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Kyrgyzstan: components of crisis

The explosion of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan is the result of social pressures, economic hardship and political malpractice. The interim government’s constitutional referendum can do little to address these problems, says David Gullette.
David Gullette
28 June 2010

The violent unrest in the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 2,000 people in the week following 10-11 June 2010, is the result of ineffective governance and extensive poverty. The cycle of violence began on 6-7 April when an impoverished and angry population resorted to force to change the corrupt political regime of the president, Kurmabek Bakiyev.

The interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva that then came to power in Bishkek struggled to establish its legitimacy in face of corruption scandals involving key deputies and officials. The violence in southern Kyrgyzstan two months later, centred on the cities of Osh and Jalalabad, showed how ineffective the new leaders' control had been. Yet the government persisted with the holding on 27 June of a referendum on a new constitution, which - though it passed off peacefully, and the reported turnout was higher-than-expected - in itself can do little to meet the country’s current humanitarian and security needs.

An unstable new order

The immediate crisis began when a demonstration against corruption in the government spread to Bishkek on 7 April 2010 and turned into a chaotic struggle for power. With no leaders or coordination, protestors poured into the centre of the capital and fought with police for control of the presidential office (the White House). A fierce battle claimed at least eighty-nine lives; amid the political chaos and the flight of Kurmanbek Bakiyev (first to his southern home region and then abroad), a handful of opposition leaders declared a provisional government and slowly assumed control.

The new leaders have sought to usher in a fresh political era through constitutional changes and parliamentary elections. The 27 June referendum is part of this effort: an attempt both to break with the past and to establish the legitimacy and authority of the interim government. Many of this government’s members have served variously as ministers (in the Soviet regime, or the presidential administrations of Askar Akayev [1990-2005] or Kurmanbek Bakiyev [2005-10]) and opposition leaders (though the political parties they headed were based on personalities rather than real policy platforms). As a whole they have little in the way of clear political mandates to unite them or direct change.

The new government’s authority was quickly tested. In mid-May, all three interim governors in the country’s southern provinces fell to pro-Bakiyev protestors in rapid succession. True, the government managed to re-establish order the next day; but the ease with which the powers of state were subverted was a clear indication of the tenuousness of its control.

A resources problem

The country’s political instability is driven by widespread poverty. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country, where the arable land that supports the employment of large numbers of people in agriculture and trade consists of only 7% of the territory. Thus, access to resources is a contentious issue. Official data from the national statistical committee (NSC) estimated that in 2008, over a third of the population lived in poverty. Three-quarters of the poor live in rural areas, which also suffer high unemployment and limited access to basic medical services.

A series of events over the five years since the uprising of 2005 that brought Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power has created further vulnerability for much of the country.  In 2007, rising global food prices hit Kyrgyzstan hard, causing poor families to reduce food consumption. NSC data report that food prices increased from January 2007-April 2009 by 51%, even as during the latter half of this period (according to the International Monetary Fund) global prices dropped by 27%. The mechanisms for producers to sell to markets in Kyrgyzstan are underdeveloped, allowing middlemen to keep food prices high. Kyrgyz households thus were denied the benefits of later reductions in global prices.

What made matters worse is that the winter of 2007-08 was the coldest in four decades. The additional power-generation by the Toktogul hydroelectric power-station (which provides around 93% of the country’s electricity, according to the energy ministry) nearly drained the adjoining Toktogul reservoir. The government implemented a series of rolling blackouts for much of the next two years in order to allow the reservoir to refill; in some places, these lasted for sixteen hours per day.

The inadequate service aside, energy tariffs remained so low that they neither covered production costs nor permitted essential maintenance work to be carried out. The energy ministry had begun implementing a plan to increase prices from 12%-20% percent every year from 2008-12; but in late 2009, the government decided to scrap the plan and instead implement a two-phase price-hike. On 1 January 2010, heating and electricity prices more than doubled, while fees for hot water nearly tripled. A second phase had been scheduled for implementation in July, which would have seen similar increases. In addition, gas prices had already jumped over the previous two years. Poor families and those surviving on benefits were forced to choose which utilities they would use (see Sureyya Yigit, "The Kyrgyz catastrophe", 15 April 2010).

A further pressure on Kyrgyz households in the late 2000s was that the global financial crisis led to a drop in the value of remittances, a vital source of support for many. Some conservative official estimates calculate that more than 500,000 of Kyrgyzstan’s people work abroad (a tenth of the population of 5.3 million), and the money these migrant labourers send home contributes more than 20% of the country’s GDP. In comparison with the previous year, remittances in 2009 fell by 20%, with negative social costs that are felt particularly in rural areas. The older generations at home, for example, are increasingly responsible for maintaining farmland and child-care, and meagre pensions of roughly $40 per month are often not enough to provide for minimum needs.

A local explosion

The acute strain on resources, poverty and inequality, corruption, and the misuse of political power are among the ingredients of the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan. To these must be added the deployment of ethnic identities to exploit tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

In June 1990, a dispute broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks over control of land with access to water near the city of Osh. The violence that erupted left hundreds dead. In the aftermath, there was no concerted effort to foster reconciliation. True, Askar Akayev did promote inter-ethnic harmony, but his governing national ideology created a notion of the state that drew almost exclusively on Kyrgyz social customs and ideals. The result was that minorities felt consigned to the margins of social and civic life, and alienated from the state; some Uzbeks looked towards neighbouring Uzbekistan as the source of political legitimacy.

The situation in southern Kyrgyzstan demonstrates that (here as elsewhere) behind the discourse of ethnic tension often lie much deeper issues such as poverty, social marginalisation and unequal access to resources. Ethnicity then can become a vehicle through which grievances can be articulated and stereotypes given political form. The very use of the categories “Kyrgyz” and “Uzbek” can in such circumstances obscure far more complex relationships between people and the various experiences and issues that make up everyday life.

What next?

The interim government has a very difficult task ahead. Kyrgyzstan has been torn apart and there is no legitimate government in power. In this light, the constitutional referendum of 27 June (whose main element is the proposal to move from a presidential to a parliamentary republic) is largely a distraction from the primary need to restore security and prevent further dangerous outbreaks of violence. This could involve either the strengthening of internal forces or the introduction of external peacekeeping troops.

These should be used to facilitate reconstruction in Osh and Jalalabat, and permit the safe return and resettlement of the tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. Beyond this, financial support and a reconciliation process are required to help southern Kyrgyzstan overcome the current crisis and avoid a renewed escalation of conflict.

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