Talking Kyrgyzstan, ethnic tensions, and base rights

by Joshua Foust on 11/18/2011 · 15 comments

I gave an interview to WBEZ’s Worldview yesterday about issues going on in Kyrgyzstan.

Full audio is here.

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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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Uzbek November 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

I am born and raised in Uzbekistan and I sympathize with the Uzbek minority’s problems in Kyrgyzstan. I absolutely agree with what Joshua pointed out in the interview. The root of the June 2010 ethnic violence lies in the economics not in the politics of the region – the Kyrgyz elite wanted economic opportunities created by the Uzbeks rather than political reasons such as allegations of separatism on the part of the Uzbeks. A little bit of history will also add to understanding of the roots of the violence and ethnic tension in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Historically, the Kyrgyz used to be nomadic peoples whereas the Uzbeks used to be farmers and merchants who built cities and the Kyrgyz used to herd sheep and cattle in areas around the city and come to the city to trade with the Uzbeks. Osh and Jalalabad where ethnic violence took place are predominantly Uzbek cities and used to be almost 100% ethnically Uzbek and a part of Khanate of Kokand before the cities where given to newly created Kyrgyzstan by Stalin. Partly because the cities all of a sudden became a part of Kyrgys state and life style change the Kyrgyz slowly started coming down from their mountain dwellings and settled in Osh and Jalalabad to live permanently. That how these cities got their ethnic mix and how the time bomb was planted, if you will. Kyrgyzstan today is a nationalistic country where media fuels nationalistic feelings. Uzbeks won big economically and established far more prospering businesses than the nomadic Kyrgyz. So nationalistic Kyrgyz started asking themselves why they are poorer than Uzbeks in their own country. This was the main topic the media discussed in the month leading to the ethnic violence. I would say that all the hate and tension stems from the Kyrgyz’ inability to compete in the open market with the Uzbeks. Since the country is in the nationalistic mood and rule of law is nowhere to be seen, the Kyrgyz elite are taking Uzbek businesses by force. And there is no end in sight.

Will November 18, 2011 at 11:23 am

Very good point about the roots of ethnic hatred.

Seyitbek Usmanov November 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I don’t know who the narrator is but clearly he lays the direct blame on the conflict on Kyrgyz, starting off the narration with “[Uzbeks] were targeted by angry Kyrgyz in a pogrom”.

I have a hard time pinpointing who is to blame for the conflict and the fact that the narrator has narrowed it to Kyrgyz is startling. Way to go for journalism.

Uzbek November 20, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Seyitbek Usmanov,
You know very well that the Uzbeks defended themselves: they didn’t go to Kyrgyz mountain dwellings to destroy and rape their women. It is the Kyrgyz came to Uzbek mahallas to pillage and rape and the Kyrgyz army and police aided the Kyrgyz mobs in this. This is the fact issued by the international panel that probed the events afterwards. The panel was headed by the former Finnish President Kimmo Kiljune who stated that by international laws what the Kyrgyz did in June 2010 amounted to crimes against humanity. After this the Kyrgyz parlament discussed the report in one of their sessions and issued a statement saying that they don’t agree with the international panels findings and instead, announced Kimmo Kiljunea a personal non-grata in Kygyzstan. This childish thing the Kyrgyz parlement did shows how things are messed up in the Kyrgyz society.

But that’s beyond the point, what I am trying to say here is that what Kyrgyz mobs did during their attacks against Uzbeks put a huge distance between the Kyrgyz nationalists and the civilized world. You personally may not have taken a direct part in those events but by denying the facts you are contributing to injustice… It is a payback time – take it like a man now…By payback I don’t mean that there should be equal amount of violence committed against the Kyrgyz, but the world, especially Europe and the US should now what Kyrgyz did.

The fact is the entire country of Kyrgyz attacked the Uzbek minorities in Osh and Jalabad in June 2010 and their police and army distributed fire-arms to the Kyrgyz prior to the riots and aided the pogroms by allowing the use of armored vehicles against the Uzbeks who had to defended themselves the best they can.

