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Roza Otunbaeva 10 Years After Deadly Ethnic Clashes: Some Forces 'Took Advantage Of The Moment To Try To Start A Fire'

Former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva (file photo)
Former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Ten years after bloody ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan that killed hundreds, Roza Otunbaeva -- who was interim president at the time -- spoke to the RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service's chief editor in Bishkek, Zairbek Baktybaev, about the factors that led to the tragic events and whether her government could have prevented the violence. She also praised the support of the international community and said Kyrgyzstan won't stop anyone from investigating what happened during those horrific days in early June 2010.

RFE/RL: The deadly ethnic clashes that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 mark one of the most tragic events in the recent history of Kyrgyzstan. Looking back, 10 years later, do you think there was any chance the interim government you led could have prevented the violence?

Roza Otunbaeva: We had a revolution in April 2010 that led to the interim government taking power in the country. After just two months, the bloody clashes took place.

Answering your question, I have to draw some parallels.

In 1990, Kyrgyzstan was still part of a big and powerful country, the Soviet Union, and yet we witnessed very tragic interethnic clashes in Osh at that time. The Soviet Union had everything: powerful armed forces, security services, and the Communist Party. Still they were not able to prevent the deadly interethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh in 1990.

Just recently, we saw the Kazakh-Dungan clashes in neighboring Kazakhstan…and look at what is happening in the United States now. Certainly, there were some serious issues in interethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan that ultimately triggered the June 2010 clashes.

The new interim government wasn't yet stable and powerful enough. We were still trying to stabilize the situation in the capital, Bishkek, in the immediate aftermath of the April 7 revolution [when the ethnic clashes broke out]. There had been more than 120 different protest actions and rallies in Bishkek within two months. We just didn't have enough power in the southern regions. There were several different groups trying hard to destabilize the situation in the country.

RFE/RL: Which groups, exactly, were interested in unleashing interethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan at the time? Some blame supporters of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev, others blame alleged [Uzbek] separatist groups, and there are also allegations of foreign interference and even the alleged role of drug traffickers.

Otunbaeva: I agree that all these factors existed. Bakiev fled [Bishkek] to the south and attempted to assemble the parliament there. Some politicians and others, too, tried their best [to make that happen]. Parts of law enforcement agencies continued to work for Bakiev, doing whatever they wanted. We had little control over them. We faced a shortage of staff and support.

By allowing the international commission in, we saved our conscience
Roza Otunbaeva

As for criminal groups and drug traffickers, some international experts believe that those groups had been used [by certain forces] during the June events. Especially in the border areas, they helped to start riots and create chaos so they could transport large amounts [of drugs during the turmoil]. Also, the forces involved in drug trafficking tried to exploit the situation to take control of smuggling routes. I think the Russian intelligence services investigated this properly.

As regards outside forces, we cannot say that they were not involved. But we don't at this time have enough evidence to determine that. [Uzbek President] Islam Karimov spoke about it many times. Even at the UN [General Assembly], Karimov said there were certain forces who want to instigate conflicts in Central Asia, who want Central Asia to always be on fire. And those forces took advantage of the moment to try to start a fire [in Central Asia].

RFE/RL: You asked for military assistance from the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). What other decisions did you have to take in an effort to resolve the crisis?

Otunbaeva: The clashes stopped on June 13. It all started on the night of June 10. Osh was on fire. We were mostly focused on the situation in Osh. By June 12-13 [the clashes] had spread to Jalal-Abad. The interim government had a meeting late at night on June 10 and began sending planes [to the south]. There was no water, no bread there. There were people who needed to be evacuated. We evacuated about 7,000 people by plane. About 160 flights were organized. There were at least three flights every day. [We also] sent a lot of food to Osh and Jalal-Abad.

The humanitarian aid wasn't only coming from the central government. A lot of food supplies were sent from northern provinces, too. We also received help from the neighboring countries and there was international aid as well.

On June 10-11, there were big clashes in the south. People confronted each other. A lot of guns appeared there. We have a lot of facts and documents about the accumulation of weapons. It is a fact that weapons were taken from the military and police. People also used hunting rifles and blunt objects. In such a situation, of course, there were many deaths.

Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Then I spoke with Islam Abduganiyevich [Karimov]. He said he couldn't do anything. He said he would keep the border closed. He said there were many nationalists [in Uzbekistan] who were saying they were ready to go help [ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan]. Karimov told me: "I will take control of my side of the border and you decide for yourself how to solve the problem on your side." It seemed to me that Karimov wanted to say, "ask for help from whomever you want."

After that I started looking to contact our partner, Russia. I talked to [President Dmitry] Medvedev. That was on June 12. I told him that we needed armed forces and support because our own army and law enforcement bodies were not ready and were unable to deal with such mass clashes on their own. We asked for help from the CSTO. They probably spent a day in consultation. Then they told us that they were in a difficult position and that if they entered [Kyrgyzstan] it would look as if Russia was getting involved in a fight between two [ethnic groups].

