Why did ethnic riots between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks suddenly erupt in Osh and Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan, driving almost half a million people from their homes, leaving nearly 200 dead, and injuring thousands?
Ethnic fighting is almost never spontaneous, and usually expresses either long-suppressed resentment or a deliberate policy of incitement. The sudden riots in Osh and Jalalabad last week had, for experienced observers of the region and of other countries with a Soviet legacy, the unmistakable air of “provocation” – the long established tsarist and communist tactic of enabling bloodshed as a pretext for repression or external intervention.
Kyrgyzstan last made international news two months ago when it appeared to have begun a second “Tulip Revolution.” President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who came to power as a reformer in the post-Soviet state, was overthrown and took refuge in an inauspicious place – Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko, which has been accurately described as the last unreconstructed communist dictatorship in Europe.
Although it would be difficult to ascertain who specifically is responsible for the current violence, suspicion has naturally fallen on Bakiyev and his cronies, since his political and family base is located in the conflict zone. But Bakiyev appears to lack enough support to operate as an independent actor. It, therefore, makes more sense to look elsewhere.
Some commentators blamed Vladimir Putin and the Russians, even as Moscow seemed to hold back from involvement in the Kyrgyz crisis. Although Kyrgyzstan’s “interim leader,” Roza Otunbayeva, has appealed for Russian military intervention, Moscow’s response was limited to sending a paratroop battalion to protect its airbase at Kant and its citizens. Still, Russia’s resentment of the U.S. base at Manas airport near Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, is public knowledge. The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has used the Manas base since U.S. military operations in Uzbekistan ended five years ago. Russia lays a certain amount of claim to Kyrgyzstan, because of its former status as a tsarist and Soviet possession. Balancing Russian pressure and American cooperation has bedeviled the Kyrgyz, but one thing is certain: Russia will not allow Kyrgyzstan to slip away.
Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous land with only 5.5 million people, is not only nervous about the competing interests of the Russian and Americans, but also about the Chinese. The Kyrgyz consider their massive eastern neighbor to be their hereditary enemy. Manas, an oral epic relating the emergence of Kyrgyz identity – and requiring several months’ time to recite in full – includes considerable praise for Kyrgyz resistance to Chinese conquest. The Kyrgyz do not particularly like Russians, either, since the suppression of an anti-tsarist Central Asian rebellion during the first world war took more than 100,000 Kyrgyz lives, and tsarist and Soviet colonization left the indigenous population as second-class citizens. But most of the Central Asian countries lean to Moscow as a protector against Beijing.
The Uzbek regime of Islam Karimov, which carried out a different kind of massacre in the city of Andijon in 2005, is a harsh one-party dictatorship seemingly unchanged, except for its flag and other symbols, from the Soviet era. Andijon is about 35 miles from Osh, in the Ferghana Valley, which has a population of 12 million, comprised mainly of Uzbeks. The arbitrary drawing of local borders under Soviet rule awarded most of the Ferghana Valley to Uzbekistan but left a large Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan, counting up to 15 percent, along with significant Uzbek communities in Tajikistan (also nearly 15 percent) and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, with nearly 30 million people on its own, possesses the largest population in the region, and Uzbeks chafe under foreign rule outside their own borders, in Osh and elsewhere.
Today’s conflict seems to reproduce Uzbek-Kyrgyz fighting in Osh during 1990, which also erupted unexpectedly. Further, Uzbekistan is the region’s center for a conservative style of Islam. It was the scene of Saudi-financed Wahhabi infiltration once the Soviet regime entered its final stages, and produced the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al Qaeda ally. Terrorism gained little support within the borders of Uzbekistan itself, but Uzbek extremists are still involved in the pro-Taliban terrorism elsewhere, especially inside Afghanistan. Uzbeks have also been blamed for radicalism in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and intervened as Islamist combatants in the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan.
Kyrgyzstan, therefore, finds itself a victim of global rivalries, Islamist penetration, and local hatreds, in which its own profile as a state is diminished, and its capacity for maneuver is extremely limited. America needs the base at Manas and should hold the Kyrgyz to their commitment for further use of it. But the humanitarian devastation caused by the designs of competing dictators, like Karimov, unconvincing democrats (e.g. Putin), and an exiled autocrat, Bakiyev, will allow for no easy solution for either Kyrgyzstan or America.