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Lack Of Justice Hampers Reconciliation In Southern Kyrgyzstan 10 Years After Deadly Ethnic Clashes


Men walk past a burning building during the 2010 violence in the Kyrgyz city of Osh that left hundreds dead.

It has been a decade since the deadly ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and, although the destroyed shops and buildings have been repaired, it's difficult to gauge how much damage remains in the people who survived the horrific chaos of those days in 2010.

Nearly one week of killing and destruction -- mainly in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad -- left at least 470 people dead, more than 2,200 serious injured, and some 400,000 displaced, mostly ethnic Uzbeks.

Many questions remain unanswered, including who was responsible for starting the violence and why?

These are questions that may never be answered.

In a June 9 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann said: "Justice has been elusive for so many people who suffered horrific crimes during and after the violent events of June 2010."

She added: "While southern Kyrgyzstan has long ceased to be a site of open ethnic conflict, until there is accountability for past abuses there will always be legitimate concerns about the prospect of long-term stability in the region."

The so-called "June Events" from a decade ago occupy a strange place in the minds of the people of Kyrgyzstan. Everyone remembers them and has an opinion about what happened and why, but it is a subject few want to talk about and -- if they do, whether Kyrgyz or Uzbek -- they're likely to say their people were the victims.

Loaded Issue

The 10th anniversary of the arrest of Azimjon Askarov, now 69, was marked on June 15, 2020.

An ethnic Uzbek rights activist from Kyrgyzstan's southern town of Bazar-Korgon, Askarov was apprehended by security forces as the violence was ending.

Askarov said he was chronicling the violence, but a Kyrgyz court found him guilty of fomenting ethnic hatred, instigating disorder, and involvement in the murder of a policeman killed during the tumult.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

'He's Innocent': Activist's Wife Reflects On His Decade In Kyrgyz Jail
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International rights group criticized the case against Askarov, saying he was mistreated in detention, and decried his subsequent conviction.

The U.S. State Department conferred the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on Askarov and in 2016 the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement calling for Askarov's immediate release after "UN experts" found he had been "arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense."

Kyrgyz authorities complained about the U.S. State Department award and rejected the United Nation's call to free Askarov, calling it an internal affair.

Askarov's case is a loaded issue for Kyrgyz politicians in the capital, Bishkek, where few appear anxious to take his side on this matter.

In southern Kyrgyzstan itself, life goes on and, while there are signs of progress in the reconciliation of the two ethnic communities and normalcy in life, there are also signs that things are far less than perfect.

Back To School

Nick Megoran is a political geography professor at Newcastle University in Britain and one of the leading international experts on the region who has been working and conducting research in the Ferghana Valley -- on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border -- since the mid-1990s.

Megoran used the example of Uzbek schools in southern Kyrgyzstan as one barometer of gauging the recovery.

"The formation of the Kyrgyz and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1920s created significant national minority communities on either side of their new Ferghana Valley boundary [but]...Soviet authorities made a provision for minority schooling, with Uzbek-language schools in the Kyrgyz SSR and Kyrgyz-language schooling in the Uzbek one," Megoran told RFE/RL.

Megoran said that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were efforts in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to maintain this arrangement.

"In Kyrgyzstan, the Ministry of Education established the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh and the Uzbek Humanities-Pedagogical Faculty of Osh State University," Megoran said.

After the June 2010 violence, however, "the name of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University was hurriedly changed to the 'Osh State Social University,' and Osh State University's Uzbek Humanities-Pedagogical Faculty was evicted from its building and downgraded to a department of the university's philology faculty."

All of those actions were blows to ethnic Uzbeks in the educational sphere.

Kyrgyzstan's Deadly Ethnic Clashes, 10 Years Later
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Megoran also noted that, since 2000, "the number of Uzbek-language schools in Kyrgyzstan has fallen from 141 to 43."

The June 9 HRW report cited earlier included comments from "an ethnic Uzbek lawyer from southern Kyrgyzstan who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals."

This lawyer told HRW: "Psychologically, it stays with you. An act of reconciliation did not take place. Many friends, people who suffered, whose relatives were jailed -- no one ever answered for [the abuses]."

He added: "It makes you feel psychologically vulnerable. You still feel [vulnerable] today."

Signs Of Progress

However, some members of the Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan do see some progress.

RFE/RL spoke with two ethnic Uzbeks who live in Osh. While they were optimistic, one requested to speak on condition of anonymity, so pseudonyms will be used.

"Compared to 10 years ago, it is very different. Even five years ago there were problems, but now Uzbeks feel better...now it is more comfortable," Timur told RFE/RL.

Timur said Osh is more secure and that there was the "rule of law" there. "Uzbeks go everywhere [in Osh city] and Kyrgyz come to restaurants in Uzbek neighborhoods."

Sobir agreed, saying, "Tension has been gone for many years. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have friendly relations."

However, both Timur and Sobir said that the main language of communication in Osh is now Kyrgyz.

"Kyrgyz accept the Uzbek language," Timur said, but "Kyrgyz would prefer to hear the Kyrgyz language from Uzbeks."

But he admitted he does not speak perfect Kyrgyz and usually says he is from Uzbekistan, an explanation Kyrgyz in Osh seem to accept.

Sobir echoed that comment, saying, "The languages are similar. Uzbeks learn Kyrgyz very well."

Osh Residents Reflect On Life Today And On The Violence 10 Years Ago
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What Kyrgyz and Uzbeks discuss and do not discuss is interesting.

Timur said, "Uzbeks talk about politics and other things with Kyrgyz," but they "don't talk about ethnic questions."

Sobir said, "[Uzbeks] have stopped talking about [the turmoil in 2010]. It is like a wound that people don't want to touch."

Sobir said interethnic relations were mended within a few years of the June 2010 events, but Timur added: "Even five years ago there was harassment [of Uzbeks by Kyrgyz]," though he did not elaborate.

Timur credited the new leadership in Uzbekistan as "the most important thing for ethnic relations" in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan's first president, Islam Karimov, died nearly four years ago.

Karimov's government was increasingly hard on Kyrgyzstan, especially after the 2005 and 2010 revolutions there that ousted the country's presidents, which Karimov, and many other leaders, looked upon as setting a dangerous precedent.

Karimov's death was announced in early September 2016 and his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoev, came to power.

Mirziyoev adopted a more congenial policy toward Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors.

The Uzbek leader traveled to Kyrgyzstan in September 2017 and while he was there he announced that several border-crossing points along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier that had been closed since 2010 would reopen.

Shortly afterwards, at the Dostuk crossing near Osh, thousands of people from both sides of the border came out and held an impromptu celebration, complete with food and music.

Mirziyoev announced that Uzbekistan would help build a new Uzbek-language school in the city and then, Megoran reminded, "On a separate occasion [Mirziyoev] visited the ethnic Kyrgyz village of Manas, in Uzbekistan's Jizzakh region, and ordered it and its school to be wholly refurbished, returning 45 days later to inspect the outcome."

Sobir noted that the changes instituted by Mirziyoev coming to power had made a big difference to the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The coronavirus pandemic led to authorities closing the border temporarily, but Sobir said prior to this health measure, frequent visits by Uzbeks from Uzbekistan and the opportunity for Kyrgyz to travel in the other direction -- many as tourists going to see the ancient Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and other places -- has helped repair damage in relations between the two ethnic groups.

Though it has helped, not everything has totally healed yet.

"The topic of justice comes up when Uzbeks gather [without any Kyrgyz present]. At any gathering [of Uzbeks] it comes up," said Timur.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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