Why Didn’t We See It Coming?

by Sarah Kendzior on 6/17/2010 · 60 comments

It has been a week since riots broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan, and, contrary to the claims of the New York Times, scholars of the region are no closer to achieving consensus on the cause of the violence than before. This is a good thing. It is irresponsible to draw definitive conclusions as to the cause of a week-old conflict marked by rumor, intrigue, and limited information from on the ground. (Though I encourage speculation and debate — that’s what this site is for.) I have no strong evidence as to who instigated the violence or why. But I would like to address another question that has been raised on this site in recent days: why didn’t scholars of Central Asia see it coming?

Every person I know who has spent extensive time in southern Kyrgyzstan is shocked by what happened. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more someone knows about southern Kyrgyzstan, the more shocked they seem to be. No one denies that there was ethnic tension in the region, but there were also interethnic friendships, marriages and co-operation. As anthropologist Madeleine Reeves noted in a recent interview for Russia Today, this is a region which has had centuries of ethnic interdependence and co-existence, a region where Uzbeks often speak Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz often speak Uzbek. Scholars who have been to southern Kyrgyzstan as recently as a year ago echo these claims. One sociologist told me that during her fieldwork last year in Aravan rayon, residents boasted of the ethnic harmony of the region with pride. So were they lying? Were we blind? Or is something else at play?

It is disconcertingly easy to convince people that a Muslim majority country ending in “-stan” is destined for violence. This is the default assumption when it comes to Central Asia, and it is often heard to convince people otherwise, despite the fact that there is little evidence to support this claim. Central Asia has serious problems — corruption, crime, dictatorship, poverty, and pervasive social distrust, to name just a few — but mass violence is not one of them. Riots are rare. As I said before, there is a different sort of violence — the quiet violence of a police state — that proceeds mercilessly in places like Uzbekistan. But Kyrgyzstan has historically had less ethnic violence than other parts of the world. There was no precedent for this conflict, save the Osh riots of 1990 (an important but isolated incident). Yet it is common for people to proclaim that there was. A few media quotes:

Newsweek: “What the Kremlin does realizes [sic] is that there’s definitely no upside to getting sucked into the ethnic quagmire of southwest Kyrgyzstan, where intercommunal violence has flared up regularly over the last 15 years.”

Slate: “Violence is common in the ethnically divided south… Until now, fighting has never reached 1990 levels, but violence is common. Disputes intensify when the economy tanks, as it has recently.”

No, violence is not common. No, violence has not flared up regularly for the past fifteen years. And if violence emerged every time the economy tanked, Kyrgyzstan would have wiped itself out long ago. There are a few reasons why outlets like Newsweek and Slate feel comfortable printing lies like this. The first is that they assume no one will know or care enough to check their facts. (The Slate piece originally stated that “the Soviets” have dominated the region since 1876, and that “Kyrgyz look like Russians or Persians”. These errors have since been corrected, yet dozens of other inaccuracies remain.) Pontificating on an obscure conflict like the Osh riots is an easy way for a hack writer to feel important and make some quick cash. But there is another, more insidious reason why statements like this are so frequently made, and so rarely corrected.

Over the last few days, an ugly question has emerged, on this site and on others: “Are Central Asians violent?” This question is often connected to accusations that scholars of the region are viewing it through rose-colored glasses, refusing to confront the base instincts of humanity. While this accusation is often amusing for the accused — this marks the first time in my life, at least, that I’ve been described as too sunny and optimistic — it is ugly in its connotations. When you ask whether Central Asians are “violent” or “not violent”, or presume a pattern of violence when there is none, you are not only reducing millions of individual people to an indistinguishable mass, but removing them from their own history. They become eternal people with eternal qualities, immune to change and completely lacking in willpower. They are violent even when they are not behaving violently, and anything said to the contrary is a delusion or a lie.

So instead of seriously considering the events in Kyrgyzstan of the last three months, or wondering what specifically might have spurred such violent behavior, some writers have implied that there is a “secret” Central Asia of scheming, murderous frauds. Such people undoubtedly exist; in many Central Asian countries, they are called “presidents”. And let us never forget that a large number of Kyrgyz men committed horrible, unforgivable crimes against Uzbeks. But did they do it because they are Kyrgyz and have some sort of primordial impulse to do so? No. Was it destined to happen? No. Was the violence most likely tied to recent political events and not ancient patterns of behavior? Yes.

It is telling that those who seem the most confident that they know the reason for ethnic violence go the furthest into the past to explain it. We have seen this before — I will never forget reading in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban that “the Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes” — but such claims are more disturbing now, as they are not only ignorant and bigoted, but a distraction from the important questions of what happened in Kyrgyzstan. To paraphrase Noah Tucker’s comment in an earlier post, why did this violence happen the way it did, when it did? Why did it not happen in other regions of Central Asia with similar problems and demographics? These are complicated questions. But we are getting simplistic answers. When we offer “ethnicity” or “class” as an explanation, we set Kyrgyz and Uzbek people outside of their own reality. This is not about who was a farmer or who was a nomad a century ago, contrary to the New York Times’ claims. The violence is, in a certain sense, about ethnicity, as the 400,000 displaced Uzbeks will surely attest. But ethnicity is not destiny, and interethnic tension is not a guarantee of violence — not in Kyrgyzstan, and not anywhere else in the world. Something else was at play.

This is why we didn’t see it coming. It is not because we are afraid to acknowledge the fact that people in Central Asia can be cruel or violent. It is not because we ignored the issue of ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan — indeed, this issue is relatively well-documented in scholarly literature. It is because we held on to a reasonable belief, still valid, that ethnic tension does not automatically translate into interethnic violence — a belief borne out by the region’s history, and by the observations of people on the ground. I do not think that the majority of recent scholarship on ethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan was misguided or delusional. I think it was an accurate reflection of its time. And now, it stands as a devastating reminder of how quickly times can change.

