The background to Osh: stories of conflict and coexistence

Reporting of the ethnic clashes that took place in the Kyrgyz city of Osh this summer has tended to spotlight the victimhood of either ethnic Kyrgyz or ethnic Uzbeks. This polarisation is but a reflection of competing historical narratives of Osh’s ethnic identity, writes Dr Nick Megoran.
Nick Megoran
11 October 2010

In June 2010 hundreds of Uzbek and Kyrgyz inhabitants of the Kyrgyzstani city of Osh were killed in inter-communal violence. As the country was in the throes of debating a constitution for a new democratic system, the violence might have been a teachable moment for Kyrgyzstan to rethink inter-ethnic relations.  Instead, we have seen a bitter struggle fought over internet and news media to tell one-sided stories about victimisation and brutalisation.

Foreign NGO and media sources have generally presented Uzbeks as the main victims, echoing the stories told by Osh Uzbeks. Stung by the depiction of Kyrgyzstan as guilty of genocide, the Kyrgyz media has generally reacted by downplaying the victimhood of Uzbeks, and presenting Kyrgyz suffering. This polarisation is a major obstacle to the achievement of justice and the restoration of good relations between the two groups in Osh. But it didn’t materialise out of nowhere – rather, it builds on the narratives of conflict and cooperation, as told by the city’s Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants over recent decades. In order to understand the present situation and look to the future, we need to understand these narratives and their resonance. 

Kyrgyzstan map

Narratives of cooperation

Much of Osh’s recent history can be retold as cooperation.  Kyrgyz and Uzbeks will often repeat the adage that, ‘our bazaars are one.’ The shared markets of Osh, where the historically sedentary Uzbeks and nomadic Kyrgyz met to trade, are not the only example of symbiotic economic interdependence. In the Soviet period, works buses ferried laborers from the Kyrgyz SSR to factories in the Uzbek SSR, and after independence Osh Uzbeks continued to pay Kyrgyz herdsmen to take their sheep up to the high summer pastures.

Mutual bonds go deeper than economics. In a 2006 state visit to Uzbekistan, former Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, delighted his hosts by declaring, in Uzbek, during a press conference  “Our air is one, our water is one, our God is one, our language is one. Therefore, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz will never be separated. ” 

Politicians have used this resonant narrative of cooperation in nation-building. Soviet ‘Friendship of the Peoples’ ideology reused these ideas of common history and destiny. With independence,  President Askar Akaev’s favourite slogan was ‘Kyrgyzstan is our common home’, reflected on a thousand roadside billboards with a smiling Akaev amidst a group of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and others in national dress. These were not empty words: Akaev fought against ultra-nationalist political opponents, forged alliances with Uzbek politicians in Osh, and promoted the development of Uzbek-language higher education in the city. 

Events in Uzbekistan also contributed to a sense of Osh as shared space. In the early 1990s Osh Uzbeks looked enviously to Uzbekistan’s perceived strong leadership and economic success. However, as they saw how the Uzbek state ground down peasant farmers, whereas the Kyrgyz state left people in charge of their own farms, many concluded that life in Kyrgyzstan was better. Intellectually, it was certainly freer, and Osh Uzbeks often spoke admirably of the freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan.  In 1999, Uzbekistan began a crackdown on pious Muslims perceived as potential terrorists. Osh Uzbeks looked on aghast, thanking God that they lived in a country where they could worship undisturbed.

Contested  space – Uzbek narratives

If, however, Osh’s recent urban history can be narrated as one of  shared space, then it is equally possible to provide two parallel narratives of Osh as contested space, revealing both Uzbek and Kyrgyz insecurities.

