Related to my earlier post on the causes and initiation of the violent conflict, I found this New York Times articles today. The title of the article is “Kyrgyz Tensions Rooted in Class, Not Ethnicity, Experts Say.” Here’s a sample:
The violence that has claimed scores of lives in Kyrgyzstan is frequently ascribed to ethnic tensions, but regional experts say the causes are more complex.
“I don’t believe in a narrative of long-simmering ethnic tension,” Alexander A. Cooley, a professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and an authority on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview.
Indeed, ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable, Professor Cooley and others say. Both are predominantly Muslim and they speak a mutually comprehensible Turkic language. The most notable distinction, the one that is most responsible for the animosities that led to the recent violence, Central Asian experts say, is economic: Kyrgyz are traditional nomads, while Uzbeks are farmers.
Professor Cooley is saying that it is not as simple as blaming ethnic differences for automatically causing conflict. But nothing he says justifies the ridiculous headline by the NYT. The NYT is grasping at some old-old school Marxist categories. Nobody is denying the significance of economic conditions in southern Kyrgyzstan, but if it’s about “Class, not ethnicity,” poor Kyrgyz would be burning down the houses of rich Kyrgyz. When economic differentiation is associated with ethnicity, it becomes yet another difference between two ethnic groups that can cause resentment. “Class” can then no longer be separated from ethnicity.
As for Professor Cooley’s comment that “ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable,” I’m not sure the people of southern Kyrgyzstan read that memo. This is wishful thinking (perhaps he is referring to the perspective of foreigners when visiting the south). But generally, the NYT takes the professor’s comments to a much higher degree than it seems he intended regarding economics.
Other Kyrgyzstan watchers provide different analysis in regards to the politicization of ethnicity. For example, Bruce Panier at RFE/RL:
It would be worth it to look at the 1990 violence for a second. There has been a lot of reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations since 1990, but that isn’t going so far as to say they put all their differences aside. This was always a tinderbox that was waiting to be lit up again.
And Eugene Huskey being interviewed by the CBC:
Q: Has there been longstanding tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz?
Huskey: Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have lived peacefully in the region’s main Ferghana Valley for centuries. It was only as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 that one witnessed a major outbreak of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. This conflict grew out of a land dispute that was poorly handled by local authorities.
As a young country still uncertain of its identity, there is an ongoing struggle between those who favour a Kyrgyzstan for the Kyrgyz and those who support a multi-ethnic state with equal opportunities for all.
Although all governments of Kyrgyzstan have been publicly committed to the latter approach, many daily decisions of government move against this ideal. For example, hiring practices in defence and law enforcement institutions have led to the virtual exclusion of non-Kyrgyz from the ranks.
And Erica Marat at Foreign Policy:
One might think that Kygyzstan’s southern region would be a tinderbox for ethnic confrontation. Uzbeks are the largest ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan after Russians, making up over 13 percent of the population. In Osh and Jalalabad, however, Uzbeks constitute the majority of the population. The Uzbek minority is largely excluded from Kyrgyzstan’s political system, though they dominate the country’s merchant class. Disputes over water and land use between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are common in the south. The Soviet Union spent decades trying unsuccessfully to suppress ethnic nationalism in the area and in 1990, when the Soviet military was unable to put a stop to a three-month-long inter-ethnic battle between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh that resulted in hundreds of deaths, it was taken as a sign of Moscow’s diminished power over its regions.
But the early years of Kyrgyz independence, the two groups were generally able to settle disputes without resorting to violence, much of which was due to former leader Askar Akayev’s policies of rapprochement. He made the advancement of ethnic minorities a priority, granting land to the Uzbek community and building Uzbek language universities under a policy known as “Kyrgyzstan – Our Common Home.” Uzbeks were overwhelmingly supportive of Akayev, but their fortunes turned for the worse when Bakiyev overthrew him in 2005. While he never directly suppressed the Uzbek community, Bakiyev mostly ignored their grievances and allowed the ethnic situation to return to its normal state of animosity.