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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on Registan.net.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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Christian Bleuer June 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm

I did read some journalistic speculation after Bakiev left Bishkek that the south had Uzbek-Kyrgyz “problems,” and that they may get worse as a result. Of course, there is always journalistic speculation and it usually is wrong.

So I guess we are asking why no people who do scholarly research made any prognostications? Probably because they know how futile it is to make predictions. The social sciences (and area studies) are mostly useful for analyzing the past.

But should scholars have seen it coming in a general “at some point in the near future”? In a place that experienced such brutal inter-communal violence 20 years ago? In a place where for anecdotes of locals saying “All is OK, inter-ethnic harmony, etc..” we can match the positive comments with negative assessments by researchers, foreign and local? In a place where rule of law is weak, where the police and military are ineffective? In a place where there is no effective government beyond the palace guards? In a place where all the causes of the 1990 riots remained in place, and with a greater population and less economic security?

Yes, Central Asian scholars should have seen it coming. Maybe not in a scientific prediction sort of way, that will never happen. But eventually…. At least they certainly should not be surprised. Disappointed, saddened? Yes. Surprised? No.

Now who looks smart? Those strategic risk people with their consulting “products”: maps of the Ferghana in dark, dark red. They can now tell their clients how they saw it coming…. (of course, a broken clock show the correct time twice per day).

Nathan Hamm June 17, 2010 at 10:46 pm

I agree with a lot of what Sarah says in the post and was more or less going to make her comment below.

I know that at least Noah, Sarah, and I all think that the question of “why now?” is an important one. Some of the conditions have been there for the last 20 years, but were there conditions that were different in 1990 and now in 2010 that were necessary for the outbreak of this kind of violence that weren’t there in the gap time? The factors you mentioned were pretty constant for the last 20 years, and there certainly have been some enormous differences apparent since April 7, not the least of which is the intensification of nationalist framing of political competition and public clashes between winners and losers in the change of government.

I know I’m the leper in the room with my political science leanings, but I think the social sciences can be useful for narrowing the probabilities and giving the “at some point in the near future” assessment based on the examination of the factors connected to rare events like the outbreak of mass ethnic violence. So, I think we can have a much higher standard than “But eventually…” Because really, on a long enough timeline, mankind’s enslavements at the hands of cybernetic ponies is an inevitability. I’m just not going to worry about it for a couple more weeks.

So, I think the surprise is warranted. I have my own list of things I think we missed, but I think that the big thing we probably all need to remind ourselves of in Central Asian studies more often is that there’s so much that goes on in the region that is opaque even to its residents that determines the day-to-day that what we do actually know may be misleading.

Michael Hancock June 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Hey, now, don’t let my diatribe against Political Science fool you. It’s the scorn of the spurned lover. I thought I wanted to go in Poli-Sci, but I took too many History classes with interesting professors who were united in only thing – their distaste of Political Science and its apparent shame of being in the Humanities. There’s a lot of great polisci writing out there, and it’s wrong of me to include Kaplan fans as part-and-parcel with the discipline.

Nathan Hamm June 17, 2010 at 11:02 pm

It’s cool. You guys are all just jealous because we dress better, get all the love from the media and government, and exude the subtle scent of power and authority 🙂

Christian June 17, 2010 at 11:20 pm

My comment about no effective government beyond the palace guards was a reference to the current government. State effectiveness has not been constant over the last 20 years. I would say it recently took a drastic dip. That’s why the journalists started to squawk about Uzbeks after Bakiev was chased off. That’s one variable that changed drastically.

Nathan June 17, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Okay, I wasn’t sure. I think the perception of effectiveess has certainly changed, but the biggest quantifiable difference between the last two governments was tat the palaestra guards actually did their job for a while under Bakiev.

As a general point, I entirely agree with the change you mentioned in the commet below. To get more specific with this case, I think the open competition for power in the south certainly made this violence more likely.

matt June 17, 2010 at 8:59 pm

I think the sources claiming violence is “common” may not be incorrect, depending on your definition of common.

Fwiw, when I was in SW Kyrgyzstan for a month, there was a minor skirmish with grenades being used, followed by a significant increase in troops from Bishkek. Maybe it doesn’t happen everyday, but it surely isn’t uncommon.

Michael Hancock June 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm

For that matter, there’s usually some kind of “ethnic violence” every other year outside Almaty in Kazakhstan. Sometimes targeting Chechens, sometimes Dungans, sometimes Uyghurs, sometimes minority x or y, or even minorities attacking the majority Kazakhs. But if Almaty blew up tomorrow, I will be the first to cry BULLSHIT on anyone that says, “But there’s been ethnic violence all along, why didn’t you see it coming!?” Because that stuff that’s labeled ethnic violence isn’t really. It’s political, economic, or the sort. The fact is that people self-segregate, so when a neighborhood is going under the bulldozer to make room for new homes, it’s hardly an accident that the old neighborhood is all one minority, and the new neighborhood another. BUt it happens just as often that old and new are the same – then you have KAzakhs yelling about “Half Kazakhs” and “New Kazakhs” with all the money taking their land and throwing their weight around.

tictoc June 17, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Why doesn’t the violence directed at ethnic minorities in the north of Kyrgyzstan count as “previous examples of ethnic violence”? I don’t agree that “no one saw this coming.” Maybe no one was able to predict where and when (or which particular minority group), but ethnic conflict always seemed like a real risk.

Increasing urbanization seems to be a factor in the inter-ethnic conflicts in Kyrgyzstan. As pointed out before, Kyrgyz were predominantly in rural, mountain communities. As the population shifts closer to urban areas, there’s bound to be conflict between newcomers and the people that were there before. Notice that all the attempts to seize land after the April events have centered in areas very close to Bishkek and not in more rural areas.

