Osh report: quick conclusions, lost opportunities

Poorly researched, political and overly assertive, the official report into last year’s violence in Osh and Jalalabat leaves as many questions as it answers. The national discussion to follow must avoid similar pitfalls.

Madeleine Reeves
24 January 2011

On January 19th, seven months after violence consumed the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalalabat, the National Commission established to investigate the causes and consequences of the conflict presented its findings and recommendations to Parliament. 

As the only national body with such a mandate, and in a context where accounts of blame have increasingly polarised Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities, the Commission had significant potential to act as a force for reconciliation by examining competing accounts of events; testing (and if necessary discrediting) the fog of conspiracy theories that surround the causes of violence; holding the interim government to account for the conduct of subsequent investigative operations; and providing pragmatic recommendations for re-establishing trust between Kyrgyzstan’s majority and minority populations. 

Osh riots

The rioting in Osh began with a fight between mostly ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz gangs, and developed into looting, arson, and shooting

The slim report that it has produced, however, leaves as many questions as it answers, and is likely only to further entrench the polarization of debate about what really happened in Osh.  Sloppily referenced, methodologically questionable, shot through with logical and evidential inconsistencies, and constantly slipping between individual and collective responsibility, the report asserts rather than explains, providing few verifiable sources from which to assess its claims. 

This might not be so troubling were the Commission’s conclusions not so bold.  The events in southern Kyrgyzstan, we are told, constituted a “planned, large-scale (krupnomashtabnaya) provocation, oriented towards the splitting (raskol) of Kyrgyzstan and disrupting the unity of its people.”  Responsibility for this provocation is seen as lying with “nationalistically-minded leaders of the Uzbek community” who sought to take advantage of the power vacuum that existed in the south following the 7th April uprising to advance their political demands.  Chief amongst these provocateurs is the (now exiled) Uzbek businessman and politician, Kadyrzhan Batyrov and members of the “Bakiev clan”, discredited after the April uprising and willing to cavort with a cast of drug barons, terrorists and leaders of the banned Islamic Movement of Turkestan to destabilise the region.  

What had broken down—in the structures of solidarity, in the networks of social life, in the messages that young people were encountering in school, on television, in sports clubs, from friends and parents—that enabled the violence of the preceding months to become routinised and mobilised along ethnic lines?

Madeleine Reeves

The report begins with the historical, cultural and political roots of the conflict.  It locates these in the geography and social complexity of the Ferghana valley, in the “unlearned lessons” of conflict in Osh in June 1990, and in the changing ethnic composition of the south since independence in 1991. The Ferghana valley, as well as a meeting place of civilizations, has always been host to “a tight knot of diverse problems, contradictions and conflicts”: divided by the national-territorial delimitation of the 1920s into ostensibly national republics that nonetheless had large minority populations, and marked now by ongoing tensions over border delimitation and the use of trans-boundary resources. 

The report notes that many lessons from the Osh conflict of June 1990 were not learned, with leaders who remained in office failing to take “practical measures to correct the situation in the sphere of inter-ethnic relations” and ignoring the economic and social grievances that brought people onto the streets. The subsequent discussion of national relations in the south of Kyrgyzstan since independence concedes that the Akaev-era slogan of Kyrgyzstan as a “common home” was often merely declarative. However, the Commission concludes that “there has been no infringement of the rights of the Uzbek population of Kyrgyzstan” in the independence period, although there have been “certain problems of the representation of their best, most professional people” in positions of military and political power.

The report does not really provide a coherent argument about the roots of conflict: more a loosely connected series of assertions, coupled with demographic data on the ethnic composition of southern Kyrgyzstan. The cumulative effect of the observations, however, is to locate responsibility for tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations in southern Kyrgyzstan firmly beyond the scope of state policy. What results is a story of geographical and cultural determinism (the Ferghana valley as ethnic tinder-box and vulnerable to religious extremism), of nationalistically-oriented Uzbeks, and of cynical manipulation by political and religious leaders. This, for instance, is how the chapter on “roots” concludes:

“Archival materials, scientific research on the problems of Central Asia and facts and analytical documents concerning the tragic events of 1990 and afterward show that the Islamized and nationalistically-oriented [natsnionalisticheski-nastronnaya] Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley, whose ideas are nurtured by the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), are oriented towards the uniting of Ferghana and the creation of a unitary Islamic state – a Caliphate. This goal is also followed by the religious party, Hiz ut-Tahrir, which acts through more peaceful means.  The military actions of 1999-2000 in Batken oblast’, the incursions and terrorist acts of Islamic fighters in Kadamjai, Jalal-Abad and Uzgen, the most recent terrorist acts in Osh and Bishkek have confirmed this once again.”

This passage conflates the goals of the IMT and the “Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley”; it presumes that that Uzbek part is both “nationalistically-oriented” and committed to the creation of a Caliphate; and it presents as evidence events that bear no relation to the claim at the centre of the assertion. Such formulations have the double effect of delegitimising minority political demands (for greater political representation or linguistic rights) and of portraying Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek population as undifferentiated, undifferentiating, and of questionable loyalty to the state.  This results in some problematic assumptions. The alleged burning of the Kyrgyzstani flag in May in ex-President Bakiev’s home village of Teiit, which is given considerable explanatory weight in fuelling violence, could not, we are told “fail to arouse the anger of the Kyrgyz part of the population”.  The narrative framing assumes that the flag-burner was Uzbek (although no evidence for this is provided) and that loyalty to the Kyrgyzstan flag would naturally be stronger amongst Kyrgyz than Uzbek citizens of Kyrgyzstan. 

