Elections in Kyrgyzstan and the threat of inter-ethnic violence

Tensions in Kyrgyzstan are often reduced to a division between the north and south of the country, and it is widely feared that the upcoming presidential elections will trigger violent conflict. But are the causes of disagreement so simple, asks Elmira Satybaldieva, and is it necessarily true that violence will follow?

Elmira Satybaldieva
14 October 2011

The presidential election campaign in Kyrgyzstan is now into its final stages, with the vote taking place on 30 October. From the staggeringly large pool of 83 politicians who initially put themselves forward, the Central Election Commission has confirmed 20 candidates. The elections are anticipated with a sense of dread and foreboding in southern Kyrgyzstan, because citizens are terrified of possible violence during or after the elections, knowing that strong competition among political elites can create ethnic tensions and social conflicts.

The June 2010 conflict in Osh illustrated how quickly politicians can mobilise angry mobs in their struggle to retain power. Election campaigns can bring simmering tensions to the boil as politicians stoke political and ethnic divisions for their own ends, using nationalist and anti-western sentiments to garner support. The economic conditions and the fragmentation of the political elite, which were at least partly responsible for the violence in Osh, are once again present in the run-in to the current elections.

Bottom up: urban Uzbeks and Kyrgyz rural migrants 

The 2011 OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] survey of residents in Osh and Batken oblasts (regions) reveals that the top four problems are lack of land, weak pasture rights, poor access to water and inadequate electricity. Kyrgyz comprise 68% of the 2.4 million population in southern Kyrgyzstan. 78% live in rural areas and the overwhelming majority of them are poor. The agricultural sector, which accounts for 34% of GDP, and about 55% of the country’s employment, has been greatly weakened by small land holdings and lack of institutional support. The break-up of Soviet kolkhozes (collective farms) benefited only a few and impoverished many, while also removing a major source of social security. In the south, about one third of households have land plots of between 0.2 and 1 hectare, which are too small for viable economic production.


Land shortages make life difficult for poor ethnic Kyrgyz in the south of the country. In November 2010 several hundred occupied land owned by an Uzbek businessman. (Photo: Demotix / RFE/RL)

The economic situation in southern Kyrgyzstan continues to deteriorate. The government is still struggling to deal with the consequences of the June 2010 violence. According to the state registry, about 2,000 entrepreneurs lost their businesses, suffering damage that will cost more than $50 million. The Osh Bazaar, once one of the largest open-air markets in Central Asia, was looted and destroyed by fire.  It remains closed. The continued closure of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border by Uzbekistan is curtailing trade, putting a strain on the budgets of many southern cities and the ayil okmotus (village state administration).

“78% of the majority ethnic Kyrgyz in the south of the country live in rural areas and the overwhelming majority of them are poor. More and more are migrating to the Uzbek-populated cities, but second-class citizenship status and squalid living conditions await them there.”

Widespread poverty in rural areas causes large scale external and internal migration. About one million people have migrated internally from rural areas to towns. Today there are roughly 100,000 rural migrants in Osh who do not possess their own apartments and are demanding plots of land or social housing in the city. But the city has insufficient land and social housing to accommodate them. Rural migrants tend to occupy old and dilapidated state hostels scheduled for demolition. They live in appalling conditions, without access to the basic necessities, such as electricity and water. About 70% of them do not have city registration (propiska), so that they and their children cannot access education, health care and social support without paying bribes. Furthermore, without city registration, they are unable to draw money from the banks.

Internal migrants feel angry, ashamed and frustrated about their social situation.  They feel they are foreigners in their own country and the extreme poverty and humiliation they have to endure often leads them to vent their anger on the Uzbeks, because it seems to them that the Uzbeks have had more than their fair share of the resources. Tensions arise between rural migrants and urban Uzbeks for space at market places and other economic sites in Osh. These daily confrontations escalate into clashes that the local police force struggles to contain. Even after the June 2010 conflict, such confrontations still occur. For instance, on 18 July 2011, dozens of ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz confronted each other in Aravan district, after a Kyrgyz taxi driver was knifed by an Uzbek taxi driver over an argument about a place in a taxi rank. The next day, hundreds of Kyrgyz began to demolish the local market, and extra police officers had to be deployed to ease tensions.

Osh bazaar

Osh Bazaar was destroyed in the June 2010 ethnic violence
that saw damage estimated at $50m. Ethnic Uzbek traders
complain they are being pushed out in the temporary bazaars
that have replaced it. (Photo: Flickr / eatswords)

Many urban Uzbeks believe that they are being squeezed out of Osh as they lose trading places to rural Kyrgyz near the bazaar. Nearly a third of Uzbek entrepreneurs have left for Russia, having lost their businesses and needing to repay bank loans.

In addition, the scarcity of land can escalate political and ethnic tensions in the city. In November 2010, several hundred rural migrants and poor residents seized land in Zapadny zone, which belongs to an Uzbek businessman. The Osh city administration, fearing a re-occurrence of ethnic violence, promised to find alternative land plots and asked the poor Kyrgyz to vacate the occupied land. Today about 42,000 people have applied for land on the outskirts of Osh city that has no access to water, electricity and sewerage. While the city administration has promised to distribute about 2,080 hectares of land, there have been delays, which have angered poor residents and migrants.

How will this play out in the elections?