Osh Uzbek narratives of contest often begin with Stalin’s 1924-7 National Territorial Delimitation (NTD). Although the 1897 Russian census recorded Kyrgyz as a small minority in Osh, NTD awarded it to the nascent Kyrgyz state, a move interpreted by Osh Uzbeks as a piece of politicking to satisfy the ambitions of Kyrgyz leaders. Subsequent Soviet planning, according to this narrative, attacked the social geography that was core to Uzbek ways of life: city-centre madrasses and mosques were closed or demolished, and Uzbek mahalla neighbourhoods flattened to make way for Soviet apartments and their Russian, and increasingly Kyrgyz, inhabitants.

Displaced residents who refused a new flat were given plots on the outskirts of the town, land that did not fall under Osh’s administrative jurisdiction. To Osh Uzbeks, this appeared as deliberate gerrymandering, depriving them of voice in their own city. In the 1980s Kyrgyz in-migration increased substantially, adding to the sense amongst Uzbeks that ‘their’ city was being encroached upon. Inter-ethnic violence in June 1990 was seen as the real face of decades of anti-Uzbek town planning.

Independence in 1991 accelerated Kyrgyz in-migration, and with it competition for increasingly scarce jobs and land. Uzbeks generally came to occupy a middle niche of economic activity: shop-keepers, businessmen, and craftsmen. In the tier above them, top positions in local government, national banks, and state enterprises were largely filled by an emerging Kyrgyz elite. Uzbeks felt excluded from opportunities in these spheres, and also resented by a new poor Kyrgyz underclass of unskilled workers who came to the city from rural areas.

Likewise, the police force and army became increasingly mono-ethnic, especially as a Russian officer class retired or emigrated. This heightened Osh Uzbeks’ sense of insecurity -  the largely Russian Soviet army had intervened to stop the 1990 violence: who would help next time?

This feeling of vulnerability was further increased as Uzbekistan adopted an arms-length attitude to Osh Uzbeks. It increasingly closed its borders, and attempts by some to acquire citizenship were rebuffed. These developments disabused Uzbeks of the hope that they had a guardian over the border. The ambiguous position of Osh Uzbeks at the cusp of two states was illustrated in 2000 by an Osh Uzbek reflecting to me on the legacy of the 1990 violence and the subsequent border closures:  "If there is another war and we go to the Kyrgyz, they will shoot us.  But if we go to the Uzbeks, they will shoot us too!"   

For Osh Uzbeks, Akaev’s 2005 downfall boded ill. The nationalistic opposition who had been so critical of Akaev’s pro-minority politics were suddenly catapulted into power.  Both the letter and spirit of Akaev’s ‘common home’ slogan were dropped. Complaints of   discrimination grew: ‘the everyday abuse we used to get in the Akaev period has been exalted into state policy under Bakiev’, as one Osh Uzbek put it to me. Previously optimistic about the future, he had now given up pursuing his once promising career,  his only remaining goal being to help his children emigrate:   ‘This is a tinderbox and all it needs is one match to make the whole thing explode’, he warned me ominously in November 2009.

Contested space – Kyrgyz narratives

Kyrgyz accounts of contested place also begin with national territorial delimitation. They claim that the 1897 census under-represented the presence of Kyrgyz in and around Osh, and that many majority-Kyrgyz rural areas were erroneously given to Uzbekistan as people were deliberately misclassified by census takers.

For many Kyrgyz, the subsequent story of Osh can be narrated as the attempts of privileged Osh Uzbeks to hinder Kyrgyz from taking their rightful place in city. Kyrgyz increasingly moved in to Osh to take up roles in the modern urban life of their country, but the Soviets failed to develop quality Kyrgyz educational provision. This left Kyrgyz disadvantaged, and they often felt looked down on by urban Uzbeks and Russians. To incoming Kyrgyz it seemed as if Uzbeks had the best land, the wealthiest businesses, and the best houses in the best locations – that the Kyrgyz were second class citizens in their own state. 

