Tensions still simmering in Kyrgyzstan

By bne IntelliNews June 17, 2011

Izabella Mier-Jędrzejowicz in Osh -

One year on from the ethnic violence that almost destroyed the southern city of Osh in the wake of the second Tulip Revolution, tensions are still high. Politicians jockey for position rather than mending fences and the work of the international organisations is proving divisive.

The burntout centre of the ancient bazaar in Osh has been shut for more than a year now and its trade has spilled out onto the surrounding streets, cluttering up the roads with live chickens and cheap Chinese plastic goods. With the help of over $100m in foreign aid, the town is slowly being reconstructed after the inter-ethnic violence that exploded on June 10, 2010 between the city's Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations. But the empty bazaar stands as testament to the clash of interests bubbling under the surface.

Ostensibly, it was a scuffle over casino winnings that sparked the war (as everyone refers to it in Osh). Uzbeks gathered in seconds, alerted by mobile text messages, and as the police struggled to disperse the crowd, Kyrgyz gathered on the other side of town. Street fighting broke out and over the next four days spiralled into pogroms, gender-based violence and looting. The violence slowly subsided, not because of the presence of the Kyrgyz army, but thanks to a rumour of an imminent retaliatory attack by the Uzbek army from over the border.

A UN International Commission of Inquiry counted a total of 470 dead, thousands injured and up to 300,000 displaced. The Uzbek minority suffered the brunt of the violence, accounting for just under three-quarters of the dead and injured, according to the commission's findings. "Neither of the ethnic groups is to blame ... The preconditions lay in the weakness of the state, and the consequences in the army's inability to stop the fighting," the commission's report concluded.

Locked in

As is so often the case, in reality the ethnic violence was a consequence of the revolution that saw the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev ousted in April 2010. The provisional government that replaced him is still struggling to gain full control of the country.

One element in that struggle is that the war has revived tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and the large Uzbek minority who live in the south of the country - an enforced ethnic mix that is a legacy of Stalin's penchant for weakening nationalism by transferring populations. Locked in by mountains, Osh has nowhere to expand; jobs and land are scarce and ethnic tensions have always been high.

In short, the revolution has bequeathed a continuing power struggle between the dethroned political elites and supporters of the provisional government. Uzbek leaders have organised rallies supporting the new authorities, whilst the local elite has turned to nationalist rhetoric to appeal to local Kyrgyz voters.

The ethnic Uzbeks, hoping to resolve issues ignored for many years, are easily mobilised. Their main grievance is their under-representation in the local administration. For instance, of the 110 judges in southern Kyrgyzstan, only one is Uzbek. "That is what Kadyrbek Batyrov wanted," says an Uzbek activist from Jalal-Abad referring to the former parliament deputy who has fled criminal charges for his part in the disturbances. "He didn't call for autonomy, he called for equality."

The tension is also driven by competition to control nefarious privileges, such as control of the drug smuggling trade, with 10 out of 12 opium routes out of Afghanistan passing through the city.

Failure and mistrust all round

There is now the potential for years of anger and resentment in Osh. Nobody is allowed to be neutral, and the accusations continually bubble under the surface, waiting to erupt. "The Uzbeks are getting all the foreign money," one Kyrgyz woman says bitterly. "The Americans are giving them everything - new houses and even fridges. We have to fend for ourselves."

Meanwhile, the government is failing to resolve the issues, and even denies their existence. No peace-building proposals have been presented and the army remains as weak as it was 12 months ago. The police, in their eagerness to bring perpetrators to justice, use arbitrary arrest then extort money from those they have detained, according to reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published in June. "We call this police entrepreneurship," says a human rights monitor from OHCHR.

Amnesty International claims that the predominance of Kyrgyz in the police force means Uzbeks are the natural victims of this business. Of the 271 people taken into custody in the last year in relation to the violence, 230 were Uzbek.

Stoking the tension further, there are now accusations from inside donor agencies such as the UN and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that the local administration is siphoning off international aid money for personal benefit. This has only antagonised a growing conflict between the Osh administration and the international organisations.

Osh mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov wants to resolve the problem of land shortage by developing a new urban plan, replacing the bazaar and old housing in the Uzbek quarters with modern high-rise buildings, but the international agencies object. The upshot is paralysis, with the government lacking the finances to carry out the plan.

Meanwhile, the work of the international agencies is provoking anger amongst the Kyrgyz as their support is going mainly to the Uzbek community, which lost 90% of its property in last year's violence. That the offices of these organisations are all situated in the Uzbek quarter of the city does little to convince many Kyrgyz otherwise, although one international diplomat claims: "We've organised all the teams in one area so that we can evacuate everybody at once. It's not important that it's Uzbek."

The result is deep mistrust of the international organisations amongst the Kyrgyz community, which makes already tricky mediation projects next to impossible. "People see the aid as a way for foreigners to exercise control over the country," says Tursunbek, an activist from local NGO 'Tolerantnost', who asks that his full name be withheld. "They don't trust anybody - not the government that is all corrupt, not the international organisations who they see as Americans come to rule them, and not us, the NGOs that work with them. They think we steal all the money."

Tensions still simmering in Kyrgyzstan

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