Two months after ethnic riots rocked southern Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nation that hosts an important U.S. air base, tensions between minority Uzbeks and Kyrgyz remain tense. Arriving in the 3,000-year-old city of Osh late last month, I found the international distress signal ''SOS'' scrawled in chalk on the streets of Uzbek neighborhoods, an eerie remnant of the deadly violence that took the lives of over 300 people last month and led to the displacement of some 400,000. (Click here for a narrated photo essay of my recent trip to the region.) Almost immediately after the riots broke out, interim president Roza Otunbayeva conceded that her government did not have control in the south and appealed for outside intervention. Aside from a handful of international aid organizations and a small United Nations contingent, no such assistance has come to southern Kyrgyzstan, and that failure has allowed a culture of violence and impunity to deepen. Unless the international community intervenes soon, the situation here will undoubtedly worsen, with consequences far deadlier than what occurred in June.
Questions still linger as to what exactly sparked the violence that swept Osh and the other southern city of Jalalabad from June 10th to the 14th, but there is no shortage of theories. Talk to Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh, and one hears mutually contradictory explanations. As the traditional merchant class of the region, Uzbeks here tend to be far more prosperous than the Kyrgyz, a historically nomadic people who have relied upon agriculture and unskilled labor to make a living. The economic disparities between the two populations have bred resentment, which led to the last outbreak of major violence in 1990, when the local government attempted to seize Uzbek-owned land. The dying Soviet Union dispatched thousands of troops to quell the riots that killed hundreds.
This time, many Kyrgyz claim the Uzbek minority sparked the unrest in order to destabilize the interim government (which is preparing for parliamentary elections in October), so as to create an autonomous region in the south. A common explanation – one that several Kyrgyz repeated to me – is that Uzbeks burned down their own homes in order to gain international sympathy. Accusations that missing Kyrgyz are being held ''hostage'' by Uzbek gangs continue to fuel ethnic tension. This all seems like a rather contrived attempt to explain away the unavoidable fact that Uzbeks bore the brunt of the violence, as is evident from the simple reality that the vast majority of houses and business destroyed here, and the people claiming dead or missing relatives, are Uzbek. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused Kyrgyz security forces of “arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment” of Uzbeks, allegations that were relayed to me over the past week by countless individuals.
A sense of despair has set in among Uzbeks, who find that they have no place to turn. Routine security raids, which appear to target Uzbek neighborhoods exclusively, continue unabated, deepening the distrust of Uzbeks toward the government. One young Uzbek, beaten by security forces for loitering on the street after curfew, told me – as he was receiving stitches over his left eye – that the police forced him to dance and sing Uzbek folk songs. According to several Uzbeks, a racket has formed in which the police demand ransom – sometimes as high as $10,000 – for the return of their detained male relatives.
Reconciliation between the two groups will take years, and ultimately depend upon the willingness of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to live together. But in the short term there is a role that the international community can play in averting further violence. Unlike some other conflict situations, where combatants pay no heed to the neutral missions of international aid workers, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan could be defused by a heavy contingent of international peacekeepers or even unarmed observers. This has something to do with the fact that Kyrgyzstan, with a security apparatus that isn't nearly as ruthless or well organized as those in the neighboring police states, has always been the most open society in Central Asia. My own experience suggests that the mere presence of foreigners here plays a crucial, mitigating role. Last month, I rushed to an Uzbek merchant's home being searched by the military for illegal arms. (I’m told that these are the sort of trumped-up claims that are repeatedly employed to intimidate the Uzbek population.) Arriving on the scene, I encountered a horde of angry Uzbek women who literally pushed me through the doors and into the house. Soon thereafter, a small delegation from the UN High Commission for Human Rights appeared on the scene, and the situation defused.
As of now, the only such outside force being considered is a contingent of 52 unarmed police officers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is a good start, but hardly sufficient. Moreover, its deployment is actively opposed by the mayor of Osh, a Bakiyev appointee whose former deputies have been accused of playing a hand in the June violence, and who has discouraged international aid organizations from entering the city. The United States, along with the United Nations, needs to make clear to Bishkek that continued support for its aspirations as the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia is contingent upon its maintaining law and order in the south.
That will require replacing government officials deemed responsible for stoking the riots and arresting those individuals – Kyrgyz or Uzbek – who looted and destroyed property. I asked Otunbayeva if she had confidence in Osh’s mayor. She allowed that this was “quite a controversial question,” potentially preparing the way for a showdown between the central government and the warlord-like authorities in the south. Addressing a public forum recently in Osh, she warned the country that “We are only one step away from a partisan war now.” Given the shakiness of Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker government, stabilizing the country will require a robust international presence at least through the October election.
The SOS messages ubiquitous in this city's Uzbek neighborhoods remain for a reason. Should pogroms break out here again, the world won't be able to offer the excuse that it hadn't been warned.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to The New Republic.