Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic Violence or Political Violence


National Emblem of KyrgyzstanThe current violence errupting in the southern region of Kyrgyzstan is deeply troubling.

If we are to go by the news reports given by the BBC, the violence is the culmination of long standing ethnic tensions.  If we are to believe the Economist's recent article "Stalin's Harvest" we are seeing the inevitable fruits of Stalin's labour. 

According to The Economist the ethnic violence is to be attributed to Stalin based on his inefficiency in drawing borders.  Any ethno-geographer of the region would acknowledge that drawing effective borders, even if based on language groupings -  is effectively impossible for Central Asia as populations are organised as consistently by elevation as by region.  Uzbeks typically being in more sedentary populations at lower elevations, while the Kyrgyz historically lived in pastoral highlands.  When ethnicity is brought into the equation things become even more complex.  The result is a maze of populations where borders are abitrary by necessity.

There are two very deep problems with the analysis that is being presented to us so widely in the news media.  The first is that these ethnic tensions have not been a serious concern for a very long time, but have suddenly flared up.  The question of why this problem lay dormant for so long and why it is erupting just now is not made clear.

The second problem is that it almost completely ignores the role of Russia and the United states in the region, the role that the Afghan war plays in this issue and the role of the often conflicting national interests of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

We will see that these two things are not entirely unrelated.  In fact, the first problem of why violence is erupting now is highly intertwined with the question of geo-strategic interests.

Stoking the Fires

Until recently, Kyrgyzstan was under the leadership of Kurmanbek Bakiyev.  Bakiyev was a surprisingly astute head of state.  He recognised clearly the huge geo-strategic importance that Kyrgyzstan played in the region, both for Russia and for the United States.  He carefully played these two superpowers off each other in a bidding war for influence.  He was also shamelessly corrupt and willing to use state money for his own personal aggrandisement and that of his family.

Osh is the base of power of Bakiyev.  It is also the site of the recent violence, a fact which is unlikely to be disconnected.  Kyrgyz television managed to obtain and broadcast a recording of Bakiyev's uncle and Bakiyev's brother.  In the recording they talk about how they should incite violence in their stronghold in the south ahead of the coming referendum which was slated for June. This referendum was meant to bring into place a new constitution, establishing a permanent government in Kyrgyzstan.

The interim government released a statement on Monday that it had in custody a "well-known person" who they suspected of stoking violence. According to Farid Niyazov, the government spokesperson, suspects who are already in custody have claimed to have been hired by supporters of Bakiyev.  Of course, the interim government is not necessarily trustworthy as a source, but their claims are at least constistent with the context.

The Afghan War, the US, and Russia

In northern Kyrgyzstan we find the Manas Air Base which is used in the supply line for a large portion of the supplies and troops between the US and Afghanistan.  Occasionally there is a ground supply route through the Khyber pass to Afghanistan, but this is closed periodically as it is vulnerable to attack.  It was closed seven times last year.  The Manas air base is therefore a critical doorway to the Afghan corridor.  Without it, the Americans would be hamstrung in attempting to continue their engagement.  Since U.S. President Obama decided to expand the war in the Afghan theatre, its importance has only increased.

Russian also enjoys an air base in Kyrgyzstan, the Kant Air Base, making Kyrgyzstan one of the few countries with the distinction of being a home to both superpowers.  A volatile combination of forces if ever there could be.

Follow The Money

Bakiyev came to power on the wake of a movement against corruption in government, a fact of somewhat striking irony given the method of his departure.  The so called "Tulip Revolution" forced former president Askar Akayev from his position as head of government, a position he had held since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The scale of corruption which took place after Bakiyev came to power is impressive - but was only possible because of his surprising gall in dealing with the two major superpowers in the region.  Lead by Bakiyev, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan voted to close the Manas Air Base in February of 2009.  

Shortly after this, the Russians announced a program of $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid.  A large amount indeed for a very poor country of only 5 million inhabitants.  It is hard not to see Russia's hand vying for influence over the bottle neck to Afghanistan - a gambit which would give them impressive negotiating power over the U.S.

However, Bakiyev was not content to leave well enough alone.  In June of 2009 the U.S. reached a new deal which was ratified by the Kyrgyz parliament and signed into law by Bakiyev.  Under this agreement the US would pay an increased rent for the Manas air base, increasing the amount from $17.1 million to $60 million.  In the deal, an additional $117 million would go to the Kyrgyz government, $36 million would go to upgrades for the airport, $21 million for fighting drug trafficking and $20 million for economic development. 

He had now succesfully played both superpowers off each other in such a way that they were both paying more for what they had had in the first place.  This situation was however, highly unstable and was not to last for long.

In April of 2010 riots broke out in Bishkek and other regions in opposition to the croynism and corruption of the Bakiyev administration.  The government was soon forced out, and Bakiyev was forced to flee to Kazakhstan.

