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23/06/2010 | Kyrgyzstan's Ethnic Violence Unravels Previous Gains

Lois Kapila

When Roza Otunbayeva came to power at the head of the Kyrgyz interim government in April, she knew that the road ahead was going to be tough. Her program of constitutional reform, new elections, and a jump-start for the country's stagnating economy would have been difficult even in less uncertain times.


But since the spring, Otunbayeva has been faced with a spate of riots, murders, violent clashes and burning villages in the south of the country, culminating in the flight of an estimated 400,000 Uzbeks and the death of more than 2,000 Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in violent riots over the past few weeks. And it might not be over yet: There are rumors that violence may soon explode in Tokmok and Bishkek in the north. 

The potential for destabilizing blowback from April's transfer of power had been evident since Otunbayeva took over from ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The economy has taken a hit, with key industries and sectors directly affected. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayaev banned shipments of uranium from his country -- the world's largest uranium producer -- to a processing factory in Kara Balta. A mining contract between Kentor Gold and Kyrgyzstan-based Aurum Mining has also been frozen until the unrest has subsided. Meanwhile, the tourism industry, frequently identified as a target sector for development, has been reduced to a trickle during the usually busy summer season. 

The most-recent violence is only going to make it more difficult for the interim government to implement its program of reform. That, along with eye-witness accounts on the ground, has led some observers to point the finger at the previous regime for opportunistically stirring up trouble. It is too early to say for sure whether this is true or not. But even if the violence was sparked by an organized pro-Bakiyev group, the question remains as to why it was so easy to ignite.

The Ferghana Valley has been labeled a hot spot of ethnic tensions since an eruption of riots there in 1990. Since then, scholars have written papers and policy recommendations, while ethnic tensions have been monitored and data recorded. In addition, NGOs and international organizations established programs more than a decade ago for the promotion of inter-ethnic reconciliation. None of that was enough to prevent the outbreak of violence, whether organized or not.

But the bitter irony, according to Pascal Bernard -- country director of the French NGO, ACTED, which has been working on conflict mitigation projects in the south since 2005 -- is that relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks at a local community level had appeared to be gradually improving. Projects for dealing with some of the main problems -- cattle theft and corruption among border guards -- were proving effective in reducing tensions. "One way of monitoring our success is the increasing numbers participating in cross-community dialogues," notes Bernard. "In some places this had increased by 20 percent to 30 percent, in others by up to 70 percent."

However, this had been accompanied by the political marginalization of Uzbeks after Bakiyev came to power in 2005. 

"Bakiyev relied more on southern Kyrgyz groups," notes Matteo Fumagalli, a professor of political science at the Central European University. "There were no more than two or three Uzbek representatives at the national level." Uzbeks had originally hoped for a higher level of representation, and the appointment of an Uzbek to the powerful position of mayor of Osh in the summer of 2005 seemed to augur well for them. By December, however, Osh's mayor had been replaced by a Kyrgyz, after which Bakiyev paid little attention to Uzbek groups.

Even with this lack of political representation, however, Fumagelli believes that community relations were no worse than in many multi-ethnic communities. "These were only low-level tensions," he argued. "What multi-ethnic society is not without some level of conflict every now and then?"

Fumagelli, Bernard, and others argue that the focus should not be on supposed age-old ethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley, but rather on the weakness of the Kyrgyz state and the dismal state of its economy. "To refer to this as inter-ethnic violence risks a mischaracterization of events," said Fumagelli. "The causes are not ethnic in nature, but quintessentially political. It has more to do with the unraveling of the state."

The central government in Bishkek has failed to establish control over many parts of the administrative apparatus, and has suffered from a severe lack of legitimacy. This left a security void that those with an interest in creating instability could capitalize on. By this view, the small advances being made locally were simply overtaken by national instability.

Some observers of the region might use the violence to argue that a multi-ethnic state like Kyrgyzstan needs an authoritarian leader to force various groups to cooperate. All that authoritarian regimes accomplish, however, is to keep underlying tensions hidden beneath a veneer of stability. While some of them may be effective in dealing with minority issues by using patronage networks, under Bakiyev not even this was true.

Instead, what is needed in Kyrgyzstan, according to Dr. John Heathershaw, lecturer of international relations at Exeter University, is a strengthening of the government's legitimacy, by holding the constitutional referendum and ensuring that security is re-established as soon as possible. 

By no means will this be easy. Only Russian intervention would be considered legitimate by all the parties concerned, yet Moscow seems reluctant to get bogged down in a thankless peacekeeping operation. 

All the same, Heathershaw thinks that now is the time to learn from the lesson of Tajikistan, where an early intervention in 1991 may have prevented a ravaging civil war: "Without being hysterical right now this is containable in a way that it won't be in six months. There is an opportunity to nip it in the bud."

As reports emerge that refugees are gradually returning home, the Kyrgyz government and international community may be tempted to relax. But now riven with new levels of mistrust, Kyrgyzstan's work is only just beginning. 

**Lois Kapila is a freelance journalist with an interest in Central Asia, currently based in Washington, D.C. She previously worked as assistant editor and correspondent at the Times of Central Asia, and editor of the Caspian Business Journal.

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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