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Dispatch From the Knife’s Edge

The coming Kyrgyzstan catastrophe.

The man tells me that the severed head is Kyrgyz. The video, relayed to me on the small screen of his mobile phone, is blurry and the sound quality is poor. But I can nonetheless decipher what is happening. A group of men are playing a macabre combination of soccer and field hockey with the detached cranium, shouting excitedly throughout as they kick and smack it with sticks. The clip lasts no more than 20 seconds.

We’re standing in an alleyway off a major thoroughfare in Osh, a 3,000-year-old city located in southern Kyrgyzstan, the hustle of a bazaar only steps away. By now a small crowd has gathered around us, eager to see the violence on digital display. My grimace does not satisfy the man, an ethnic Kyrgyz dressed in black slacks and a black t-shirt, who wants to show me more. With a few clicks on the keypad, he proceeds to another video, this time of a man lying crouched in a doorway. As the movie starts, it’s hard to tell if he is dead. But if he isn’t, he soon will be. The sound of machine-gun fire crackles and a horde of men shout and cheer as the body shudders with the smashing of bullets. The limp figure begins to ooze blood from his mouth and chest. The gunfire continues as dozens of bullets, if not a hundred, are fired into the body. A man screaming “Allahu Akbar” can be heard over the din—a sure sign, says my interlocutor, that the perpetrators are Uzbeks.

For more than four days in early June, the southern part of Kyrgyzstan—a poor, landlocked country of 5.4 million people located west of China’s Xinjiang Province—was wracked by ethnic riots. The violence pitted ethnic Kyrgyz, who make up a majority of the country’s population, against ethnic Uzbeks, a substantial minority. Crimes were committed by both sides. But it was the Kyrgyz who controlled the levers of power, and who, motivated by rumors of Uzbek atrocities and perhaps by videos like the ones I saw, were responsible for most of the violence.

I had visited Kyrgyzstan for the first time in April—a heady moment for the country, which, just two days before my arrival, had ejected a corrupt, autocratic leader from power and now seemed on the path to a more democratic future. It was easy to be swept along by the ebullience of Emil Umetaliev—then the owner of a popular travel agency, later the acting minister of economic development—who told me over tea at a trendy, Russian-owned café in the capital, Bishkek, that under the old regime his countrymen had been “like animals,” dependent on the government for subsistence and generally living in fear. But “after one night,” he said, his face lighting up, “they became like volcanoes,” brimming with ideas, energy, and a newfound independence.

Then the riots happened; and when I returned in July, it was no longer possible to feel anything but dread about Kyrgyzstan’s future. The stories I heard were unsettling, to say the least. Two weeping Uzbek women—standing in the burned-out hulk of a house that once belonged to family members—explained that their relatives, including an infant and a grandmother, were shot to death and left to smolder into ashes. Another Uzbek woman told of a seven-year-old disabled boy seized by a Kyrgyz mob, held down while gasoline was poured down his throat, and set alight. Two days before the riots started, one Kyrgyz-language newspaper had published an editorial thundering, “Without any doubt, under the current circumstances Uzbeks will become even more impudent if we don’t attack them seriously.”

By the time the rioting was done, about 2,000 houses had been destroyed, the vast majority belonging to Uzbeks; the official number of dead stood at just under 400, though the actual number is widely believed to be much higher; and some 400,000 people, mostly Uzbeks, had fled the region. About one-quarter of them, women and children only, had poured across the border into Uzbekistan, where the repressive regime of Islam Karimov, a man said to have boiled political opponents alive, set up temporary refugee camps at the urgent request of international aid groups and the United Nations. But, after just two weeks of displaying his benevolence to the foreign media, Karimov—perhaps worried that the refugees could destabilize his own regime—sent his ethnic brethren packing, back to Kyrgyzstan.

