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Getting To The Roots Of Resentment In Kyrgyzstan

An ethnic Uzbek woman and her child, just returned to Osh from Uzbekistan, walks past a house that was burned down during ethnic clashes.
An ethnic Uzbek woman and her child, just returned to Osh from Uzbekistan, walks past a house that was burned down during ethnic clashes.
As the violence in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh recedes from international headlines and thousands of families struggle to rebuild lives in the shells of burned-out homes, a host of questions remain about the causes and implications of the conflict.

According to the UN, the violence that consumed Osh was “orchestrated, targeted and well-planned." The Kyrgyzstan security services, for their part, have directed blame toward relatives of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev and an alliance of Islamic groups in the region, whom they accuse of taking advantage of the “hidden interethnic tensions” between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations in the south of the country to instigate violence to disrupt Kyrgyzstan’s June 27 referendum on a new constitution.

Amid the search for proximal causes, secret meetings, and string-pulling actors, we risk obscuring attention to the structural conditions that allowed grievances to grow so that violence could be fomented so quickly along ethnic lines. For all that the violence was provoked, instigated, funded, and manipulated by external actors, the speed at which it escalated and the scale of brutality toward those perceived as ethnically “other” raise challenging questions about how this could happen now – and about how growing resentments about representation, voice, and economic opportunity can be addressed in the long term.

Understanding such grievances, as Dave Gullette argued in a recent analysis, demands looking at economics -- at the decline in real incomes that brought people onto the streets in the spring to protest the inequality and corruption that characterized the Bakiev years and at the lack of economic opportunities that led hundreds of thousands to search for work abroad. But economics alone doesn’t explain conflict. We also need to look at how economic grievances have translated into anxieties about marginalization from civic life and economic opportunity: how anger has become ethnicized.

Within the Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan, there is long-standing frustration at exclusion from national-level jobs in the state administration, as well as under-representation in the military, the police, and the security services. As one Uzbek interviewee commented to a foreign journalist: “Why should I bother studying for five years if I know that the only place for me to go afterward is to sell in the market?”

At the same time – and a crucial factor for understanding ethnic Kyrgyz grievances in the current conflict – much of the rural Kyrgyz population has felt unable to make a viable livelihood in their own state. As many as half of all rural families have sons and daughters working as wage-laborers in Russia and in the south of the country where, for historical and structural reasons, the Uzbeks have come to dominate in the cities’ small businesses and where much of the visible wealth appears to be in Uzbek hands.

Played Into Anxieties

Nationalist politicians have been able to play into such sentiments with remarkable ease, particularly following the April 7 uprising in Bishkek that ousted Bakiev. They have also played into anxieties that demands for a greater political voice among the Uzbek community are “really” concealing a demand for autonomy, made possible by the migration of rural Kyrgyz. Indeed, among Kyrgyz journalists and political analysts, it is common to hear concerns that the disproportionate migration of ethnic Kyrgyz from southern Kyrgyzstan has created a “sharp disbalance in the proportion of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of [the] republic,” as political scientist Nur Omarov put it recently in an interview.

“Disbalance," of course, is a political category – and a socially productive one. Such anxieties do not by themselves explain last month’s violence, but they do deserve attention if we are to understand how grievances can become politically generative. The claim that the Kyrgyz “ought” to be the masters in their own home -- that as Kyrgyz living in a Kyrgyz republic they ought not to live worse than their Russian, Uzbek, or Dungan neighbors -- is one that has real traction, perhaps especially for that cohort of young, rural men who didn’t grow up in cosmopolitan Osh and for whom its very diversity is threatening.

There is another component in all this, however, which concerns how state weakness has come to undermine political discussion, sap the rule of law, and legitimize violence as a means to political ends. What we have seen since April – indeed, since the ouster of President Askar Akaev in 2005 – is a progressive normalization of political violence. Often, indeed, violence seems the only vehicle that will produce meaningful political results, and it has become symbolically and discursively legitimated as such after the “heroic” seizure of the White House in April.

This is the logic of “grab and run” -- of seizure as legitimate if “the people” are on your side. It is a political modality visible in the “revolutions” of 2005 and 2010 and in the “rough justice” of land appropriation that followed these political coups. It is visible in the periodic seizure of regional administration buildings at times of political upheaval and in the elimination of political opponents during the years of Bakiev’s rule. The tragedy of the Osh conflict is precisely the speed with which this violence has also come to be enacted against perceived wrongdoing, of “them” against “us” (and perhaps especially, of "them" against “our women”). Violence has shifted from the realm of institutions to communities and is now outside the rule of law.

Emergent Parallel Lives

These factors have important implications for how some kind of trust might be restored in homes and neighborhoods that have been brutally shaken by the recent violence.

First, it suggests that in the absence of a wide-ranging independent investigation of the long-term and proximal causes of conflict, rumors, accusations, and conspiracy theories will continue to grow. In a recent interview with the news agency, Norwegian human rights activist Ivar Dale described a situation of emergent parallel lives, in which Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities are isolated from and distrustful of one another, each side with its own hardening narrative of who started the conflict that erupted on June 10 and who is to blame for its escalation.

Without spaces to debate these accounts – publicly, safely, with a commitment to truthfulness, and in ways that don’t presume who speaks on behalf of whom – such narratives are likely to solidify and polarize. Public appeals to harmony without recognition of real and enduring feelings of grievance, discrimination, or persecution are likely to be cosmetic at best, counterproductive at worst.

Likewise, demands, such as those issued to journalists by the provisional government on June 14 to avoid reference to “international” or “interethnic” conflict, risk foreclosing sustained analysis about how and why ethnicity came to be mobilized with such destructive speed. The lesson of violence elsewhere is that “interethnic conflict” can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which multiple, diverse experiences of crisis get squeezed into a single, one-size-fits-all narrative. As one recent witness to events in Osh commented in an e-mail: “I don’t think what happened in Osh on June 10-12 was an interethnic conflict, but it risks becoming one.”

Colossal Challenge

Second, it suggests that reestablishing the rule of law – and trust in the impartiality of that law – is going to be crucial to moving out of the crisis. This is true not just in the obvious sense that the guilty must be punished and seen to be punished within a framework of law (something sadly lacking in the video footage of the “cleanups” that have been happening in certain Osh neighborhoods in recent days). It is also, more fundamentally, because the real challenge of the provisional government – and of the not-so-provisional government that succeeds it – is going to be to delegitimize violent seizure as a political modality. This is a colossal challenge, and one that will be the work of months if not years.

Kyrgyzstan has a freshly minted constitution following the hasty referendum on June 27. But while this is symbolically important as the foundation upon which other laws can be enacted – a symbolic “stop” to violent politics and a foundational act of state-making – the constitution is only as strong as the institutions that defend it and only as effective as the popular legitimacy that it holds.

What matters now is strengthening those institutions that allow discussion to flourish – including hard, open, and inclusive discussion about the sources of last month’s violence – without silencing difference through political exclusion or the threat of political violence.

Madeleine Reeves is a research fellow with the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.