Also, there is a much larger social gap between rural and urban residents than exists in the US. I think an urban ethnic Uzbek and an urban ethnic Kyrgyz are going to think and act more similarly than a rural ethnic Kyrgyz and an urban Kyrgyz. So, you can simultaneously have both ethnic harmony (urban-urban) and ethnic conflict (urban-rural).

The political elites in Kyrgyzstan have also set a very bad example for their people. Every administration has ended up using their power to enrich themselves, and the current interim government doesn’t seem like it’s going to be much different. They’re nationalizing stuff right and left, and it’s unclear how legal these property seizures are. And, their justification is that they’re doing all this “for the people”. Well, who can fault an impoverished rural Kyrgyz person who thinks, “This is the Kyrgyz Republic. That means it belongs to Kyrgyz people (not Uzbeks, Turks). I am Kyrgyz. Those politicians say they seized power and property ‘for the people’. Well, I am ‘people’. So, why shouldn’t I also take what I can?”

The power vacuum is what makes this particular moment exceptional. The security services have seemed completely lost in the aftermath of the April uprising. It’s easy to understand why they’d be demoralized and seemingly unable to act. Those that shot at protestors in April have been demonized as criminals. They were photographed being beaten by protestors, forced to retreat and lost their weapons. If you’re a police officer standing in a street in Osh, how can you be sure that you won’t end up being on the losing side?

To me, this seems like a perfect storm of different issues converging at the same time to create a catastrophe.

Sarah June 17, 2010 at 9:45 pm

All of the comments so far are really interesting, thank you for writing them. Perhaps I should have been more specific about what kind of violence I’m talking about: mass ethnic violence. Tension, conflict and smaller, more localized incidences of violence don’t surprise me, but the scale of the recent riots did.

Christian, I almost feel like you and I are using the same evidence to support different arguments. You are right, many of the same conditions were there during the 1990 Osh riots. But many of those same conditions were also there during the intervening twenty years, which were relatively peaceful. Why did this happen now?

Tictoc, I think you raise a lot of important issues in terms of the security services and the ineffectiveness of the government, but there is a big leap between feeling desperate and demoralized and murdering, raping and burning to death hundreds of people. How did it get to that point?

CB June 17, 2010 at 11:00 pm

The smattering of reports I saw from Osh Uzbek residents all suggested surprise as well. To my mind this points to instigation by some party or parties, and this also fits with the reports of organized outsiders involvement at the beginning. Someone wanted to drive the communities apart using the latent ethnic division. Attack the Uzbek community with a “Kyrgyz” cover and they retaliate against their Kyrgyz neighbors. Once the violence has been done the wound will not easily heal. Who would benefit from this?

Christian June 17, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Like I said in response to Nathan above, the intervening 20 years looked nothing like the month or so leading up to this round of violence. State effectiveness took a massive hit. That variable changed big time.

kebz June 17, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Things can change VERY quickly. In natural settings, the amount of population is regulated by predators:

>more rabbits leads to> more food for wolves> leads to more wolves born and more rabbits eaten>this leads to less rabbits staying alive and smaller population of rabbits> this leads to less food for wolves and eventually – diminishing of wolves population…. then this natural cycle repeats itself.

In case of human predators do not work efficiently any more, so the evolution had to develop smaller local wars as a very strong tool for controlling the human population within the limits of the resources available.

So yes, this would never happen earlier in the 20th century as back then the technologies developed (fertilizers etc.) allowed for further painless growth of population. Now the old technologies
may have been outpaced by the population amount.

So the Kygyz-Uzbek conflict is not as much a political issue as it is an demographic and environmental one.

This what’s happening – most people just marry and have kids, marry and have kids. Which is fine but… if you analyze the cultural sphere you will see that 99% of the indigenous brain energy in the region is focused on the issue of getting married and having kids which is good but the nations put little focus to address issues located on the other side of the equation, and that’s exactly where the otherwise healthy ideal of having family becomes an irresponsible enterprise and in fact even starts looking almost like some obsessive disorder. You simply want something and care for no consequences. Well this pattern now needs to change. If not… well, mother-nature may get to use its well tested tool for regulation of human demography.

Historically, every time your population gets to a point where it starts surpassing the capacity of the natural resources you have been dwelling on, you are given three options:

1) migrate to a new place
2) start a war (feudal wars are a nature’s harsh way to resolve serious demographic issues since predators no more work on us ever since we found out how to think!)
3)start EVLOVING and grow further through technologies, institutions, and culture.

Option “1) mass migration” is not available any more – there are no new lands to explore; So we are facing the last two options. Which ones should we chose? Before you answer, recall that it took two World Wars(!!!) for Europe to make the right choice. It took one nuclear bomb for Japan to make the right choice. US was smarter – it only took USA one civil war. Now, with all the internet and global history science, do Uzbeks Kyrgyzs Turkmens or Kazakhs really need to repeat the age-old mistakes of our fathers????

People (whoever, wherever they are) should sit down and think, now that we have quadrupled our population since 1950’s… what do we do next? what questions do we face? how do we ensure peace? should we now start feudal wars on grassroots level repeating the centuries old mistake of our forefathers or do something more creative?!

kebz June 17, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I only mean to say that those who understand how ecology works – they knew pretty much it was coming. and they know there may be still be MORE to come if environmental and demographic issues are not addressed and resolved.

Nathan Hamm June 17, 2010 at 10:25 pm

But demography does not inevitably lead to conflict. And if you can’t even get a fairly tight range of probabilities connected to certain observable variables, the argument is as good as rubbish if you actually are interested in anticipating and heading off, if possible, such conflict.

kebz June 17, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Demography per se – no. However, shortage of resources caused by demographic pressure (demand side ) may eventually lead to a conflict. Moreover, under certain circumstances such scenario is 100% inevitable (especially with irrational actors in the game sharing a transboundary resource).