Now there is a sense of unease hovering over the country. No one knows whether upcoming elections will be a step toward democratization or a trigger for even more violence. Will the Kyrgyzstan that I saw in April or the one that I saw in July prevail? Many fear the worst. “Most of the Uzbeks we interviewed want to leave the country immediately, no matter where to,” a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher explained in August, following the publication of the organization’s report on the riots. As of July, those Uzbeks who could afford it were immigrating to Russia. Flights from Osh to Moscow and St. Petersburg were booked solid for the next few months. “I think Uzbeks cannot live here as they’ve lived before,” one Uzbek man, an English teacher at a local university whose home was destroyed during the riots, told me. “Genocide can happen.” That may be an overstatement, but it captured the sense of panic that many Uzbeks feel. It was easy to understand why they were afraid—easy, in other words, to see how uncertain Kyrgyzstan’s future is, and how ugly it could become.

Though derided by many of their Kyrgyz neighbors as outsiders, Uzbeks have lived in the Fergana Valley—a broad expanse that cuts across eastern Uzbekistan, through northern Tajikistan, and into central and southern Kyrgyzstan—for centuries. Like many citizens of former Soviet republics across Eurasia, they are victims of Joseph Stalin’s cartographic machinations, which were meant to contain nationalist ambitions through manipulation of ethnic differences. Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, describes Central Asia’s cruel borders as “a jigsaw cut by a one-armed alcoholic.”

Uzbeks are the merchant class of southern Kyrgyzstan, and while they only account for 15 percent of the country’s total population, they constitute about half of the south’s. As farmers and businessmen, Uzbeks are often perceived as wealthier by their Kyrgyz countrymen, who until the Soviet land reforms of the 1920s and 30s were largely a nomadic people. (In fact, in a 2007 World Bank study, 47 percent of the heads of Kyrgyz households were classified as poor, in contrast with 55.5 percent for Uzbeks.) Though both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims, Uzbeks tend to be more religious. Uzbek women, for instance, normally wear head coverings, while most Kyrgyz women do not. The two groups are not always readily distinguishable by outward appearance, though Kyrgyz tend to look more Asiatic, while Uzbeks look more like Turks or Iranians. They speak different, but similar, languages. The June riots were not the first instance of mass violence between the groups in Osh. In 1990, following a dispute over land allocation, some 600 people were killed in ethnically tinged carnage, spurring the disintegrating Soviet Union to deploy a military force for six months in order to quell the tension.

Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet president was a cerebral former physics professor named Askar Akayev. Under the slogan “Kyrgyzstan—Our Common Home,” Akayev pursued policies of ethnic harmonization, supporting the construction of Uzbek-language universities, instituting Russian (the lingua franca of Central Asia) as an official language, and creating a People’s Assembly through which minority grievances could be expressed. But Akayev also grew increasingly authoritarian, and, in a 2005 uprising that came to be known as the Tulip Revolution, he was overthrown. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, proved corrupt and nepotistic. He was particularly disliked by the country’s Uzbek minority, which he shut out of national politics—and whose economic livelihoods were threatened by his patronage networks.

What ultimately did Bakiyev in was geopolitics. The Kremlin had promised him a $2 billion loan, and he, in turn, promised to evict an American military base from the country—a base that serves as the main transit point for NATO troops on their way to and from Afghanistan. When Bakiyev announced that he would close the base last year, the United States promptly dangled an appealing financial arrangement in front of him and said it would start calling its facility a “transit center” rather than a “base.” (After Bakiyev’s ouster, it was revealed that his son owned the companies supplying the base with fuel.) Tempted by this U.S. offer, Bakiyev reneged on his deal with Moscow—which retaliated by increasing the price of gas exports to Kyrgyzstan, causing a sharp rise in utility rates. On April 7, an angry mob forced him from the presidential palace in clashes that claimed over 80 lives. Under cover of night, Bakiyev fled Bishkek for Jalal-Abad, a city in the south.

After a week spent hiding in his ancestral village outside Jalal-Abad-during which time he occasionally emerged to give fiery speeches denouncing the usurpers up north and grant surprisingly contemplative interviews to the international media—Bakiyev made his way, via Kazakhstan, to Belarus, where he remains today at the behest of that country’s mercurial despot, Alexander Lukashenko. While continuing to condemn the interim government as illegitimate, he announced that he has no plans to return to Kyrgyzstan, instead hinting that he would enter a field markedly less stress-inducing: the production of children’s toys. “For kids to be happy,” Bakiyev told a Russian weekly, “environmentally friendly toys can help develop children’s intellect, bring them joy.”

