Some random, hastily collected thoughts as a study break: Who is to blame? Who is doing the killing? Why?
These questions have been asked over and over again in regards to short episodes of violence in Central Asia since 1986, starting with the Almaty “Kunaev” riots. Other examples of violent riots/pogroms include the May 1989 attacks on Armenians in Turkmenistan, the 1989 Uzbek pogroms against Meskhets in the Ferghana valley, summer 1989 fighting between Tajiks and Kyrgyz in Isfara, the February 1990 riots in Dushanbe that left 50 dead (half of them non-Tajiks – including Slavs), summer 1990 in Osh as Uzbeks and Kyrgyz killed each other, May-September 1992 in the collective farms of the Vakhsh valley, etc….
Patterns emerge in assigning blame. And the ongoing violence in southern Kyrgyzstan is no exception. I’ve seen the discussions blaming criminal groups and Bakiev, for example (as well as all those tweets in English and Russian). And God knows there have been some not-so-insignificant issues with mafia bosses dying recently.
But I am skeptical (especially regarding the scale and share of the blame assigned). There is an oft-repeated tendency to blame criminal groups for carrying out the violent attacks and to blame politicians and/or deposed leaders for the manipulation of these groups. Basically, blaming criminal groups and power figures absolves the teenagers and young men from the neighborhood. Certainly they would not rape, steal, mutilate and kill? Must be criminals, right? Wrong. Regular people kill. Criminals kill. And they can be killing at the same time. People have been murdered by their neighbors all over the world at various times throughout history.
Osh and the rest of southern Kyrgyzstan is no exception here. The violence in Dushanbe in 1990 is in many sources blamed on Yaqub Salimov (a convicted racketeer/tolkach), nationalist opposition groups, and/or “out-of-towners” from Hisor. This is so much more satisfying than admitting that regular young men from Dushanbe set out with friends to beat and murder Russians.
A quick look at one article from the widely read Ferghana.ru:
Ruthless, cynical criminals that called themselves “Uzbek” went on demolishing the houses of ethnic Kyrgyz, setting on fire the “Kyrgyz” shops, insulting and beating elderly and children. And then pretending to be “Kyrgyz” the same bandits went on demolishing “Uzbek” cafes and markets, shops and cultural centres, automobiles and private housing.
The violent provocation reached its aim: the streets and mahallas were struck by a chain reaction, eye for an eye, blood for blood.
This is as ridiculous as the time that Russian paratroopers were blamed for killing a mahalla full of Urgutis while disguised as Tajiks (rather, the Russian-led forces saved what what remained of them).
So now can you see it? Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are not killing each other, rather “bandits” are killing Uzbeks and Kyrgyz as agents provocateurs in part of some elaborate, finely executed conspiracy. This is, of course, BS. Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were completely capable of being killed by each other without the aid of criminals and bandits in 1990, and they still are now. For example, read Valery Tishkov’s article “`Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’: An Anthropological Analysis of Violence in the Osh Ethnic Conflict.” To put too much stress on criminal groups is to avoid, or lead the reader to miss, a discussion of ongoing tensions and conflicts in the community, whether they be based on elite-level politics, resentment over another group’s perceived economoic or political success, or the competition for land, water and a good spot in the bazaar (all of which are contentious at the ethnic level in Osh), or the meeting of these levels of competition in mutually beneficial mobilization.
Politicians and opposition leaders especially love the criminal version, as they can portray their opposing rivals as criminal leaders, or the tools/masters of criminals. But what was/is always needed in the Soviet Union and its successor states is the idea of a master manipulator. The same source asks:
A day after the beginning of the tragedy I have no doubts that what is happening in Kyrgyzstan is not the infamous “ethnic conflict”, nor is it a territorial community war (i.e., for water, land, working places, political power, etc).
Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that are killing each other on the streets of Osh and Jalalabat, are not shedding their blood in the honour of their nations nor for the sake of some high ideals of justice. They are random victims, martyrs, puppets in the hands of a cynical and violent Khan, who was ousted from his throne, cornered away and is now full of revenge.
This Khan is the former president the Kyrgyz Republic Kurmanbek Bakiev. His wallet is his son Maxim. His loyal gangsters are his brothers Janysh, Ahmat, Kanybek… The smaller ranked servants that keep loyalties are the former bureaucrats who are tied to the Khan by killings, narcotics trade, raiding of businesses and torture, by their entire corrupt past, by their entire rotten core.
And on Al Jazeera these comments were made:
Michael Andersen, a Danish film maker who has been living in Osh, said “it’s very likely that Bakiyev and his cronies are behind this”.
“I lived in Osh for several years and when you live there, you don’t feel any everyday tension between Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is clearly something that is constructed and provoked by some third party.”
Well, an anthropologist who also lived in Osh for three years disagrees with the point about the lack of “tension.”
It sounds simple enough, apologize for the obvious violence committed by regular people and toss the blame onto a third party. This is as predictable as a clock. There is a tendency to connect localized mobilization (particularly of the violent variety) to an easily identifiable talisman figure. I get it, Bakiev was a corrupt, oppressive ruler and a general bad guy. But I don’t assign him and his people super-mobilization powers. Something similar happened in Tajikistan as the two sides pined for the blood of Qozi Turajonzoda and President Nabiev when the violence was being conducted completely independently of them by Nuri’s network and by Bobo Sangak’s people, and again beyond these guys by completely independent locals. But few knew who these people were at the time (summer 1992), and it was easier to attack well-known figures.