But how harmonious were the years between the ethnic riots of 1990 and now? Let’s look at the half-way point. In 2000 Nick Megoran and Antonina Zaharova, both academics, expressed optimism about southern Kyrgyzstan. But they also wrote this:
Interethnic tension among Uzbeks and Kyrgyz does indeed exist in Osh, part of the legacy of the brutal inter-ethnic fighting in 1990. […]
Since then, mutual suspicion has remained high. Intermarriage is rare and social segregation is strong. Questions about equal access to education and jobs are issues of great concern for Uzbeks. For Uzbeks in Osh, the difficulty of positioning themselves between an Uzbekistan that considers them as foreigners, and a Kyrgyzstan that doubts their loyalty leads many to describe their situation as being “between two fires.”
The article is full of examples of peaceful co-existence, and ends with this: “one can hope that the relative peace of today will continue.” Unfortunately not, in the light of recent events.
Earlier, in 1997, Russel Zanca (PDF) was not so optimistic after conducting field research in the south:
There is no question that the level of interethnic tension remains high in Osh, that it is strongest among youth, and that many adults are worried about its repercussions. Violence could occur again, but at present the state is more aware of interethnic dynamics and is better equipped with security forces if such an outbreak were to occur. Furthermore, the same kind of independent, nationalist political organizations that existed in 1990 no longer function. The most threatening factor to peace in the area is the worsening economy, which works as a natural antagonism builder in any society. The best the state can do at this point, short of repairing the whole economy, is to see to it that the most equitable laws and practices are executed with regard to ethnic groups in Osh.
Ultimately, an improved economy alone will resolve the issue of feelings of enmity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, but changing people’s feelings about each other is not the most important aim. What is most important is to create social, political, and economic environments that greatly mitigate the outbreak of renewed violence. It is important that Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders work with each other on such issues.
Later, Nancy Lubin (Nancy Lubin and Barnett Rubin, eds. Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia, 1999) was more pessimistic. She wrote that since the Osh riots the south had undergone a general decay: continuing animosity over the Osh riots; growing Islamic activism among Uzbek youth; the spread of weapons; an increase in the drug trade; a decline in the quality of the police; and economic problems caused by the closed border with Uzbekistan. According to Lubin, the inability to overcome the legacy of the Osh riots was due to people and the officials not wanting to discuss it since it is considered “taboo.” However, this book was harshly criticized by the same Nick Megoran, who wrote the humorously titled response ‘Calming the Ferghana Valley Experts’ (PDF). His criticisms mostly proved right regarding terrorism, radical Islamist movements and other “problem areas” in the Ferghana, but not in regards to Osh.
Anara Tabyshalieva ( “Researching Conflict in Post-Soviet Central Asia,” in Marie Smith and Gillian Robinson (eds.) Researching Violently Divided Societies: Ethical and Methodological Issues, pp.130-147. ) was also somewhat skeptical of the new state of “inter-ethnic harmony.” She wrote that people do not wish to discuss the events with researchers and that government officials refuse to comment on it, instead they try to portray an image of “inter-ethnic harmony.” Researchers attempting to survey people in the area have a problem with “positive feedback,” which is the tendency of the people to give extremely optimistic responses (that fall apart in follow up questions). It was evident in a 1998 survey where about 90% of the people who were asked “how do you asses the state of inter-ethnic relations?” responded “good” or “very good.” The percentages were almost the same for both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Tabyshalieva speculated that the question was answered so optimistically because of the legacy of Soviet times and a traditional fear of speaking of negative events, since that might cause them to occur again. Her skepticism was borne out of the fact that in follow up questions the responses revealed the extent of problematic relations.
