The more things change…

by Noah Tucker on 1/19/2011 · 10 comments

This month the official Kyrgyzstan National Commission to investigate the June conflict announced that it had completed its report on the tragic violence in Osh and Jalalabad last summer. Two things struck me as especially remarkable in the discussion that has surrounded their findings.

The commission, headed by Abdygany Erkebaev, held a high profile press conference on the 11th. Erkebaev announced that after months of “intensive investigation” [scare quotes, not direct quotes] the commission–minus several members who publicly resigned in protest and lodged complaints about sloppy methodology and disagreements with the findings–had discovered that those truly to blame for the the June tragedy were…

everyone the government has blamed at one time or another for the past seven months.

Well, and the Uzbeks. Mostly the Uzbeks.

Greedy, fanatic Uzbek nationalists? Check. Bakiev revanchists? Check. A murky alphabet soup of international Islamic terrorist groups with TIES TO AL-QAIDA? Check. International mafia groups? Check. Additional nameless Foreign Instigators attempting to derail Kyrgyzstan’s democratic progress? Check. (U.S. Special Forces? Can’t be ruled out.)

Naturally all these actors were working together in a vast, complex conspiracy that “we totally have evidence for, but we just can’t show it to you right now.”

In a special parliamentary session today with the members of the National Commission, the conspiracy got even better. Tantalizing details were added, the intrepid Mullah Abdulloh (who clearly must have been involved, since he does everything in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Central Asia) was meeting with Maxim Bakiev himself somewhere in… Tajikistan? And the Taliban were there. But don’t let yourself be distracted even for a second from the known fact that all of this is actually Kadyrjon Batyrov’s fault.

Well, and it’s also obviously the fault of Baxtiyar Fattaxov, the only ethnic Uzbek on the National Commission, whom JK speaker Keldibekov (Ata Jurt) insisted today should be removed from his post because Keldibekov claimed to have secret proof that Fattaxov was a nationalist-separatist who personally asked the UN for advice about how to secede from Kyrgyzstan.

That this incredible and impressively flexible conspiracy was being put forward as the official explanation for this heartbreaking human tragedy was the first thing. The second was that the same day the original press conference was held, I happened to also read a description that I thought was particularly apt (no surprise, since it was from John Schoeberlein):

The government and official press claim as a rule that the events are the result of a conspiracy involving nationalists, religious extremists, and criminal elements. They deny or play down the governement’s use of force against the population, and emphasize the harm suffered by law enforcers. Generally, the make no mention of legimate complaints voiced by the people, and often, foreign instigators (anti-[government] or pro-Islamic) are blamed.

Now, by itself, it seems like maybe a straightforward description of what, at one time or another, everyone affiliated with the Kyrgyz government or the nationalist parties have been saying about who’s to blame for the conflict since around June 11. The kicker?

This is from an article published in 1994. [“Conflict in Tajikistan and Central Asia: The Myth of Ethnic Animosity,” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 1:2, pp. 19-20]. Schoeberlein was summing up the (Soviet) government explanation for every ethnic or civic conflict that happened in the Soviet Central Asia from 1986-1990. The study included ten incidents, from the 1986 Almaty student demonstrations to Namangan clashes between soldiers and civilians in December 1990.

Some 25 years later under what was supposed to be a radically different political system another tragic conflict rocked Kyrgyzstan this summer: how can we explain it? Clearly, it was a shadowy conspiracy involving nationalists, religious extremists, and criminal elements… and foreign instigators (anti-government and pro-Islamic) are to blame.

I’ll leave an extended discussion of what this kind of lack of introspection about the roots of clearly very serious institutional problems might say for the future of peace or development for Central Asia to another time, or to other authors. But I found the parallels between the explanations used in the past bizarre, remarkable, and also very helpful in way for understanding why so many Central Asian politicians in this and other contexts seem puzzled when asked to provide evidence or even logical connections in the conspiracy theories they use to publicly explain everything that doesn’t go according to plan.

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This post was written by...

– author of 54 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Noah Tucker is managing editor at and an associate at George Washington University's Elliot School of International Affairs Central Asia Program. Noah is a researcher and consultant for NGO, academic and government clients on Central Asian society and culture. He has worked on Central Asian issues since 2002--specializing in religion, national identity, ethnic conflict and social media--and received an MA from Harvard in Russian, E. European and Central Asian Studies in 2008. He has spent four and half years in the region, primarily in Uzbekistan, and returned most recently for fieldwork in Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summers of 2011 and 2012.

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Jangak January 20, 2011 at 1:46 am

Kyrgyzstan…Kyrgyzstan never changes.

Mekenchil January 20, 2011 at 2:49 am

Everything was planned by external agencies and used internal terrorist groups, nationalists, uzbek criminals. That is the reality, if they escape from the justice in this world, who will save them after death. So limiting life with this world is wrong.

nusgai January 20, 2011 at 7:07 am

It’s not like the Soviet Union had a monopoly on blaming someone else for civil disturbances, in fact this seems a rather common pattern wherever the government thinks it can get away with such nonsense. Just look at China or Iran, with the proper modifications of the religious angle.

