What began as a spat among young patrons of a local bar in Osh on the night of June 10 has turned into one of the bloodiest clashes in Kyrgyzstan. Officials to date have reported over 110 dead and thousands injured (www.akipress.kg, June 13). The actual number of deaths is likely to be significantly higher, particularly among Uzbeks, as the violence continues.
While tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek population have existed for years, there was no apparent reason for inter-ethnic violence to break out at this moment. The provisional government alleges that the violence was provoked by external forces –a view shared by many in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz military experts told Jamestown that Akhmad and Janysh Bakiyev, brothers of the deposed President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, are suspected of instigating the violence. Together with groups of armed gangs, the brothers have allegedly been hiding in Tajikistan’s Jirgatal and Badakhshan areas, where the Tajik government’s control is the weakest. Groups of mercenary snipers were reportedly dispatched from Tajikistan to Osh and Jalalabad to spread chaos by shooting at people indiscriminately.
Media outlets report that in the past three days armed gangs identifying themselves as ethnic Kyrgyz have spread across the province of Osh to mobilize local Kyrgyz for violence against ethnic Uzbeks (www.fergana.ru, June 12). Another sign suggesting that the unrest was carefully orchestrated included the attempts by unidentified armed groups to seize control of key symbols of political power such as TV channels, universities, and local government buildings.
The latest violence highlights the weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s fragile provisional government. Reports about the possibility of inter-ethnic provocations were available weeks before the recent unrest, but little has been done to address this or prepare for a worst-case scenario. As violence spread across Osh on the morning of June 11, the Kyrgyz military acted chaotically, often reacting to rumors spread by provocateurs. A shortage of troops, equipment, fuel, and reliable communication devices made matters worse. The head of the provisional government, Roza Otunbayeva, was forced to call up reservist officers to sustain a 24-hour curfew in Osh. While most troops are deployed to Osh and Jalalabad, other parts of the country remain unprotected and if the violence continues to spread, the June 27 constitutional referendum and the parliamentary elections on October 10 will be disrupted. Both votes would have provided much-needed legitimacy for the provisional government.
Moscow has so far turned a deaf ear to the pleas of Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government to deploy troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help quell the violence, asserting that the growing interethnic conflict is Kyrgyzstan’s internal problem. On June 14 the CSTO will formally decide how it chooses to react to the conflict.
By contrast, the reaction by Uzbekistan’s government was more insightful and constructive. Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying, “there is every reason to conclude that such actions are of an organized, managed and provocative character, [the provocateurs] have an ambitious goal to provoke inter-ethnic confrontation and create intolerable conditions for national minorities living in southern Kyrgyzstan” (www.fergana.ru, June 12). Russian media reported that as many as 75,000 Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan have tried to escape to Uzbekistan, and over 6,000 Uzbek refugees have succeeded to date (www.rian.ru, June 13).
Due to the uneasy relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz military and police forces (made up predominantly of ethnic Kyrgyz) often distrust the Uzbek minority. Kyrgyzstan’s military leadership perceives Uzbekistan to be a threat to the country’s abundant water resources. This distrust between the Kyrgyz military and ethnic Uzbeks has widened as the violence escalated. Many fear that the military specifically targets the Uzbek minority.
On the other hand, some Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and Jalalabad are doing what they can to calm tensions on their own (www.akipress.kg, June 13). In addition, Bishkek residents have been collecting humanitarian aid and medications for victims of the Osh and Jalalabad unrest (www.24.kg, June 13).
It remains to be seen whether the ongoing tensions will descend into additional severe forms of inter-ethnic hatred, including rape, torture and extortion. However, it is clear that the provisional government will be unable to quell the riots without external help. It took a tremendous effort from the Soviet military to stop the three-month long, inter-ethnic, unrest between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 1990 in Osh, that resulted in the deaths of at least several hundred people. Kyrgyzstan today urgently needs third party mediators to engage Kyrgyz officials and leaders of the Uzbek diaspora in peace talks to restore the inter-ethnic balance.