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Violent Unrest in Kyrgyzstan, The Fergana Valley Powder Keg

By Edda Schlager


Unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan is thought to have so far claimed the lives of 170 people – and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But who and what has caused this situation, which is reminiscent of a civil war and which has devastated the entire southern region of the country for days now? Edda Schlager reports from the Fergana Valley

Many Uzbeks are seeking refuge from the unrest in Uzbekistan. It is estimated that some 275,000 people have been displaced by the violence at present.

Southern Kyrgyzstan remains unstable, but how probable is it that the situation could descend into a "second Afghanistan", in accordance with predictions? The Fergana Valley is indeed an ethnic tinderbox in Central Asia. But a civil war needs more than just a handful of provocateurs.

Alisher is determined to stay. "Osh is my home, I was born here," says the 43-year-old Uzbek. "What would I do in Uzbekistan?" Alisher does not want his real name published. He is one of around 120,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in Osh with a Kyrgyz passport. Some 54 percent of the entire population of the southern Kyrgyz town are Uzbeks, and 15 percent in the country as a whole. They make up the largest ethnic minority group in the Central Asian nation.

Alisher has seen dozens of dead bodies on the streets of Osh, including that of his brother-in-law. He was shot by someone in a passing car, just as he was leaving the Mosque after Friday prayers. Alisher says official figures of around 170 dead are totally unrealistic: "It must be several hundred!" he says. "More than 80 Uzbeks were killed here in the neighbouring town of Machallah alone. I've seen the charred corpses of babies."

The ethnic dimensions of the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan: Apart from the murder of men, women and children, Uzbek houses were also repeatedly pillaged

The ethnic clashes of the past few days, the murder of women and children, and the pillage of Uzbek homes have left the residents of Osh in a state of shock. "It was like the Jewish pogroms in Germany; Uzbek-owned houses and shops were marked out for attack," says Lodgevar Sarifbekova, 38 years old and herself a Tajik.

She has been living in Osh for years and is horrified at the aggression of the armed and masked bands. "They were clearly Kyrgyz. They shouted orders in Kyrgyz and drove people out of their houses."

The work of an ousted ex-president?

The towns of Osh and Jalalabad, as well as the entire south of Kyrgyzstan, have been devastated by these events, which are reminiscent of a civil war and which have officially claimed more than 170 lives on both the Uzbek and Kyrgyz sides. Ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted from office in April following uprisings in Bishkek, vehemently denies any role in stoking the conflict.

It may only be a supposition, but it cannot be entirely dismissed. Bakiyev himself comes from Jalalabad. When he rose to power in 2005 on the back of the Tulip Revolution, he was the first president from south of Kyrgyzstan. At the time, many hoped he would be able to iron out the discrepancies between the North and South, two very different parts of the country.

The North is more pro-Russia, and is home to most of the country's Russian minority. The South, on the other hand, is strongly Muslim in character, and ethnic Uzbeks outnumber Kyrgyz nationals in the area around the two largest towns of Osh and Jalalabad.

It is possible that former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev is responsible for fomenting the unrest, says Edda Schlager in her analysis

Bakiyev still has many supporters in Kyrgyzstan – and therefore the necessary influence to foment discord and discredit the interim government of Roza Otunbayeva. The basis for this is the extensive family clan of the ex-president – a sphere of influence that each of the Central Asian rulers can rely on and without which none of them would have been able to ascend to power and defend their own sinecures.

In Kyrgyzstan, just as in Uzbekistan and other neighbouring countries, strong informal structures have existed within society for decades. They penetrate politics and economic life and link both sectors as closely as possible to one another. Attempts to establish far-reaching democratic structures in Central Asia have thus far failed, largely due to a very broad understanding of the concept of kinship and an obligatory responsibility for one's own family.

But it is not only Bakiyev who might have an interest in destabilising Kyrgyzstan and exploiting long-festering ethnic conflicts in the fertile but densely populated Fergana Valley. Observers also view the drug mafia, which organises the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan and Tajikistan towards Russia and Europe, and other criminal groups that compete with each other for land ownership and economic influence, as possible initiators of the current violence.

