Tranquil in Bishkek? Just Wait a Week

by Myles G. Smith on 6/19/2010 · 8 comments

With hundreds dead in southern Kyrgyzstan, demonstrating yet again the tenuous hold of the Interim Government over those regions, those of us in Bishkek are now wondering what is in store for the capital itself.

The killing seems to have lost momentum for the time being. Security forces are reaching beyond Jalalabad and Osh to smaller towns, and are claiming to have arrested and killed some of the alleged instigators of the violence. The most at-risk populations have fled to the borders or mountains, and with the remaining at-risk groups in hiding or behind barricades in their mahallas.

On Tuesday, Interim President Rosa Otunbayeva admitted she did not know if the same violence would now move to Bishkek. She described the heightened security measures that have been taken, including roadblocks at the city limits to check passengers for weapons. I passed one of these myself today – it consisted of a uniformed police officer and two guys in dirty t-shirts with kalashnikovs standing near a concrete barrier on the main road to Taraz. They were searching one BMW Mx5, which was actually heading out of the city, while dozens of cars passed by without a glance.

If the IG’s claims of paid provocateurs instigating violence are taken at face value, logically, there is no reason to assume that similar bandits can’t be found to bring the same chaos to Bishkek.

Whether or not all of the dots in Kyrgyzstan’s post-revolution instability can be connected to Bakiev’s entourage and the drug lords that supported him, it is clear that the stakes are rising with each incident. Here is the list of violent events since the April 7th overthrow, with an explanation to each, according to popular sentiment in Bishkek.
April 8-12: Political demonstrations led by Bakiev in the south

  • Lore: “Attempt to rally popular support in Bakiev’s traditional power base, pitting south against north.”
  • Result: several injured, Bakiev flees to Belarus.

April 19: Anti-Meskhetian Turk/Russian pogroms in the Bishkek suburb of Maevka

  • Lore: “Southerners squatting outside Bishkek paid by Bakiev supporters to stir up anti-minority and anti-Bishkeker sentiment.”
  • Result: several dead, handfuls wounded in pogroms, IG promises to make concessions to the squatters.

May 13-14: Attacks on government buildings in the southern capitals

  • Lore: “Bakiev affiliates, patrons and drug lords fighting for economic control of the south by dividing it from the north.”
  • Result: several dead, dozens wounded, no one prosecuted

June 10-14: The most recent events in Osh and Jalalabad

  • Lore: “Provocateurs paid by Bakiev to foment a race war between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks”
  • Result: possibly thousands dead, hardened Uzbek-Kyrgyz animosity and suspicion, widespread dissatisfaction with IG, very few apprehended

Now, with the best units of the Kyrgyz security forces drawn into the south, the north is left even less defended than usual. The interior ministry has also increased patrols and shifts, circling the streets continuously, under siren, for several nights straight. People’s Vigilantes, young male volunteers recruited by youth movements and sports clubs to keep peace in the city have also been patrolling the streets on foot and in city busses. One of their leaders claimed that there were not enough volunteers to secure the capital, the leader of another group claimed that the question is of quality, not quantity. ( Interim Prosecutor General Beknazarov has announced plans to subordinate, organize, and these groups under the auspices of the interior ministry, but it is not clear how (or whether) this will be done. For the time being, there is little oversight. There are at least eight in Bishkek alone, all reporting to different organizers, nearly all consisting of young, underutilized, men.

Otunbayeva claims that the referendum planned for June 27, and designed to legitimize the IG and the term of Interim President Otunbayeva through the end of 2011, is assumed by all to be the next target for immediate disruptions. By Friday afternoon, the rumors, assumptions, and conspiracy theories of how the capital will descend into the abyss have hit reached their logical extremes:

Political demonstrations to take place on Monday and Tuesday

  • Provocateurs will start shooting people over the weekend
  • Bombings will target Narodniy supermarkets

Each of the major violent confrontations to occur since the overthrow of Bakiev have mixed race/class tensions, regional divides, and/or drug mafias with politics. Is there a combination and concentration of these elements that is sufficient to send the capital into the abyss?

The IG is struggling to project power anywhere. International forces are hesitating to get involved. A currency devaluation is all but inevitable. There are angry, desperate, under-educated and listless populations across the country.

The whole country seems to hold together through momentum and precedent. These are its main elements of strength and cohesion, until they are proven insufficient and rendered meaningless.

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This post was written by...

– author of 12 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Myles G. Smith is a project manager, consultant, and independent analyst based in Central Asia. His writing appears regularly at, the Jamestown Foundation, and the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. He is currently based in Kyrgyzstan, has lived in Turkmenistan and Russia and worked throughout the former Soviet Union. In the process of his work, he regularly consults a wide range of experts, officials, activists, journalists, academics, diplomats and entrepreneurs in the region. He is proficient in Russian.

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Valerij Tomarenko June 20, 2010 at 2:35 pm

The usual question is who profits form this situation and who has an interest at stake. Thanks for the article – keep us updated. Thx

Myles Smith June 21, 2010 at 12:19 am

It is a fine question, Valerij.