Bakiyev was gone; but, in Jalal-Abad, his supporters were still a source of tension. In May, a group of Uzbeks descended on the governor’s office in the city, aiming to evict a posse of the former president’s loyalists who had violently seized the building. Leading the Uzbeks that day was Kadyrjon Batyrov, a wealthy businessman, university president, and prominent Uzbek leader. Batyrov had long been at the forefront of an unsuccessful campaign to pressure the government to recognize Uzbek as an official language, which enraged many Kyrgyz. Sensing a political opening for his community in the wake of Bakiyev’s ouster, he had increased his calls for greater Uzbek participation in national institutions, where Uzbeks are severely underrepresented. Though the central government had asked Uzbek leaders to assist them in launching the raid on the governor’s office, many Kyrgyz saw the incident as an ethnic provocation, not a patriotic gesture. Most news accounts of the event claimed that, after successfully forcing Bakiyev’s partisans from the government building, Batyrov and his followers proceeded to burn down the Bakiyev family compound, a charge that Batyrov denied. But the allegation was widely disseminated; and five days later, a Kyrgyz mob attacked Jalal-Abad’s Peoples’ Friendship University, a gleaming new building that Batyrov largely financed and which he had hoped would serve as a model of inter-ethnic harmony.

Ethnic tensions, in short, were already running high when the June riots began in Osh. The immediate trigger was most likely a fight between rival ethnic gangs at an Osh casino, which, thanks to a flurry of text messages sent from the scene to young men around the city and in surrounding villages, broke out into the street and resulted in a massive brawl. Rumors—later debunked by HRW—that a group of Uzbek men had raped girls at a dormitory also seem to have played a role.

Still, the question of who precisely orchestrated the violence—which both HRW and the International Crisis Group (ICG) have accused Kyrgyzstan’s military of helping to facilitate—remains a subject of great debate inside the country. Some blame Bakiyev loyalists. Roza Otunbayeva—a former opposition figure who became interim leader in the wake of the April revolution—told The Washington Post, “Bakiyev’s people, they found that this is exactly where they could really smash the government and smash the situation.” The genesis of this theory is a cell-phone call between Bakiyev’s son and brother, mysteriously posted on YouTube in May, in which the two seem to talk about plans for destabilizing the southern part of the country.

Another Bakiyev loyalist who has been accused of stoking the violence is the powerful mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov. “There are two presidents in the country,” one Uzbek man told me. “Otunbayeva in the north and the mayor in the south.” One of Myrzakmatov’s former deputies has said his ex-boss was “interested that there would be in the south, and in Osh in particular, some sort of destabilization,” and that the mayor “arranged sabotage against the new authorities, insubordination.” When I confronted Myrzakmatov with this accusation during an interview at his cigarette-stenched office in July, the mayor was prepared. He got up from the table where he was sitting, walked to his desk, and came back with a bundle of files. He claimed to be in possession of medical records proving that the deputy in question was mentally unstable. Asked what sort of mental affliction the man was suffering from, Myrzakmatov snapped, “He’s just a psycho.”

While many people blamed Bakiyev’s cronies, plenty of Kyrgyz were quick to blame Uzbeks. The June events, I was frequently told, were a plot to humiliate the Kyrgyz and earn international sympathy. One common theory was that Uzbeks had set fire to their own homes. Why Uzbeks would destroy their houses and flee the area in droves was always left dangling. Never mind how this idea contradicted the other chief allegation about the Uzbeks: that their real goal is to erect an autonomous region in the south or even merge with Uzbekistan. (If secession was indeed their objective, why would they immolate their own property, rather than that of the Kyrgyz, who presumably would have no place in an ethnic Uzbek enclave?) Several Kyrgyz I interviewed—educated, otherwise reasonable people—claimed that Uzbeks have a penchant for hysteria, and that their tales of woe were being exaggerated or falsified outright for sympathetic Western ears. “Uzbek women ... treat mosquito bites like a tragedy,” one memorably told me. Such Kyrgyz denial was abetted by state television, which devoted its coverage almost exclusively to the relatively small number of Kyrgyz victims of the carnage, all but ignoring the targeting of ethnic Uzbeks by the police and security forces. In a story related to me by a Western aid worker, one Uzbek woman expressed shock to see her ruined home depicted on TV with a weeping Kyrgyz woman standing in front of it.