From Public Coffers to Private Pockets

The exact methods used towards the self enrichment of Bakiyev are somewhat obscured by the careful handling of accounts and the labyrinthine system of nepotism.  One of the more direct examples is provided by the Manas air base, which had a contract with six fuel suppliers who were alleged by the General Prosecutor's Office to be controlled by none other than Maxim Bakiyev, Kurmanbek Bakiyev's son.

As the government began to collapse, Maksim sent $200 million out of the country, between April 7th and April 8th, according to records maintained by the countries largest comercial bank National'nyi bank Kyguzstana.  A truly impressive amount for such a poor country.  It is roughly equivalent to one days wage for every person in Kyrgyzstan.

The corruption of the Bakiyev adminstration, and the support which was openly given to it by the U.S. was decried by the head of the interim government Roza Otunbaeva - also an ethnic Kyrgyz from Osh.  Indeed the U.S. was caught somewhat on the back-foot having backed a corrupt and anti-democratic politician, while Russia openly criticized him.  A somewhat ironic reversal of the U.S. and Russia's favoured methods of political manipulation.

One of Roza Otunbaeva's first moves after coming to office was to send her deputy to meet with the Kremlin, a move which underlines where the balance of powers lies in the run up to the violence which later errupted in Osh.

A History of Violence

The majority of major media sources has stated that the violence taking place in Osh is a repeat of ethnic conflict which took place in the early 1990s.  The violence, which took place was indeed largely on nationalist lines, was not, however, without its own context.  Indeed a competition for scarce resources and a decaying Soviet bureaucracy lead to conflict as is common when material conditions deteriorate.

The population of Osh province is divided, roughly in half, between people who consider themselves Kyrgyz and Uzbek.  However, ethnnic Uzbeks account for only about 14% of the total population of Kyrgyzstan.  During the Glastnost period, an Uzbek rights organisation known as Adalat was formed.  This organisation demanded that some level of autonomy would be granted and that Moscow would consider allowing annexation of the province to Uzbekistan.

At about the same time a group known as Osh-aimagy was formed, an ethnically Kyrgyz organisation which translated means Osh-land.  This name is a testament to the underlying cause of the Osh riots of 1990.

Land shortage in the Osh region was accute, and land redistribution was one of the main charges of the Osh-aimagy organisation.  In June of 1990 the Osh city council, a council dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz, announced its intention to build a cotton processing facility on the cite of an Uzbek dominated collective farm.  Shortly after, a bloody conflict over land use erupted.

What is particularly notable however is the fact that there hasn't been serious ethnic violence in the region for 20 years, which is nearly a generation.  The analysis which seaks to claim it as a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic violence is woefully lacking.

Ethnic Conflict - Problem or Pretext

When the media rises in chorus about ethnic conflict while completely ignoring context, one is forced to wonder whether there might be some agenda.  Perhaps the silence on the U.S. role in dealing with Bakiyev is because of the embarrassment at the shameless support of such a corrupt and anti-democratic politician.  Perhaps it's from a genuine lack of background on the historical context.

It seems likely that the  violence was cynically incited by Bakiyev or his family with the cooperation of his supporters which are largely Kyrgyz.  This would serve to halt the referendum which would bring a permanent government to power given a democratic vote of legitimacy - making his ouster permanent.  The violence has in fact served to halt the progress of referendum.

The choice by the media to label this as ethnic conflict without highlighting Bakiyev's role is, however, somewhat worrying.  Why so easy on Bakiyev and so light on this critically important context? The complexity of the situation in Kyrgyzstan is highlighted by the fact the revolt against Bakiyev was dominated by  ethnic Kyrgyz in the capital Bishek.

It is made all the more worrying because of the very cynical use of ethnic conflict as a pretext for invasion as was done by NATO in the former Yugoslavian states. 

Ethnic conflict forms a near perfect cover story for "humanitarian" mobilisations to defend human rights.  It would in fact be quite convenient if such ethnic conflict could be  manufactured by hired thugs - which is the claim being made by the interim government.

One can not underestimate the importance of Kyrgyzstan to the Afghanistan war project.  It forms the critical bottle-neck for the flow of supplies and it is therefore a potentially mission stopping prospect, should the Kyrgyz government refuse to comply with U.S. demands.  However, it is not just the U.S. which is embroiled in the Afghanistan debacle.  That distinction is shared by the NATO contributing countries, notably including France and Germany.

Recently, a document leaked from the CIA's Red Cell onto the Wikileaks website mentioned the importance of maintaining public opinion in Western Europe's NATO contributing countries for the current war in Afghanistan.  As Kyrgyzstan forms a lynchpin of the Afghan war strategy, one has to wonder how much the information we are getting is accurate, and how much it suits a purpose.

WORDS: Gavin Gleeson