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Kyrgyzstan’s angel of death

The explosion of terrifying violence in southern Kyrgyzstan reveals deep-rooted problems in this central Asian state. A provisional map of the crisis, by Sureyya Yigit in Bishkek.
Sureyya Yigit
22 June 2010

The angel of death has set up camp in Kyrgyzstan. Its breath can be felt on your neck outside the presidential White House in the capital Bishkek, where ninety-five people died in the uprising against Kurmanbek Bakiyev on 7 April 2010. Since then, the surrounding area has become a shrine to all those who perished. Now, the circle of concern has expanded to include the hundreds killed in the six days since 10-11 June in the south of the country. Beside the railings, people leave bags of flour, sugar, sacks of pasta and tinned foods for transfer to Osh and Jalalabad. At the intersection of Chui and Panfilov streets, in sight of a massive national flag flying at half-mast, you deliver your modest foodstuffs, a token of empathy and solidarity in the midst of a national nightmare. 

The leader of the interim government, Roza Otunbayeva, has stated that 2,000 people may have been slain in the vicious bloodletting of 10-16 June, ten times as many as the total previously acknowledged; the United Nations has estimated that 400,000 people have been displaced, with perhaps a million people in total (around 20% of Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.3 million) affected in some way by the violence (see “Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan: refugees in numbers”, Irin News, 17 June 2010). All this makes it necessary to attempt to draw a profile of the angel of death.

The past as prologue

All clashes with an ethnic dimension occur in the shadow of history and the uses to which this history is put by later generations, and this is as true in central Asia as it is in the Balkans or the Caucasus. Where Kyrgyzstan is concerned, a relevant factor is that the country is an example of a constructed state whose boundaries – demarcated personally by Joseph Stalin in 1924 as one of the new socialist republics in Turkestan - corresponded to no natural community of belonging.

The so-called “Kara-Kyrgyz Autonomous Oblast”, which at its foundation in 1924 existed under the rubric of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR, established in 1918), was in 1936 transformed into a constituent republic of the USSR. Stalin’s calculating territorial delimitations ensured both that the various Turkic peoples the region would be divided into various states, and that many members of one group would come under another’s jurisdiction; hence, for example, the largely Uzbek city of Osh came under Kyrgyz political authority. The seeds of ethnicised rivalry were sown many decades ago. 

In the late agony of the Soviet Union - exactly twenty years ago, in June 1990 - one of the worst ethnic clashes in Soviet central Asia took place in Osh. The violent altercations were rooted in disputes over the allocation of land and housing. Hundreds died and many more were injured in a situation that required the direct involvement of the Red Army to bring it under control.  

The events of southern Kyrgyzstan in May-June 2010 (for a burst of violence a month earlier prefigured the disaster of recent days) shows that the tragedy of the 20th century for central Asia’s Turkic peoples now stretches into the 21st century. The loss of hundreds of lives and the wounding of many more, the creation of internally-displaced people and refugees in the hundreds of thousands also represents by far the worst ethnic clash and civil strife in the Kyrgyz republic’s short-lived history since independence in 1991.

The spark that was ignited in the very early hours of 11 June 2010 in Osh reaches Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan. It reverberates across central Asia and even beyond (see Vicken Cheterian, “Kyrgyzstan failing, and an arc of crisis”, 15 June 2010).

The dimensions of crisis

The crisis in Kyrgyzstan exposed by the events of 6-7 April 2010 has many dimensions. In attempting to understand what has happened and is happening, it may be helpful to outline what appear to be the most important elements of this complex situation (see “The Kyrgyz catastrophe”, 15 April 2010). Here, then, are nine observations.

First, the interim government in Bishkek does not have full control of the country. The south is clearly beyond its remit (and even its interest), and the appalling instance of ethnic cleansing there indicates that the change of government in April never permeated to the southern provinces. It is significant that only one of the deputy chairmen of Kyrgyzstan's interim government, Azimbek Beknazarov, immediately headed south as news of the violence broke; the rest of the collective leadership preferred to remain in Bishkek. More generally it can be said that if Roza Otunbayeva has no enemies, she is also intensely disliked by her friends.

Second, the events of 10-11 June 2010 and after represent a massive failure of intelligence by the new authorities. The Kyrgyz security services have been attentive toward political opponents; for example, the Communist Party leader Iskhak Masaliev was arrested in May after media outlets broadcast a telephone conversation in which he and other politicians were recorded discussing mass protests in southern Kyrgyzstan. But they have proved less alert to the omens of violent confrontations, such as that in late April in the village of Maevka, when three Meshketian Turks were brutally murdered and several of their homes burned and looted; and that in mid-May in Jalalabad and Osh, when pro-Bakiyev groups seized local administrative offices only to be forcibly removed by the Kyrgyz authorities, resulting in several deaths and many more injuries.