Yes, some Kyrgyz got killed in those events too but they got killed while they were attacking Uzbeks who were defending themselves, defending the honor of their sisters and mothers from barbaric hordes of Kyrgyz nationalists. I bet 100% you know this you are still denying the facts trying to distort the reality i teh hopes that people who don’t know the region may take it the other way. The fact that in the eyes of the world, the Kyrgyz came out an uncivilized bunch having committed the crimes against humanity might hurt you but it is the result of Kyrgyz nationalism, irrational and barbaric nationalism.

Mate November 21, 2011 at 10:14 am

Dear Uzbek:

A few questions:

1. You state and I quote, “Kyrgyzstan today is a nationalistic country where media fuels nationalistic feelings.” CAN YOU NAME JUST A FEW OF SUCH MEDIA OUTLETS WITH EVIDENCE OF YOUR CLAIM?

2. You also said, “The fact is the entire country of Kyrgyz attacked the Uzbek minorities in Osh and Jalabad in June 2010 and their police and army distributed fire-arms to the Kyrgyz prior to the riots and aided the pogroms by allowing the use of armored vehicles against the Uzbeks who had to defended themselves the best they can.” WHY ARE YOU GENERALIZING? I am Kyrgyz and I did nothing but helped my Uzbek friends during the tragic June days. If you don’t live in Kyrgyzstan, you might have no idea about how many Kyrgyz people feel bad for what happened. I am not saying that Kyrgyz people did not kill Uzbeks, yes, unfortunately, it did happen, but you cannot state that ALL Kyrgyz did that. In fact, there are more educated, peaceful and intelligent Kyrgyz people (as well as Uzbek) in the south than you think there are. And, I know they feel horrible about what happened to their Uzbek friends, family and neighbors.


Nelsonchee December 4, 2011 at 10:45 am


May I know how is the current ethnic situation in Kyrgyzstan?

I wish all of you well.

Is there any chance if I could learn more about it. Please call email me at or call at my mobile 00 60123151326.

Uzbek November 21, 2011 at 11:21 am

There is no denying that some media in Kyrgyzstan is overtly nationalistic and the rest tacitly agrees with the nationalists views. The country has become a sick with nationalism and if the media goes against the grain, you know what can happen to the offices and the personnel of such media. Can you show me one article in the Kyrgyz media condemning what happened to the Uzbek minority? I don’t think there is even one article has been published since then.

I know Kyrgyzstan better than you think I do. I have traveled extensively in the south of the country and also worked for an international NGO that stationed me in Osh for 2 years.

You talk about intelligent Kyrgyz people who feel bad for what happened to their Uzbek neighbors. I agree just like anywhere else in the world there are some intelligent people among the Kyrgyz. But where are they? I don’t see them or hear their voice. In fact they have been so silent in the face of crimes committed against the Uzbeks that one might think that there are no intelligent and impartial people left among the Kyrgyz. I personally have a couple of Kyrgyz friends who used to work with me at an international organization. We used to hang out together all the time and I knew them very well, or I thought I knew them very well. Immediately after the riots I reached out to them to discuss the events. My Kyrgyz friend’s response to my e-mail was “Our Kyrgyz guys showed the Uzbeks that they can fight”. This is coming from an educated and intelligent Kyrgyz that I thought was my friend. As I mentioned in my previous comment, the international panel found that the Kyrgyz hordes committed crimes against humanity by killing and raping Uzbek women and children. And what did the biggest group of intelligent people in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz parliament, do in response to this statement?They denounced the report by simply saying that crimes against humanity didn’t occur and made the head of of the international panel, Kimmo Kiljunen, a persona non-grata. Do I need to say more to prove that it is not automatic that I lost my faith in Kyrgyz media and “intelligencia” but had pretty good reasons?

