Living in Osh even for a short time, you quickly begin to feel that the intense explosion of violence that happened last June was only an episode, an acute outbreak of chronic problems that are part of something much bigger. I believe it is equally clear, though, that in spite of all the way these events are often characterized, this “something bigger” is not some mythical ancient ethnic tension between two peoples bent under the accumulated offenses of centuries.
Contrary to the way this discussion approached by many journalists (especially Western journalists who tuned into Kyrgyzstan last year for one week and then went on with their lives), I want to do something somewhat unorthodox. I want to step back from the issue of ethnicity and instead look at the way shared problems are ethnicized in narratives produced by each community. After all, if “ethnicity is the answer” that supposedly explains how Osh became what is today, there must first have been a question—before Uzbeks blamed the Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz blamed the Uzbeks there were deep problems that these narratives of blame were created to explain.
The explosive episodes of violence in 1990 and 2010 are easy to discuss and “easy” to explain in the sexy ethnic terms that sell newspapers and get votes. But listening to people of any of the communities of Osh discuss their lives in any detail—past the rubble of their houses or headlines of the last year—I see a pattern emerge that I think suggests that we consider these explosions of violence not only as part of an institutional situation that fosters ethnic conflict, but also as acute instances of one particular type of violence that occurred on the background of and intermixed with many other types of violence that have shaped and confined the way that many residents of Osh experience their lives.
To be more concrete, I have found with deeply disturbing frequency in interviews and everyday interactions with people here—even with some who lost everything in the June violence—that what happened last June was neither the beginning nor the end of their suffering that comes from many different types of trauma that they experience as violence, and that many of these traumas had nothing to do with their ethnicity. Not all of these violent experiences are physical—some of them are economic, cultural, gendered, political—but sooner or later they seem to become expressed in physical ways, from riots and street-fights to domestic or sexual abuse that takes place not only within one ethnicity, but often within a single family. Some of the most difficult stories that I’ve heard during this research were not about the ethnic conflict at all, but about domestic and sexual violence that the narrators felt were provoked by institutional problems facing the whole city.
Experiences of violence in everyday lives and the existence of institutional patterns of alarming social violence inside Kyrgyzstan have been, it could be argued, purposefully overlooked at times. The international community tends to gloss over problems in Kyrgyzstan because they have stake in trying to present the country as a lonely success story in the grand schemes of post-Communist development. And it’s also true that in contrast to Uzbekistan, for example, where most violence and oppression are driven by a small circle of ruling elites at the very top, Kyrgyzstan does come out looking pretty good. Just because people in Kyrgyzstan don’t experience totalitarianism does not mean, however, that the past two decades have felt safe or secure, and this applies especially to the residents of Osh.
As I listen to people tell me about the way they have experienced the past twenty years, beyond and behind the two recent rounds of social conflict there is another factor that often looms heavily in the background. When the period of independence began, the entire infrastructure of the Soviet-built economy in the south began to rapidly collapse, a process whose effects are everywhere visible here today and very often cited in interviews with residents from all ethnic communities. Huge factories lie empty and deteriorating, slowly collapsing into the same rubble that covers sites from last year’s attacks. After the first few days here, in fact you realize that in some ways it’s difficult to tell, unless there are obvious scars from fire, what was damaged by the riots last year and what has collapsed from pure neglect over time.
Many other authors—who I think understand these things much better than me—have substantively addressed the way processes following the Soviet collapse have resulted in disappointment with “modernity,” (e.g. Julie McBrien), losses to gender equality and women’s rights (e.g. Marfua Tokhtahojaeva), domestic abuse and sexual violence (e.g. Collette Harris) or the rise of organized crime and its role as a primary power-broker in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan (e.g. Alexander Kupatadze). All of these things help explain the way people in Osh understand themselves today and the stories they tell to explain their situations. But understanding how narratives about collapse in the economy and in the order of things are understood as violence—and are cited as leading to other forms of violence–I think warrants a bit more explanation.
The second day I was here I was walking through a dilapidated park in the city center (which features, as some parks in the former USSR do, an abandoned and rusty 1970s jetliner with Soviet markings falling apart almost to the point at which it looks like a plane crashed in the middle of the city). As I crossed over the Ak-Buura river that runs through the middle of the park, I thought I had stepped into my first destroyed Uzbek neighborhood. Even the streets were torn up and muddy, and looming above the river was a once-fantastic tea house (see above) with ornate wooden carvings along the roof that still survived intact, though the windows were all broken, the concrete floor smashed or broken in places and the brick porch about two meters above the street level was crumbling as if the building had been shelled. A colorful but tattered poster on a sign nearby caught my eye: it was an announcement from the mayor’s office, stating that the neighborhood was slated for rebuilding. The dates when the rebuilding was supposed to have finished had passed months ago.
I cautiously walked up to an old man wearing an Uzbek hat and sitting in front of a little store across from the ruins of the tea house. I sat down next to him and greeted him in Uzbek and asked, haltingly, what had happened to the tea house. It was at this point that I understood just how rusty my spoken Uzbek is (!)—but in between his raspy voice from a lifetime of cigarettes and missing teeth, I got that he was telling me that a long time ago everything from the building was “carried away,” that it had been slowly ransacked for parts and equipment. In case I wasn’t understanding right, I switched the conversation to Russian and asked again, “you mean nothing happened here in June? This isn’t from the events?” He held his hands up and waved both them to signal an emphatic no. “No, no, no! Nothing happened here, everything was fine!” As I looked closer at the ruins of the tea house and the rest of the neighborhood that was nearly equally decrepit, I realized there were no signs of fire, no signs of sudden violence. This once-beautiful building on an amazing site right next the river, nestled among tall green trees, had not been looted in a riot, it had been looted slowly, over time, and just been left to fall apart.