Upon achieving independence in 1991, Kyrgyz formed a minority in the two main cities of their country, Bishkek and Osh.  The psychological significance of this is immense: Osh Uzbeks appeared a hindrance to the realisation of authentic Kyrgyz statehood.  But this perceived threat had an economic dimension, too. In Osh, it seemed, Uzbeks controlled much of the economy.  All but the wealthiest of new rural migrants were squeezed into often cramped apartment blocks vacated by Russians, and many regarded it as unjust that the Kyrgyz should play second-fiddle to a minority who had in 1990 turned violently against them.

Geopolitics added to these insecurities. Kyrgyz intellectuals fretted over whether the country, with little wealth and a Russified elite out of touch with Kyrgyz traditions, was viable as a state. Little Kyrgyzstan was often depicted as helplessly squeezed between big Chinese and Kazakh neighbours, and the interests of powers further afield such as Russia and the USA.

But Uzbekistan was regarded as the greatest threat: holding the country to ransom by withholding gas supplies, stealing land along the border, and robbing or shooting innocent villagers at illegal checkpoints. Osh Uzbeks, with their dense social networks in Uzbekistan, were viewed with suspicion. After all, they tuned their radios and televisions not to Bishkek, but to Uzbekistan’s slick channels that mixed glitzy pop music with nationalist state propaganda.  Historical criticism of the Soviet awarding of Osh to Kyrgyzstan, or calls for a higher status for the Uzbek language, were interpreted as a desire to renegotiate Osh’s position within Kyrgyzstan.  Thus amongst Osh Kyrgyz there was deep anxiety that the territorial integrity of their militarily weak and almost bankrupt country was threatened by a privileged yet disloyal minority. 

In Kyrgyz narratives, the wealth and privilege of Osh Uzbeks sharply contrasted to the parlous state of Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan. As one Osh Kyrgyz put it to me last November: ‘here Uzbeks are free, they have every opportunity  – universities, schools, television channels, and supermarkets, but Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan have nothing’. Kyrgyz felt that whereas they had once dominated the eastern Ferghana Valley, they had been treated unfairly in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and thus ever needed to be vigilant against Uzbek intentions.

The 2010 Osh tragedy

As we have seen, the inter-ethnic history of Osh could be narrated either as the as the Kyrgyz takeover of an Uzbek city, or the attempted Uzbek capture of a Kyrgyz city, or the peaceful coexistence of kin nations in the same hometown. These narratives are of course simplified: everyone has their unique story and perspective. Nonetheless, they are broadly recognisable, and are crucial to understanding the current polarisation.

Osh after riots

For many in Osh, life is an ongoing nightmare of fear, kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder, harassment, and intimidation by state forces, armed gangs, or passers-by (photo: www.ferghana.ru)

Most explanations of recent events fail to grasp the resonance of these narratives. Some give undue weight to one at the expense of others.  Other accounts, of ‘ancient ethnic conflict’, fixate upon narratives of contest whilst ignoring those of coexistence, and overlook the fact that contest has only rarely led to violence. In reacting against these, however, some explanations suggest that a previously cosmopolitan Osh was shattered as opportunist politicians or shadowy criminal elements cynically turned economic and power struggles into ‘ethnic’ conflict. These romanticise a mythical past and fail to grasp both the local salience of conflict narratives, and how they have long existed alongside narratives of cooperation.

And what of the future? The tragedy did not finish in June 2010. For many in Osh, life is an ongoing nightmare of fear, kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder, harassment, and intimidation by state forces, armed gangs, or passers-by. Thousands have fled.  If genuine reconciliation is to be effected, it will not be by one group using gun, barricade, or courts to achieve ‘security’ at the expense of the other. Rather, it will be through listening to each others’ stories of insecurity – and, where necessary, apologising, forgiving, and recommitting to a shared future.  Recent events will make that extremely hard until some measure of justice has been achieved. But only by so doing will Uzbeks and Kyrgyz free each other from the fear and bitterness that imprisons both groups, and be able to recount once more the narrative of Osh as one of co-operation, coexistence and conviviality. May God grant peace to this remarkable city. 

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