On the morning of June 10, 2010, the city of Osh bustled with the sounds of daily life in southern Kyrgyzstan: microbuses zipping through the streets, pedestrians strolling through the shaded downtown, and people bartering for goods in Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Russian in the multiethnic city’s famous open-air market. To me, an American working at a local NGO, it was an ordinary day by any measure, and one would hardly have guessed that barely two months earlier a revolution had ousted Kyrgyzstan’s kleptocratic president, Kurmanbek Bakiev.
But, that night, life in Osh was shattered, seemingly for good. Fighting erupted between a crowd of ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks, and quickly mushroomed into full-scale interethnic rioting throughout the city and neighboring regions. Four days later, plumes of smoke billowed over Osh, large sections of the city lay in ruins, and 470 people were dead. Another 400,000 were displaced, with many seeking refuge in Uzbekistan. Although both ethnic communities suffered greatly, the majority of the victims were Uzbeks.
In the conflict’s aftermath, there seemed little room for hope. Each ethnic group now spoke of itself exclusively as the victim. Uzbeks claimed the Kyrgyz were uncivilized and incapable of living in a democratic society. The Kyrgyz accused Uzbeks of attempting to secede from Kyrgyzstan or, worse, colluding with Islamic militant organizations.
In a climate of surging Kyrgyz ethnic nationalism, Uzbek businesses were illegally seized by Kyrgyz, and Kyrgyz families took possession of houses abandoned by Uzbeks. Most worryingly, the security forces -- later implicated by an international investigation in the transfer of weapons to Kyrgyz rioters and several attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods -- were now carrying out violent sweep operations in Uzbek settlements.
But now, as Kyrgyzstan marks the fourth anniversary of what locals termed “the war,” there may be a glimmer of hope.
The wounds of 2010 have begun to heal. Residents have increasingly grown weary of the tension created by the violence, and Uzbeks have gradually reentered city life. Most surprisingly, the government has finally managed to begin addressing political problems that seemed utterly unsolvable in 2010.
One of the clearest problems was the failure of security forces during the unrest. As scholar Erica Marat has argued, former President Bakiev distorted the military hierarchy and encouraged the police to be loyal to specific officials. Bakiev’s ouster destabilized this corrupt system, leaving security forces torn between the commands of the provisional government and pro-Bakiev local leaders. The result was a breakdown of order, with security forces giving into ethnic prejudices and becoming entangled in the conflict.
Today, however, Bishkek has largely reestablished control over the army and police. The administration of President Almazbek Atambaev has also subtly fought back against Kyrgyz ethnic nationalism, something that seemed impossible four years ago. Atambaev and a group of moderate officials have sought to co-opt certain elements of Kyrgyz nationalism while simultaneously advancing more inclusive civic ideals.
These efforts came to fruition in the “Concept on Strengthening National Unity and Interethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic,” published in 2013. Incorporating the views of all parliamentary factions, ethno-nationalists, and civil society, the “Concept” aims to create equality under the law for members of all ethnic groups, promote a balanced language policy supportive of multilingualism, and form a civic identity among all citizens. Some of the ideas espoused are overly ambitious (the “Concept” calls for the creation of a trilingual generation of Kyrgyzstanis), but they do represent state efforts to build a more tolerant and, ultimately, safer country. And the drive for multilingualism is not mere talk -- in 2013, Atambaev refused to sign a bill requiring the entire state administration to exclusively use the Kyrgyz language.
These were not the only positive developments. In December 2013, the government fired Osh’s wildly nationalistic mayor, Melisbek Myrzakmatov, for participating in an antigovernment protest. The only Bakiev-era top official who managed to keep his post after the 2010 revolution, Myrzakmatov had repeatedly defied Bishkek and become a major obstacle to reconciliation. A month after his firing, Myrzakmatov ran for mayor again but was defeated by Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, a politician with similar nationalist views but greater loyalty to the government.
Finally, in April 2014, a Bishkek court reopened the investigation into charges that ethnic Uzbek human rights defender Azimjan Askarov had been tortured while in prison. Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Askarov was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Kyrgyz police officer and other crimes allegedly committed during the 2010 unrest. The reopening of this investigation could be the first step in freeing Askarov.
These political developments were hardly imaginable in 2010, yet today they are a reality. But without further efforts on the part of the Kyrgyz government, these gains may very well be lost.
True reconciliation cannot happen on its own. The modern history of southern Kyrgyzstan proves this. In 1990, a similar conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks over the distribution of land took hundreds of lives. The reemergence of interethnic violence only 20 years later suggests that historical memory of the conflict and the suffering it caused will not be enough to prevent future violence.
In the past four years, there have been many important reconciliation projects carried out by international organizations and local NGOs. Such efforts must continue. Meanwhile, the government must move to implement its “Concept” and build a more tolerant society. Efforts to educate the youngest generation about tolerance and human rights would be especially helpful in ensuring that this conflict does not repeat itself in 2030. Additionally, the freeing of Azimjan Askarov, as well as other individuals who were wrongfully imprisoned, would not only right serious wrongs, but also signal a desire to move beyond the past. Finally, security sector reform to inculcate greater professionalism in the police and military would serve as a serious, albeit very difficult step to ensure that the state could extinguish the sparks of future interethnic conflicts.
True justice in Osh -- finding those actually responsible for the crimes committed during the unrest and bringing them to trial -- is politically impossible. For this reason, justice must be future-oriented. Unfortunately, despite a glimmer of hope for interethnic reconciliation, many in Kyrgyzstan still remain ethnically polarized and unconvinced. As one Uzbek friend, an educated and otherwise tolerant man, told me, “Sadly, we are all ethnic nationalists now.”