Crisis Group on Ethnic Divisions in Kyrgyzstan

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by Nathan Hamm on 4/3/2012

International Crisis Group released last week a report on the growing ethnic divide in southern Kyrgyzstan. If you happen to be, like I am, a pessimist about Kyrgyzstan, this report will probably reinforce your pessimism.

In more remote rural areas, the mood remains raw. Harking back to June 2010, some politicians refer to the brave young Jigits who came down from their mountain villages to save their native land in a time of need. Some young Osh residents speak of the “volunteers” who came in to save the city. Speaking of the young men who joined in the pogroms, a Kyrgyz observer noted that “these kids gained a lot of pride as a result of the events”, adding that “they have not had much to feel proud of for a long time”. Villagers refer to young men killed in the fighting as “shakhid” (martyrs). An independent researcher visiting a remote Kyrgyz village was told by teachers that southern Uzbeks should be sent to Uzbekistan, where, given their ethnic origins, they would be happier. The researcher was then urged not to raise the June events with village youth, as they were only too keen to return to Osh or Jalalabad and continue the fight against the Uzbeks.

The key southern Kyrgyz narratives all concur that Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan have again become a dangerous “other”, a latent threat. Many voice the fear that the current situation is only a breathing space before more violence breaks out.

When the narrative dominant, even with many liberals, is that the Uzbeks brought this on themselves by trying to make a grab for power after Bakiev’s ouster in April 2010, the fear that this violence will happen again is probably well-founded.

Uzbeks, the report says, have retreated into their own communities after finding no help or refuge in Bishkek, Russia, or Uzbekistan. Increasingly, they write, Uzbeks are turning to conservative Islam, though claims that violent extremist groups like the IMU have seen significant increases in support are unfounded. There is anecdotal evidence, however, that Hizb ut-Tahrir has become more popular.

Though only briefly mentioned, the report too mentions the possibility of Uzbekistan’s intervention should a future conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks break out in southern Kyrgyzstan. I agree that Karimov would resist intervention, but there is much more support for intervention on behalf of ethnic Uzbeks below the highest peaks of the Uzbek elite and among the public. New clashes in Kyrgyzstan would likely spark strong calls from the public and much of the elite to intervene. Karimov might be able to resist such calls, but his position would be weaker than it was in 2010 on the issue. All bets are off with a successor, and the conservative bet would be to count on Uzbekistan to intervene.

This is troubling and is only moreso because it is unlikely that Atambaev’s government will put much effort, let alone have any success, in easing tensions. Central Asia is sliding into a more dangerous, volatile period, and this issue will likely be one of the largest concerns for years to come.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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