But I guess the consolation for me is that slowly but surely, people are getting to know that crimes against humanity were indeed committed by the Kyrgyz nationalistic multitudes in those days. Moreover, there is a payback and the payback is that the image of the Kyrgyz as a group of people is tarnished forever, especially overseas. If you live in Kyrgyzstan you know this, if you live overseas you know even better…

Isaev, M. M. November 21, 2011 at 11:39 am

Uzbek and Seyit,

Nationalism is irrational and barbaric, no matter what the color. And you are both full of it. The conflict between Cain and Abel is an old one, mentioned both in the Bible and the Quran. Nomadic herders and settled peasants have had conflicts throughout the history and both have built up a nice historical narrative painting their bosom enemies black. But the thing is that it’s the XXIst century out there and traditional agriculture as well as nomadic herding are no longer viable lifestyles. Nor do Uzbeks and Kyrgyz actually practice them, except as a cultural baggage. And it’s a heavy one. So heavy that in fact in Finland, which is among the richest countries on Earth, the Sami people — the descendants of nomads — are still living in poverty and are often rejected by the majority population.

In Uzbekistan, it is the other way around; the majority Uzbek/Tajik (let’s call it Sart) population is often clinging to a traditional culture, while the rest of society that includes Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Uyghur, but also Russian, Ukrainian and Korean, has mostly moved on (that is not to say that there are no modern Uzbeks, but they are a small minority). Guess what, the state is plundering Korean businesses for the benefit of ethnic Uzbeks just as Uzbek described above. It’s not that any nation is inherently better than any other.

The inconvenient truth is that ethnic nation states are a doomed concept, especially in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, in particular, is not a viable country. As long as it exists as an independent nation-state of the Kyrgyz, it will condemn its population to abject poverty. Uzbekistan is in a slightly better position, but not much. Without a much tighter integration and strong checks on various nationalisms, the region has a very bleak future.

R.Duke November 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm


Exactly why Central Asia is the next powder keg, in 20 years we wont be able to recognize it from today I guarantee you. Ethnocentric nation states, as you mentioned, are a huge barrier to a region that needs to work together more not instead draw lines in the sand to emphasize how great their people are, and I think every country there is guilty of this.

Isaev, M. M. November 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm

While I certainly see why you are afraid of the whole region going up in flames, I would not bet my arm on it yet. There are reasons for optimism, too.
Yugoslavia is not the only possible scenario. I hope.

Uzbek November 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm


You just called Uzbeks “Sart” in your post, it is like calling somebody “N” word in the US. It is unacceptable and shows your level of understanding things around you. You should first learn to debate your point in a civilized way without using derogatory words in address of a group of people.

You also said that Uzbeks are clinging on traditional culture which is a gross generalization and far from reality. Uzbeks live in the same region as anybody else and there is no reason for them not to change with anybody else. I sense you think the tradition is the enemy of progress. This is an old Soviet mentality. Japan is a deeply traditional society and so is Italy. This doesn’t hold them back from being advanced societies. The enemy of progress is not traditional long dress that you see some Uzbek women wearing but state of mind that Kyrgyz and Kazakhs have, the state of mind that allows people take by force economic opportunities if they cannot compete in the open market.

Judging by the fact that you brought Uzbekistan into discussion even thought the article or the comments have nothing to do with that country, I would say you are Kazakh or Kyrgyz who historically have had inferiority complex before Uzbeks. This is why you didn’t say a word about atrocities committed by the Kyrgyz hordes which is more relevant to discussion but trying to confuse people here by saying that “Uzbeks cling to traditional culture” which is not true, nor relevant to the discussion here.

Isaev, M. M. November 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I apologize, if I used an inappropriate word. Please suggest something better instead for denoting the traditionally urban population of the cities along the Great Silk Road that is partly Uzbek and partly Tajik, but certainly shares a common urban culture that is mostly alien to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz. I definitely did not mean it as an insult to anyone. As for my own ethnic background, let’s leave it out of the discussion, please.