The role of Islamic extremists

Islamic extremists could also ultimately profit from the current chaos. The Islamic Liberation Party "Hizb ut-Tahrir" enjoys widespread support among Uzbeks in the Fergana Valley. And it has long criticised what it terms the "oppression" of Islam by the secular governmental systems of Central Asian nations, systems that impose a strict separation of religion and state.

Uzbekistan fears the violence may spill over onto its territory and promptly closed its borders to the conflict region

Islam is tightly controlled by the state in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Primarily in Uzbekistan, critics of the system are repeatedly accused of Islamic extremism, to silence them, often without solid proof.

What is now for many people an apparently hopeless situation – observers say some 275,000 people have been displaced by the crisis – could push more people into the arms of Islam. Religious zealots could also find fertile ground here to further their cause.

Ethnic tensions, political strife

It is difficult to foresee just how unstable the "Fergana Valley powder keg" really is. In the tri-border area of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, members of all three ethnic groups live in close proximity. At the bazaars of Osh, Andijan and Khujand, people usually speak a vibrant blend of all three languages. Land and water are in short supply.

In economically testing times, conflict over property and ownership repeatedly oscillates into ethnic strife, such as in 1990, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when several hundred people died. Only the army of the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, acting on orders from Moscow, was able to nip the fighting in the bud at the time.

The country with surely the least interest in a flare-up of civil strife is Tajikistan, the poorhouse of Central Asia, a place still recovering from its own civil war, which did not end until 1997. The Tajik government is battling against a permanent economic crisis and even without ethnic conflicts is constantly teetering on the edge of "failed state" status.

Uzbekistan is pursuing an increasingly isolationist and confrontational policy, a stance not just aimed at Kyrgyzstan, but also against Tajikistan. And as the Uzbek President Islam Karimov has already shown back in 2005, he is not afraid to utilize armed force to safeguard his power. At the time, he ordered troops to fire ruthlessly on demonstrators in Andijan in the Fergana Valley, leaving several hundred people dead.

External intervention

The Kyrgyz interim government obviously lacks the authority and functioning power structures to react effectively to armed conflict. For this reason therefore, intervention by external auxiliary forces appears all the more probable.

Kazakhstan could mediate in the conflict as a strong regional power, and official sources have even said that the country is willing to take in refugees and provide humanitarian aid. But military support is not to be expected from Kyrgyzstan's neighbour to the north. On the one hand it lacks military might, on the other Kazakhstan is not about to ally itself with either Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, as it enjoys homogenous relations with both its neighbours.

The overstretched Kyrgyz interim government is placing its hopes in Russia. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev immediately ruled out any bilateral military intervention in Kyrgyzstan

Most of the hopes of the Kyrgyz interim government currently rest with Russia and its reaction to a request for military support. This request for help is opportune for Russia, in as far as its renewed responsibility for the region is being directly sought.

In his last few months in office, Bakiyev increasingly distanced himself from Moscow and turned openly to the Americans, who despite threatening to close it down a year ago, still operate their military base at Manas near Bishkek to this day. Immediately after taking office, Otunbayeva hurried to close up this distance to Russia again, requesting economic support.

But Russia is demonstrating extreme restraint, with President Dimitry Medvedev immediately ruling out bilateral military intervention in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow is much more interested in a concerted conflict solution with the help of the CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, founded in 2002 by Russia together with six other ex-Soviet republics. But the CSTO, which was also founded to protect its member states, is barely equipped for military operations.

Joint mission by former arch enemies?

Something that up to now was virtually unthinkable, but that is now becoming a distinct possibility, is a joint peace mission by Russia and the US. Russia is interested in maintaining stability in its hinterlands, while the US needs a dependable base from which it can operate its Afghanistan mission.

Neither superpower wants to see another sprawling ethnic conflict in Central Asia, and the two could now join forces over this latest escalation of violence in Kyrgyzstan.

For Alisher and Lodgevar in Osh, such considerations are far removed from reality. The armed gangs are still at large, says Alisher. "All we've got to counter the Kalashnikovs are sticks and iron bars." Lodgevar Sarifbekova is also nervous, and says: "We don't know who we can trust."

An official instruction from the Kyrgyz interim government was sent by text message: No one should be out on the streets after six o'clock in the evening. Security forces will shoot at anyone contravening this curfew, regardless of nationality, and without warning.


Translated from the German by Nina Coon