Lying Satellites and Kyrgyzstan’s Course

by Nathan Hamm on 6/26/2010 · 6 comments

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.


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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 6 comments }

Illuminate June 29, 2010 at 7:11 am

Nice post, except I am not sure the satellite imagery proves much, without an overlay of ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz suburbs/enclaves.

Nathan June 29, 2010 at 7:47 am

You’re right. The UNOSAT descriptions of the maps suggest they could have made that a layer on their geoPDFs.

Metin June 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

the provisional government’s attitude toward information seems to be that of Karimov’s government

Note, that international reaction to the bloody massacre in Kyrgyzstan was not as swift and harsh as it was towards Karimov’s government. We heard no call for independent international investigation of killings by any leader of Europe, as it was the case in Andijan (it took British foreign minister hours to request this in 2005). The UN was helpless, the World just watched people being killed. Some ‘experts’ here were more concerned about ‘right usage of words’ like nationalism, ethnic cleansing etc. than unpunished crimes committed.

However, one should give credit to journalists who covered event this time – most of coverage in media like New York Times, Guardian were balanced and objective. UNOSAT’s images are documentation of crime, which might be used as an evidence for legal proceedings someday.

Thanks for the post!

Metin June 29, 2010 at 1:25 pm

the provisional government’s attitude toward information seems to be that of Karimov’s government

Note, that international reaction to the bloody massacre in Kyrgyzstan was not as swift and harsh as it was towards Karimov’s government. We heard no call for independent international investigation of killings by any leader of Europe, as it was the case in Andijan (it took British foreign minister hours to request this in 2005). The UN was helpless, the World just watched people being killed. Some ‘experts’ here were more concerned about ‘right usage of words’ like nationalism, ethnic cleansing etc. than unpunished crimes committed.

However, one should give credit to journalists who covered event this time – most of coverage in media like New York Times, Guardian were balanced and objective. UNOSAT’s images are documentation of crime, which might be used as an evidence for legal proceedings someday.

Thanks for the post!

sorry for repost, mistyped html code in prev. msg.

STM June 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm

How much of the provisional government’s response to the massacres in Osh is a product of their concerns about the cohesiveness and loyalty of the Kyrgyz military?

I know little about Kyrgyzstan, but it appeared that the April protests succeeded in bringing down Bakiyev’s government in large part because the military chose not to retaliate. Does the provisional government now feel that it must tread carefully around the military? Would it damage the military’s cohesion and willingness to serve the provisional government if it was forced to directly confront the possibility that soldiers played a destructive role in the violence in Osh?

The Kyrgyz military’s decision-making process seems fairly largely ad hoc and local, following a gradual breakdown in central control. The Otunbayeva government, aware that it owes its existence in part to the military’s own inaction in April, may now be highly responsive to what it perceives as the military’s preferences. Could this in turn be skewing the government’s policies and statements, particularly regarding the events in the south?

Anyways, please let me know if all this is completely off base. I have been reading Barnett Rubin’s ‘The Fragmentation of Afghanistan’, just finished a chapter on the breakdown of state control during the Khalqi period. As one might expect, it seems that successive coups/revolutions can expose divisions within the military and weaken the state’s control. A newly installed government might be wise to be cautious in its relations with the military, even though this detracts from its ability to be a truly representative government capable of upholding the rule of law.

Myles July 4, 2010 at 6:54 am

STM is not off base. The loyalty of the security services to the Otunbayeva government is an open question, especially in the south.

Imagine the backlash of the hyper-self-defensive Kyrgyz, should Otunbayeva go up on TV and announce that mostly Uzbeks suffered, that mostly Uzbek girls were raped, that the ‘instigators from outside’ succeeded in manipulating the Kyrgyz into starting these pogroms. I’m not saying that any of those things are true, but they are arguments that simply can not be true politically, no matter who wants to remain in charge.

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