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10 Things You Need To Know About The Ethnic Unrest In Kyrgyzstan

A concrete block with a sign saying "Kyrgyz Zone" stands in a street in the city of Osh on June 13.
A concrete block with a sign saying "Kyrgyz Zone" stands in a street in the city of Osh on June 13.
RFE/RL senior correspondent Bruce Pannier discusses the ancient history and complex demographics that lie behind the ethnic violence being witnessed in southern Kyrgyzstan. More than 100 people have been killed and some 1,700 wounded in riots and ethnic clashes that began in southern areas four days ago.

What is the ethnic makeup of the Ferghana Valley, where all the violence has been occurring

Since the Ferghana Valley is divided up between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, naturally you have a lot of Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks living there. But because it's one of the cradles of civilization in Central Asia, you would also expect to find any of the Central Asian peoples represented there, as well as Meskhetian Turks and Arabs. There are Uyghurs from the other side of the border that have been living in Central Asia for a long time now. There are Afghans living there. There's a big Slavic population, because a lot of Russians, Ukrainians, and so forth settled there during Soviet times. Kyrgyzstan boasts that it has over 80 distinct ethnic groups in the country, and probably every single one of those is represented in the Ferghana Valley.

Bruce Pannier
How are the effects of the Soviet Union's demarcation of the region still being felt today?

That's probably the biggest contributor to the problems today because traditionally the Central Asians were divided between sedentary (Uzbeks) and nomadic (Kyrgyz) peoples. That changed a little over the course of time, and there were two khanates and an emirate that would have included representatives of all the peoples, but no one would have recognized themselves as being Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh, or Tajik. They would more have identified themselves as being from Kokand Khanate or the Emirate of Bukhara, or something.

So, when the Soviet mapmakers came along between 1917 and the mid-1930s and redrew all the maps, they really had no meaning. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, those lines they drew on maps 80 years ago have suddenly taken on great significance. And people really do recognize that there is a border of a Kyrgyzstan, of an Uzbekistan, whereas until 1991 or '92 that had almost no meaning at all. And traditionally the people -- and by traditionally I mean hundreds and thousands of years -- would have just wandered freely from one place to another without recognizing any borders or without there having ever been any borders there.

What led to the outbreak of interethnic violence in 1990, and how was that crisis resolved?

The interethnic violence in 1990 was started over a water dispute. 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.

This land dispute developed into a much wider conflict that pitted Kyrgyz and Uzbeks against each other, similar to what we are seeing today. To give you an idea of what it would take to stop this current unrest -- at the time both those countries were part of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Army had to pour thousands of troops in. Remember, many Soviet soldiers were based right in that area at the time. But it took thousands of troops a week to get the unrest under control and to restore any sense of stability. Of course, there aren't that many troops in the area any more.

Protesters attack a riot policeman during clashes in Bishkek on April 7.
Last week's outbreak of violence follows closely on the unrest that led to the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his replacement with an interim government. How can we explain the evolution of that unrest?

It would be worth it to look at the 1990 violence for a second. 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. Did any pro-Bakiev people have a hand in what's going on right now? It's entirely possible, I suppose, under the philosophy that when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.

If Bakiev wanted to cause problems for this current interim government, and possibly even see them fall, then the easiest way to create instability would be to get the Uzbek and the Kyrgyz communities in the south to start fighting with each other. Are the pro-Bakiev forces controlling what's happening now? Probably not, because the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities always have some tension between them and it just wouldn't take so much to get that started. And there have been examples of a lot of Uzbeks lately who have said that during Bakiev's time -- Bakiev was from the south, of course -- that when he was president for five years he favored the ethnic Kyrgyz in the area to the disadvantage of the Uzbek community down there. So that was one of the reasons, supposedly, why the Uzbek community in the south was against Bakiev when we saw the events of April that ousted Bakiev from office.

What is the demographic situation like in southern Kyrgyzstan. Do locals intermingle, intermarry? Is one group perceived as enjoying a better economic situation?

During the Soviet days, the Central Asian peoples actually got along a lot better. They had, I suppose you can call it, a common enemy, but at least a common focal point for their complaints, which was, of course, Russia and Moscow. So people tended not to recognize so much that, "I'm Kyrgyz; you're Uzbek; he's Turkmen," as much as, "We're all Central Asians, and Moscow's taking advantage of us."

So there was a lot more harmony amongst the communities and some intermarriage and you can see that today on the streets in places like Osh, for instance. The older community, the people who would have been 40 years old by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, still get along. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks walk side by side, they have tea at the same chaikhanas, and they get along pretty well.

The younger generation, however -- and this is the under-30 people -- are much more likely to recognize their nationality -- that they are Kyrgyz, that they are Uzbek. And again, they do recognize the borders. And so there is a greater idea of distinctness among ethnic groups than there was before, and you probably see a lot fewer intermarriages, for instance. And straight across the board, socially, you would not expect as much crossover between the under-30 crowd as you would between the over-30 crowd. They don't mix quite as much.

