Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why is Ethnic Violence Erupting Between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

As we watched the horrible news of violent chaos that overtook Southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week, the first question that came to mind was – why? Why would people who have been neighbors for decades be drawn into such senseless violence? Is it related to the overthrow of Bakiyev's government, or are we witnessing something completely unrelated? While information coming out of Osh and Jalalabad remains spotty, there is plenty reason to believe that the triggers of the unrest are related to the political instability in the country.

As the interim government claims, pro-Bakiyev supporters, and especially his infamous brothers, may have incited this violence. Witnesses have reported some evidence of such a provocation, but their claims remain unverifiable. Regardless, the fragile nature of the Kyrgyz state coupled with the frustration of Kyrgyz citizens over their country's continual instability has exacerbated the situation as even the interim government admits it has lost control. It is also likely that criminal elements are somehow involved as regime change in the country once again opens up the criminal underworld to turf battles. But, these various issues do not tell us the whole story. There is still the question of why this violence is taking an ethnic character when Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations are hardly at the center of the present political crisis that may have triggered the unrest.

Most stories in the media have downplayed the ethnic character of this unrest, but those that have attempted to describe the ethnic background have generally gotten things mostly wrong. Such stories tend to focus on a history of Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension that comes from the drawing of borders in the Ferghana Valley in 1924. While the strange borders of the Ferghana Valley certainly help to aggravate ethnic relations in the region, they are not the cause of ethnic animosity. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the 1924 borders did not “create” the ethnic groups of Central Asia out of thin air in order to divide a united pan-Turkic population. The borders only explain why Osh and Jalalabad are part of Kyrgyzstan when they were traditionally Uzbek cities. Furthermore, it should be noted that, despite the continual political instability in Kyrgyzstan, few Uzbeks in the country would like to see their cities annexed to Uzbekistan where there is extensive political repression and arguably even more economic pressures.

So, what is the cause of ethnic animosity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? I would argue that it is not founded on ethnicity, the manipulation of nation-states, or an evil conspiracy masterminded by Stalin. Instead, this tension emerges from a cultural cleavage specific to Central Asia that is not limited to Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but is founded on the region's history of nomadic-settled interaction. Historically, the lines between nomads and settled people are somewhat blurred in Central Asia, and today there are virtually no real nomadic people left in the region. Nonetheless, the delineation between nomadic and settled people continues to be real in the minds of Central Asians and represents the primary cultural fault-line in the region.

While occasionally Central Asians will evoke this cultural fissure directly when Uzbeks or Uyghurs refer to Kazakhs or Kyrgyz as nomads without culture or when Kyrgyz and Kazakhs call Uyghurs and Uzbeks “Sarts” (a derogatory name for the settled people of the region that has pre-revolutionary origins). Usually, however, this cleavage is expressed through ethnic prejudices. These prejudices can be found throughout Central Asia, even in large cities where the idea of a settled-nomadic divide seems ridiculous, but they are most intense in the locations where the descendents of nomads and agriculturalists live in close proximity to each other. Southern Kyrgyzstan is one such place, but it is not the only one. In fact, if you had similar triggers for conflict in the other Central Asian countries, it would not be that surprising if violence erupted between Uzbeks and Kazakhs in southern Kazakhstan, between Turkmen and Uzbeks in the Dashagouz or Mari regions, between Uyghurs and Kyrgyz in the Chu Valley, or between Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Ili Valley.

The tension between former nomads and settled people in Central Asia is not like that between ethnic groups in the Balkans or even in the Caucasus. It usually is not expressed outwardly, instead manifesting itself in the prejudices of daily interactions, business transactions, etc. It is only when these interactions are put under intense pressure from other factors does it seem to flare into violent conflict. But, when that happens, history has shown that the violence becomes intense and personal. Prior to this past week, the most recent example of this viciousness was the violence that erupted in the area of Osh in 1990. As Russian ethnographer Valery Tishkov has shown us in his meticulous and often “stomach-churning” descriptions of the violence at that time, the boundaries of civility were thrown to the wind as sexual violence, physical mutilation, and brutal murder using rudimentary farm tools spread throughout the region.

At the heart of this tension between former nomadic and settled peoples in the region is a fundamental distrust that likely harks back to a time when the nomads were cheated by traders at bazaars when they came to settled regions to sell their livestock and when nomads would ambush trading caravans that came through their herding regions. To this day, the stereotypes that each group uses for the other corresponds to such experiences. Former nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen) suggest that the settled peoples are “sneaky,” “cheap,” and not to be trusted. Descendents of the settled peoples of the region (Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tajiks to a lesser extent since they have less interaction with former nomads), in turn, claim that the former nomads are “lazy,” “corrupt,” and “uncultured.”

I feel that these prejudices are important to understand because they indeed run deep in Central Asia. That, in of itself, does not suggest that such violence is inevitable. It merely means that there is a deep cultural cleavage that can be exploited by those who wish to foster instability. Obviously, whoever provoked the recent unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan understood this all too well. Unfortunately, the international community seems not to understand it and appears to remain dumbfounded at the violence of the last week.

It is hard to predict the fallout from this violence, but it is likely to have a long legacy. The primary “wildcard” in the foreseeable future remains the response of Uzbekistan, which has reportedly thus far accepted about 100,000 Uzbek refugees from Osh and Jalalabad. Will these people return to their homes? If their property is taken over by Kyrgyz, how will the Uzbek government respond? These are the types of factors that could create a much more deadly long-term conflict in the region. Although Kyrgyzstan's interim government will likely work to prevent such an escalation of conflict, it is unclear if they have the capacity to prevent it. As for Uzbekistan, the intentions of Tashkent remain unclear, but there is a situation open for the Uzbek government to exploit. Let's hope cooler heads prevail.


