Why is Ethnic Violence Erupting Between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan?
As we watched the horrible news of violent chaos that overtook Southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week, the first question that came to mind was – why? Why would people who have been neighbors for decades be drawn into such senseless violence? Is it related to the overthrow of Bakiyev's government, or are we witnessing something completely unrelated? While information coming out of Osh and Jalalabad remains spotty, there is plenty reason to believe that the triggers of the unrest are related to the political instability in the country.
As the interim government claims, pro-Bakiyev supporters, and especially his infamous brothers, may have incited this violence. Witnesses have reported some evidence of such a provocation, but their claims remain unverifiable. Regardless, the fragile nature of the Kyrgyz state coupled with the frustration of Kyrgyz citizens over their country's continual instability has exacerbated the situation as even the interim government admits it has lost control. It is also likely that criminal elements are somehow involved as regime change in the country once again opens up the criminal underworld to turf battles. But, these various issues do not tell us the whole story. There is still the question of why this violence is taking an ethnic character when Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are hardly at the center of the present political crisis that may have triggered the unrest.
Most stories in the media have downplayed the ethnic character of this unrest, but those that have attempted to describe the ethnic background have generally gotten things mostly wrong. Such stories tend to focus on a history of Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension that comes from the drawing of borders in the Ferghana Valley in 1924. While the strange borders of the Ferghana Valley certainly help to aggravate ethnic relations in the region, they are not the cause of ethnic animosity. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the 1924 borders did not “create” the ethnic groups of Central Asia out of thin air in order to divide a united pan-Turkic population. The borders only explain why Osh and Jalalabad are part of Kyrgyzstan when they were traditionally Uzbek cities. Furthermore, it should be noted that, despite the continual political instability in Kyrgyzstan, few Uzbeks in the country would like to see their cities annexed to Uzbekistan where there is extensive political repression and arguably even more economic pressures.
So, what is the cause of ethnic animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? I would argue that it is not founded on ethnicity, the manipulation of nation-states, or an evil conspiracy masterminded by Stalin. Instead, this tension emerges from a cultural cleavage specific to Central Asia that is not limited to Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but is founded on the region's history of nomadic-settled interaction. Historically, the lines between nomads and settled people are somewhat blurred in Central Asia, and today there are virtually no real nomadic people left in the region. Nonetheless, the delineation between nomadic and settled people continues to be real in the minds of Central Asians and represents the primary cultural fault-line in the region.
While occasionally Central Asians will evoke this cultural fissure directly when Uzbeks or Uyghurs refer to Kazakhs or Kyrgyz as nomads without culture or when Kyrgyz and Kazakhs call Uyghurs and Uzbeks “Sarts” (a derogatory name for the settled people of the region that has pre-revolutionary origins). Usually, however, this cleavage is expressed through ethnic prejudices. These prejudices can be found throughout Central Asia, even in large cities where the idea of a settled-nomadic divide seems ridiculous, but they are most intense in the locations where the descendents of nomads and agriculturalists live in close proximity to each other. Southern Kyrgyzstan is one such place, but it is not the only one. In fact, if you had similar triggers for conflict in the other Central Asian countries, it would not be that surprising if violence erupted between Uzbeks and Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan, between Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Dashagouz or Mari regions, between Uyghurs and Kyrgyz in the Chu Valley, or between Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Ili Valley.
The tension between former nomads and settled people in Central Asia is not like that between ethnic groups in the Balkans or even in the Caucasus. It usually is not expressed outwardly, instead manifesting itself in the prejudices of daily interactions, business transactions, etc. It is only when these interactions are put under intense pressure from other factors does it seem to flare into violent conflict. But, when that happens, history has shown that the violence becomes intense and personal. Prior to this past week, the most recent example of this viciousness was the violence that erupted in the area of Osh in 1990. As Russian ethnographer Valery Tishkov has shown us in his meticulous and often “stomach-churning” descriptions of the violence at that time, the boundaries of civility were thrown to the wind as sexual violence, physical mutilation, and brutal murder using rudimentary farm tools spread throughout the region.
At the heart of this tension between former nomadic and settled peoples in the region is a fundamental distrust that likely harks back to a time when the nomads were cheated by traders at bazaars when they came to settled regions to sell their livestock and when nomads would ambush trading caravans that came through their herding regions. To this day, the stereotypes that each group uses for the other corresponds to such experiences. Former nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen) suggest that the settled peoples are “sneaky,” “cheap,” and not to be trusted. Descendents of the settled peoples of the region (Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tajiks to a lesser extent since they have less interaction with former nomads), in turn, claim that the former nomads are “lazy,” “corrupt,” and “uncultured.”
I feel that these prejudices are important to understand because they indeed run deep in Central Asia. That, in of itself, does not suggest that such violence is inevitable. It merely means that there is a deep cultural cleavage that can be exploited by those who wish to foster instability. Obviously, whoever provoked the recent unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan understood this all too well. Unfortunately, the international community seems not to understand it and appears to remain dumbfounded at the violence of the last week.
It is hard to predict the fallout from this violence, but it is likely to have a long legacy. The primary “wildcard” in the foreseeable future remains the response of Uzbekistan, which has reportedly thus far accepted about 100,000 Uzbek refugees from Osh and Jalalabad. Will these people return to their homes? If their property is taken over by Kyrgyz, how will the Uzbek government respond? These are the types of factors that could create a much more deadly long-term conflict in the region. Although Kyrgyzstan's interim government will likely work to prevent such an escalation of conflict, it is unclear if they have the capacity to prevent it. As for Uzbekistan, the intentions of Tashkent remain unclear, but there is a situation open for the Uzbek government to exploit. Let's hope cooler heads prevail.