As time went on, I found this was a story told over and over. Last week, I took a trip to Kara-Su with an older Uzbek friend named Lochin. We went to mosque together for prayers, he took me around to all the now-closed border crossings, and drove through an empty bazaar. We had talked about a lot of things that day and other times, and though last June he lost his entire house in Cheremushka and was in the hospital for an expended period after being beaten nearly to death, he has never particularly wanted to talk about that since the first time we met. We talked instead about our families and about Uzbekistan, and on the way back to Osh he asked me if it was okay to take a detour through some of the smaller villages so that he could show me the countryside a little. As we drove it became clear that he wanted to tell me about something in particular. We drove through Nariman, where I knew that last year international human rights monitors raised serious alarm when after the June violence had subsided the MVD and special forces had arbitrarily detained and beaten dozens of Uzbeks in a massive “mop-up” operation, but none of this was on Lochin’s mind. Instead, as we drove, he pointed out factory after factory that was now abandoned and crumbling. In a way similar to the old man across from the ruins of the tea house, Lochin talked about the way he believed the factories were “carried away,” looted for parts and sold off piece by piece, by people who were greedy and shortsighted, who sacrificed thousands of jobs for a little bit of quick personal gain.
As we got to the edge of Nariman closest to Osh, my mind was full of the stories I had read about the violence there last year, and I was preoccupied with looking for signs of the roadblocks that had been constructed to try to keep the riots from reaching the village. But Lochin insisted that I look at look at something else instead: a hulking brick industrial complex that he told me had been a meat processing center that once employed 22,000 people. Now it was gone, collapsing on itself, the jobs were gone and there was nothing left to do—he felt–but drive taxis, work on the bazaar, or leave for somewhere else.
As I listen to more or less this same story told in different ways over and over, I’ve begun in some ways to question how we can measure or disentangle the traumas of the collapse of Soviet-built and sustained economy–and the collapse of the order of things that came with transition–from the ethnic antagonism that now exists and the sense of disorder and disorientation that I hear so often here.
A key part of this feeling of disorder is the impression that the city (or the country) and its peoples are no longer working toward a common goal or moving in a common direction. Instead, the rich or the powerful (generally the same category) act in their own interests at the expense of ordinary people. Because this is the dominant narrative that explains the economic collapse, it is perceived by many as an act of violence: against their livelihoods, against their families, against their crumbling city. Not only is this collapse seen as resulting from economic inequality (from the greed of robber-barons and mob bosses), economic and infrastructure collapse has further exacerbated economic disparities that already existed. Poor villages surrounding the city only become even poorer as their water and irrigation systems stopped functioning, schools are abandoned, and young people in particular desperately tried to find land or work somewhere else.
Since this collapse, perceived as violence of the rich and corrupt against ordinary people, has affected a great part of the population on both sides of the ethnic “divide,” it’s not hard to see why both sides feel like they are legitimate victims in the processes of the past twenty years. And many people I’ve talked to in fact use this approach to dismiss the importance of an ethnic issue at all, arguing instead that even the “June war” was not a conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, it was a conflict between a few rich Uzbeks and a few rich Kyrgyz that made ordinary, working and middle-class people on both sides its real victims.
One Uzbek woman, standing in front of the ruins of her home and the near the place where many of her neighbors had been killed, told me, “I wish those millionaires would just shoot each other and leave us alone.” A Kyrgyz man explained to me the other night that the conflict was all the fault of “Kadyrjon, Otunjon and Tekejon [Batyrov, Otunbaeva, and Tekebaev].” I asked him if what he meant to say was that he felt like Otunbaeva and Tekebaev weren’t ‘really’ Kyrgyz, that they were on the side of the Uzbeks. “No, “ he said, “that’s not what I mean. I mean those politicians were all one team, and they couldn’t solve their political problems, and then all the ordinary people suffered because of it—Uzbeks and Kyrgyz together, no ordinary people wanted any of this. What do they need it for?”
While the narrative of economic violence and oppression can unite the two ethnicities, unfortunately it also seems to be a key to explaining why the problems actually shared by everyone in the region become ethnicized in the first place. If the dominant narrative for explaining collapse and curtailment of opportunities becomes “the rich are stealing from us,” it becomes much easier for political entrepreneurs to convince angry and aggrieved people that the real thieves are those who are different than “us:” those who are seen to refuse to assimilate to us or demand that we assimilate to them, or who are perceived to control a disproportionate amount of economic or political power.
I don’t think it’s necessary here to cite a lot of examples of the way people were mobilized with these ethnicizing narratives or the ways they are used to explain or justify what happened. These examples aren’t hard to find, and they are pretty well covered by others who write about the situation. I’m more interested right now in the way that both ethnicities experience the same institutional situation, experience the same violence of collapse, and how much they—in my experience thus far anyway—describe it in very similar ways. This is not even to mention problems like the ubiquity of corruption, the impunity of organized crime groups (who were represented by gangs and mob bosses of both ethnicities), the violence of the drug trade, or the constant threat of arbitrary arrest by bribe-seeking police. Again, in all of these issues the situation is one not one in which only one community suffers and only the other is to blame. If there is to be a brighter future for southern Kyrgyzstan, these are problems that will have to be solved together or not at all.