Kyrgyzstan map

Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek.

Such framings also generate some questionable causal linkages. An article written by the respected Kyrgyz Academician about the 1990 Osh conflict, Nurbek Omuraliev, and published on the Russian news site, Ferghana.ru on 4th June 2010 is cited as evidence of a deliberate attempt to “rouse the national feelings of the Uzbek youth.” Quite why a Kyrgyz academic and a Russian news agency should want to conspire in this way remains unclear. Cause and motivation are deduced from the effect of Omuraliev’s article, which was to foster public discussion about the 1990 events.

Similarly, the fact that many Uzbek families painted walls and gates with the words “SOS” during the height of violence is cited in the report not as evidence of distress at the prospect of attack or arson, but as proof of collective foreknowledge: a pre-given marker to forces from Uzbekistan and “armed religious extremists” to know in which homes Uzbeks lived (and presumably, though this is not stated in the report, to engage in a selective rescue operation).  The evidence for this claim is that the signs were all written in a “special paint carefully and uniformly” [akkuratno i odnotipno] and the fact that two Uzbek men in their twenties who were arrested during the events admitted as much during interrogation. We are giving no real convincing evidence that the separatist sentiment that allegedly motivated Kadyrzhan Batyrov was popularly shared: this despite the fact that there is considerable scholarly evidence to the contrary.

This is a report, then, which finds explanation in plots and conspiracies; which treats ethnicity, not as a variable dimension of social signification, but as an absolute and all-determining identity; and which conceives of populations into the playthings of their political leaders to be mobilised for violence in their name. This makes for some questionable conclusions. But it also means that other, crucial questions, are bypassed: questions about the culpability of soldiers, police officers and other everyday faces of the state, both during the heat of crisis and in subsequent investigative operations (the conduct of which has been roundly condemned by Human rights Watch and others). Questions about the normalization of extra-legal violence that has become a feature of Kyrgyzstan’s political life since the Tulip Revolution of 2005.  Questions about the anger felt by many young people, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, that the only way to get on in Kyrgyzstan is to know the right people or to get out to the construction sites of Russia. Questions, in short, about the state, its policies and the possibilities it provides for citizens to have a viable, secure future.

What was the role of rumour, of hearsay, of fear, of the often gruesome video images that were posted to websites and circulated via mobile phone? Why did traditional structures of authority break down so catastrophically in some places and yet succeed in stemming violence in others? 

Madeleine Reeves

Perhaps most importantly, by placing explanatory weight on cynical manipulation by community leaders and by treating much of the June violence as a response to “provocation”, the report bypasses the really challenging questions that deserve to be asked in the aftermath of this tragedy: why could so many young men—irrespective of ethnicity—be provoked to conduct such violence against members of another ethnic group? What had broken down—in the structures of solidarity, in the networks of social life, in the messages that young people were encountering in school, on television, in sports clubs, from friends and parents—that enabled the violence of the preceding months to become routinised and mobilised along ethnic lines? What were the mechanisms by which young people were organized and armed to conduct atrocities? What was the role of rumour, of hearsay, of fear, of the often gruesome video images that were posted to websites and circulated via mobile phone? Why did traditional structures of authority break down so catastrophically in some places and yet succeed in stemming violence in others? And if the violence of June was as planned and prepared as the report claims it to be, why was more not done to prevent bloodshed and to appeal to village- and mahalla-level voices of authority to restrain sons and grandsons from violence? 

These are questions that defy easy answers; but the fact that they are barely even posed in the report limits the possibility for sustained discussion of how such a tragedy might be prevented from recurring. The report’s 19 recommendations contain few substantive proposals for imagining or actualising a viable, ethnically plural Kyrgyzstan in which all citizens feel they have a future. There are recommendations, to be sure, to declare 2011 a year of “harmony and tolerance”; to develop a Concept and programme for ethnic policy; to conduct new research on inter-ethnic relations, and to work towards “the consolidation and integration of the people of Kyrgyzstan” in future town-planning. Such initiatives are to be welcomed. But quite how such measures will foster trust in a context still dominated by fear, anger and concerns over basic security remains to be seen. 

Osh riots

Uzbek refugees in a no-man's land, crossing the Kyrgyz border into Uzbekistan.

As it is, the report has long become a political object. Some of the Commission’s original members have resigned; another publicly distanced himself from the conclusions days before its publication, criticising the lack of sustained research, the “superficial” conclusions and recommendations, and the lack of discussion around methodology and working procedures. At least one Parliamentarian and member of the Provisional Government who is criticised in the report for failing to prevent bloodshed has threatened to sue the Commission’s chairman, Abdygany Erkebaev. And on 19th January, the Parliamentary Speaker urged parliament to consider the “ethics” of the one Uzbek member of the Commission, Bakhtiar Fattakhov, who apparently disagreed with the report’s conclusions.

Amidst the anger and the politicking, serious debate about the Commission’s findings, its methodology and its evidential base risk being drowned out. This would be a missed opportunity. For all the questions that the report leaves unasked and unanswered, its publication and discussion in Parliament are symbolically important. It provides for the first time an official narrative of what occurred in Osh and the opportunity for public discussion on ways to prevent such a tragedy recurring. The tens of thousands of Kyrgyzstanis whose lives have been turned upside down by this tragedy deserve, at the very least, for that discussion not to be overwhelmed by the clamour of party politics.

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