Kyrgyzstan: The Roots of Violence

Thanks to recent news coverage, we know that there has been ongoing violence in Kyrgyzstan between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks.  But what we may not know is WHY.  Whenever news coverage provides an explanation for the violence, “ethnic tension” is usually cited as the cause.  But what are the roots of the ethnic tension that has continuously lead to violence between these two groups?

First of all, the term “ethnic” conflict may be a misnomer.  There are almost no discernible ethnic differences between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks.  Both groups are predominantly Muslim and they speak a similar Turkic language.
Issue 1: Economic Disparity

The real conflict seems to stem from this fact:  Kyrgyz were traditionally nomadic while Uzbeks established themselves as farmers.  Since farmers typically stay in one place to tend their fields, they are able to build stable settlements and create surpluses.  Historically, this translates to wide class divisions.  Today, the Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan own and operate many successful businesses.  These economic differences are certainly a large contributing factor to the ethnic tension and the recent outbreak of violence.

Kyrgyz fleeing.jpg
Courtesy New York Times

An Uzbek soldier directed Uzbek refugees on Monday in Osh, a southern Kyrgyz city, as they waited to cross into Uzbekistan

Issue 2: Land Disputes

In addition to economic differences, land disputes have also fomented
violence.  Hundreds were killed in a 1990 violent land dispute between
Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh.

Issue 3: Political Disagreement

Adding to the current tension, Kyrgyz have remained loyal to former
president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who favored the Kyrgyz as President, while
most Uzbeks support the interim government.
Issue 4: Border Tensions

One might wonder why Uzbeks choose to reside in Kyrgyzstan, enduring violence and fear, when Uzbekistan is right next door.
One Uzbek woman, Feruza Mamasadikova, 33, is currently living in a
refugee camp in Uzbekistan while the violence continues at home.  The
New York Times quoted
Mamasadikova as saying, in reference to her
neighborhood in Kyrgyzstan, “Our ancestors lived here.  Our
grandparents and back and back.  We don’t want to leave.  We want to
stay in this neighborhood.”

Osh and Jalal-Abad, part of the “neighborhood” Mamasadikova speaks of,
are located in an area previously known as the fertile Ferghana
Valley.  This area once belonged to a single feudal lord and was split
by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan.  These arbitrary Stalinist borders rekindled old
rivalries.  In 1936 the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was
established as a full Union Republic of the U.S.S.R, before gaining
complete independence in 1991.

It’s obvious that there are more complicated conflicts involving
the two groups than simply “ethnic tensions” as news reports so simply
imply.  A comprehensive perspective on these types of issues is
necessary in understanding conflict and finding solutions.  

Michelle Renn

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