Deep Rifts Remain in Conflict-Torn Kyrgyz South

Rebuilding and reconciliation efforts slow to take off as tensions persist.
By Anara Yusupova, Isomiddin Ahmedjanov - Central Asia
RCA Issue 639,
14 Jan 11

The wounds caused by last year’s ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan are still open, with mistrust between divided communities running deep, and local people worried for their security and their long-term future.

As the findings of a lengthy investigation into why the conflict happened began emerging, IWPR asked southern residents of various ethnicities, as well as political and economic experts in Kyrgyzstan, to give their view of how things stand just over six months after violence, looting and burning that left over 400 people dead over several days.

The perception of continuing instability and the slow pace of economic recovery in and around the cities of Osh and Jalalabad are prompting a steady exodus that includes many ethnic Uzbeks but also Kyrgyz who feel their skills and education would be better applied elsewhere. The crisis has thus exacerbated the high rates of unemployment and out-migration from southern Kyrgyzstan, and the departure of many of the most capable is likely to de-skill the local population.

A special commission has been probing the causes and consequences of the June 2010 violence, but its findings – presented by its chairman Abdygany Erkebaev on January 11 – have come under fire from some non-government groups who say they are neither as thorough and even-handed as they had hoped.

In terms of bare facts, Erkebaev said 426 deaths had been verified, although the identities of only 381 individuals had been established. Of these, 276 were Uzbeks and 105 Kyrgyz. Another 2,200 people sustained injuries, while the economic damage caused by arson and looting was calculated at over 85 million US dollars.

According to Erkebaev, the commission laid most of the blame for starting the violence on Qodirjon Batirov, a businessman and a leading light in the Uzbek community, and on relatives of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was forced out of office by popular unrest in April last year. Others implicated included organised crime groups, drug traffickers, religious extremists and unnamed “third forces” from outside the country.

The commission accused the interim administration that replaced Bakiev and the provincial and local authorities in the south for ignoring the signs of impending trouble. Parts of the security forces failed to prevent weapons being seized for use in the violence, it said.

When the full text of the report becomes available on January 17, it is likely to create some controversy if it takes the same approach as Erkebaev’s description of its contents.

One of the investigative commission’s members, lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, has already distanced himself from the report and refused to sign it, saying it was superficial and failed to address the handling of post-violence judicial proceedings.

"If our commission had expressed a view on the reports of torture and [other] violations of criminal-law procedures, the public could have come to hope that things might be different," he said.

Toktakunov earlier served as defence lawyer for Azimjon Askarov, a human rights activist of Uzbek background who has been given a life sentence on charges of inciting disturbances.

An alternative report produced by the Osh Initiative, a coalition of Uzbek and Kyrgyz rights activists, indicated that ethnic Uzbeks were systematically targeted in attacks, and were then turned into the culprits through prosecutions primarily directed at them.

Southern Uzbeks interviewed prior to Erkebaev’s remarks said they felt let down by central government, which had failed to protect them, and by local authorities who appeared to give tacit approval for portraying the Uzbek community as disproportionately responsible for the conflict, despite it bearing the brunt of the violence.

For both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south, the trauma and economic slump created by the 2010 violence are still a reality.

Official statistics indicate that over 37,000 people left the area via Osh area in the first three months after the clashes, but as political analyst Ikbol Mirsaitov points out, that figure does not capture the total number. He estimates that more than half of those who left were Uzbeks, most of them leaving Kyrgyzstan for places like Russia. Kyrgyz, too, were moving out, but often to the north of the country, where the capital Bishkek is located.

Inter-communal tensions remain, and people interviewed by IWPR said the sense of separation was feeding mistrust and suspicion, and was one of the factors holding back economic recovery.

An Uzbek businessman who used to have a café in Osh told IWPR he was now back in the city, but only for as long as it took to settle his affairs before he left for Russia for ever.

He described what made him leave in a hurry. "Several days after I reopened my business in August, in the wake of the conflict, several criminals came to see me. They threatened with a pistol and demanded that I hand over the café to them,” he said, adding that they insulted him with ethnic slurs. “I got out the same day – with my wife and three children, I packed and left for Russia, where we have relatives."

A builder from Osh who gave his name as Abdumalik said he was finding it harder and harder to maintain his family both because there was less commercial activity and because he was no longer able to travel freely to take jobs.

“I can’t work outside the district where I live. I fear for my life and safety,” he said. “Sometimes I just want to give it all up and head off to Russia.”

A truck driver called Hikmatillo, also from Osh, expressed similar concerns.

"Ever since June, many people have been living in fear of a repeat of the conflict…. Some [Uzbeks] are selling their family homes,” he said. “People are saying that when spring comes, another contingent will leave.”

Marat Nuraliev, a businessman from Jalalabad, said there was a degree of return to normality but people were still very jumpy.

"People panicked at the sound of firecrackers and bangers on New Year Eve... there’s a sense of danger, of the expectation of something bad,” he said.

While neither Kyrgyz nor Uzbeks were thirsty for revenge, "there’s tension there – they look at each other askance, with animosity", he said.

Nuraliev warned against having a false sense of security, saying winter was generally a quiet time anyway, but if basic economic problems like the availability of petrol and crop seed were not addressed, spring could see “the south explode again". Popular unhappiness could be exploited by a range of forces with an axe to grind – Bakiev supporters, Islamic militants, and drug barons.

Mirsaitov said the authorities were trying to stimulate economic recovery, but measures like tax breaks would not help until people felt the situation was secure enough to take advantage of them.

Zumrad Tanakova, who has a small shop in Osh, confirmed this was the case.

“Although the government provided a six-month grace period when it did not collect taxes, there’s no way these taxes could have been paid anyway, since practically nothing is working,” she said.

At the same time, comments by other interviewees suggest cautious optimism about future thanks to rebuilding work and government support for families and businesses affected by the violence.

Among Uzbeks, though, confidence in the authorities does not extend to the law-enforcement agencies or the courts which are trying alleged participants in the violence.

Hikmatillo, the truck driver, said there could be no peace and reconciliation between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz unless the real perpetrators of the violence were brought to justice in an unbiased judicial process.

Others expressed concern at a campaign to promote the Kyrgyz language. In December, Osh regional governor Sooronbay Jeenbekov instructed local government institutions agencies to conduct all business in Kyrgyz, as opposed to Russian which is also an official language and is widely used as lingua franca among different groups.

Kyrgyzstan’s government has long striven to promote the use of the state language. In this case, it is the timing of the move that has created quiet resentment among Uzbeks, who questioned the symbolism of the campaign and the need for it at a time when so many other urgent needs had to be addressed.

Despite the challenges facing the south, Mirsaitov remains optimistic.

"There is a widespread view that the two communities will be able to come to terms. The main thing is for politics not to get in the way here,” he said.

Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym for a journalist in Bishkek. Isomidin Ahmedjanov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Osh.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.