assertions of victimhood at the hands of the other. Both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks claim a post-June-events narrative that holds the other group primarily responsible for the violence.