Many Kyrgyz also blame Uzbek Islamists for the violence; Myrzakmatov claimed that “bearded men yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’” could be seen in the crowds swarming Osh over the course of the riots. To get a sense of the religious dimension of the conflict, I visited the Imam Sharahshi Mosque, which sits next to a fast-moving canal dividing Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan in the town of Kara-Suu, about 14 miles northeast of Osh. In 2006, Kyrgyz security forces, believed to be working in coordination with Uzbek intelligence, killed the popular Uzbek imam who led the mosque, Rafik Kamalov, in a shoot-out. Kamalov had been a strong critic of Islam Karimov, and the Kyrgyz government claimed that he was a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a banned terrorist organization that has staged sporadic attacks in the region. (Kamalov and his family have long denied the charge.)

The congregation is now led by Kamalov’s son, Imam Rashod Qori Kamalov. About 2,000 men were at the Friday prayers I attended, and Uzbek border guards listened from the other side of the canal. Given the setting—an ethnic Uzbek town—I would not have been surprised to hear a militantly pro-Uzbek sermon from the imam. But, while the younger Kamalov did have some tough words for the perpetrators of the June violence—calling them “servants of the master of hell” and expressing hope that “their tongues go dry and their eyes go blind”—he also stressed coexistence and cautioned against reprisal. “We’re Muslims first,” he said over the loudspeaker. “Islam compels us to be brothers.” Round in form and gentle in disposition, he sat cross-legged and barefoot for an interview following his sermon. “These statements they make in Bishkek and down here in the south about the involvement of the faithful in the events in Osh are an insult to Muslims,” he told me. “If we take the position of only one side, defending either the Uzbeks or the Kyrgyz, it would only end in conflict with the eternal law of Allah.”

Indeed, there is scant evidence that Islamist groups were behind the violence. But it is also undeniable that such groups are active in Uzbekistan; outside Kamalov’s mosque, I spoke to a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist political movement founded in Jerusalem in 1953, with branches everywhere from London to the Fergana Valley. (Kamalov says he is not involved with the organization, which is banned in Kyrgyzstan.) According to a recent ICG report, “there is already talk within the Uzbek areas of Osh—largely secular and middle class, a long way from the Islamists’ core constituency in the south—of the welcome that the jihadi guerrillas would receive if they stepped up their activities in the south.” In other words, just because Islamist groups did not play a significant role in the June riots doesn’t mean that Uzbeks won’t decide to rely on them for protection in the future.

The international symbol for distress—“SOS”—covers the roads and rooftops of Kirpichny, an Uzbek neighborhood in Osh. An easy way to tell the difference between an Uzbek and Kyrgyz neighborhood here—aside from the obvious fact that the Uzbek neighborhoods are nearly completely destroyed while the Kyrgyz ones are mostly untouched—is whether “SOS” is scrawled in chalk on the streets and on whatever remains of the homes. Weeks after the initial violence, as random security sweeps almost exclusively targeted Uzbek neighborhoods and the police and army detained Uzbek men for spurious reasons, the SOS signals remained.

There are any number of signs, large and small, that the violence could erupt again. In Osh, it was difficult to find any Uzbeks on the major roads. They were confined to their neighborhoods, the entrances to which they had blocked off with makeshift barricades during the riots. (The burned remnants of these fortifications, which the city government forced them to dislodge, could still be found on the sides of the road.) Even in a bustling bazaar that borders an Uzbek neighborhood, I did not see a single Uzbek. They were staying in their area, keeping a deliberate distance of some several hundred feet between themselves and the noisy corner where transactions were taking place. “We cannot walk in the streets and work in the markets,” Salmoorbek Beknirzarov, an Uzbek, explained. “How can we survive? We don’t have any means for a living.” According to many Uzbeks in Osh, Kyrgyz have been hurling the word “Sart”—an epithet used throughout Central Asia to refer to city dwellers, but which has recently taken on a nasty ethnic connotation—with unabashed frequency. Small-scale violence has broken out sporadically in the past few months, including a brawl between Kyrgyz and Uzbek high school students on September 3. When I visited a statue in downtown Osh of Ali Sher Nawai, a revered Uzbek poet from the fifteenth century, a noose was hanging around its neck.