RFE/RL: Who initiated the conversation with Karimov?

Otunbaeva: I think I reached out to him on June 11. He told me: "I see that you are in the situation like I was in 2005 during the Andijon events [when antigovernment protests were violently put down by government forces]. I understand you. Now, all I can do is close the border [to prevent Uzbeks from entering Kyrgyzstan to support the ethnic Uzbeks]. We also have a lot of people who say they need to go to help." About 70,000 people [fled from the clashes] and became internally displaced persons.

RFE/RL: I looked at the numbers and found that about 100,000 people were displaced.

Otunbaeva: I checked the statistics yesterday, about 70,000 people from Kyrgyzstan were placed in camps in Uzbekistan. The UNHCR handed out tents, creating conditions for people [to live]. More than 70,000 people, especially women with children, fled the conflict zone. The men mostly stayed. I believe Karimov made the right decision. His clear vision and knowledge of his people helped to choose the right solution. That is why no one crossed into our country from their side [during the conflict]. We remained face-to-face with our problem and, in the end, everything calmed down.

RFE/RL: The Kyrgyz government at the time acknowledged that the June 2010 events highlighted problems in handling interethnic relations in the country and it said that much needs to be done in that regard. There were initiatives to mix different nationalities during the resettlement of people [after they had been displaced or lost their homes], to introduce the Kyrgyz language in kindergartens, and many other measures. What has been done over the past 10 years to improve interethnic relations?

Otunbaeva: A lot has since been done. After the crisis we received a lot of support from the international community.

Over the past 10 years, the UN Peacebuilding Fund has provided Kyrgyzstan with $46 million. A lot of work had been done with that money. For example, new houses and schools were built. I must note that a school was also built by Kazakhstan. Most importantly, a concept for improving interethnic relations was written with the assistance of that [money]. That document expired in 2017 and the new version has since been prepared and is still awaiting government approval. The government must solve this difficult problem. But I believe there is still some work that needs to be done. For example, [Uzbek] children should go to kindergartens and they must study in Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyzstan's Deadly Ethnic Clashes, 10 Years Later
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In regard to the schools, we are all satisfied with the situation. If you go to Osh today, all Uzbek schools teach in Kyrgyz. Parents want their children to learn Kyrgyz. Many young Uzbeks are fluent in Kyrgyz and this is an advantage for them. They speak Uzbek, Kyrgyz, English, Russian.

Regarding the kindergartens, I keep repeating even today that the earlier children begin to learn a foreign language, the better, since younger children learn languages easier. There is little progress in this regard in our country, as you can see in Bishkek. Now many kindergartens are run in Russian, in English, but there is a problem with teaching the Kyrgyz language there because the quality of [teachers] is very low. Lastly, mixing [different ethnic groups] in settlements is a very difficult issue. When the houses of the Uzbeks in the mahallas (Uzbek neighborhoods) were destroyed, we built new houses. And the people living there were mixed [between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz]. It was the case in Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Suzak. People know about it, but this is a very difficult issue all over the world.

RFE/RL: There were many different commissions -- both domestic and international -- that investigated the violence and its causes in southern Kyrgyzstan. An international inquiry commission led by Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen spent several months there for such a probe. Do you think the June 2010 events were studied and investigated enough?

Otunbaeva: There will be many more such investigations for many years to come and it's good for us. We never stopped anyone from coming and investigating. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and any other international or foreign organization that wanted to come, go around the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions, talk to people and find out what happened, they were all allowed to do so.

I would say that Kiljunen's report removed a large dirty spot from the face of our country. Today we work with an open and clear face around the world. For example, the report has four findings. First of all, it concluded that there was no genocide [in southern Kyrgyzstan]. Secondly, no war crimes occurred. Yes, crimes were committed, but the commission came to the conclusion that all cases should be tried in courts inside the country and decisions should be made by the Kyrgyz courts.

Of course, there are some negative points, black points -- I would say -- in the report. The issue [of the June 2010 clashes] was brought to the attention of the UN Commission on Human Rights, but they did not make any serious accusations against us. In my opinion this is very important for Kyrgyzstan. There were forces in our country that were against allowing the commission to enter Kyrgyzstan. We were the first state in the Commonwealth of Independent States to allow such a commission to work in our country. For example, similar commissions weren't allowed to work in Chechnya or some other places.

By allowing the international commission in, we saved our conscience. Karimov also said that only international experts should investigate the June events. "If not, we won't believe," he used to say. I think this gave us a boost. I made a decision. Under the supervision of the UN we accepted the commission, they came, and made their conclusions.

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