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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 26, June 19, 2010

Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic Genocide and Politics of Revenge

Sunday 20 June 2010, by Anuradha M. Chenoy


There has been large scale ethnic killing of minority Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, which is on the border of Uzbekistan and home to several minorities. Over a hundred people, mostly belonging to the Uzbek minority, have been killed; thousands, including women, children, foreign students, injured; thousands have had to flee their homes in the face of threats, revealing the barbarity of the attackers. This is a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing. This is not the first time that inter-ethnic clashes have occurred in this poor southern region of Kyrgyzstan, but the serious-ness of the nature and impact of these clashes has only increased.

The UN Secretary-General has called for a stop to this ethnic genocide as the Kyrgyz Government has been unable to intervene effectively, since they have little control over this region which is ethnically and politically divided. Russia, the US, EU and others have called for an immediate end to the rampage as curfew has been imposed. Indian students have been caught in the midst of this mayhem. The possibility of some kind of foreign/international intervention exists.

Kyrgyzstan only in April was witness to a change in regime, when Opposition forces led by Rosa Otunbayeva came to power following public clashes which had left 80 dead after government forces opened fire. This brought an end to the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev who first went to the Osh region (which is his stronghold) and tried to stage a comeback but then went into exile to Belarus, promising revenge. The Opposition blamed Bakiyev for rigged and unfair elections; corruption; oppression; increasing poverty; and nepotism. His family and supporters have a strong base in the south and control the local administration in the Osh-Jalalabad belt. This is why the Uzbek victims have shown that the local police and Army stood by and allowed the carnage. Interim President Rosa Otunbayeva had promised elections and political stability and has been openly supported by the Medvedev-Putin regime of Russia.

The Kyrgyz leadership has asked the Russians for military support. The Russians have given humanitarian assistance and sent paratroopers to their Osh military base, to reinforce and ostensibly protect this. The Russians have peace- keeping troops meant for conflicts in the former CIS countries that they can use any time if the situation calls for intervention. Kyrgyzstan is party to several agreements for collective security like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) with the Russians which can be used for Russian support and Rosa Otunbayeva is seen as close to the Russian authorities.

While the US would like stability in Kyrgyz-stan because of its Manas base which is important for its needs in Afghanistan, they would still resist any Russian intervention. Russia has increased its influence in Central Asia as a whole and the US is wary of this. The Chinese too have interests in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole and the Shanghai Coope-ration Organisation is one of the major regional organisations that China uses to keep its interest alive. The other Central Asian states would welcome Russian intervention, since this inter-ethnic conflict has a direct and deleterious impact on them. Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations have already had tensions on account of earlier ethnic riots and this round is only likely to worsen this.


The truth is that identity politics has become the means for narrow short-term political gains in the Osh-Jalalbad belt of Kyrgyzstan which is the hardest hit by the economic transition and crony capitalism. The hardship, due to the rapid decline of social indicators, has been blamed on the minority ethnic Uzbeks who are now seen as ‘outsiders’. The Uzbeks were seen to have supported the Rosa Otunbayeva leadership, and the political differences once again triggered inter-ethnic clashes. Former President Bakiyev and his cronies have thus used the divide since political instability can discredit the current government and help them come back to power. But the quarrel between two sets of political elites can destroy this fragile country.

Kyrgyzstan has been a fragile democracy, earlier praised by the World Bank for its quick economic transition from a command and control economy to an open and privatised one. But this transition has been hard for the people of the country which, unlike its neighbours of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, does not have oil and gas resources to depend on. They need to urgently initiate a pro-people development.

Kyrgyzstan has used its critical geo-strategic location of close proximity to the Chinese, Central Asian, West Asian and South Asian borders to make gains. They have leased out military bases to the US for their operations in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is particularly dependant on Russia, which has given them much economic assistance and has in exchange got a second base near Osh. When the US encouraged the colour revolutions Kyrgyzstan had suddenly declared that they would end the lease to the American base, but they re-negotiated this lease again for a higher price.

A lot is at stake in this fragile republic. First and most important is that the multi-ethnic character of all of Central Asia and beyond is at risk if such clashes continue and identity politics is made a means to achieve political power.

Second, plural culture that is part of all former Soviet republics will be set back; majority politics and blaming minorities for socio-economic problems would misdirect the real issue and and from plural culture and equity based development.

Third, the process of democracy itself will take a hit in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is amongst the few that had a real Opposition, electoral process despite their problems and has been slowly moving towards participatory democracy. This is being questioned now, as people are arguing that democracy itself is not a suitable model for countries in transition. This is an incorrect argument since the blame cannot be on the process of democracy but on its distortion by the use of identity politics. So it is this kind of politics that will have to be restrained.

Clearly Russia will have to play some role. But this should not be either hegemonic or dominating. Russia has had peacekeepers and its troops in Tajikistan and earlier its commanders had led the Army in Turkmenistan. But their real role should be humanitarian and political which would involve bringing representatives of all communities together so that such violence is never repeated. The international community should encourage negotiations and a public culture which is for secularism, multi-ethnicity, social cohesion and political tolerance. These traits have been followed in the Central Asian Republics, and democracy in Kyrgyzstan based on these should be normalised.

The author is a Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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