Of course this case is slightly more disgusting than normal because they are blaming the victim.

Rob January 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Sadly this plays right into the stereotypes about Kyrgyz culture.

If someone pushes you in the bazaar and knocks you over, their first response is “Why were you walking there” “Stay out of the way” the word sorry or my bad, doesn’t even enter their minds, even though they clearly know they’re the ones that messed up.

Southern Kyrgyz especially are nationalistic and ethnocentric, it doesn’t matter who started the conflict, the problem was the fact that the two sides are incredibly racist against each other to begin with. So long as these two peoples remain ignorant and hateful, they deserve whatever misery they’re subjected to.

Jangak January 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Thank you for highlighting the ‘fact’ that nationalism and ethnocentricism in the country is solely attributed to southern Kyrgyz.

Feelings of mistrust between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, as well as other minorities, exist virtually all over the country. Simply because the North doesn’t have a substantial Uzbek population outside Bishkek does not make them any less tolerant.

Dilshod January 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

The issue that very few entertained (or addressed) in discourses attempting to offer a more or less comprehensible explanation is (I submit and am sorry for such a long sentence) a fact that the Central Asians’ nationhood is relatively young. The ethnic divisions are THE factor there.
Nationalist sentiments that brought about among other things the collapse of the USSR have not maturated (sorry if it’s a wrong word), but kept boiling. The exception is Uzbekistan, imho, that has resisted every effort of nationalists since independence. Kazakhstan is facing a serious challenge in uniting ethnically divided nation. Kyrgyzstan fell in the trap and is unlikely to recover in the near future. Lumpenized socium will keep looking for the scapegoats to their own failures, as they learnt that violence is called “a revolution” and liked by the West that keeps pouring them money for just another mutiny. No proper lesson has been learnt and no policy shaped. In the Soviet times, scholars were aware of the specific nature of the Kirgiz culture and therefore would stress more Soviet identity, in contrast with let say Uzbeks and Kazakhs who were partially allowed to build on their own identity. Now when we look at the Kirgiz folk culture we see there is a big void, vacuum that will be filled in with smth, not necessarily the good.

Noah January 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Dilshod and Rob–Relying on ethnic essentialism to explain a complex situation that has clear institutional issues isn’t much better than using wild conspiracy theories. Both conveniently explain away the problems or introduce a kind of dead-in-the-water fatalism that doesn’t do the situation or the people afflicted by it any remote measure of justice.

Rob, I don’t know how much you know about what happened in Osh in June, but personally I couldn’t wish that on anyone. I don’t want to get into some kind of “won’t someone please think of the children” screed, but seriously. If you dislike Central Asians so much that you don’t care if they get burned alive or raped and mutilated, you’re really reading the wrong website.

Rob January 21, 2011 at 10:34 am

(Noah) I’m not going to go into the details, but I know very well what went on there having lived in Kyrgyzstan over two years.

The vast majority Kyrgyz (mostly in the south) ARE ethnocentric and racist. If you say other wise you clearly know nothing about the people who live there. The atrocities, while horrible are a clear outgrowth of that ignorance and hatred.

Shifting the blame by saying the “Issue is more complex” doesn’t change the fact that the genocide committed there was bore of stupidity and hate over generations of mistrust and self segregation.

Also on your international component, any outside influence clearly paid a minor or at the most a catalytic influence by sparking the situation. The kind of hate you mentioned that comes from raping and murdering an entire family takes more than just a casino fight or foreign money to get someone to do that.

…and on your last point about hating Central Asian, I do care, its just a lot different when their doing it to themselves, changes the whole victim/victimizer dichotomy.

Noah January 21, 2011 at 11:18 am

I’m not following your logic here. If you argue that “the vast majority” of Kyrgyz are racist, and and also that Uzbeks were overwhelmingly the victims of the violence, how is this “doing it to themselves?”

I’m really not a fan of blaming the victims, especially in a conflict that was so badly lopsided as this one was. I’m not sure that’s actually what you mean, though. I can’t quite tell.

Ethnic polarization and inter-ethnic mistrust or hatred obviously played an important part in the way the conflict evolved and played a critical part in determining who the victims were of the violence. I don’t disagree with that by any means. I do disagree with using those same kinds of broad stereotypes and generalizations about entire ethnicities–as if an ethnicity has a personality, an outlook, or opinions–to explain why violence erupts in a specific place and time. “Kyrgyz and Uzbeks don’t like each other” is not sufficent explanation for why one day young men jump in a van to go murder children and old people in a town a few hours away. It doesn’t explain why it happened at a specific time and in a specific place but not everywhere else where those two peoples live side by side and not all the rest of the time that they’ve been living side by side.

I don’t argue with the point that ethnic tensions and ethnic stereotyping contributed to the conflict. But let’s not pretend that you can explain the situation by saying “the people in Southern Kyrgyzstan are ignorant, stupid, and racist and they deserve what they get.”

Shok bala January 22, 2011 at 10:25 am


Your description of the South sounds a lot like what a Northerner would say. Of course, that’s because you served up there, isn’t it?

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