Christian June 17, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Demography does not automatically equal conflict. But it can be a pre-requisite, or at least affect the scale and intensity. If I’m a Sioux and I see whites pouring into the black hills, I get worried about demography.

Michael Hancock June 17, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I never would have thought to look to the Slate for Central Asian news. And now I never will. That article should be read by everyone that follows Registan to know what we’re up against – it’s not just the ignorance of “the Right.” It’s hard to get more left than Slate. Ignorance of the world around us goes across the aisle. Even with the “corrections,” that article is a joke.

Oh, of course it’s money! Why didn’t we think of that!? Seriously, Brian Palmer, if you don’t have anything intelligent to say, don’t say anything at all.

Nathan Hamm June 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Dumb is an independent.

CMD June 17, 2010 at 11:18 pm


I think you are on to something here. What you describe about increasing urbanization seems to be a factor in the inter-ethnic conflicts could similarly be applied to what happened in Urumqi.

Tremendous recent growth of Urumqi drew BOTH Han and Uyghur from poor rural areas seeking better opportunity. Like how traditionally Uzbek dominated Osh is surrounded by mostly Kirghiz areas, Urumqi has traditionally being a Han dominated frontier town (see among Uyghur dominant countryside.

One common meme among Urumqi urbanite both Han and Uyghur after the 7.5 event in Urumqi is that the rioters are not local Uyghurs from Urumqi but rather migrant from poor area of Southern Xinjiang (Hotan etc). Not sure if that’s true. But the spark had been an ethnic brawl in Southern China which pitted migrant Han worker against state sponsored Uyghur migrant workers which resulted in death of two Uyghur workers.

Of course, in Xinjiang, there is additional government restriction on religion and the colonial struggle narrative. But increasing urbanization do seem to be one among many of the factors that led to bloodshed.

What I keep find perplexing is that it’s very common to hear Han from Xinjiang claiming that the inter-ethnic relations had been very good before 80s but since then it steadily grew from bad to worse. To me it doesn’t make sense, since before 80s was the bad old days of Cultural Revolution.

But the transition of Xinjiang from a planned economy to a more market-base economy do seem to exacerbated the ethnic tension. Han are no longer forced by government to move to Xinjiang like it was in 1950s and 60s, rather many of them are economic migrants drew by the increasing opportunities in Xinjiang. At the same time Uyghurs from impoverished and overcrowed oasis communities in Southern Xinjiang are moving to cities in the North seeking those same opportunities…


I hate to admit that I agree with much of what you say. But what is your solution? Btw, I used to be adamantly against One-Child policy in China. But after reading and learning more about the carnage of Chinese Civil War and conditions that led to it, I changed my mind. btw, currently Uyghurs do not subject to One-Child policy. By Chinese law, ethnic groups with members more than 10 million will subject to One-Child policy. With Uyghur population fast approaching 10 million…

Weak central government, ambious and powerful local elite, on top of overpopulation that had outgrew the capacity of the land to support which further fan popular discontent against the rulers, inevitably led to revolution, civil war and ethnic cleansing. It’s not Kyrgyzstan but China from 1850s-1949. It took Mao and Communist to ended it all. Hopefully Central Asia face a much brighter future.

Christian June 17, 2010 at 11:35 pm

A short reply to everyone: I am not surprised at communal violence during a time when a state rapidly loses its domestic effectiveness. That’s the variable that changed so drastically.

michaelhancock June 17, 2010 at 11:42 pm

It’s easiest to say, and probably the most right. None of this mess would have happened (I think) if not for the sudden lack of confidence in Bakiev and company. Errr, maybe not the lack of confidence, but the decision by some to actually do something about it.

Brent Hierman June 18, 2010 at 1:07 am

But I think that you would also agree that communal violence is only one of many possible outcomes during a time when a state rapidly loses its domestic effectiveness…and (to echo Sarah’s point above) that when it occurs, communal violence can range in intensity.
Not to belabor the point, but one could argue, of course, that the state’s monopoly of violence was greatly weakened following the Tulip Revolution and the escalation in criminal activity in the south, yet we saw no mass ethnic violence at that time. I am sure some analysis some ways down the road will be able to tease out the differences…
I guess I am chaffing at the idea that we should have expected Central Asian scholars to have a vague sense that because of the collection of structural variables that you listed above (no rule of law, challenging demographics etc…) that conflict would eventually come to the Ferghana Valley (even while not being able to predict it precisely). As you know, these structural factors can impact probabilities and they can impact risk. But they do not provide the mechanism or the process.
And because of the unknowable nature of individual preferences, amongst other things, the presence or absence of the mechanism can almost never be predicted in either the short-term or the long-term.

Christian B June 18, 2010 at 1:29 am

Difference between the whole Tulip thing and now is how the Uzbeks fit into the process (or are perceived to fit in). In 2005 the incumbents who were chased from office did not go home to and area where a national minority supported their opponents (or were perceived to).

Brent Hierman June 18, 2010 at 10:43 am

But that still seems pretty ad hoc to me as it overlooks the tension between Batyrov and Bakiev that followed in 2005.

CMD June 17, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I spend quite some time to type a long post. Then I am told it has been marked as spam. WTF

Nathan June 18, 2010 at 12:19 am

More than 5000 characters goes to moderation. Sorry, but long comments screw up discussions, we have found.

I’ve restored your comment.

