The ethnicisation of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Media talk of ‘ethnic conflict’ in Kyrgyzstan is misleading, in that it takes ethnicity to be causal. This does not describe the complex, messy process – political, economic, social and structural – whereby this crisis has become ethnicised. What matters now is to understand why and how this has occurred with such destructive speed
Madeleine Reeves
21 June 2010
Kyrgyzstan map

As a tense, anguished calm gathers in southern Kyrgyzstan, international news networks have been quick to settle on an explanation for the unprecedented violence of the last few days : an “inter-ethnic” conflict in which deep-seated national antagonisms have erupted in a tinder-box region.  This is a story of Kyrgyz against Uzbek; Uzbek against Kyrgyz: a “violent history”, in the words of a recent article in the Independent, destined to repeat itself.  Such explanations are as tempting as they are familiar: we have seen them in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Kenya and the Sudan.  In each case, cultural essentialism or geographical determinism is used to foreclose analysis: the fault lies with “nationalities” who are presumed to hate each other; with their leaders, who are seen as stirring up trouble, and in this case, with Stalin and his gerrymandering, who ensured that ethnic and geographical boundaries never properly “matched up” in this culturally complex part of Central Asia.

In this article, I take issue with such explanations, and with the essentialisms they contain.  I do so not in order to suggest that ethnicity is irrelevant to the current conflict.  It is – or it has become so – in ways that deserve sustained analysis.  People are being attacked, their homes burned and their businesses looted because they are identified as belonging to one or other ethnic group.  And they are patrolling streets, defending homes, hiding in cellars, fleeing the city through fear of attack because they speak a particular language at home, have a particular national classification in their passport; live in a particular neighbourhood; identify – or are identified – as “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” at this moment of reckoning.  Ethnicity matters, at the moment, then, in powerful and often violently consequential ways.  But this should be the beginning of our explanation, not the end point. 

Writing of her experiences during the first Balkan war, Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic described the experience of being “pinned to the wall of nationhood”; reduced to a “single dimension” by the experience of war and political transformation inside the former Yugoslavia.  In recent weeks, political tensions, economic anxieties, criminal violence, the freezing of legal process, and what seems to be a quite concerted attempt at ethnic mobilisation and provocation by supporters of ousted former-president Bakiev mean that in southern Kyrgyzstan, mothers, brothers, school-friends, colleagues, neighbours and drinking partners have been “pinned to the wall” of nationhood, reduced to the single category, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” in this historically most complex and socially variegated of regions.  

Writing to me a few weeks ago, a tri-lingual (Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian-speaking), “Kyrgyz”-identifying friend, with Uzbek and Uighur heritage on his mother’s side, described how his “Uzbek”-identifying wife was increasingly conscious of the appearance of ethnic slurs in the playground when she took her (ethnically “mixed”) children out to play.   An Uzbek-identifying friend from Jalalabat noted in the same period a growing sense of disillusion amongst Jalalabat Uzbeks, as ethnically-marked political-criminal groupings sought to take advantage of the change of leadership in the wake of Bakiev’s ouster to seize control of businesses traditionally dominated by Uzbek elites in the city.  For both of these acquaintances, ethnicity was a constitutive part of their identity, just as was their age, their gender, their education, and their identification with a cosmopolitan, urban Ferghana culture.  Each, in different ways, has written of the horror of being reduced in recent days to that single dimension, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek”.  Talking of this as an “ethnic conflict” misses that essentially processual dimension:  it is essentialising; it is depoliticising and it acts as an analytical “stop”.  It takes ethnicity as being analytically causal, rather than asking about the complex, messy, deeply political dynamics through which, in a moment of state crisis, conflict has come to be ethnicised.

I consider these three critiques in turn.  What we have been witnessing in Osh and Jalalabat over the last few days is a disturbing and distressing spiral of violence.  Much of this has been articulated in ethnic terms: evident in targeted attacks on property, homes and in the brutal wounding of those perceived as ethnically “other” whether they be Kyrgyz or Uzbek. 

Less reported are the multiple instances where ethnicity has been irrelevant to action: when property has been looted because “they” represent wealth and opportunity that is inaccessible to “us”; when Kyrgyz have sheltered Uzbeks and vice versa; when neighbours have sought to defend their street or their mosque from attack not because they are of the same ethnicity, but because they live in the same neighbourhood and want to have the chance of continuing to do so. 

“Inter-ethnic conflict” accommodates no place, analytically, for such kinds of motivation; no room for action (heroic or violent) that is not driven by ethnic antagonism; no room to account for those who refuse to be bound by ethnic classification, or by dint of history, parentage or worldview consider themselves first and foremost to be citizens of Kyrgyzstan or as residents of Osh, rather than representatives of one or other ethnic group.

It also leaves no place for enquiring about difference within ethnic groups, between rich and poor, urban and rural; or about the role of an aggressive, hyper-masculinised identity in protecting “our women” from “their men”.  This is a gendered conflict, as much as it is an ethnicised one – something that has been largely absent from media analysis.

Secondly, an argument in terms of deep-seated inter-ethnic antagonisms is depoliticising.  It suggests that at the root of conflict lies “hatred” of one ethnic group towards another; intolerance; an appetite for violence; a lack of civility.  Implicitly and explicitly, news reports have been full of such images: “wild Kyrgyz gangs” descending from the mountains, destroying everything in their wake. Violent destruction there has been, certainly, and plenty of it. But it is violence that has been provoked, steered, funded, militarised, and harnessed in often breathtakingly cynical ways. 

There are social and structural reasons why the Kyrgyzstani military recruits overwhelmingly from among the ethnic Kyrgyz, and why military hardwear appears to have been appropriated unequally to continue a fight that began initially with stones and sticks.   There are social and structural reasons, too, why much of the small business wealth in southern Kyrgyzstan is controlled by Uzbeks; why the Kyrgyz have come to dominate within a highly nepotistic state bureaucracy; and why so many families have come to depend on remittances from migrant labour to sustain any kind of livelihood and despair of ever having a viable future in their own country.   There are political reasons why this conflict has happened now, in the wake of Bakiev’s outster and just two weeks before a planned referendum was due to legitimise new political rule.  And there are institutional and structural reasons – in which the west has been silently complicit for years – why supporters of the ousted president have been able to fund a counter-insurgency through the most cynical and violent means imaginable.

“Inter-ethnic conflict” as an explanatory frame is problematic, then, not because ethnicity doesn’t matter, but because the “ethnic group” by itself doesn’t do any meaningful explanatory work (unless, of course, we assume that some ethnic groups are “naturally” pre-disposed to violence).  Ethnicity in Osh is socially constituted, as well as socially and spatially organised.  It is produced and reproduced in a host of domestic, educational, social and political institutions, from schools to television broadcasts, from religious celebrations to the organisation of domestic and neighbourhood space.  Critically, moreover, it is reproduced in a host of business networks, patronage relations, and crimino-political groupings, the activity and violence of which has increased dramatically in the weeks since former president Bakiev was ousted in an uprising on April 7th.   

Understanding the long-term and proximal causes of conflict demands engaging seriously with this progressive ethnicisation of social life, such that at a moment of conflict this is the most powerful, the most consuming, the most compelling social identity available.  The analytical task, I suggest, is to understand how and why this process of ethnicisation has occurred when it did, and with such destructive speed, without taking “ethnic difference” to be analytically causal.

Madeleine Reeves, University of Manchester

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