When I was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan last month, I was overwhelmed by the depth of not just the despair, but the desperation that was evident with every single Uzbek I spoke to (save one). RFERL über-reporter Daisy Sindelair, who helped me wrap my head around some of the basic issues before I flew over, wrote of how anger and desperation were cresting:
The result, she says, is like slow starvation. With no jobs and no money, life has become a fight for survival for many in the mahalla, whose streets are lined with men, many of them former cooks in the city’s once-bustling Uzbek restaurant trade, now sitting idle. More than a year after the violence, city police — all but a handful of whom are Kyrgyz — still stage regular raids on the neighborhood, rounding up men on what neighbors and human rights groups both say are spurious charges and subjecting them to vicious beatings or shakedowns or both. (Umida’s father-in-law points to a visiting neighbor, a shy young man with a pronounced stutter, saying he was forced to pay $3,000 to secure his release after being arrested, and suffered a black eye and broken ribs in the process.) Human Rights Watch, in a report earlier this year, warned that the deeply corrupted delivery of justice “undermine[s] efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel[s] tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence.”
Today, the Michael Swirtz of the NY Times joined the fray:
“Persecution against Uzbeks has become systemic,” said Khusanbai Saliyev, a lawyer with the rights group Citizens Against Corruption in Osh, which has represented about 80 Uzbeks in cases of wrongful arrest and abuse. “To imprison someone for a long prison term, it is only sufficient to have his confession. And you know how they get those confessions: torture is the main instrument for solving a case. This is the main tool they use today.”
His reporting, too, is extensive and deserves to be read in full.
So all of this has me scratching my head: what do we do about this? There is incontrovertible, overwhelming evidence that the Kyrgyz government in Osh is systematically abusing the Uzbeks who live there, and there is a widespread sense that patience is at an all time low (one Uzbek man, an out of work taxi driver, told me darkly that he felt the IMU was maybe onto something, but I thought he was clearly just griping about his situation).
I noticed another problem, too, which wasn’t immediately clear: many of the IGOs, like the OSCE, UNHCR, and the UNDP, who are active in the region employ mainly Kyrgyz. There are simple reasons for this, like how the previous twenty years of displacing all other ethnicities in the local and national governments with Kyrgyz workers have left Kyrgyz as the largest and easiest-to-hire group of competent workers.
The problem, as one Uzbek business owner explained to me, is that this ethnic imbalance on the part of the international community can create challenges. “If I want to report a Kyrgyz harassing me, or trying to use raidership” — the process by which Kyrgyz demand a 51% share in ownership and revenues from Uzbek businesses — “I don’t know if I can report that to the Kyrgyz staff of an NGO. Where else can I go?”
Given the fairly angry debate over U.S. engagement in Uzbekistan, I’m curious what options we have for countering this sort of abuse. I interviewed a civil society leaders in Bishkek about the Uzbek plight in Osh, and she got tears in her eyes. “The leaders in Bishkek, they don’t have the political capital to deal with this problem,” she told me. They’re too busy trying to make the central government work to worry about a tiny minority most of them don’t like anyway.
So what do we do? The U.S. has a much closer relationship to the Kyrgyz government, which is accused of complicity in the torture of innocent Uzbeks. The International Community has a strong presence in Bishkek, and a less strong but still highly visible presence in Osh. They’re not hurting for access. But, despite 18 months of focus on “reconciliation” (which has taken some bizarre forms, like having elders who weren’t involved in the June Events gather for tea and demand people chill out), the situation in Osh is worse than ever. Uzbeks are harassed so much the men rarely leave their mahallahs for fear of imprisonment. Several business organizations in Osh complained to me last month that an overwhelming majority of reconstruction aid — something like 90%, though I’m working to confirm that number — has gone to Kyrgyz, who were at best a small minority of those who suffered from the violence and property destruction.
UNHCR has been effective at helping to bring people shelter and prevent starvation. But pivoting from that basic level of disaster relief has proven an enormous challenge for the international community, including the government run aid groups like DfID and USAID. I don’t have any answers here — I don’t know what else could be done differently to change the situation. It’s easy to say “we need justice,” or “apply leverage.” Everyone wants to do those thing. But what leverage does the international community have to actually do that? What shape does it take on the ground? How do you force a thuggish Mayor to stop persecuting an entire people-group?
This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of human rights advocacy in Central Asia. No matter the level of engagement, we do not have a consistent policy or method of operation that will alter the conditions of abuse. We can alleviate some of the manifestations of abuse for a while, and with any luck convince a democratic government like Kyrgyzstan’s to eventually take notice and respond to its citizens.
Beyond the simple fact of having access, I’m not sure what can be done. Pressuring autocratic governments works only so much; they’re not responsive to an electorate (the way, say, apartheid South Africa was) so there’s only so much pressure that will have a change. Having access and publishing abuses is a great start, since even in Central Asia exposure has led to a mild, temporary curtailment of abuses in some cases. But what, really, can we do? What’s the roadmap for improving conditions?
Very few people or groups have a solid answer, and even fewer have any successes to draw from. And this is where I scratch my head, and it’s where I get lost in the debate.
Pic: A burned out store front in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, taken by me on October 20, 2011.