J. Otto Pohl June 18, 2010 at 5:28 am

I actually did predict more attacks on ethnic minorities right in the comments of this blog shortly after the April 7th events. The attack on the Meskhetian Turks was a clear sign of things to come. TicToc is absolutely right about the bad example of the current government and the idea that all jobs, property and power should be reserved solely for ethnic Kyrgyz. Why is there not a single Uzbek in the government? On the gates of the White House here in Bishkek there were signs by most ethnic minorities stressing their loyalty to the new Kyrgyz government during most of May. The message between the lines was “please do not ethnically cleanse us.” In light of the previous attack on Meskhetian Turks this was prudent. But, it did not prevent the recent massacre of Uzbeks in Osh.

Sam Kahn June 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

When i was in Osh and Jalal-Abad in May, people were very worried about inter-ethnic violence. It was the nightmare scenario and maybe the single greatest concern nationwide after April 7th.

It didn’t come out of nowhere: there were at least a half-dozen Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes in the two months before June 10th: Kyrgyz trying to draw Uzbeks out from the People’s University in Jalal-Abad in early April, a stand-off in Osh in early May involving around a thousand people, Uzbeks participating in the recapture of government buildings on May 14th and possibly burning houses in Bakiyev’s home village, Kyrgyz attacking the Jalal-Abad university on May 19th, and the stand-off in Sokh in early June.

Uzbeks contend that they’re actively discriminated against by the Kyrgyz state; Kyrgyz counter that Uzbeks are insufficiently loyal to the Kyrgyz Republic. Both groups have ample cause for grievences.

None of this is deep-seated ethnic animosity that would inevitably erupt into violence. It’s a set of political and economic problems that are lived out day-to-day as inter-ethnic tension.

So yes, there’s a big difference between mass altercations (what was going on for the last couple of months and really for many years) and mass killings, which wouldn’t have happened without an organized provocation triggering violence. But the question is why were Uzbeks and Kyrgyz (Kyrgyz especially) ready to kill each other, and the answer has to with a complex and basically unstable inter-ethnic dynamic.

Turgai Sangar June 19, 2010 at 7:23 am

I agree. I’ve lived in Osh and Batken (and before that a bit in the Balkans as well) and witnessed literally dozens of small, localised conflicts related to water and irrigation, land, roads and border closures, access to the bazaars etc… Yet it’s not because of that that people start to slit each other’s throat. It has to be instrumentalised from somewhere, and by someone.

Just like it was in the Balkans at the time (Communist apparatchiks who coopted nationalism), with one difference: there, there was still an undigested legacy of World War 2 which is not present in Osh.

Gene Daniels June 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I hate to be a thorn in Sarah’s side, but the comment “Every person I know who has spent extensive time in southern Kyrgyzstan is shocked by what happened. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more someone knows about southern Kyrgyzstan, the more shocked they seem to be.” This does not wash.

I am an academic. I lived in Central Asia for more than 10 years; 6 in Almaty, and almost 6 in Kyrgyzstan, including 3 in Osh. And I did see this coming. But this isn’t about me, nor am I claiming to be a great fortune teller.

I have talked to a number of expats over the years who wondered if and when and where something like this would happen. These ranged from Anthropologists, to Community Development workers, to Christian missionaries. So don’t tell me that the longer people have lived in Central Asia, the less they expected this.

Perhaps it has to do with how closely a person has lived with the people of Central Asia. I have lived very close. That means I love and respect them, but I also have a realistic idea of what happens when you pack that many problems into one small area.

Oldschool boy June 18, 2010 at 9:14 pm

In in one of the previous posts I asked you, how did you know? What kind of signs of hatred did you see. Be specific, otherwise it is just blah-blah-blah.

Gene Daniels June 18, 2010 at 9:49 pm

1) I heard traders talking of burning down the businesses of other traders (other ethnic groups) because the supposedly had unfair trade advantages

2) I heard Kyrgyz talk of how Uzbeks did not belong in Kyrgyzstan because “they had their own country to go to.”

3) I heard Kyrgyz call Uzbeks “Sarts” as a perjoritve

4) I have heard many stories of how Kyrgyz hate kazakhs because they run slavery rings in the agri business of Kazakhstan (In 2006 there was a TV show in KG about Kazakhs enslaving a young Kyrgyz man)

5) I have heard Kazakhs say that Kyrgyz girls are no better than “dogs.”

I could lengthen this list, but I don’t want to inflame any passions. But OldSchool boy, yes I do know what I am talking about on this.

Nathan June 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

So, when can and/or should we expect pogroms in… how about just about everywhere else in the world? If people saying terrible things about the “others” is a sufficient condition for ethnic violence, we should see it almost everywhere all the time.

I understand there’s a difference in the intensity and nature of rhetoric in southern Kyrgyzstan and, say, the southern US. But Kyrgyzstan was a far cry from Yugoslavia, to name one example.

Okay, there were some folks with Central Asia experience who saw something like this coming. But so did Robert Kaplan, which brings up the fair enough point that experts are often no better at making predictions than lay-people. To rephrase Oldschool Boy’s question a bit, by what mechanism did those who saw this coming think it would come to pass? If there isn’t one, was it just pessimism rather than a prediction? (It’s entirely fair to say then that those on my side were optimists.)

Gene Daniels June 18, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Nathan I think you hit the nail on the head, at least with me.

For the past few years I have grown increasingly pessimistic about the way things would turn out in Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghanna valley. I am generally an optimist, but the corruption, the inter-ethnic tension, the deteriorating economic situation, etc. all pointed to a very bad end game. At least that has been my opinion for some time.

And to repeat myself, I expected that anything bad which might happen would have a significant ethnic dimension since that is one of the major facets of life in Central Asia.

The biggest thing I personally missed in this was the total ineptitude of the provisional government. We were living in Osh during the 2005 revolution, and in Bishkek turning the 2007 attempted one (was it 07?). In both those cases the government (such as it was) was able to contain any problem before it got out of control.

Also, while I suspected that the impact of the global economic downturn was really hurting common people in Osh, and might be a catalyst for social violence, I did not realise how acute the situation was. But then again I have been back in the US for a year now and have lost touch with that reality in the way we felt it living there.

