Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 8

By “Sadji”

On June 4, 1990, bloody confrontations took place between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in Osh Region, in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. The disturbances cost hundreds of lives on both sides.

Ostensibly, the conflict arose over a plot of land on the outskirts of the city of Osh. The Kyrgyz wanted to build houses there, but the Uzbeks were against it, since the land was being used for agriculture. But it would be inaccurate to limit oneself to a simplistic explanation. The roots of this tragedy went very deep, as a poll conducted by independent researchers revealed. (1)

Although the poll was taken just one year after the tragedy, its results are still significant today. To interpret the results, they must be seen in light of the historical background.

Roots of the Conflict

The division of people into settled farmers and nomadic herdsmen, traditional for Central Asia, is especially characteristic of southern Kyrgyzstan, where Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have lived side by side for centuries. The Kyrgyz were nomads and herdsmen and, naturally, lived in or near the mountains. The Uzbeks, skillful farmers, lived on the plains and in the valleys.

Russia’s colonization of Turkestan was accompanied by a policy of expanding agricultural production, especially the cultivation of cotton. This led to intensive development of the foothills — the wintering place for the nomadic Kyrgyz. Osh Region, located in the Fergana Valley, where favorable climatic and soil conditions produce bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables, began to attract increasing numbers of farmers. The number of ethnic Uzbeks in the region grew fivefold from 1926 to 1990. By 1990, they made up 26 percent of the population in the entire southern part of Kyrgyzstan. Only 15.4 percent of them were city-dwellers.

Over the years, the region also attracted large numbers of ethnic Kyrgyz, especially young people unable to find work as herdsmen in the mountains. These young people set off for the cities, where industry and construction were developing at a rapid pace. Ethnic Kyrgyz made up a significant proportion of the people on the waiting list for housing. Ethnic Uzbeks made up 71.4 percent of people working in the retail trade, 74.7 percent of those in food service establishments and 79 percent of all taxi drivers. This inequality in employment in the most lucrative jobs gave the ethnic Kyrgyz population, especially young people, a sense of being second-class citizens in their own land.

Despairing of getting apartments, young Kyrgyz began in the early 1990s to squat on land. Despite attempts by the authorities to prevent it, this practice became quite common, especially in and around the capital, Bishkek. Such seizures of land continue to take place today and are often led by the activists of informal organizations.

Meanwhile, members of the ethnic Uzbek population in Osh Region were increasingly dissatisfied with what they saw as discrimination in official hiring policy in favor of ethnic Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz made up 85.7 percent of those employed in government posts in Osh Region. Only 4.7 percent were Uzbeks, while 9.5 percent were Russians. The situation was similar in the trade union apparatus and law enforcement agencies.

The Adolat (Justice) association responded by calling for the creation of an ethnic Uzbek autonomy in Osh Region and a change of the borders in Uzbekistan’s favor. These demands provoked strong protests from the ethnic Kyrgyz population which finally erupted in the bloodbath on the outskirts of Osh in June 1990.

Poll Findings

The poll aimed to ascertain the level of ethnic tension and evaluate the chances that the conflict would reoccur. The researchers also tried to determine which social groups played the most active role in interethnic confrontations, and which institutions could command the population’s trust.

Three hundred experts in Osh Region were polled. The experts were state officials, public figures and intellectuals. The included officials from the Interior Ministry, the security police, the procuracy, and the courts. They came from various ethnic groups: 52.3 percent of them were Kyrgyz; 23.3 percent — Uzbeks; 15.3 percent — Russians; and 10 percent from other ethnic groups.

In response to the question “What were the causes of the Osh conflict?” almost half of the experts — 49 percent — said unemployment was the main cause. In addition, 45.7 percent of the experts indicted the unsatisfactory performance of regional leaders, while 43.3 percent blamed the activities of informal organizations. An equal percentage said that provocation and the spreading of rumors played a large role.

Subjective factors cited included distortions in the region’s hiring policy (cited by 35 percent of the experts); 30.7 percent of the experts cited mistakes made by the republic’s leadership, and 29 percent pointed to the allotment of plots of land for individual housing construction.

Such factors as religion (4.3 percent) and the government’s failure to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of the population (4.7 percent) were least likely to be chosen. This refutes one of the theories most commonly advanced outside the republic: that the conflict was caused by the negative influence of religion and the government’s failure to satisfy the cultural and linguistic needs of the ethnic Uzbek community.