Third, the violence in Kyrgyzstan is indicative of another institutional failure: that of the police force. The perpetrators used firearms, some of them even automatic weapons, as well as sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails; these are likely to have come from criminal elements (especially drug-traffickers, who earn huge sums from their lucrative trade). The local police and their political masters - despite all the talk of cleaning up the economy - have been unable even to dent this criminal underworld, which has been in existence for as long as Kyrgyzstan has been independent.

Fourth, the interim government made crucial mistakes during the outbreak of violence, either by failing to establish clear priorities or by reverting to the default position of communist governments: better to control the flow of information than to control the situation on the ground. The Kyrgyz media throughout has been severely restricted, and official information disseminated grudgingly in small digestible doses. This is another long-term symptom of authoritarianism within the Kyrgyz state.

The lack of reliable information proved deeply damaging, in allowing toxic rumours to spread without challenge. It is now known that Kyrgyz men from villages outside of Osh, hearing a rumour that Uzbeks were raping Kyrgyz women, rode on horseback to the city to protect the honour of their womenfolk; which they did by murder, arson and looting. Kyrgyz decision-makers are uncomfortable with the idea of a free press, providing up-to-the-minute and accurate information to citizens. Living in Bishkek, I personally obtained more information from international television news-channels and the internet than from local Kyrgyz media outlets. The next time a crisis occurs, I hope the situation will be the reverse.

Fifth, the interim government suffers from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens, something that owes much to the persistent allegations of corruption that surround it. In late May, for example, three leading ministers (Almazbek Atambaev, Temur Sariev, and Azimbek Beknazarov) were allegedly recorded discussing the use of $1 million in clandestine operations; and Edil Baisalov, who resigned from his post as presidential chief-of-staff on 7 June, stated that corruption was rife with public appointments going to the highest bidder. True, the violence in Osh cannot attributed directly to corruption, though it is fair to argue that this did add to the interim government’s problems in the south of the country.

Sixth, by appealing to the Russian Federation on 13 June to intervene, the interim Kyrgyz government acknowledged its failure to exercise what Max Weber defined as one of the key attributes of a state: a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” (see Natalia Leshchenko & David Hayes, "Kyrgyzstan: the absence of mercy", 16 June 2010).. The Kyrgyz government clearly did not possess sufficient force to halt the armed violence, and was forced to ask Moscow to stabilise the situation (thus repeating history with only a change of name: in 1990 it was Frunze that called on Moscow for help, today it is Bishkek).

Seventh, the interim government’s inability to prevent and contain the violence means that it is now faced with another test: how to cope with the refugees and the affected areas. Where are the guns that were used to kill hundreds of people? If they are still in the hands of murderers, rapists and arsonists, then the future of the country is very bleak. The city of Osh is now unrecognisable: immediate aid needs to be transported there, basic security maintained on the streets, measures of reconciliation undertaken, compensation (personal or material) quickly dispensed to all who have suffered, and an investigation into the causes of violence urgently opened. The loss of a business at the moment is equally damaging and threatens instability just as much as the loss of a family member.

Eighth, the interim government continues to insist that its ill-considered and barely-consulted constitutional referendum will take place on 27 June 2010. Since around 8% of the entire population of Kyrgyzstan is not at home because their houses have been burned to the ground in fear for their lives should they return, it is inconceivable that such a referendum can be held. Those ethnic Uzbeks who have lost their husbands, homes, children and livelihoods both have a right to be heard and must be heard concerning the political future of Kyrgyzstan. If the planned referendum does take place, it will do nothing but accentuate the already fragile and combustible political situation.

Ninth, tough times call for tough leaders. The political situation demands leaders who can see beyond their personal interests. If they limit their vision solely to their own gain, both they and the whole country will suffer. Roza Otunbayeva has used the referendum as if grasping a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at her political opponents; but it is Kyrgyzstan’s people (as well as the new leader herself) who will be burned if it goes ahead. Now is the time for the interim government to think calmly, and thereby create a contrast to the events that have taken place in the south of the country (see Paul Quinn-Judge, "Saving Central Asia", International Herald Tribune, 21 June 2010).

Roza Otunbayeva considers the Bakiyev family as an enemy that is both anti-democratic and resourceful, and that is ever capable of finding new ways to harm the country and the people. Some circles assert that she is not so dissimilar to Kurmanbek Bakiyev in this respect.

The angel of death will consume more blood if opportunities are presented. Therefore, these should be restricted. The last thing Kyrgyzstan needs now is a constitutional referendum. But even without it, a deepening of this political and social crisis seems inevitable.

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