Taking the businesses of a successful ethnic minority by force with support of the majority population is a bane of nation states around the world. Chinese, Jewish and Armenian diaspora have suffered such attacks in many places many times over. It is definitely not unique to Kyrgyzstan and therefore I do not think that the solution to this problem will be unique either. Particularly in Uzbekistan, Korean “oligarchs” are being dispossessed of their property for the same reason.
I maintain that it is the ethnic nation state that is to blame. That Kyrgyzstan is the country of the Kyrgyz, Uzbekistan is the country of the Uzbek and Kazakhstan is the country of the Kazakh. And so on and so forth. This makes no sense given the totally arbitrary borders and the interspersed populations.
The many ethnic groups living in the region can only hope to prosper if they can trade and do business on equal terms, with a free flow of goods, capital and labor across transparent borders marked by a single “Welcome to …” sign, if at all.
In Kyrgyzstan, the problem is acute, as the country is simply not viable economically. 1/3 of its GDP is remittances from migrant workers (mostly in Russia, but some in Kazakhstan and other places). But Uzbekistan is not that far ahead, believe me. The fact that its population is (increasingly) segregated along the Uzbek + Tajik vs. everybody else line is difficult to deny, I think. And those “everybody else” feel increasingly uncomfortable and are leaving in droves due to rampant nationalism. Just as Kyrgyzstan desperately needs its Uzbek population in the South and Russian (in the broad sense) population in the North to keep the economy running, Uzbekistan also desperately needs its Koreans, Uyghurs, Tatars, Kazakhs etc. However, the nationalist state ideology is not conducive in retaining and attracting “foreigners” (if you may call them that), in either of these countries.

That’s all I wanted to say and I am really sorry that you misunderstood it because of an unfortunately used word. Please suggest an acceptable alternative, if there is one. I guess, it would be foolish to deny that the residents of Bukhara, Samarqand, Kokand, Ferghana, Andijan and Osh share a great deal of common culture, but calling them all Uzbek when the ones in the west mostly speak a dialect of Tajik among themselves is clearly inaccurate and perhaps even offensive.

Russ Zanca November 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Some interesting debating points and issues about the Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflict being raised here. Debate has its productive and un-productive aspects, too.

Of course, there were conflicts between semi-nomadic and farming peoples or town dwellers during the Kokand Khanate–no question–but these were not exactly the same as inter-ethnic conflict. For one, few people considered themselves in modern ethno-political terms then.

I agree that many conflicts that we consider to be ethnic or national today have strong materialist or economic imperatives. No doubt. But I disagree that the conflicts are not every bit as political. While a sense of economic injustice might result in an occasional gang fight, it is very unlikely that one will experience prolonged inter-ethnic conflict without some political demagogues stoking the flames of antagonism.

The awful events of 2010 reminded me a lot of the equally brutal events that occurred 20 years earlier in Osh–June, 1990, but none of you mention this.

There’s no question that the last of the Soviet years brought on lots of economic hardship for Ferghana valley Central Asians–Soviet citizens in general. Gorbachev’s glasnost’ also coincided with a greater ability and facility for freedom of expression to emerge. With this in an unfortunate sense was the accompanying freedom to express grievances that could be explained by substantial cultural differences. Naturally, some of these were reified and magnified by the Soviet system itself.

Nevertheless, within Osh major nationalistic groups had emerged among the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Whereas many at the time sought to blame the violence (killing approx. 500 people, mostly Uzbeks at the hands of Kyrgyz, and wounding hundreds more) on Moscow, or, more exacting, the KGB, it was also clear that politicians of Kyrgyzstan played a role in the tragic outcome, even if it was only their inattention to the problems.

This dreary history is well recounted (especially the development of the nationalist movements–Adolat and Osh-Aimak) in the pamphlet Osh Koogalany/Oshskie Sobytiia.

While it is true that Kyrgyz and Uzbek people have exchanged stereotypical and prejudicial views about one another–as commentators above noted–for many years, there is quite a difference between disparaging another person for his culture and beliefs as opposed to deciding to kill him because of what one perceives he is.

I will say that I think “Uzbek’s” comments about growing nationalism among some Kyrgyz of Osh is accurate. In 1993-1994, I spent time with quite a few young Kyrgyz intellectuals (intellectual wannabees, at any rate), who forever tried pointing out how most of the Uzbek-populated areas of Osh, including minor districts and towns had been Kyrgyz historically. They would discuss 19th century newspaper articles and Russian colonial readings to bolster their claims. Now, here it isn’t the truth per se that matters so much. Rather, it was the growing and dissatisfied sense among numerous ethnic Kyrgyz with whom I interacted that lots of Uzbeks were not entitled to the success and fortune they enjoyed in Kyrgyzstan.