When asked whether the events could have been prevented, the overwhelming majority of respondents (83 percent) said yes. Most of the experts (70 percent) said that the conflict could have been prevented had the government declared a state of emergency before the conflict began on June 4, 1990.

When asked to explain why the conflict broke out when it did, the experts differed. Most of them (66 percent) thought the events were organized by extremists in informal organizations. A third of the experts were sure the “commercial mafia” played a leading role and slightly less than a third said the conflict could not have happened without corrupt officials in the bureaucracy playing a leading role.

Experts disagreed, along ethnic lines, on the importance of these causes. Ethnic Kyrgyz experts gave priority to such objective factors as unsatisfactory living conditions (65.6 percent) and unemployment (49.4 percent), while ethnic Uzbek experts stressed ethnic discrimination in personnel and hiring policy, and in the actions of the regional (55.7 percent) and republic (51.4 percent) leaderships.

When asked why the confrontations in Osh Region were so violent, half the experts (51.3 percent) stressed the role played by rumors that violence had already been carried out against people from one’s own ethnic group; 44 percent cited the influence of organized provocations such as the public display of the victims of violence, including videos and photographs; 31.7 percent alleged that many of the rioters were drunk; and 26.7 percent referred to mob psychology.

The experts were also asked which groups played the most destructive role in the confrontation. Half (50.3 percent) replied that men were most active in the conflict; 12.3 percent noted that women were also active. 43.3 percent said that ethnic Uzbeks were more active, while 27.3 percent said that it was the Kyrgyz who were more active. Young people were singled out by 73 percent of the experts. A quarter pointed out that both sides had their own informal armed groups.

In the question about the resolution of the ethnic conflict, researchers paid special attention to political factors and, in particular, to the Treaty of Interethnic Accord between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. A significant proportion of the experts (62.3 percent) placed great hope in the positive influence of this treaty. However, 21 percent of them thought the treaty unlikely to change the situation substantially. Two experts (0.7 percent) thought implementation of the treaty would make the situation in the region worse, while 11.4 percent had trouble answering the question. The Uzbek experts (72.9 percent as opposed to 62.3 percent for the experts as whole) were more optimistic that this treaty would stabilize the situation in the region.

The overwhelming majority (76 percent) saw the strict and fair punishment of those responsible for the tragedy as a stabilizing factor. Less than half (49.3 percent) advocated tougher punishment for inciting ethnic violence, while 44.3 percent were concerned about improving the work of law enforcement agencies.

As for the housing problem, 44 percent of the experts considered its solution a necessary condition for stabilization. Hiring policy was prioritized by 31.3 percent of the experts, while 27 percent said unemployment urgently needed to be reduced. Only 25.3 percent called for a political assessment of the Osh conflict.

The experts divided along ethnic lines. Kyrgyz experts were most concerned about solving the housing problem (49.4 percent) and improving the work of law enforcement agencies (46.8 percent), increasing punishment for inciting ethnic violence (46.8 percent) and ensuring that the guilty were punished (45.5 percent). Ethnic Uzbek experts, on the other hand, were most concerned with making sure that those responsible were punished severely (91.4 percent) and increasing the punishment for inciting ethnic violence (47.1 percent). Resolving hiring issues was seen as a priority by only 38.6 percent of Uzbek respondents.

Among the social and government institutions seen as most influencing the interethnic situation and enjoying the highest authority in the eyes of the population, the army and law enforcement agencies come first (41 percent). The president and his apparatus (37 percent) and regional governments (30 percent) ranked higher than the Cabinet of Ministers (8 percent). Respect for elders remains high among the population of the region (30 percent), but the authority of religious leaders turned out to be unexpectedly low (11 percent).

Fears that interethnic tensions might re-erupt as a result of religious fervor appear, therefore, to be misplaced. The fact that Osh Region continues to suffer from high unemployment should, on the other hand, be causing the authorities considerable concern.


1. A. B. Elebaeva, A. K. Dzhusupbekov, N. A. Omuraliev, Oshskii mezhnatsional’nyi konflikt: Sotsiologicheskii analiz, Bishkek, 1991.

“Sadji” is the pen-name of a Bishkek journalist who contributes regularly to the weekly newspaper Res Publica.

Translated by Mark Eckert