The thing that concerns me is that most genocides gain momentum when individuals seeking power for themselves incite hatred and violence against ‘the others’ as a political tool. The Others become the scapegoat for the people’s frustrations and failures. So any of a number of people struggling to gain power in the country could use ethnic problems to propel their own reputation with their own groups. Whether they are a group of young men based around a drug lord, businessman, politician, security officer, or some combination of the those. The biggest loser is Otunbayeva, whose legitimacy and sound reputation has taken a big hit among both the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south. The winners are hard to identify – do the drug lords gain much from the country falling into chaos? Do the Bakievs really think this will improve their position? Would they incite something like this purely out of spite? Hard to prove any of that.

As for external forces, I don’t see any benefit for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the US or Russia for this to continue or get out of hand. There are a few conspiracy theorists in Kyrgyzstan that tend to see a foreign hand in every calamity that befalls them, and while its an easy excuse, I just don’t see it. Even some ‘free thinking’ journalists in the US and Russia are willing to consider the hand of the other in this mess. Some will say Russia wants a weak Kyrgyzstan in order to dictate its terms and reassert its dominance, but frankly, Kyrgyzstan was and would continue to be weak without this crisis. Others argue that the leaders of our Central Asian neighbors want to assure that democracy fails here, but I can’t imagine they would prefer this situation – a failed power vacuum on their borders. And Russia and the US seem seem equally concerned and for the same reasons, neither of them want Kyrgyzstan to fall into complete lawlessness, yet neither of them are willing to risk their own blood and treasure on an adventure here.

Xenophon June 20, 2010 at 9:26 pm

What is the difference in general political orientation and outlook between the Kirgiz of the north and south?

Nathan Hamm June 20, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Some will say that it’s that each region looks oout for its own. I don’t think there’s much evidence for either region being so politically homogeneous to be treated as large blocs.

Myles Smith June 21, 2010 at 12:44 am

I would agree with this as well. My Issyk-Kul friends think that they are the center of the Kyrgyz world, that their Kyrgyz is the purest Kyrgyz, etc. Bishkek/Sovietized Kyrgyz seem to have a penchant for Kyrgyz nationalism, but don’t necessarily understand or care for their village brothers. Jalalabaders always seem to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, as they feel looked down upon by their urban brethren. Etc, etc.

Considering the huge geographical divisions and the steady declines we’re seeing in infrastructure, education, health, and standards of living, I wouldn’t imagine anyone would be surprised by the sorts of divisions that are emerging everywhere as people explain away their frustrations and limitations.

Michael Hancock June 20, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Agree with Nathan – while it’s easy to generalize because the two have different demographics, it’s harder to make it stick in terms of politics. The North is generally majority Kyrgyz with large minorities of Russians and Dungans, though some say that Russians have been leaving since the events in April. That being said, it is also the area where Kyrgyz themselves are more likely to be fluent in Russian, often at the expense of Kyrgyz, with many being unable to communicate in Kyrgyz at all. The South is majority Kyrgyz with large minority of Uzbeks, and where the Kyrgyz are much more likely to be fluent in Kyrgyz and speak with a noticeable Kyrgyz accent in Russian, and may not know Russian at all. Again, that’s a generalization, with lots of exceptions.

Part of the problem is that “North/South” is almost as accurate as “East (Batken/Osh/Jalalabad)/West (Issyk Kul/Chui/Bishkek/Talas),” since Kyrgyzstan’s southeast is sparsely populated, similar to the northwest – these are the major mountainous regions. And there’s something to be said for Central Kyrgyzstan (Naryn) being more central as well – having characteristics of both camps (fewer Uzbeks, but more native Kyrgyz speakers). And I could be wrong – this is from reading and trying to recall several articles.

Michael Hancock June 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I would add that Naryn is also special because it is 99% Kyrgyz and the most sparsely populated, with many Kyrgyz still living at least semi-nomadic lifestyles. And Talas is quite unique because the province is basically a valley in a U of mountains with the opening pointed to the West and Kazakhstan, so it is quite cut off from the rest of the country. Kyrgyzstan is, geographically speaking, IMHO the most interesting Central Asian country, beating Tajikistan for the title. 🙂

Myles Smith June 21, 2010 at 12:29 am

I would reiterate everything Nathan said above. For emphasis, here is a quote from a southern Kyrgyz friend from a couple days ago:

“Southern and Northern Kyrgyz hate each other… They think that we are all from the village and we speak Kyrgyz differently and we’re like a different people.”

Another note: she doesn’t speak Russian well, but she understands Uzbek perfectly.

There is certainly a palpable animosity of the Bishkek/Chui crowd against the Southern crowd, in this case, the Jalalabad-Osh-Batken group of Kyrgyz. These Bishkekers generally see themselves as more civilized, educated, and cultured in the Soviet sense. There has been considerable animosity since the northern migration of southerners that took place after the Tulip Revolution, with whole suburb-slubs on the outskirts of the city populated by Bakiev supporters from the villages who have moved to Bishkek for a better life, as though moving here would automatically result in one.

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