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Interview: Anthropologist Says Uzbeks' Model For Life In Kyrgyzstan Destroyed

Ethnic Uzbeks attend a rally in the town of Jalalabad in April 2010.
Ethnic Uzbeks attend a rally in the town of Jalalabad in April 2010.
When Kyrgyzstan transformed from a Soviet republic to an independent state in 1991, ethnic Uzbeks living within its borders saw their home soil become suddenly more foreign. How have they created a place for themselves in Kyrgyzstan since then and can they rebuild it now, in the shadow of the deadly interethnic clashes of 2010?

To help answer those questions, RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash spoke to Morgan Liu, a cultural anthropologist at Ohio State University and author of the recently published "Under Solomon's Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh." The book draws on 16 years of local-language fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan.

RFE/RL: In your book, you consider the roles of the mahalla, or the "neighborhood unit," for ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. Can you describe those roles and their importance for the community?

Morgan Liu:
Mahalla is of very central importance for what it means to be Uzbek, especially in the Kyrgyz Republic, because it's the place that they consider their own. Mahallas have different ethnicities living there, but in Osh the vast majority of people who live in mahallas are ethnic Uzbeks. Mahallas are where a lot of the important events of life happen for Uzbeks: It's where weddings happen, circumcisions, funerals, and other more informal ways of getting together and spending time together. So it becomes a place where the most important events happen for Uzbeks.

Mahalla means more than just territory to be defended. Many people think that mahalla is like turf or territory that the Uzbek ethnicity has claimed for itself and has to defend. There are times when that was true -- in 1990, when we had the first riots in Osh between the ethnic groups, and 2010, very recently, literally there were barricades.

But what I want to say is that normally, when there is not such violence, mahalla has a much wider meaning. It's connected with what it means to be Uzbek. Because Uzbeks are a minority within the entirety of Kyrgyzstan, the mahalla becomes all the more important because it's a place where they can be themselves -- they can be Uzbek -- living in a country since 1991 that is politically dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz.

RFE/RL: You argue that the Uzbek mahalla in Kyrgyzstan has given rise to a vision for society at large. Explain what value this has for the community and its place within the country.

Liu: The book I wrote is actually a very hopeful book, despite the recent violence in Osh. My analysis is that Uzbeks living in the mahallas have cultivated a very positive vision for the future -- that if the community were to be built up in certain ways, then there will be a positive future for the entire country. The way they think about building it up is that they want to cultivate a good person, people with the right character, people who are moral, who are hardworking, who are honest. They believe Islam has a part in that. They believe that if they were to cultivate the right kind of person within mahallas, then the effects of that will go beyond the mahallas and eventually create a good country in general -- and for them, their country is Kyrgyzstan.

That became more and more apparent, especially starting from the 2000s: Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan saw themselves firmly as citizens of Kyrgyzstan. They know they're not citizens of Uzbekistan. And so they've been very much interested in asking the question, "Well, how do we make a good society in general, within Kyrgyzstan."

RFE/RL: How has the role of the mahalla changed following the clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010?

Morgan Liu
Morgan Liu
Liu: What has happened since 2010 is that Uzbeks have mostly withdrawn into their mahallas. In public places in Osh, you see much less of a public presence of Uzbeks. And all of the activities we were talking about earlier [within the mahalla] -- all the Islamic activities, the weddings, and so forth -- those have very much died down.

It has been quiet since 2010. Uzbeks have been trying to keep a very low profile [and] to minimize problems. In a sense it's a very peculiar, very strange situation there right now. It's very difficult to know what kinds of aspirations Uzbeks have for the future at this point.

At least in the near future, in the foreseeable future, it's difficult to imagine the sort of optimism -- "We can build a society based on mahalla values to build a better country." It's very difficult to see that optimism coming back any time soon. The model that Osh Uzbeks were trying to build of trying to be successful within the Kyrgyz Republic, but also have peaceful relations -- that model is destroyed as well.

So at this point, it's not clear what is left. There's a very deep despair among Uzbeks, saying, "Do we have a future here in Kyrgyzstan? I don't know. I don't see it." That's what some people told me directly. "I don't see that future."

RFE/RL: Based on your research, what has been the Kyrgyz understanding of how Uzbeks have existed within the country?

That's also a very important part of the whole picture. Kyrgyz, in general, have seen Uzbeks as having a privileged place within Kyrgyzstan. What they mean is that Uzbeks, in general, have been involved with lots of business and they actually controlled most of the economy in Kyrgyzstan throughout the 1990s. And so there was wealth among the Uzbeks. And at that time they had many organizations that promoted Uzbek culture -- drama and arts and language.

So the Kyrgyz felt that Uzbeks really had a good position within Kyrgyzstan. The other thing that the Kyrgyz noted is that Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan had more rights and opportunities -- economic opportunities -- than did Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. And also Kyrgyz like to point out that ethnic Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan are in a worse situation, they felt, than Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. In other words, they compare minorities in those two republics.

So in general, Kyrgyz felt that Uzbeks have it good and that often they complain too much about discrimination. In 2010, Kyrgyz felt that Uzbeks took advantage of the political crisis and tried to move toward autonomy, whereas all the Uzbeks I spoke with said that was not at all on their minds -- completely different accounts of what happened. I think even to this day, two years after those events, the trauma is still fresh on all sides.

RFE/RL: How has what happened to the Uzbek community in Osh been registered by people across the border, in Uzbekistan?

Because of the close connections that Uzbeks have across the border, I think they see it as a tragedy that goes beyond a human tragedy, but also [concerning] that question of model. Uzbeks in Uzbekistan knew that Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan were trying to build a model that was different from their own -- of prosperity, of entrepreneurial effort, and so forth -- and they were very curious to see how their cousins across the border would do. To see that model just suddenly collapse, I think, has a profound effect on them.

I'm not sure where this leads Uzbeks in Uzbekistan. In a sense, I think it leads them to not know what the best way forward in the future is. I think for everyone involved here, the longer-term questions are: "What kind of society do we want in Central Asia now? What kind of economic reforms? What kind of political system? What kind of freedoms? Or what kind of role we want government and society to play in the economy?"

Those are the big questions for the region, and a tragedy and consequence of [the 2010] events is that it kind of puts into radical doubt any actual model of efforts to try to build a good, multiethnic society in Central Asia after the Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate the chances of restoring relative tolerance among the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan?

It will take a long time for these wounds to heal. Overall, though, despite these terrible incidents in the recent history of this place, I do have an optimism. Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, and others I know -- the people I know -- I feel that there's a resilience. They have this desire to work hard -- that's another thing I've learned -- and I think there is goodwill among some people.

But I think for a positive future there's one thing that does need to be addressed. It's the issue of justice. Unless all sides feel that justice has been done, that there's a sense that society is fair -- fair to all ethnic groups and to all people -- until that, then long-term, I think, there will not be [a positive future]. But if somehow they can find an arrangement that would enable justice to be lived out in the country, then I have hope.