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World View: Kyrgyzstan violence

Sarah Shenker | 15:12 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010

Regional experts have been debating who is behind last week's violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, in which more than 170 people died in fighting between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek. An estimated 250,000 people have fled their homes. Interim president Roza Otunbeyeva, who took over after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, has struggled to retain control in the south of the country.

The New York Times quotes Alexander Cooley, a professor at Columbia University's Harriman Institute: "I don't believe in a narrative of long-simmering ethnic tension," he tells the paper:

"Indeed, ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable, Professor Cooley and others say. Both are predominantly Muslim and they speak a mutually comprehensible Turkic language. The most notable distinction, the one that is most responsible for the animosities that led to the recent violence, Central Asian experts say, is economic: Kyrgyz are traditional nomads, while Uzbeks are farmers."

Professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida Eugene Huskey tells the CBC that the fighting was not a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic violence among communities which, he says, have been leaving together largely peacefully for centuries. Instead, he says, the likely instigators were Kyrgyz backers of Mr Bakiyev, which links to the drugs trade:

"This was... a well-orchestrated and well-financed effort by armed groups to provoke conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. There are reports that these groups distributed weapons and ethnically explosive propaganda to each side with the aim of unleashing a conflict between the two communities. It is important to emphasize that although the ethnic Uzbek population appears to have suffered the most, with many now seeking safety in neighbouring Uzbekistan, ethnic Kyrgyz have also been targets of the violence.
"We don't know for sure who is behind it at this point, but it seems likely that local drug lords and criminal groups joined forces with individuals close to the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Both groups have an interest in destabilizing the situation and not permitting the holding of a planned constitutional referendum on June 27."

Registan's Christian Bleuer believes this explanation lacks credibility:

"There is an oft-repeated tendency to blame criminal groups for carrying out the violent attacks and to blame politicians and/or deposed leaders for the manipulation of these groups. Basically, blaming criminal groups and power figures absolves the teenagers and young men from the neighbourhood.
"To put too much stress on criminal groups is to avoid, or lead the reader to miss, a discussion of ongoing tensions and conflicts in the community...
"That being said, Bakiyev's patronage network (in all its possible vertical and horizontal manifestations) could very well be responsible for the initiation of violence... However, the formula of 'Bad guy gives order to foot soldiers to let loose the dogs of war' oversimplifies the initiation of violent conflict.
"People without power sometimes make their own decisions - out of fear, hatred or material benefit - to kill their neighbours based on their ethnicity, a concept that they can, in many places, consider quite important."

RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier points to a history of tension in the region. Inter-ethnic violence broke out in 1990, triggered by a dispute over access to water. Soviet troops had to be called in to deal with the unrest, he says:

"A group of Uzbeks settled on a patch of land that had water running through it - the Ferghana Valley is also the breadbasket of Central Asia, it's the agricultural area that really feeds almost the whole population of greater Central Asia. That situation erupted. Some Kyrgyz felt that the land that was given to the Uzbeks wasn't fairly given to them...
"There has been a lot of reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations since 1990, but that isn't going so far as to say they put all their differences aside. This was always a tinderbox that was waiting to be lit up again."

An editorial in the UK's Guardian newspaper uses even stronger language:

"What is taking place in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan is an old-fashioned central Asian pogrom, a brutal act of ethnic cleansing. The departure of the Bakiyev clan triggered a competition for resources in the south. The Uzbeks, who ran the local markets, were accused of a political power grab, and a weak government in Bishkek - a coalition of opposition forces - could do little to prevent the resulting explosion.
"So everyone keeps their heads down: the Americans who lease an airbase vital to their interests in Afghanistan, the Russians, the Chinese. Watching from the sidelines is the order of the day. Help us, the Uzbeks cry. Who will tell them nobody is listening?"

Links in full

Andrew E Kramer | New York Times | Tensions rooted in class, not ethnicity
Jennifer Clibbon | CBC | Why is this happening now?
Christian Bleuer | Registan | Kyrgyzstan violence: Conspiracies abound
Bruce Pannier | RFE/RL | 10 things about the ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan
Guardian | Kyrgyzstan: Mob rule in Osh

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