What happened in 1990 was extremely fresh in the minds of both ethnic groups, and both admitted that little had been done to alleviate the tensions. This festered for 20 years, and the Akayev and Bakiev governments certainly could have done more. It goes without saying that the Uzbek dictator could have played a positive role, too, but he always showed he didn’t give a damn about that approximately one million ethnic Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan.

I think that regional cooperation on this issue is the single most important defense about further and devestating outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence in the Ferghana valley, let alone Kyrgyzstan’s north.

Economic development would clearly alleviate much of this tension, but dedicated politics are vital as well.

Isaev, M. M. November 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Russ, please elaborate on your distinction between economics and politics. For me, politics is the domain of two particular economic questions: who pays tribute to whom and how much.
In every ethnic nation state in the world, successful minorities are from time to time subjected to “politics” aimed at taking resources from them and giving them to the “titular nation”. Justifications for this are also very unoriginal with appeals to history, justice, etc.
What is special about the situation in Kyrgyzstan?

I would even go as far as claiming that the inter-ethnic tension is more-or-less completely confined to the south. In the Russian-speaking north, people are profoundly baffled by the violence down south. Ethnic Uzbek tourists (with various passports) enjoy vacations on Issyk-Kul, no problem. Where there is no economic incentive, there is no politics either. The cultural division is merely a pretext.

Russ Zanca November 22, 2011 at 11:02 am

Dear M.M.,

Happily. As an anthropologist, I have a narrower frame of reference for “tribute” than you may. In my field, we often discuss politics in the sense of “who gets what, when, where, and how.” Kind of vague, I know, but it does apply to all peoples no matter what form of ordering organization they have for their societies. To be more concrete about Kyrgyzstan, I would refer to what I previously wrote–viz., that political representatives, whether de jure representatives of the state or de facto representatives of popular organizations, such as Adolat (Uzbek) try to inform and educate (also, manipulate) the thinking of others. I suppose we would refer to this as the construction of an ideology.

Ideology, then, is the most obvious fundament of a national idea, ethnic pride, etc. I think the evidence is good that in Kyrgyzstan a great part of the sense that the Kyrgyz are a completely distinct people/culture/ethnicity from the Uzbeks, let’s say, during he early Soviet period, especially given Stalin’s intellectual concerns and ideological platforms built around the edifice we know as ethnicity.

Naturally, we all have senses of difference as people–religious belief, beloved foodstuffs, language/dialect, economy, etc. The question is what drives the basis of difference into an intolerance of inter-ethnicity? Personally, I am inclined toward the theory of ethnic pluralism articulated by Frederik Barth in the 1950s.

Kyrgyzstan’s situation is “special” or unique only insofar as nationalism of the past twenty or so years is a unique manifestation of Soviet (Marxist-Leninist) nationalities policies. Ron Suny in part coined the phrase “revenge of the past” to describe some of the emerging conflicts of this nature in Sov/Post-Sov space just after the collapse of the SU. The marginal essences–to the degree to which they were extant circa 1986-1990 all the way to today–of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz as farmers/tradesmen vs. pastoral nomads served a major trope of difference and resentment mixed with a perverted ideology that claims one group is pure of heart and decent and the other is hidebound and unscrupulous. Furthermore, the Kyrgyz rightly asked themselves in the late 1980s, “How is it that this is our country, but this minority group (and not always a numerical minority in areas of the south) lives a better way of life than we, materially speaking? Let’s do something about this.”

As you note, northerners of Kyrgyzstan are a bit surprised by their southern co-ethnics, many of whom see the southerners as somewhat Uzbek anyway. On the other hand, my understanding is that the problems of the south have been felt in the north and increasingly so, especially as Uzbek people also live in the north. Whether or not this gets better or worse remains to be seen. It will be a great test for the current Kyrgyz government and state as we head into the 2010s. Neighbors have a role to play, too.

No doubt a country/countries where “guestworkerdom” is the mainstay of the economy probably doesn’t bode all that well for a future of harmonious inter-ethnic relations, unless, of course, all of the young men are working in Russia or Germany, and have no time, energy, or inclination to worry about who should live on which street, or whose land is suitable for planting this or that, or raising livestock.

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