The electoral cycle triggers the political elite’s struggle for power, creating opportunities to corrupt the electorate by invoking nationalist sentiments to garner votes. Poor people have good reasons to be frustrated and angry, but their attitudes can be manipulated by the elites. Poor Kyrgyz migrants have become a politically significant constituency in Osh as the new constitution allows voting in general elections regardless of propiska. The nationalist Ata Jurt party, for instance, has already met some Kyrgyz migrants.

"There is intense competition to win both the 'Kyrgyz vote' and the 'Uzbek vote'. Where in the past Kyrgyz politicians made deals with Uzbek leaders, they are now trying to bypass them and campaign directly in high-tension Uzbek communities."

In pursuit of political capital, presidential candidates are exploiting the economic grievances of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. For instance, the governor of Osh oblast, Soronbaj Jeenbekov, and Deputy Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Kursan Asanov, both supporters of Almazbek Atambaev, have recently accelerated the process of the distribution of land to migrants in the wake of elections.

There is also an intense competition to secure the “Uzbek vote”. Ethnic Kyrgyz politicians used to bargain with Uzbek leaders, but now ethnic Kyrgyz presidential candidates have started to campaign directly in ethnic Uzbek communities. Competing electoral campaigns in fragile Uzbek neighborhoods can lead to confrontations if coercive tactics of vote mobilization (such as barring rival supporters into polling stations) are employed.

Political entrepreneurs have to balance the populist demands made by rural ethnic Kyrgyz, who feel threatened as a nation, with specific demands from urban ethnic Uzbeks, who in turn feel threatened as a minority in an increasingly nationalistic mood. Some candidates exploit anxieties and fears by pitting ethnic Kyrgyz against other ethnic groups. Nationalist political leaders can also take advantage of current broader xenophobic sentiments amongst the poor in order to obtain electoral support. In September 2011, the Ak Kyzmat youth movement complained that several billboard advertisements in Osh celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s independence were unpatriotic and offended ethnic Kyrgyz sentiments. The members of the youth movement, some of whom draped themselves in the Kyrgyz flag, burnt posters depicting Kyrgyz yurts covered with the flags of China, Russia, and the United States.

Top down: fragmented, disunited elites

Kyrgyz politics is often explained in terms of clan competition or regionalism, and the presidential elections have been predominantly interpreted through the prism of clan and regional identity, predicting north-south divide and clan wars. But these interpretations are not accurate. Political elites do not organize their coalitions according to clans, and the electorate does not vote according to clan logic. Regional affiliations are also not significant because of the fragmented nature of the Kyrgyz political elites and localized identities of the electorate. In addition, the June 2010 conflict has had significant implications for the voting behavior of the electorate. The southern constituencies remain crucial in the elections, making up about 52% of the overall electorate.

Orenburg region road

Kyrgyz political elites are fragmented and predetary, but none
want to see bloodshed. Their aim is to tread a thin line, 
surfing a populist wave but avoiding a violent tsunami.
(Photo: Demotix / RFE/RL)

Kyrgyz political elites are highly fragmented and predatory, described by one analyst as a pack of jackals tearing the country to pieces. They have been unable to unite on ideological grounds or regional affiliation. Instead, elite coalitions are based on business interests. The key political parties are comprised of businesspeople, often with criminal links. For instance, Bananov’s Respublika, a “northern” political party, is most notorious for such membership. One of its top members is Cholpon Sultanbekova, whose husband, the late Bayaman Erkinbaev, was a “southern” drugs baron. The two prominent “southern” presidential candidates, Adahan Madumarov and Kamchibek Tashiev, who agree on many issues, have been unable to unite and will be splitting the electorate and campaigning against each other. Omurbek Tekebaev, who is also from the South, will further split “southern” votes to support Almazbek Atambaev.

"Political elites do not organize their coalitions according to clans, and the electorate does not vote according to clan logic."

The June 2010 conflict in Osh had a great impact on political capital of key presidential candidates. Atambaev lacks support in the South, and therefore will heavily rely on the powers of his supporters within state structures to use administrative resources to court the voters. He is still perceived as a “traitor” by both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Many ethnic Kyrgyz see him as someone who conspired with the Uzbek elites and failed to prevent the violence, while many ethnic Uzbeks see him as someone who betrayed the Uzbek elites, falsely accusing them of separatism. The June 2010 conflict resurrected Kamchibek Tashiev’s political career and established loyal supporters in the South, who are capable of engaging in violent actions.

There are fears that a second round of presidential elections can lead to violence. Osh citizens have experienced the effects of an elite power struggle, fearing a possibility of repeated clashes. The use of violence has become a common feature among Kyrgyz political elites. The recent revelation of Medet Sadyrkulov’s death [link in Russian] illustrates how brutally political competitors are dealt with. Everyone also knows that Kyrgyz politicians employ their own private security forces to mobilise support and to martial entrances to polling stations, allowing only their supporters through to vote. The marginalised and weak state institutions are unable to curtail the power of rich elites.

However, none of the presidential candidates wants to see bloodshed and their aim is to tread the thin and delicate line between surfing a populist wave and seeing that wave turn into a violent tsunami. But there is still little faith in the possibility of fairly smooth elections. The media war has already started. Television channel no.7 in Jalal-Abad, loyal to Tashiev, has been very active and critical in exposing the corrupt actions of some of the members of the former interim government.

The presidential elections will be a test of candidates’ integrity and of Kyrgyz sovereignty. Behind the deceptively peaceful pre-election campaigns, there have been intense negotiations on power sharing, resulting in some leading presidential candidates (such as Omurbek Tekebaev) pulling out of the race. The election results will reveal the nature of the compromise and whether political elites have learnt the lessons from the violence of June 2010.

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