Central Asia's Simmering Instability

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.

There is some small risk of violence from the passive Uzbek population—Islamists or youths raging against discrimination and state harassment. However, the real threat comes from the Kyrgyz, who assign responsibility for the June events to the Uzbeks themselves and consider Uzbeks a separatist diaspora population—guests, not citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic. Ethno-supremacy has gone viral all over the country, and “Kyrgyzstan is for Kyrgyz” is a slogan with particular resonance in the South. Kyrgyz police routinely enter Uzbek homes to search for weapons, really as a pretext to intimidate, and it is most likely that the next miasma of violence will be against vulnerable Uzbeks.

On top of this bonfire, the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, a fierce Kyrgyz ultranationalist who routinely villainizes the Uzbek population and has written a book that explicitly calls for Uzbek social and political marginalization, holds Uzbeks responsible for the June violence against them. In public statements he repeatedly has intimated the need for Uzbek subjugation and has hinted he favors mass expulsion of Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps most disturbingly, the ICG report found that “many well-educated southern Kyrgyz, in fact, view the mayor as the moderate, acceptable face of nationalism” because of his smooth communication skills. “He’s our little Hitler,” was how one prominent Uzbek lawyer in Osh, prone to carefully measured pronouncements, recently put it.

Incursions by international actors also have played a deleterious role. The United Nations has, to some degree, simply declared the crisis over. On January 18, 2012, in an address to the Stanley Foundation Conference on the Responsibility to Protect, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared the UN had successfully “used diplomacy” to end ethnic strife and violence in Kyrgyzstan. The OSCE, which maintains a large field office in Osh, is widely viewed by all sides as sitting on the sidelines and contributing to the federal government’s tendency to shrug at the continuing turmoil in the South (the OSCE pulled its people out of Osh during the June violence). The U.S. Agency for International Development has a 2012 congressional budgetary directive to address the Kyrgyz Republic’s chronic instability, which was “exacerbated by the effects of the 2010 political upheaval and ethnic violence,” but the USAID officials now on the ground in Kyrgyzstan paint a hallucinogenic picture of social progress and ethnic reconciliation.

The government of President Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner and increasingly characterized in private conversations among international observers as rapacious, also benefits from Kyrgyzstan’s membership in a number of international organizations participating in housing reconstruction, such as the Asia Development Bank (ADB), a $100 million donor in the reconstruction effort. Because of its membership in the ADB, and to encourage the country’s more open and democratic practices relative to other countries in Central Asia, the ADB has largely exempted Kyrgyzstan from its policy of paying NGOs directly, instead funneling funds to international NGOs working on reconstruction through Kyrgyz government agencies.

The Battle Deferred

“The Uzbeks are utterly pacified at this point. Let me give you an example,” began the sunburned French NGO administrator in a bustling restaurant on a hot summer night in a park in Osh. It was after dark, and not a single ethnic Uzbek occupied any of the tables. Earlier that week, the administrator had watched as a large SUV nearly collided with an elderly Uzbek woman walking across the street. The car’s occupants, three ethnic-Kyrgyz men, emerged from their vehicle to aggressively physically intimidate the old woman for getting in between their vehicle and their destination. The French administrator, who was accompanied by three burly Uzbek colleagues, was outraged and jumped out of his own car to come to the elderly pedestrian’s aid. His Uzbek colleagues quickly hauled him back into his car. “This is not a fight we can have,” they told him.

Two years on, most of the approximately three thousand destroyed properties have been rebuilt, and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan have reverted to a deeply submissive crouch. Kyrgyzstan is not a triumph of preventive diplomacy, ethnic tensions are not declining, international donors and foreign actors on the ground are not using their every leverage to insist on minority rights and stopping the radical nationalist agenda, and the central government is disengaged. This kind of story doesn’t end well.