Most media outlets described the recent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan as an inter-ethnic clash that has re-opened historical grievances among ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government, in turn, accused the former President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of provoking the violence. Local NGO’s have put forward yet another interpretation of the conflict – that an absence of authority by the provisional government in southern parts of the country has frustrated the local population, and forced many to appeal to their ethnic and kinship identities to protect themselves at a time of great political uncertainty.
Investigations and research will eventually shed more light on the real underlying causes of the conflict. What is clear today is that Kyrgyzstan needs long-term external support to rebuild inter-ethnic trust between majority and minority ethnic groups in Osh and Jalalabad. Although Kyrgyzstan has already received ample attention from international organizations, including the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as individual states, major challenges lie ahead. Over 100,000 Uzbek refugees are caught in limbo –they lost trust in the provisional government for its inefficient reaction to the crisis, and their place of refuge –Uzbekistan– is no dreamland. Ethnic Uzbeks are part of the native population in Kyrgyzstan who, like other Kyrgyzstanis, are aware of the stark difference between Uzbekistan’s illiberal regime and greater economic and political freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.
The aftermath of shock and horror in response to the violence in Osh and Jalalabad will linger for decades. It will take systematic and strategic action on the part of the Kyrgyz government and international community to restore trust and rebuild bridges between the Uzbek minority and the rest of the society. While it is important for the Uzbek refugees to rediscover their native cities and villages in Kyrgyzstan, inter-ethnic reconciliation has far greater importance for the country. “I apologize before the Uzbeks for those degenerates who conducted unimaginable atrocities. In Kyrgyzstan, most Kyrgyz don’t accept this carnage. We bear responsibility for how my people [ethnic Kyrgyz] created these bastards,” wrote one Kyrgyz blogger from Osh who accused armed mercenaries of instigating violence against Uzbeks in Osh and Jalalabad (www.arbuz.com, June 16). The blogger reflects the sudden realization among many in Kyrgyzstan – if the country will prove unable to restore inter-ethnic peace, efforts to build a parliamentary system might be equally futile.
Although some Uzbek refugees have been returning to Kyrgyzstan, the vast majority still fear that should the violence continue, they will be left unprotected by the government. Meanwhile, the interim government continues to expose its own weakness in addressing the most fundamental issues that have led to the sudden upsurge in violence. Among them is the government’s inability to sack the Mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov (a strong supporter of Kurmanbek Bakiyev), who allegedly knew about the possibility of unrest but preferred to remain silent. While blaming Bakiyev’s proxies of instigating “acts of terrorism,” the government seems paralyzed in its efforts to detain such terrorists (www.24.kg, June 16).
As the referendum on the new constitution approaches, interim president, Roza Otunbayev, faces her most serious challenge. Her government made a difficult choice to proceed with the referendum on June 27, as initially planned (www.kyrgyz-el.kg, June 15). This decision was likely made to demonstrate that the government is in control of the situation and alleged provocations will not stand in the way of its efforts to gain legitimacy. However, the interim government is already facing widespread criticism both at home and internationally. In its June 16 media release, the International Crisis Group reflected such general frustration saying: “We fail to see how a referendum is possible when many of its citizens, including a sizeable proportion of ethnic Uzbek Kyrgyz, are living without shelter.” The group argues that a premature referendum could seriously undermine the referendum’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community (https://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2010/asia/kyrgyz-provisional-government-must-intensify-stabilisation-efforts-in-south.aspx).
In an effort to show genuine care for inter-ethnic reconciliation, the interim government issued a statement admitting its own inability to quell the violence and accusing external forces of killing many native Uzbeks (www.akipress.kg, June 16). “Together we’ll stop the violence,” the statement’s main slogan asserted. These strategies could prove invaluable during peacetime to boost inter-ethnic tolerance, but fall flat after four days of bloodshed that killed hundreds, injured thousands, and forces tens of thousands to flee.