Were there any noticeable signs of tensions? Lubin backed up her arguments for the 1990s, writing that the claim of Uzbek economic domination was made often by Kyrgyz in the south and was/is a sensitive subject, especially in Osh where the population continued to grow throughout the decade. In some occupations it was clear that Uzbeks dominated. They accounted for 79% of taxi drivers and 89% of workers in manufacturing. However, in turn they were underrepresented in government jobs. They accounted for only 5.5% of police officers and only 8 out of 128 tax collectors were Uzbek. As well, Uzbeks were rarely seen working as doctors or hospital workers. In large businesses that relied on the state, Kyrgyz dominated. As for the bazaars, while Uzbeks used to dominate, they started to lose out to Kyrgyz traders. In regards to legitimate entrepreneurship, Uzbeks in the area claimed that the Kyrgyz in the Osh bazaar have been pushing Uzbeks out of the best areas in the market. When an Uzbek stall goes vacant the authorities always gave it to an ethnic Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz counterclaim is that Uzbeks have the best lands in the south. The Kyrgyz’ main fear was that as land sales become legal, the Uzbeks would use their wealth to buy up all of the best land. Uzbeks in turn worry that the government was conspiring to confiscate their land and redistribute it to Kyrgyz, exactly the type of situation which led to the Osh riots. The only significant land sales were from mono-ethnic collective farms to their own members. As a result no ethnic confrontations over land privatizations have occurred. Now, this is all relying on Lubin’s account (which does tend to present uniform ethnic blocs), and perhaps she set out to find as many signs of trouble as possible. But her claims must be weighed against those more optimistic analysts.
However, the one area of the economy that was not disputed during the 1990s was the drug trafficking business, which Anara Tabyshalieva sarcastically called a “model of interethnic cooperation.” Not too sure about the ethnic division of labor in the drug business these days.
Alisher Khamidov also wrote about ongoing tensions in the south. For example, in 2004:
…many Uzbeks to steer clear of the country’s opposition movement, according to one journalist based in Osh, a city with a large Uzbek population. “The reason why Uzbeks play no role in Kyrgyzstan’s opposition movement can be explained by the fact that the opposition movement is dominated by Kyrgyz nationalists,” said the journalist, who requested anonymity. “The rhetoric of these politicians frightens many Uzbeks.”
Uncertainty over the future has already prompted several Uzbek community leaders to join the pro-presidential movement “Alga, Kyrgyzstan!” (Forward, Kyrgyzstan!), the journalist added. Their action is meant not only to protect the status of Uzbeks, but, also, to protect what whatever economic gains that have been made by the Uzbek community during Akayev’s tenure, the journalist said.
As many Uzbek entrepreneurs see it, political change could pose a threat to their economic livelihood. “If new people come to power, they will start extorting money from us, and [the cycle of] corruption will start all over again,” explained Abdurashit, an Osh restaurant owner who gave only his first name. […]
An additional source of discontent is the fact that Uzbeks are underrepresented in regional and local administrations. “It’s time to overcome stereotypes and improve work” in personnel policy, commented Bakhtyar Fattahov, a prominent Uzbek leader, in an interview with the government newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana. “In short, the problem exists, and it should not be silenced.”
The opposition he is referring to took power in 2005, something Uzbeks were not too excited about. If you think the above passage only shows tensions at the elite level, Khamidov does have an earlier 2002 article where he wrote:
While political protests and arrests continue their cycle in Kyrgyzstan, some observers have noted a current of ethnic tension in recent incidents. The county’s south, where most protests have centered, is now witnessing violent skirmishes among ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.
Upheaval increased on November 17 and 18 as police banished hundreds of citizens who were trying to organize a dissidents’ conference in Bishkek. Two hundred of these arrived in the south by bus on November 17. Police had reportedly left 129 of them overnight in the frigid Suusamyr Valley, according to activist Ramazan Dyryldaev. Dissidents have confronted authorities repeatedly since March, when at least five citizens died in clashes with police in Ak-Sui while protesting the imprisonment of parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov.