Metin June 18, 2010 at 11:48 pm

If people saying terrible things about the “others” is a sufficient condition for ethnic violence, we should see it almost everywhere all the time.

sufficient condition for violence or not, they were/are definitely signs of brewing trouble. I see no point why they had to be ignored.

Oldschool boy June 19, 2010 at 12:19 am

I am really about to call you a liar. I have lived in the region for much longer than you, I am from there, but never heard anybody to openly say things like that. I mean about burning somebody business or calling girls “dogs”. Even if somebody means to do that, they wouldn’t express that to anybody who is outside his/her circle, especially to a complete stranger as you probably were.
You say you heard that, but you do not give any particular details. Were you an undercover CIA agent who blended so well in some CA mafia organization that they discussed their dark schemes in front of you?

Gene Daniels June 19, 2010 at 6:36 am

OldSchool Boy,

I am sick of personal accusations. I don’t know who you are, nor do I care. I am an anthropologist. I have traveled around Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan a lot in public transit. I spent hours and hours talking to people from all walks of life. That is the job of an anthropologist.

But I am sick of jerks like you who attack those you disagree with. Did you know about the TV show about Kyrgyz in slavery? If not, why not? I’ve learned a lot about Central Asia because I am a learner, and I project myself that way, not as an expert.

I have Central Asian friends that I have spent hundreds of hours with. I am hardly a stranger to them.

But I am done with this. I really don’t care if you believe me or not. I thought this was a place for discussion, not attacks.

Turgai Sangar June 19, 2010 at 7:32 am

This things about some calling the girls ‘dogs’ is unfortunately related to a reality, namely that Bishkek with all its prostitution has aquired a region-wide reputation (and even one beyond that) of being a mini-Patpong.

And this situation has been worked in hand by a) the depraved libertinism of certain segments of the local ‘elite’ and b) all sorts of foreign-funded projects that promoted westernisation incl. sexual ‘liberation’, homosexuality and that de facto encouraged prostitution with their condom fairs. *They* should be booted out of the country, not innocent and bona fide civilians.

Gene Daniels June 18, 2010 at 8:57 pm

I quick addition to my comment above”

I am not claiming to have known that there would be ethnic violence in Osh, summer 2010. But I can say that as far back as 2005/6 I was hearing people in Osh and Kara Suu talk in increasingly ugly terms about other ethnic groups.

I heard traders in Kara Suu bazaar talk of burning down the businesses of other ethnic groups because of “unfair trade advantages.” Granted, the reality was that potential for violence was driven by economics and political competition, but it was expressed in ethnic terms.

But the main reason that I can say I am not surprised by this spasm is that ethnicity is the primary boundary marker between self/other for many people in Central Asia. So when social, political, and economic problems explode, I expect that they will take an ethnic dimension. That is what I mean when I say that I and several others I’ve talked to were expecting something like this to happen somewhere in the valley.

Oldschool boy June 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Since I can’t reply to you previous comment, I am doing it here. You say, you are sick of people like me who attack you. I will say I am sick of people who like to saying after-fact “I saw that coming!”, and then you just start repeating statements you probably have not witnessed yourself but heard from some third party. As for the TV show about Kyrgyz in slavery, I have recently read an article in “People” Magazine about African-American people in some southern states who had been enslaved until very recently. Plus, probably everybody has seen films about illegal South American workers in the US meat industry who are 0treated almost like slaves. But does it mean there will be ethnic pogroms in the Southern United States?
If you are an anthropologist as you claim, you should have some written works on the subject. Care to share?

Randy McDonald June 20, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Old School Boy:

“As for the TV show about Kyrgyz in slavery, I have recently read an article in “People” Magazine about African-American people in some southern states who had been enslaved until very recently.”

Indeed. How is this relevant to Daniels’ point that Kyrgyzstani television featured dramas showing Kazaks enslaving Kyrgyz, as a consequence and a cause of anti-Kazak sentiment?

Xenophon June 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

“Over the last few days, an ugly question has emerged, on this site and on others: ‘Are Central Asians violent?”’

Wow–talk about a strawman argument. Who, specifically, asked this question?

“But did they do it because they are Kyrgyz and have some sort of primordial impulse to do so? No. Was it destined to happen? No. Was the violence most likely tied to recent political events and not ancient patterns of behavior? Yes.”

Hmmm–I believe this is called assuming one’s conclusion. Well, at least I’m reassured to find out it wasn’t “destined to happen.” I guess that lets God off the hook.

Averroes June 19, 2010 at 8:09 am

Speaking as one classically-psuedonymed blogger to another, right on man.

Sarah Kendzior June 19, 2010 at 9:07 am

Actually, I was probably giving too much credit by phrasing this as a question — often it’s a statement. In Gene’s earlier article, he begins by saying that “post-Soviet Central Asians did not appear to be violent people” but then concludes, thanks to an Uzbek who informed him that “We are mean. We can be evil and brutal to each other”, that he was wrong. The question of innate violence has been brought up on other discussion boards (often in languages other than English) and the presumption that mass violence is common in Central Asia emerges in numerous media reports, such as the ones I quoted above. The stereotype of Central Asians as innately violent has a long history and still is in wide circulation (see the Rashid quote above). It is a stereotype well worth correcting, particularly at a time when people who normally don’t read much about CA are following the Kyrgyzstan story.

