In today’s constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan, turnout was unexpectedly high and votes were overwhelmingly for accepting the new constitution. At least some — and probably many — voters cast their ballots for peace and stability. The passage of the referendum will hopefully be a first step to settling the enormous list of issues facing the new government.
The most difficult issues for Otunbaeva’s government to deal with will surely be those arising out of the terrible spasm of violence that shook Jalalabad and Osh in mid-June. As others have noted, what happened changes everything. The fallout will test an already fragile government and go far to revealing how different its character is from that of its predecessors.
With so much on its plate, the only question that the government has even had the opportunity to tackle is the question of “why.” This question has been thoroughly discussed here and just about everywhere else with a passing interest in Central Asia over the last several weeks.
Members of Kyrgyzstan’s government have offered explanations of why the violence occurred, most of which can be summarized as “outsiders did it.” Anyone who says otherwise is treated with hostility. The government has claimed that foreign media bear “moral responsbility” for the violence because their reporting “was one-sided and didn’t really reflect the whole picture of what was going on in the South.” Human rights activists and journalists have been detained for
investigating the violence inciting ethnic hatred. The message is “everyone suffered; forget it and move on.” So far, the provisional government’s attitude toward information seems to be that of Karimov’s government — the only permissible information is that which is politically expedient… erm… objective.
“It is very useful for them to say it was caused by people outside of Kyrgyzstan,” Mars Sariyev, a political analyst with the Institute of Social Policy, a think tank in Bishkek, the capital, said in an interview. It is far more convenient than admitting the reality, he said, which is that “when the interethnic violence began, the police and army took part on the side of the Kyrgyz.”
The official metanarrative looks all the more absurd because cold, dispassionate satellites make it hard to maintain that objective reporting is that which suggests suffering was distributed equally. Among UNOSAT’s Kyrgyzstan maps are ones that show that destruction was extremely concentrated. The below shows densities of destroyed buildings in Osh:
Unless the official attitude toward discussion of what happened in southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June changes — and there’s no reason to believe it will — Kyrgyzstan’s government will have done much to make a great leap forward in Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s efforts to make Kyrgyzstan seem more like its neighbors. Much worse though, as Scott Radnitz argues, is that the void left by the government’s silence will be filled with rumors and resentment that will keep tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz high.
An aggravating factor is that both sides’ fears are exacerbated by mutual misperceptions. As often occurs after cases of intercommunal violence, people on opposing sides have developed contradictory narratives about victimhood and blame, focusing on their own losses and downplaying casualties on the other side. Such diverging perceptions can prevent reconciliation and provoke new violence, as acts of self-defense may be perceived as acts of aggression. The current Kyrgyz government, in its reluctance to establish and make public facts, whomever they implicate, and its refusal to acknowledge the ethnic character of much of the violence, has inadvertently encouraged the hardening of self-serving — and sometimes apocryphal — competing narratives.
I hope I’m wrong, but the Kyrgyz government’s attitude toward and handling of the June events does not inspire faith that it is on the right trajectory, parliamentary republic or not.