Meanwhile, episodes with ethnic overtones have cropped up in recent weeks. On November 1, according to RFE/RL, ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik youth fought after an anniversary party in Batken province, leaving 12 people injured and destroying five houses. Earlier, local journalists reported fights between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz youth in Jalalabad and Osh, during Kyrgyzstan’s independence anniversary festivities on August 31. Some observers claimed chants by some Kyrgyz youth demanding ethnic Uzbeks’ expulsion precipitated violence. An Osh-based journalist who requested anonymity noted that while authorities are rounding up political dissidents by the dozens, no ethnic instigator has served detention. Some observers worry that ethnic resentments will boil over while President Askar Akayev chases political enemies. […]
….authorities focus intensely on quelling political opponents and largely ignore the threat of deteriorating inter-ethnic relations in the south.
That threat is increasingly apparent, especially among ethnic Uzbeks. A recent poll by the Osh-based Uzbek Cultural Center found that more than 60 percent of 1,436 ethnic Uzbeks polled do not find the government’s policy toward them adequate. Over 79 percent of them say they need a political party, and over 76 percent of those polled want the state to switch to a Latin alphabet. In all, 78 percent of the respondents said that the Uzbek language should be given the status of an official state language. Local observers suggest that the perceived and real discrimination among ethnic groups, scarce resources and ineffective local administration are aggravating ethnic relations. “Competition for scarce economic resources such as jobs, spots in markets, water, housing space, and other social benefits is taking increasingly ethnic lines,” said Husan Soliev, an assistant to the head of Osh’s makhalla, a grassroots self-government. The state lacks strong dispute-resolution systems, Husan says. Moreover, some local sources say that representation of ethnic minorities in regional and local administrations has decreased drastically since 1990 and that increasing poverty makes the lack of representation increasingly dangerous.
More from Khamidov in 2002 here.
More recently, Michael Anderson, a filmmaker, had this to say to Al Jazeera yesterday:
I lived in Osh for several years and when you live there, you don’t feel any everyday tension between Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz.
However, an anthropologist who lived in Osh for three years had this to say:
Yes, there are some intermarriages and some inter-ethnic friendships, but that has little to do with inter-ethnic hatred. Have you ever read about the Rwandan genocide? There they not only had huge amounts of intermarriage, but the Hutus and Tutsis were actually only castes of the same tribe.
The reality is that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks do deeply distrust each other, bordering on the verge of hate. I have heard my Kyrgyz friends talk of how Uzbeks don’t belong in Kyrgyzstan. And I’ve heard some of my many Uzbek friends talk about how the Kyrgyz are lazy thieves.
That being said, I think one of the major forces behind what happened was economics. I’ve heard many Kyrgyz talk about how the “Uzbeks have gotten wealthy in our country, yet they cheat and steal from us.” Its easy to see how that could quickly spiral out of control during a world-wide recession and the further economic difficulties that fallen on Kyrgyzstan after the latest coup.
That is what the NYT missed. Economics important, yes. But attached strongly to ethnicity. Anyways, I’ll take the analysis of an anthropologist over a filmmaker.
Why did I copy and paste all this text? It’s not just the NYT article, it’s all over the place. Global Voices online is linking to all sorts of “it’s not ethnic” wishful thinking. Examples include:
STOP talking about ‘ethnic clashes’. It’s groups of BANDITS killing both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz!
Neither Kyrgyzs, nor Uzbeks are to be blamed for the bloodshed. It’s the Bakiyev’s fault, and let them be damned.
It is obvious that somebody is manipulating the situation in an attempt to cause a clash between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs. It looks like there are Bakiyev’s people behind this provocation, which threw a big part of the country in chaos
Twitter, of course, is also rife with similar examples.
Well, I’m not really sure this blog post is about anymore, so I should probably quit writing.
One caveat to end with: plenty of places in the world have problem like this (Osh from late 1990 to a few days ago), and they don’t always end in violence. That’s definitely worth mentioning. Maybe there is a lot of crying “Wolf!” from many analysts. But once and a while there is actually a wolf.