Though recent news from Kyrgyzstan has focused on the arrest of former Bishkek mayor and current MP Nariman Tyuleev on graft charges, something equally important took place in the remote south of the country: tensions have risen in Batken Province after three Kyrgyzstani citizens were arrested across the border in Tajikistan.
You can’t make up a stranger story than this: on June 20th, three Kyrgyz men from Batken were detained near Isfara, in Tajikistan’s Sughd province, for illegally smuggling and attempting to sell over 90 kilograms of what was initially described as “red mercury.” What is “red mercury,” you ask? Apparently, it’s a near-mythical chemical compound, allegedly pioneered in the Soviet Union, that can be used to make bombs. Though often associated with terrorists in the popular press, there is no indication that it actually exists. For this reason, later articles covering the arrest referred to the chemical in question only as mercury.
Anyway, the day after the arrest, relatives of one of the detained Kyrgyz men took 19 traders from Tajikistan hostage in the provincial capital, Batken city. To make matters even stranger, the relatives knew the 19 traders, and, apparently, asked these Tajik acquaintances to sit tight until they could exchange them for the three arrested Kyrgyz men. Luckily for the Tajiks, they didn’t have to wait for such an unlikely hostage exchange. The authorities managed to free them by noon on June 22nd.
However, that wasn’t the end of the story. On the morning of June 22nd, 200 people—reportedly, friends and relatives of the arrested men—gathered in the center of Batken city to demand decisive action from the government to free the three Kyrgyzstani citizens still being held in Tajikistan. In the early afternoon, these protesters took eight more citizens of Tajikistan hostage—this time, long distance truckers transporting goods from China to Tajikistan. As the protestors didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving peacefully—several were armed and other lobbed rocks at the police—the authorities decided to carry out a “special operation” to free the hostages. This, it appears, meant throwing stun grenades and firing warning shots into the air until the crowd dispersed. And it was largely successful: though one police officer was wounded during the operation, the protestors disbanded, the hostages were freed and sent on their way, and the police took nine organizers of the protest into custody.
Additionally, although the protesting Kyrgyz failed to get their friends freed from custody in Tajikistan, the government appears to have heard their demands: an official delegation from Batken set off for Isfara in hopes of resolving the situation, as Kabar.kg reports, “within the framework of the laws of both nations and international agreements.”
After the situation was under control, the Batken Provincial Administration tried to play down the event, noting that this was the first time it had ever encountered locals attempting to resolve a problem by taking hostages. The provincial administration also expressly asked the public not to look for interethnic conflict in these unusual occurrences, but acknowledged that the incident has a negative effect on interstate relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
While this is technically correct, I don’t believe the distinction between “interethnic” issues and “interstate” issues is necessarily meaningful in Southern Kyrgyzstan. When you take a closer look at the history of tension between Kyrgyz and Tajiks in Batken, you see that much “interethnic tension” has its roots in interstate problems. Indeed, the “red mercury” events cast a spotlight on the persistent problems facing the Kyrgyz-Tajik borderland.
Though Batken was not struck by significant violence during the interethnic conflict in Osh in June 2010, it has seen its share of tension and conflict. In 1989, as the Soviet Union collapsed, clashes over land and water broke out between border villages in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, resulting in several deaths and dozens of injuries. This wasn’t hugely surprising, as the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was undefined, leaving local residents unsure how to distinguish between “ours” and “theirs.” What’s surprising is the fact that these problems have never been fully resolved. Even today, many portions of the border have not been delineated and conflict over land and water remains a pressing issue.
This is exacerbated by the reality that Batken Province and Sughd Province suffer from different social and economic problems that fuel tension between Kyrgyz and Tajiks. According to Azamat Temirkulov, a political science professor at the American University of Central Asia who spent time living in this area, far-flung Batken Province is economically depressed and cut off from the rest of Kyrgyzstan, forcing locals to leave in search of employment opportunities in Bishkek or Russia. Meanwhile, Tajikistan’s Sughd Province is overcrowded. It’s simple supply and demand: Kyrgyz are abandoning the land and selling it for cheap, and Tajiks are all too happy to take it off their hands.
Kyrgyz in the border area frequently allege that Tajiks are illegally buying up Kyrgyz land. This could be true, as some Tajiks may pay bribes to have the land they purchase officially registered in their names, but its masks the underlying dynamic of the situation: Tajiks want the land and many Kyrgyz don’t. Some Kyrgyz also allege that this process is turning their territory into Tajik territory, sometimes even going so far as to suggest that this is a plot by Dushanbe to increase the size of its territory. That sounds a little too much like a conspiracy theory to be true.
But, regardless of what is true, the problem won’t be solved until the two nations delineate their border. Until then, the potential for conflict between Kyrgyz and Tajiks will remain high.
On December 29, 2011, we saw how little it takes to provoke interethnic conflict in these tense circumstances: a fight broke out between Kyrgyz and Tajik teenagers in Andarak village of Batken’s Lyalyak distrinct, sending one Kyrgyz boy to the hospital. The parents of the injured boy filed a complaint with the police and the police arrested 3 Tajik suspects. From there, the conflict mushroomed out of control. First a group of 150-200 Tajiks confronted the police and freed the three suspects. Then some 500 angry Kyrgyz demanded the Tajiks surrender the suspects. But, by this point, the Tajik crowd had swelled to around 1000 people and no one was willing to back down. A clash then ensued, in which Kyrgyz burned two kiosks and a bakery, smashed a car, and tried to burn down a house. The situation only cooled once the regional governor, district head, and the Deputy Interior Minister of Kyrgyzstan arrived on the scene and persuaded the crowd to disperse. Given Southern Kyrgyzstan’s recent history, this was a minor clash. But it could have turned out worse, and it is a testament to the bad blood between these two communities.
I’m not trying to suggest that what happened a few days ago in Batken was, in fact, interethnic conflict. The Kyrgyz hostage-takers did not choose their hostages based on ethnicity, but on citizenship. However, such events certainly aren’t helping interethnic relations within Kyrgyzstan. And, they can potentially lead to worse incidents.
Kyrgyzstan is a country where the central government has a weak hold on power in the regions and citizens often do not trust their authorities to help them solve their problems (as evidenced by these events in Batken). It is a country with a history of ethnic conflict. It is also a country where politicians have repeatedly referred to ethnic minority citizens as a “diaspora,” thereby conflating ethnicity with citizenship and promoting the idea that minorities are recent migrants who have the option to go back to their “own countries.” And Southern Kyrgyzstan is a place where, as Noah Tucker argued in an excellent post on Osh last summer, shared economic grievances have become “ethnicized.”
Given such conditions, it is not difficult to imagine an interstate incident like the “red mercury” arrests turning into an interethnic one. And I can’t help but think that pre-existing tensions between Kyrgyz and Tajiks in Batken Province may have contributed to the protestor’s anger.
But, regardless of whether I’m right or wrong about that, the hostage-taking and unrest in Batken highlights the need for more governmental action to resolve the problems facing this isolated, impoverished region. The government may not be able to do much about the stagnant economy, but increased efforts to work with Tajikistan and define the border between the two countries would certainly help alleviate the interethnic tensions in Batken.
As former Kyrgyzstan Ambassador to Tajikistan, Miroslav Niyazov, told RFE/RL, solving this problem might help to increase public faith and trust in the government, and prevent locals from using illegal means—including the most recent tactic, hostage-taking—to solve their problems in the future.
Image from RFE/RL