Part of the problem is that the central government seems to have little interest in improving the situation—or is just too weak. “The government is taking no proactive and energetic measures that could mitigate the chance of things going bad,” says Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia Project director at the ICG. A case in point was the recent trial of eight Uzbeks accused of killing a Kyrgyz police officer. The government’s decision to try the defendants in the south, rather than in a less fraught location, was interpreted by many as an indication of its disinterest in defusing tensions. And the trial was indeed tense. One of the victim’s relatives threw a glass bottle at the cage holding the defendants, while others attacked the defendants’ families with stones outside the courtroom. Western watchdog groups, meanwhile, allege that the charges against one of the accused, a prominent Uzbek human rights activist and journalist named Azimjon Askarov, were politically motivated, a form of retribution for his documentation of abuses committed by law enforcement authorities. Askarov, along with the seven other defendants, was found guilty on September 15. He was sentenced to life in prison, and the judge ordered his property confiscated.

Mayor Myrzakmatov has also proven to be an obstacle to reconciliation. Many Uzbeks blame him for the arbitrary security sweeps that disproportionately targeted Uzbek neighborhoods in the wake of the riots, and for the rampant police abuse documented by the United Nations and human rights organizations. He was chiefly responsible for stirring up popular opposition to a proposed 52-member, unarmed police observer force from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the dispatch of which was initially agreed to by the central government but now is unlikely to happen. He has successfully resisted efforts by the central government to remove him, and, emboldened by his ability to outmaneuver Bishkek, he recently declared, “We will transfer the capital to Osh.”

But maybe the biggest cause for concern about Kyrgyzstan’s immediate future is also the biggest cause for hope: the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 10. More so than any other country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a relatively free media and political environment. Many newspapers can be found at kiosks, and people feel able to share their political opinions with foreign journalists. Politics here have long been disputatious. In 2005, there were more than 100 political parties, and nearly 50 have been formed in the months since Bakiyev’s tenure came to an end. If the vote is free and fair, and if the winners—guaranteed to be ethnically Kyrgyz—go out of their way to try to repair relations with the Uzbek minority, the election could augur the start of a new era for Kyrgyzstan. But if aggressively nationalist parties win or if the results are disputed, the violence could easily resume.

Writing for The Guardian, Anna Matveeva, a fellow with the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, recently envisioned three future scenarios for Kyrgyzstan, all disconcerting. The first is that the Uzbek community rallies around a guerrilla organization, as was the case in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. The second would be the Islamization of the conflict, along the lines of the Chechen separatist struggle, with Uzbeks turning to militant Islamist organizations. Finally, in response to either of these outcomes or without any such provocation, Kyrgyzstan could decide to clamp down on ethnic Uzbek protests with a decisive show of force.

One morning, I arrived at an Uzbek home where a group of distraught women were talking excitedly under a veranda. Traditional Uzbek homes have the appearance of ancient Roman villas, with open-air courtyards in the middle, and are often large enough to house an extended family. Passing through the kitchen, I entered a crowded room where two Uzbek men were receiving medical treatment from a Doctors Without Borders team. A group of drunken soldiers had assaulted them the night before for standing on a side street after the 10 p.m. curfew. One of the men, receiving stitches above his left eye, said he had been forced to sing the Kyrgyz national anthem, a ritual that, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been commonplace in the wake of the violence, with multiple Uzbek men reporting similar humiliations. I asked the man for his name, and, like so many of the Uzbeks I spoke to, he refused for fear of his safety. “We are afraid they will come tomorrow,” he said.

James Kirchick is writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor at The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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