Who’s misunderstanding Kyrgyzstan’s problems?

The tragedy unfolding in Central Asia was quickly misunderstood and twisted for an audience that seeks seemingly deep but actually simplistic explanations.

KyrgyzstanDemonstrations311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Around June 10, reports began appearing in the Western media of violent clashes in Kyrgyzstan. They spoke of refugees and ethnic fighting. As days went on, the reports, although conflicting, mentioned refugees numbering in the tens of thousands and a death toll officially reported at around 115, but numbering perhaps as high as 1,000. Almost all the reports noted that the violence was mostly one-sided, with Kyrgyz massacring Uzbeks and the latter fleeing to cross the border into Uzbekistan.
The UN did nothing about the clashes, and as EU leaders remained pragmatically modest in their declarations, reports began being issued by “experts” explaining the situation. Analysis replaced the glaring headlines and gradually the story faded, no longer flashing across the BBC or other major news outlets. The tragedy unfolding in Central Asia was quickly misunderstood and twisted for an audience that seeks seemingly deep but actually simplistic explanations for almost all conflicts so long as they don’t involve Israel.
The Economist, probably the most intelligent and serious news magazine in the world, described the violence as “Stalin’s harvest.” It said it was Stalin who “arbitrarily” divided the Fergana Valley among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leaving ethnic minorities in each.
Like the history of Africa or Central Europe, these “artificially created borders became final.” The result was clashes that erupted after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. A civil war in neighboring Tajikistan claimed some 50,000 lives in the same period.
A June 14 article in The New York Times described the clashes as “rooted in class, not ethnicity” according to “experts.” These experts weren’t troglodyte communists hiding out in the basement of some forlorn university but Alexander Cooley of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. In a story reminiscent of the Balkan wars, the article described the Muslim Turkic speakers as having “ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz [that] are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable.”
The secret lies in wealth; “the one that is most responsible for the animosities that led to the recent violence, Central Asian experts say, is economic.”
Supposedly the Uzbeks were petit capitalists, kulaks no less (a Stalin-era term of derision referring to successful farmers), who had prospered in business. The Uzbeks had been farmers and the Kyrgyz traditional nomads, and most people are familiar with the fact that pastoralists and settled people are often in conflict. This story of Uzbek success, however, was contradicted by a BBC report the next day in which Nazira, a Kyrgyz, claimed “Uzbeks live in houses made of straw and clay that are built very close to each other.
When one house gets burned – the whole area gets burned. Kyrgyz people live in blocks of flats – those are more difficult to destroy.”
SOME REPORTS laid the blame at the government’s doorstep. Government troops were accused of colluding with the militia. A secretive paramilitary force of snipers was said to be involved as well, perhaps supporters of the recently ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. There has been a lot of misinformation about what is taking place in Central Asia. When massacres took place recently in Nigeria, the same “experts” explained, in the words of the UN’s Navi Pillay, that “it would be a mistake to paint this purely as sectarian or ethnic violence...
underlying causes... namely discrimination, poverty and disputes over land.”
But when similar violence breaks out in Israel between Jews and Arabs, or in the Balkans, it is isn’t excused by references to “poverty” and “economics.” It is condemned as ethnic-cleansing and racism. Furthermore, the fact that outsiders cannot distinguish a Jew from an Arab, a Serb from a Croat, a Nigerian Tarok from a Hausa or a Kyrgyz from an Uzbek is not reason to believe that the people themselves cannot.
However, it is worthwhile to look to history. In 1917 the Soviets appealed to the “Kyrgyz and Sarts, Turks and Tartars” to “arrange your national life freely and without hindrance.”
Soviet ethnologists and leading communists such as Lenin took a special interest in the best arrangement for Soviet Central Asia. To combat pan- Turkism and Islamism they decided to split the region into five ethnically homogeneous republics, the ones that exist today.
Svat Soucek, a Czech-born specialist, argues that the supposedly “artificial” borders were no more problematic than any borders that leave minorities in nation-states. Along with promoting women’s rights, the Soviets launched a literacy campaign and standardization of language and culture in the republics which helped fuel a degree of nationalism. In a sense the nationalism replaced the tribalism that had existed before. For Soucek, the “legacy of the past” is not gerrymandering but rather the political and bureaucratic infrastructure which was corrupt, dictatorial and Sovietized.
What set off the violence may never be clearly known, whether it was “orchestrated” as the UN argues, due to a national referendum to be held on June 27 or some other factor. The Uzbeks claim they no longer trust the government to protect them and are calling on the UN to administer their areas. From experiences with UN colonization in Haiti, East Timor, Gaza, Bosnia and Kosovo that surely can’t bode well. Why Uzbekistan, patron of the Uzbeks, has stood by so quietly is not clear. Airlifting Russian troops, which the weak Kyrgyz government has requested, may offer a temporary solution, but as the conflict in Georgia illustrated, it can also lead to provocations.
Most strange is the deathly silence from Europe, whose politicians like to get a condemnatory word in about everything. It seems they have taken a break after running out of breath condemning Israel regarding the Turkish flotilla.
And speaking of the Turks, one wonders where they are, since they have taken an interest in involving themselves in the region’s affairs and since the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are Turkic peoples. It would be better for us all if the Turks could focus their ire on squabbles between Central Asian nomads and farmers and away from Iran, Gaza and Israel.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.