A Weekend in Osh

Madeleine Reeves writes about the origins of the violence in Kyrgyzstan

The Ferghana Valley – the rich, fertile basin of the Syr Darya that today cuts across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – has long been seen as a region defined by its ethnic and cultural tensions: a ‘Eurasian Balkans’ divided by artificial Soviet-era borders, a tinderbox ready to ignite. This view emerged during the Cold War, but it has taken on new life since the Soviet collapse. Those who hold it argue that the ‘national-territorial delimitation’ of 1924, which transformed tsarist Turkestan into a series of nominally nation-based republics, represented a cynical attempt at divide and rule, splitting up ethnic groups as a means of ensuring political quiescence and, in the process, stirring resentments over material resources and imagined homelands that still persist. In Soviet Empire (1953), the British diplomat-scholar Olaf Caroe described the Ferghana Valley as split ‘by a jigsaw puzzle of convoluted lines into Uzbek, Tajik and Kirghiz sections’, such that there remained ‘large numbers of Uzbek currants in Tajik and Kirghiz cakes, and many Tajik plums in the pie of Uzbekistan’. ‘It seemed,’ Caroe wrote, ‘as if the absurdity of the inter-republic borders was designed in order to compel a certain degree of central direction, making nonsense of real local autonomy.’

And so it goes on. A 2002 handbook for specialists in conflict prevention goes back to Stalin to explain current tensions over water and pasture resources in the valley. The borders of today’s Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it tells us, ‘were artificially drawn between 1924 and 1936 by the Soviet authorities in Moscow’, so that ‘Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were living on all sides.’ This enabled the Soviet authorities ‘to continuously be called upon by the people in the region to help them manage conflicts that were bound to emerge as a result of these artificial divisions’. Only effective conflict prevention, the handbook concluded, ‘might still push the Ferghana Valley away from the precipice to which it is now heading’.

The violence that broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in the middle of June fragmented Osh, once a cosmopolitan city, into a network of barricaded ghettos. Some in Osh say they were caught completely by surprise; others that there had been anxiety for days beforehand about an impending inter-ethnic conflict, and that weapons had been distributed. There is much talk of hired provocateurs in black masks, firing indiscriminately at Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike in order to incite violence. Amid the conflicting accounts, three things seem clear. First, by the morning of 11 June, fired up by rumours of what ‘their men’ were doing to ‘our sisters’, many young men who had been bystanders now armed themselves. Second, the Kyrgyzstani military, whose personnel are drawn overwhelmingly from among ethnic Kyrgyz, acted as an incendiary presence, not a stabilising one, during the first weekend of violence. Third, Russia’s refusal of Kyrgyzstan’s request for peacekeepers demonstrated the limits of its ‘strategic relationship’ with Kyrgyzstan and made an escalation of the conflict much harder to prevent.

This is ‘Stalin’s harvest’, the Economist declared on 14 June. The Guardian asserted that the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabat, with their predominantly Uzbek populations, ‘ended up in Kyrgyzstan by accident – when Lenin dumped them there in 1924’. Craig Murray – another diplomat-scholar, who was removed as the UK’s ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2004 for being too outspoken about the gruesome state of human rights – was particularly explicit. ‘It is arguable,’ he wrote, ‘that the wave of ethnic killings in southern Kyrgyzstan … is, at root, the fault of Josef Stalin,’ thanks to whose personal intervention ‘the republics were deliberately messed up with boundaries that cut across natural economic units and severed cultural and ethnic links.’

The historical record is rather more complicated than Murray suggests, not least because the Bolshevik authorities in Moscow saw their task as the very opposite of ‘messing up’ a region whose inhabitants’ complex social identities they found troubling. In 1924, when the Bolsheviks embarked on the process of ‘national-territorial delimitation’, the aim was precisely to eliminate perceived inter-tribal and inter-village antagonism in order to expose the ‘true’, class conflict in this restive part of the Soviet south. Addressing the Tashkent Soviet in August that year, the Latvian Bolshevik Juozas Verikis explained the rationale for dividing the vast region of Soviet Turkestan into a series of ‘national mono-ethnic’ (natsionalno odnorodnye) republics, as official parlance had it. ‘The revolution has inherited a whole lump of tangled national contradictions, which it remains before her to untie,’ he said:

As long as the poorest farmer is unable to achieve a certain degree of economic gain, as long as he has not destroyed the feudal-slave relations that prevail in the village, it will be impossible to consider the revolutionary victory secure. For that reason we must untangle as quickly as possible all those inter-ethnic contradictions, which are obscuring class relations and preventing class conflict. The national delimitation, revealing national relations among the Uzbek, Kirgiz, Turkmen, Kara-Kirgiz and Tajiks, will untangle the network of international contradictions and in that way will clear the stage for the social, class war.