In the case of Bakiev, if he is pulling the strings, why didn’t/couldn’t he do it earlier? Like when he was actually there in the south and not in Belarus. People like this always try to “stoke” conflict and mobilize a large number of supporters in a bid to scratch and claw their way back to power, but they rarely succeed. Maybe Bakiev woke up from his afternoon nap in Belarus, saw the news and said “What a surprise!” or maybe he woke up and said “Bwahaha! Exactly according to my diabolical plan!” or maybe he woke up and said “I’ve been trying to stoke conflict in the south for the last few weeks, and I guess something is happening, but I’m not too sure what exactly it is.” Bakiev, predictable, calls all accusations against him “shameless lies.”
But, that being said, Bakiev’s patronage network (in all its possible vertical and horizontal manifestations) could very well be responsible for the initiation of violence, I just doubt that it is fully or even mostly sustaining the continuation of violence at this exact moment (of course they could attempt to become the ‘sustainer’). These things do acquire independent momentum. Related to this, Nathan mentioned “violence specialists,” a term used by Idil Tuncer Kilavuz in her article: “The Role of Networks in Tajikistan’s Civil War: Network Activation and Violence Specialists.” This would apply to local figures who carry out violence on behalf of patrons/partners when political wrangling fails.
However, the formula of “Bad guy gives order to foot soldiers to let loose the dogs of war” oversimplifies the initiation of violent conflict. Other riots in Central Asia have started under various circumstances: a fight between two vendors of different ethnicities in a bazaar, a group of drunk soldiers being confronted by local men for harassing the local women, a peaceful political rally that escalates out of the control of the rally leaders, a clumsy attempt by the state to arrest/remove local power figures, control over an irrigation canal, etc.. And we have the violence of Osh in 1990 as a decent comparison study. Now, in all the cases it is totally plausible for criminals, the state, some opposition figure or deposed leader to attempt to take advantage of the situation without actually initiating it. It is as equally possible for those people to initiate the violence and then have it become far larger than their network as the violence expands and be far beyond their control.
Often, the issue of drugs and alcohol are brought up. Literally every single time. And that’s fair enough, as some participants do get drunk. Sometimes it’s a little silly, as when in 1990 the Kyrgyz Interior Minister said that stores in Osh had increased their stocks of vodka in anticipation of the violence. Or in Parkent the same year where the police chief blamed drug addicts for violence (as if Parkent was overrun by drug addicts in 1990). Or when the Russian media and Soviet leadership blamed local officials for liquoring up local youths during the anti-Meskhet pogroms. But occasionally there is some reasonable analysis, such as Tishkov’s article above. Not surprising that during extended violence and looting young men will get drunk (sometimes as a coping mechanism to deal with the appalling violence they’ve committed, for bravery, or out of boredom during the down-time – as per usual). For something recent, check out Ilya Varlamov’s article on his experience hanging out with drunk young Kyrgyz men in Bishkek.
At times the violence results from local and/or national power figures mobilizing and transporting their supporters to certain locations, and sometimes conflict breaks out at unpredictable times during normal, everyday interactions. Sometimes criminals are involved, sometimes not. But usually, regular people do horrific things to other regular people. Sometimes, academics and journalists want to believe the best about the people without power, and will attempt to shift the blame to criminals and politicians, thereby absolving the little guy who uses the situation as an occasion to loot, rape and kill (sometimes even denying steadfastly that, just possibly, in this one case ethnicity may be the overriding consideration). And usually, politicians will blame anybody but themselves and will continue to avoid addressing the structure of the political/social environment that allows for such violence to erupt so quickly and with such ferocity.
As for the flow of information, to say that there is a vacuum being filled by rumors is putting it quite mildly. Everything is ‘Eto fakt!’ at the moment.
Some recommendations for further reading from the English-language literature, but not necessarily strong endorsements:
Valery Tishkov, ‘`Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’: An Anthropological Analysis of Violence in the Osh Ethnic Conflict’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1995).
John Schoeberlein-Engel, ‘Conflict in Tajikistan and Central Asia: The Myth of Ethnic Animosity’, Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1994).
Yaacov Roi, ‘Central Asian Riots and Disturbances, 1989-1990: Causes and Context’, Central Asian Survey, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1991).
I’m sure there will be some decent analysis of the current events in about 4-5 years (I’m serious with this time frame). Breaking news-style analysis from Central Asia has never been worth much.
Pre-emptive strike: I’m not saying that this situation is all Kyrgyz against all Uzbeks. Neither am I saying that this is the latest in some eternal Uzbek-Kyrgyz struggle. And I’m not denying that there may be some Kyrgyz on Kyrgyz violence occurring. Nor am I absolving the powerful people or criminal groups of blame. What I am saying is that the people without power sometimes make their own decisions – out of fear, hatred or material benefit – to kill their neighbors based on their ethnicity, a concept that they can, in many places, consider quite important.
Also, southern Kyrgyzstan is not my area of research, so the usual caveats apply.