Xenophon June 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm


Well, knowing little about Central Asia per se, and having just perused this site for several days now, the issue of whether Central Asians are “violent”–whether posed interrogatively or declaratively–does not seem to me to have been a key point of discussion up to this point. The main issues that are of interest to most posters/discussants, as far as I can see, are first, what is the extent of causation between the current violence and ethnic antipathy between Kirghiz and Uzbeks? Second, what was the triggering event/action that precipitated this violence? Third, why was it difficult–or not difficult–to anticipate? And fourth–though this has gotten relatively less attention, what are the prospects going forward?
No one I have read is asserting or suggesting that Central Asians are more intrinsically violent than human beings in general (with the possible exception of the one post you mention which is more of an implication).
However, there are clearly unresolved issues of ethnic antipathy between Kirghiz and Uzbeks as there are between so many other human groupings. To the extent that ethicity is a powerful part of identity of the two groups, aggravated by resource scarcity and struggles at the higher levels of society for political power, there may well be higher levels of violence than in SOME other parts of the world. But this merely means that people in Kirghistan–broadly speaking–are like everyone else: Are the French and Germans “violent”? Well, comparatively speaking no–not at this point in time. But Verdun–and so much else–was only yesterday. And if one objects that this is all the cause of the “leaders”–corrupt, scheming, or whatever, I will say that dominant individuals are always “leading” for good or ill, and can only manipulate the tribal instinct because it’s there. The notion that if only we can separate the evil, opportunistic leaders/manipulators from “the people”, everything will be OK simply doesn’t address the totality of issues.
So, I think that rushing to the barricades to protect the good name of the Kirghiz or Central Asians in general is unnecessary and does not really contribute to figuring out what has happened and what path future events are likely to follow.

Averroes June 19, 2010 at 8:07 am

I don’t think these events came as a surprise at all for anyone who actually knew the region. Asadov and Tolkun at neweurasia blogged about it back in April and Pohl blogged about it here on Registan, too. Even Schwartz, who hasn’t even been to the region, figured something could happen. I think what caught everyone off guard was the intensity and enormity.

Sarah Kendzior June 19, 2010 at 8:50 am

“I think what caught everyone off guard was the intensity and enormity.” This is my point. As I said above, no one denied there was ethnic tension, and honestly I don’t think anyone was surprised by small incidents of violence. But over 2000 killed, 400,000 displaced, and the city of Osh destroyed? Uzbek women raped and beaten until they bled to death; babies burnt alive in their homes? I don’t think anyone saw that coming, nor should they have. But the way certain people discuss it, this level of violence is inherent to Central Asia. The Guardian even referred to the Osh riots as “an old-fashioned Central Asian pogrom”, like this is just the latest part of a contining pattern of violent behavior, instead of something exceptional and rare.

Also, I believe what Pohl said was “I expect attacks on minorities to increase” and Tolkun, while noting that people should have paid more attention to inter-ethnic tension, said, “I knew of disaffection, I knew of tension, but I never knew there was so much hatred against Uzbeks in the South of Kyrgyzstan. ” No one expected wide-scale ethnic slaughter — nor should they have. As for Schwartz, I assume you are able to enlighten me as to his amazing efforts in prognostication, as your IP seems to indiciate you have, shall we say, an inside track.

Averroes June 19, 2010 at 11:27 am

@ Sarah: About Tolkun: http://www.neweurasia.net/politics-and-society/gone-with-the-wind/ About Schwartz: we both go to the same university. He gave me this username! Incidentally he’s sitting a few desks away from me right now puzzling about something (shaking his head at his laptop screen). Should I say hello for you?

More important is the clarification. Thank you for it. And @ Nathan: That was my bigger point by mentioning Schwartz (btw – kind of embarrassing to be one of the head honchos of neweurasia and never have gotten over there).

Nathan Hamm June 19, 2010 at 11:33 am

And that was my point in referencing my Kaplan comment — a lot of folks are retroactively calling their pessimism a prediction.

Nathan Hamm June 19, 2010 at 11:44 am

OK, I read the post you linked. A lot of us who apparently don’t really know the region expected the same type of instigation, like Sarah said, it’s the scale, which, frankly, I’ve not seen anyone actually predict.

Nathan Hamm June 19, 2010 at 11:28 am

As for Schwartz, I assume you are able to enlighten me as to his amazing efforts in prognostication, as your IP seems to indicate you have, shall we say, an inside track.

Nathan Hamm June 19, 2010 at 11:07 am

Even Schwartz, who hasn’t even been to the region, figured something could happen.

See my comment about Robert Kaplan and the comparative predictive powers of laypeople and experts.

If you want to get down to brass tacks, there a couple authors here who did expect further disturbances in the south connected to the violence and protests of April and May and that it would be framed in terms of ethnicity. The scale is what was surprised us. So, let’s can the “if you knew the region, this comes as no surprise” BS. It’s easy for one to say after that fact that one to totally called this. Point to the predictions or just admit that you’re confusing pessimism for precognition.

Oldschool boy June 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm

100% with you.
Of course it came as no surprise after the April and May events as ability of the central government to control the situation had obviously deteriorated and the tension was high, aggravated by provocative statements of some local politicians and leaders. However, the scale of what’s happened is shocking. And without the preceding events such as the April coup it would be impossible.

Metin June 19, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Some interesting excerpts from the New York Times article “Kyrgyz Officials Order Uzbeks to Remove Barriers”, published today (June 19):

At the news conference, the Osh mayor said an investigation would determine who organized the violence. But he scoffed at accounts from numerous Uzbeks who have described how they were attacked by Kyrgyz soldiers.

“Anyone who wants to accuse our government of taking part, I categorically deny those rumors,” he said. “Soldiers, the military force of Kyrgyzstan, did not take part in this. It’s a lie, it’s slander. Our soldiers would never shoot peaceful people.”

Asked who organized the attacks, the mayor referred vaguely to “outside forces” and “Islamic militants.” He maintained that Uzbeks still supported him. “They trust me and believe in me,” he said.

Still, the deep ethnic divide was apparent in interviews with Kyrgyz who were in the conference hall.