The 1924 delimitation drew heavily on Soviet ethnographic and statistical experts, who were invited to establish where the ‘true’ boundaries of Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek communities lay. In the culturally and linguistically variegated Ferghana Valley, the task was particularly difficult: pastoral and settled ways of life were intensely interdependent and always had been; bilingualism prevailed and many respondents identified themselves simply as ‘Muslim’ when asked their nationality. In 1926, in a private note to his political masters, the Orientalist Vasily Bartold complained that ‘the national principle, as it was brought to life during the delimitation of Middle Asia in 1924, is a product of West European history of the 19th century and is completely alien to local historical tradition.’

Bartold’s warnings – which remained unpublished until after the Soviet Union collapsed – received short shrift among those responsible for turning the new policy into practice. For while nationality had not usually been a means of self-identification in the region until well into the 20th century, the Bolshevik leaders saw its development as politically necessary: the only means by which ‘real’ class tension could be exposed and overcome. The national-territorial delimitation of Central Asia was an event which crystallised ‘nationality’ as a defining category of social identity, establishing which populations were to be designated a ‘minority’ in a given Soviet republic. Even on its own terms it wasn’t always successful. Throughout the 1920s, villagers who found themselves living near the new border of one or other republic contested the classification they had been given, and demanded, in a host of petitions now gathering dust in regional archives, to be allocated to the neighbouring Soviet republic because they were ‘properly’ Kyrgyz or Uzbek or had kinship ties with a village now on the other side of the border. The Bolshevik leaders, in this respect, were ardent social engineers and proud of it: as a 1934 newspaper article noted with some satisfaction during celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary of the delimitation, Soviet border-drawing had allowed the populations of Central Asia to ‘become closer to the family of Soviet nations who are building socialism’ by enabling ‘tribe, an ethnographic category, to be transformed into nation, a historical category’.

Where to draw the boundaries was, however, complicated by the fact that if the delimitation were conducted on exclusively ‘national’ lines, the pastoralist Kyrgyz, who moved seasonally between low-lying winter encampments and summer pastures, would end up with a Kyrgyz republic that had no cities of its own: a worrying prospect for a state preoccupied with thrusting ‘backward’ populations into Soviet modernity. In practice, economic imperatives – the needs in particular of an irrigation-dependent cotton monoculture – often trumped the ‘national principle’ when it came to the details of border-drawing. As ‘modernising’ projects were undertaken, farms collectivised, dams and canals built, and herders settled in lower-lying ‘planned villages’, as new land was brought under irrigation and the mountains dotted with mercury mines, the borders between constituent republics were repeatedly moved. In the drive for industrial-scale agriculture, reality diverged increasingly from the Bolshevik vision of ‘national’ republics. Or rather, the ‘national’ principle that had prevailed in the 1920s came increasingly into conflict with the economic imperatives of 1930s collectivisation.

The result was not just a series of nominally ‘national’ republics with jagged and often contested borders, but an increasing tension between principle and practice. The problem was not so much that the delimitation divided ‘ethnoses’, as a recent history of Uzbekistan describes them, but rather that it institutionalised a system in which each republic’s titular group would be ‘first among equals’. The establishment of never-quite-national ‘national’ republics exacerbated the ‘international contradictions’ that were supposed to have disappeared with the 1924 delimitation.

Osh, a city whose millennia-long history of co-existence has been undone by a week of bloodshed, epitomises like no other the tension between ‘national’ and ‘economic’ principles. Home historically to Uzbek-speaking traders and agriculturalists, the city was surrounded by the winter and summer encampments of Kyrgyz herders, with whose economy the city was deeply interlinked. After considerable deliberation among local Bolsheviks in the 1920s, the city was incorporated into the Kyrgyz SSR to ensure that the Kyrgyz had a viable city in the south of their republic. During the Soviet period, the proportion of Kyrgyz in the city grew significantly as it attracted wealth and educational resources, and as increasing numbers of pastoralists were absorbed into the urban economy. Ethnic difference was institutionalised and reproduced in religious celebrations, in schools and television broadcasts, in business networks and patronage relations, in the organisation of domestic and neighbourhood space. Osh residents could distinguish ‘Uzbek’ mahallas (neighbourhoods) from ‘Kyrgyz’ microdistricts, with their crumbling, Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Still, it was not a ‘divided’ city. Many people – particularly the significant minority of mixed Kyrgyz-Uzbek parentage – came, by the time of Brezhnev, to identify themselves first and foremost as Osh residents or as Soviet citizens rather than as representatives of one or other nationality. At the same time, many Osh Uzbeks with relatives in neighbouring districts of the Uzbek SSR maintained close contact across the border, exchanging daughters in marriage with families in Uzbekistan and participating with them in life-cycle ceremonies.