At least some of the Uzbek members of the community would say that when Bakiev was in, some of the ethnic Kyrgyz in the south profited far more than the Uzbeks did and the ethnic Uzbeks were hoping for something better from the provisional government. It's only been two months -- a little more than that -- but some people may feel that they haven't seen a strong enough signal to indicate that the government really was going to take up their concerns. And now, of course, we have this unfortunate situation where there has been shooting; there've been Kyrgyz killed; there've been Uzbeks killed -- and any time something like that happens in Central Asia it sets off this huge rumor mill that magnifies the situation. It could be one dead -- Kyrgyz or Uzbek -- in one neighborhood and by the time that news gets all the way around town it's reported as 100 people being killed.

So, this is their greatest problem: to get rid of those rumors as quickly as possible and explain the facts to people and get the two sides away from each other right now.

Any chance of this spreading elsewhere in the country, specifically to the north which differs politically so much from the south, and possibly resulting in a civil war?

There's not much of a chance of it spreading north because there's no way to carry it north. The Uzbek population is small up there. For now, and for the foreseeable future, it will be confined to the south, and there are no signs that would indicate that an interethnic conflict in the south would split the country into north and south camps.

What does this mean for the planned June referendum?

I would be amazed if they were able to hold the referendum on time. I suppose looking at the bigger picture, this is a localized event -- pretty much Jalal-Abad, Osh, and the surrounding two cities. However, clearly they are not going to be able to hold the referendum in either of those places, and that's a huge segment of the population. And so they can't hold a legitimate election without those people being involved in it.

That being the case, I can't see how they can hold a national referendum in less than two weeks' time. They will be lucky if they have stability and order in places like Jalal-Abad and Osh by that time. But as far as it being stable enough for people to go out to polling booths and vote? It would be extremely difficult to imagine that they could get that done in time to hold this referendum.

Kyrgyz interim leader Roza Otunbaeva
What are the chances of intervention by Uzbekistan on behalf of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan?

Of course, it is a possibility, and something you could not totally dismiss. I would tend to argue that's not going to be the case. It serves the Uzbek government better than any other government that the situation is what it is right now. They're the ones who are seen to be the good guys in this. They're accepting refugees from over the border – now it's their cultural kin, no doubt about it. As long as they could hold their peace and stay on their side of the border and accept refugees, it makes it look like Kyrgyzstan is the problem and Uzbekistan is part of the answer.

Uzbekistan certainly has the military forces. The big problem is, whose side are they going to be on? And I think the answer is pretty obvious to most people. If such troops did come in to restore order, what's the timetable for them to leave? There's plenty of precedent, certainly in Central Asia, for occupying troops to make the claim that they'll stay until it's stable, and it could be decades before they figure that everything is back to normal and they can withdraw troops.

From the Kyrgyz perspective, it would mark the disintegration of Kyrgyzstan if Uzbekistan came in and restored order in places like Osh and Jalal-Abad and stayed there. It would mean that Kyrgyzstan as a country was beginning to crumble.

Russia is the biggest regional power. Will they get involved?

If any country is going to get involved, it would definitely be Russia. And I would imagine that would be under the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization – they wouldn't want to be seen to be going out on their own and doing it by themselves. But if they had the approval of some bigger group -- and remember that group does include Kyrgyzstan and neighbors like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- then if they had such a mandate they might actually do it.

But the big problem is – and this is going to be true for anyone who is looking to help – you have to look at the lessons of 1990. In order to restore order in the area in a time like this, you have to be willing to commit thousands of soldiers who are going to be there probably weeks, maybe months. And you have a weak government in Bishkek. So it's unclear if that government is going to make it through the rest of the year. So exactly who are you defending? If the government that requested you to restore order is in danger of falling, or does fall, then where does that leave you with your troops on the ground? You could end up with a new government that does not want you there and perceives you as the enemy and an occupier on their territory.

So it's a complicated thing. I would not expect Russia or anyone is going to commit troops anytime soon.

A U.S. Air Force plane at the Manas transit center outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek
The United States has the Manas transit center in Kyrgyzstan to aid operations in Afghanistan. Is there any chance the United States would step in to help resolve the conflict?

I think the United States has shown during the last two so-called revolutions in Kyrgyzstan – the one in 2005 and the one that just happened in April – that they would rather take a wait-and-see approach. They have not come out strongly on the side of this provisional government; they did not come out so strongly on the side of Bakiev when he became president in 2005. Their interest is primarily in Manas for transporting goods to Afghanistan, and by taking one side or the other they risk the side they're on will lose, and if that happens, then they might lose the base.

And one of the reasons they've been able to keep the base is they've just kind of kept out of domestic affairs in Kyrgyzstan and just waited until the dust settled, generally speaking. Whatever government came into power was bound to leave the U.S. there because the U.S. pays rent for the base. Kyrgyzstan needs the money.

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