Nasikhat Kurmanbayeva, 29, was searching for information about her sister, who disappeared during the rioting.

“The Kyrgyz people have good souls, they are a simple, peaceful people,” Ms. Kurmanbayeva said.

She had a clear explanation for the extensive damage in Uzbek neighborhoods. “The Uzbeks destroyed and set fire to their own homes so that they could then blame the Kyrgyz,” she said. “They want the world to think that the Kyrgyz are guilty.”


kircher@kircherinolanda.nl June 26, 2010 at 5:51 am

On this matter i would like to signal an interview given by one of the new “provisional” ministries to the public TV. He claimed that his son, at the head of a handful of youngsters, thanks to the support of his father, obtained guns from police officers and drove to Osh, to take part into the clashing. this is a single story but it tells something about what is happening.
it cast a doubt, for instance, on the idea that the uzbek and islamists sobillated by the bakevs sparkled the fights (official version of the kyrgyz secret services).
the NYTimes is maybe right in pointing at the military as an active participant in the southern clashes, but who leads the army? Why the army (an army of poorly trained draftees) which was ineffective in defending the Bakev in Bishkek would now take their orderds in Osh? who gives order to them? Sure, as any other people in the world, the kyrgyz are good and simple souls, which doesn’t prevent the criminals to be criminals.

kircher@kircherinolanda.nl June 26, 2010 at 6:19 am

Thank you for this lively discussion. But once we have wiped away fancy interpretations resting on Cingiz Khan notoriously evil nature, I think we should turn to politics and propaganda in Kyrgyzstan. We should identify a plurality of actors, outside and inside the country, who took part into the clashes (interethnic clashes? genocides? clashes between gangs? all that at the same time?). Methodologically, if we abandon essentialist views of nationalities, we should drop essentialist views of historical developments as well. We should aim at ascertaining facts for instance: who was in osh? where came the guns from? what was the role of the army? Were all the uzbeks equally targeted? etc.
i spent two months in a Kyrgyz university in Bishkek, my kyrgyz is poor and my knowledge of the country ouside bishkek is very limited. SO i don’t claim to have particular titles to talk about kyrgyzstan.
As an historian though i was impressed by a few things when i was there. president Akaev was boosting a folkloric pure kyrgyz identity. The students (very young students) were taught maniacally the differences between the ethnicities (we should not forget that most soviet countries still have ethnicities marked on ID papers, so they cannot forget about them). Students were told fancy stories on the very ancient kyrgyz of the 9th century (as if the ethnogenic process was completed by then) alledgedly based on chinese annals, they were taught that kyrgyz were originally redhaired and blueeyed (which equals to say that they were tocarians, i. e. indoaryan, whatever it means), etc.
I don’t want to resuscitate the usual antiwestern myths, but i must say thatin the early 2000s, americans sponsored this kyrgyz nationalism (i guess in an attempt to destabilize the russians). the very nationalist school books of kyrgyz (on which students of russians and other ethnicities yawned loudly) were sponsored by the soros foundation. The dictionnary and the grammar published by the Freedom corps were maniacally attentive in avoiding the russian borrowing in Kyrgyz, so that the examples resulted impossible to understand for the russified kyrgyz of the older generations. I haven’t been in Osh, so i don’t know much about the situation between uzbeks and kyrgyz, but that som ethnic clashing was being prepared didn’t seem so unlikely.
thank you again

Turgai Sangar June 26, 2010 at 6:56 am

The last parapgraph is an interesting point. I would say not so much ‘the Americans’ as well as certain organisations with an anti-Russian line. It was also advocated by part of the local establishment, dominated as it was by ethnic Kyrgyz.

And a last thing is, that ethnic natioanlism was cultivated and privileged in an effort to push out or minimize the role and influence of Islam.

Sam Kahn June 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Just thinking about the premise behind this thread:
Expected/unexpected is really tricky. Nothing about the violence was inevitable: there was a confluence of events between Bakiyev’s sudden fall, Bakiyev’s attempt to whip up the south, Batyrov’s push for a better shake for Uzbeks, and – in all likelihood – an incredibly cynical, ruthless attempt by someone or someones (Janysh Bakiyev? Ahmat?) to stir up inter-ethnic violence for political gain.

Credit goes to anybody who said something along the following lines: ‘the Fergana Valley could be a real hot spot – Bakiyev’s fall leaves southern Kyrgyz grasping, and Uzbeks continue to be very vulnerable; some sort of provocation or misunderstanding could easily flare into major inter-ethnic conflict with the interim government too weak to effectively restore order.’

On the other hand, anybody saying, ‘the Fergana Valley is a stick of dynamite that’s already burning – sooner or later it’s going to blow’ probably missed the very real chances for modus vivendi between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Remember that Kyrgyz and Uzbeks had lived in close quarters for a very long time; there was real feeling on the ground that 1990 was an aberration and that the important lessons had been learned. I don’t think those people were wrong – I think they knew the risks of living in a hotspot and just kept their fingers crossed that the nightmare scenario wouldn’t happen.

Laura June 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I think part of the problem with this argument about who saw or didn’t see it coming is the “it.” This wasn’t an it, it was a process. There was a whole chain of causally related events, some of which would not have been probable had a preceding event not happened.

It’s not unreasonable to be taken by surprise when one improbable event (Bakiev being ousted in a coup) led to a probable event (powerful organizations in the south struggle to retain their power), which resulted in an improbable event (let’s say, to take a purely, purely hypothetical example, Bakiev family members plotting from abroad to violently destabilize the country), which led to a probable event (the fracturing of inter-ethnic trust) that took place on an improbable scale. But now too many observers look the moment when the conflict became ethnic and say everyone knew “it” would happen.

The riot process is a very tricky thing. I seriously doubt even the instigators of the violence knew that this particular “it” was going to happen.

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