In Osh, An Unresolved Future

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by Joshua Foust on 10/18/2011

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — The Atlantic published a dispatch about some of the changes Kyrgyzstan is experiencing:

Away from the downtown core Bishkek, the city is much more Soviet, much more familiar to people who have traveled through this region during the 20 or so years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Gorbachev is still reviled for ruining everyone’s lives with Perestroika, as many blame their current economic and political troubles on the fall of the Soviet Union. “If he hadn’t screwed things up,” a middle-aged Russian woman named Yelena told me, “We would be much better off today.” Things aren’t horrendous, but they aren’t great either: the suburban grocery stores sell lots of potato products and mayonnaise but not much else. The restaurants serve traditional Kyrgyz and Russian food: sour milk balls, fermented milk soda, grilled meats, bread, bizarre cheese, and garlic concoctions scraped over crusty bread. And on every street corner, inside every underpass tunnel, near every place vaguely international, you can see homeless people — not aggressive or nasty, but omnipresent.

While Bishkek is a generally optimistic place, or so it seemed during my short stay, Osh is a different matter entirely. Despite the city itself being pretty, things here are very depressing. I’m researching issues relating to the Uzbek business community, which bore the brunt of the “June Events” last year where about a thousand people were beaten to death over 72 hours and thousands more were chased across the border into Uzbekistan (yes I know there are many disputed numbers here; I will not debate them right now).

Since then, the Uzbeks have been returning to the city in fits and starts, but very little is working as it should. Many businesses have been occupied by Kyrgyz, and their Uzbek names changed to Kyrgyz ones. Many more have remained in the hands of their original Uzbek owners, but now must pay upwards of 50% of their revenue to “protection squads” which are, you guessed, it Kyrgyz, in return for not being beaten to death.

Business seems to be at the heart of the unrest last year. The Southern Kyrgyz were angry the Uzbeks controlled the commerce in the city, which is Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest and it’s “Second Capital,” as they say (the Kyrgyz occupy almost all of the administrative and political positions). Moreover, after a few minor incidents, several prominent Uzbek figures in Osh sought refuge and allegiances with the new Kyrgyz government from the North; as a result the Kyrgyz in the south (Osh is a southern city) swarmed through and attacked people they felt were their enemies.

Right now southern Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to recover. A lot of Uzbeks were frightened into not working anymore unless they send half their profits to a Kyrgyz broker as protection or sign a deal for joint or majority Kyrgyz ownership in a process called “raidership.” So they’re being squeezed out of the market, and are leaving en masse, but because they’re the overwhelming majority of the business community, their flight, driven by fears of more ethnic unrest and no justice from the government, is causing a lot of grief which will, ironically, probably lead to more violence in the future.

I have recorded a dozen hours of interviews with business owners here over the last few days. Literally every Uzbek I talk to says it is hopeless, he has no future, and he desperately wants money to send his wife, children, or grandchildren to Russia. The Kyrgyz, meanwhile, think Osh is great and green and being “revived” because of all the construction. After 18 months, that construction has not yet reached many Uzbek businesses (a picture of one along Masalyeva Prospekt is above), even though Kyrgyz businesses have had easy access to tens of thousands of dollars in assistance money to restart. I’m still talking to more people, still trying to see if there is some way to make this situation any better. But right now, with the city politics being what they are, it feels immovable.

I’m not really sure how Kyrgyzstan gets out of this one without more violence. The elections at the end of this month need to establish a coalition government, which might be hard if it tries to either side regionally (the front-runner, Atambaev, is unlikely to do so), or if it refuses to do much, as the current interim President Otunbayeva has done, so as to avoid stoking more regional sentiment. People here are crying out for justice and if they don’t get any, it could throw Osh and maybe Jalal-Abad into turmoil again. I wish there was a way out, but it’s just not moving in that direction. The best we can hope for, it seems, is a grinding stalemate that doesn’t turn too vicious.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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