For most of the Soviet period the ‘border’ between the constituent republics was not experienced as much of a boundary, and was marked, if at all, by monuments to Soviet labour or statements of ‘friendship, harmony and peace’ between brotherly peoples. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the stakes changed. In the summer of 1990 – a summer of rising national sentiment throughout the Soviet Union – Osh was the scene of large-scale fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups, as anger mounted over what was felt to be the unfair distribution of land for new housing plots. In subsequent years, the once open borders between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan became increasingly securitised, with the progressive dismantling of bridges and construction of barbed-wire barriers between (and often through the middle of) borderland villages. For Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority, the difficulties of maintaining contact with family across the border have been combined with an increasing exclusion from political life, particularly during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiev between 2005 and 2010. Although Uzbeks make up 15 per cent of the country’s population, only four of the 90 deputies in Kyrgyzstan’s last parliament identified themselves as Uzbek.

At the same time, ethnic Kyrgyz grievances cannot be understood properly without recognising that many rural Kyrgyz have been unable to make a living at home. As many as half of all rural families have sons and daughters working as wage-labourers in Russia; in the south of the country, where Uzbeks have come to dominate the cities’ small businesses, much of the visible wealth is in Uzbek hands. Nationalist politicians have been able to fan resentment with remarkable ease, particularly after the 7 April uprising in Bishkek that ousted Bakiev from power. It was clear from the scenes that day, and from the public grieving that followed, that this was – practically and symbolically – a distinctively Kyrgyz revolution. (All but two of the 86 young men who died in front of the White House on 7 April were Kyrgyz.) The demonstrators chanted slogans proclaiming that the Kyrgyz would ‘never be slaves’ and that the spirit of Manas, the Kyrgyz epic hero, would protect them in confronting the illegitimate power of the White House. The dead were buried as Kyrgyz heroes, baatyr, in a public ceremony at which, beyond the international media corps, the first-aid workers and an anthropologist or two, there appeared to be no one present who was not ethnically Kyrgyz. The ‘spirit of Manas’ was invoked in the weeks following in response to increasingly vociferous (but politically very reasonable) demands by the Uzbek community for greater political and linguistic representation. Just days before the violence in Osh began, an inflammatory article in the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Alibi asked: ‘Will we let the overlording Uzbeks become the inheritors of Manas?’ The headline, a play on the Uzbek words özü bek (‘lord over himself’) addressed to a Kyrgyz-speaking audience, was phrased as a question, but the message was less equivocal. Showing a picture of a clenched fist, it was an invitation to respond to provocation with violence.

Such messages, and the feelings they mobilised, do not explain the brutal conflict that destroyed Osh last week. The violence appears to have been ‘orchestrated, targeted and well planned’, as the UN reported. Certainly, the content of phone conversations between Bakiev’s son and brother, secretly recorded and posted online in the weeks beforehand, suggests that there are constituencies close to the former regime with the resources, the will and the cynicism to seek deliberately to destabilise the country and undermine the provisional government. Who was involved won’t be known unless an independent commission is allowed to investigate once the immediate humanitarian crisis has subsided. But it’s clear that many people in Osh who sheltered neighbours or hid friends in their basements did so, not because they were of the same ethnicity, but because they lived in the same neighbourhood and wanted to have the chance of continuing to do so. There are political reasons why this conflict has happened now, in the wake of Bakiev’s ousting and just two weeks before a planned referendum was due to legitimise the new government. And there are institutional and structural arrangements – in which the West has for years been silently complicit – that have enabled supporters of the ousted president to fund their counterinsurgency.

And yet it is an uncomfortable fact that although the conflict was provoked and sustained by interested parties, ethnicity took hold in Osh with remarkable speed. Young men perpetrated gruesome violence in the name of their nation, and the violence appears to have disproportionately targeted the Uzbek minority. The claim that the Kyrgyz ‘ought’ to be masters in their own home – that as Kyrgyz living in a Kyrgyz republic they ought not to live worse than their Russian, Uzbek or Dungan neighbours – has real traction, perhaps especially for that cohort of young rural men who didn’t grow up in cosmopolitan Osh and for whom its diversity is threatening. Getting to grips with the sentiment that animated the Alibi article – the sentiment that allows nationalist politicians to speak of the Kyrgyz as the ‘landlords’ in Kyrgyzstan and other ethnic groups as ‘tenants’; the sentiment that is today scrawled all over Osh in graffiti demanding that the Uzbeks ‘go home’ to an Uzbekistan where most Osh Uzbeks have never lived – requires that one look beyond immediate events to the way in which a system of titular nationhood has gradually become ossified.

The Soviet past does not, in any direct way, explain the present. What happened in Osh is not, pace Murray, all Stalin’s fault. But attending to the legacies of Soviet policy does give us some insight into why, in an independent Kyrgyzstan that is structurally weak and has struggled to articulate a basis for civic nationhood, ethnicity has come to matter so much. These legacies help explain why the Kyrgyzstani military recruits overwhelmingly from among the ethnic Kyrgyz; why most of the small businesses in southern Kyrgyzstan are controlled by Uzbeks; why the Kyrgyz have come to dominate a highly nepotistic state bureaucracy; why the police and security services are riddled with corruption; and why so many families, of all ethnic backgrounds, have come to harbour grievances about their exclusion from political power.