Anonymous Vadim said...

Brilliant! I just had a conversation with my Kyrgyz friend today and he told me exactly the same thing! Unfortunately, I haven't seen a lot of quality analysis of the situation in Osh lately. A lot has been written but very little is worth reading.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cogent, sensible, thoughtful piece, Sean. Thanks for doing it.

Of course, the nomad-sedentary divide cannot capture everything--episodes of Tajik-Uzbek tension, for example. And also notable is that nomad-sedentary is articulated in an idiom of "ethnicity"--itself testimony to the power of Soviet legacies.


8:07 AM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...


Good points. I suppose after the nomadic sedentary divide, the Turkic/Persian delineation is among the most important cultural cleavages in the region. Also, there is no doubt that the idiom of ethnicity has become very real in Central Asia. That being said, the establishment of ethnic/national identities in Central Asia was hardly any more constructivist than anywhere else in the world, and it cannot all be attributed to Soviet power.

What worries me now about the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan is that it could devolve into conflict between nation-states. As I mention in my post, the response of Uzbekistan could be critical to this conflict's legacy - if Tashkent were to exploit this situation, it has the potential for a conflict over territory as we witnessed in Nargono-Karabakh. In a less extreme, but still damaging scenario, if the property of displaced Uzbeks is seized by Kyrgyz, one can expect the type of long-lasting animosities you encounter in the case of Turkish-Armenian or Turkish-Greek relations. Greeks and Armenians, for example, can lay claim to much of the property in Istanbul, which they fled in the early twentieth century, and this continues to aggravate their attitudes towards the Turks more generally.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder, how do you guys acquire a PhD.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...

Mr. Anonymous,

If you disagree with the analysis, I would love to hear your perspective. Otherwise, your comment does not tell us much.

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on about the crucial role of the UZ state, but I might add the KG state and international actors, as well, are central to how this tragic episode leaves its longer-term trace.

So far (and I easily could have missed something), UZ seems restrained. Most KG politicians have also been restrained, but nor have they done much (yet?) to extend an olive branch to the Uzbek communities (again, I might have missed something).

My view is that international actors need to get into the thick of things, doing everything possible to ensure the reincorporation of Uzbek communities into the fold of KG society and politics--so that they feel much more included than before. That may be a tough pill to swallow for those who tilt to a Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism.


PS: To say that "ethnicity" was constructed in significant part by the Soviet state is not to say that it's "fake." One can tell a constructivist story about the longe duree while recognizing the power of categories, once constructed.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...


Indeed, the Kyrgyz government needs to step up its engagement of the situation, but it is unclear if it actually has the capacity to do so. Otunbayeva went to Osh near the end of the week, but she was not able to do much on her own and was generally attacked by the local population for the government's inaction when she tried to establish a town hall meeting. The interim government obviously needs assistance in its engagement.

On the ethnic issue, when I mention that the Soviet state was not entirely responsible for the construction of nationality in the region, I did not intend to say that ethnicity in Central Asia is not constructed. I am of the opinion that all identity is constructed, and the state has had a large role in this in the modern age (per the theories of Benedict Anderson or Ernest Gellner). That being said, scholars have generally ignored the important role of indigenous intellectuals in the construction of national identity in Central Asia. I have discussed this for the Uyghurs in a recent article I published in Central Asian Survey. I think it is fair to say that similar processes took place among other nationalities. The construction of modern nationalities in Central Asia was part of the establishment of Soviet power, but it was also a part of the engagement of modern ideals by Central Asians more generally.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous William Earley said...

When I read about the violence between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek, I wondered what the historical origin of the problem was. I remembered watching the movie “Nomad” and this also piqued my curiosity. I Googled with the following phrase: “history of violence in between the kyrgyzs and uzbeks” and voila I found Sean’s piece. Thank you Sean for the background.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Sean, How about 3rd parties? Do you think this is enough to claim all the fault on historical origin? I think historical origins may not be the main reason or the cause of the violence. And we have to look to the current time issues as well. And foremost whose hands instigated these clashes between ethnicities should be the most important question yet to be answered. History is the history and this by no means can justify any later outcomes. Otherwise we might think that the world should be in flame 'cause in almost each state you can find different ethnicities with different origins living together if not that confident and friendly but still finding compromise and balance in their daily lives.
Anyways, thanks a lot for your article, you wanted to show some causes which could be one part of the numerous requisites/preconditions for the catastrophe took place in Kyrgyzstan. Thanks,
Zuhra, Uzbekistan.

12:24 AM  
Blogger cs said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:03 AM  
Blogger cs said...

"prejudice," "distrust" "deep cultural cleavage," "historical hatred" etc can hardly count as the "cause" of a specific conflict/violence. They are only contextually employed to understand and explain the situation. You know that the "animosity" or "prejudice" language is invoked in a conversation or in a situation contextually. That line of thinking follows, does not lead... if you had a conversation in a way to invoke "eternal friendship" between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, you could hear a lot on those lines. In a festive occasion between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of Osh, what you hear is "all friendship, no conflict." Again and again, it is not history reenacting itself in the present, but the present employing the past in its service. Nationalism, borders, ethnic competition, political instability etc. tell more about the present conflict than some vague "deeply rooted" "historical animosity."

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