Both sides in Kyrgyzstan fault government for failing to prevent violence

After gang violence broke out against ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, refugees have been forced to the Uzbekistan border.
By Philip P. Pan
Monday, June 21, 2010

JALAL-ABAD, KYRGYZSTAN -- A month before the deadly ethnic clashes that devastated southern Kyrgyzstan last week, a mob loyal to the recently deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, seized the provincial government building here and expelled the local governor. The next day, another crowd, supporting the forces that had toppled Bakiyev, recaptured the building and reinstalled the official.

From a distance, the incident hardly seemed significant. Kyrgyzstan's new interim government appeared to have maintained the status quo.

But the back and forth on May 13-14 was a turning point. Because many in the crowd that prevailed were minority Uzbeks, the struggle for political control of the region began to be seen as a battle for ethnic survival, especially among the Kyrgyz majority here. That perception grew in the following weeks, fanned by local politicians as the national authorities in the north struggled to respond.

Now, after an explosion of rioting, killing and rape that has left as many as 2,200 people dead and entire neighborhoods in ruins, two communities that had lived together peacefully for nearly 20 years are boiling with mutual hostility, and the government of this strategically located Central Asian country appears more fragile than ever.

In a late-night interview after making her first trip to the south, interim President Roza Otunbayeva blamed the violence on her exiled predecessor, saying his allies had taken advantage of longstanding ethnic tensions and incited the riots. "Bakiyev's people, they found that this is exactly where they could really smash the government and smash the situation," she said.

Otunbayeva acknowledged that she did not have full control of the security forces and warned that Bakiyev's allies were planning attacks in northern Kyrgyzstan, home to an important U.S. air base. "There are a number of people in key positions loyal to Bakiyev, and in the local governments, too," she said. "They're working hard and certainly, absolutely [engaging in] sabotage."

But Otunbayeva's interim government -- a coalition of former opposition leaders who came to power in a bloody revolt against Bakiyev in April -- has come under intense criticism for mishandling ethnic relations in southern Kyrgyzstan and failing to prevent the violence here in Jalal-Abad and in nearby Osh, the country's second-largest city.

Some accuse it of coddling Uzbek activists who angered the Kyrgyz public with demands for greater rights and representation. Others say it betrayed the Uzbeks -- who had been allies in overthrowing Bakiyev -- by failing to stand up to his Kyrgyz supporters.

Ethnic Uzbeks make up about 15 percent of the population, but they rival the Kyrgyz in numbers in the south, which straddles a densely populated valley shared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan along arbitrary, Soviet-era borders. In 1990, a conflict over land between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh left hundreds dead.

After Kyrgyzstan gained independence with the fall of the Soviet Union, its new government courted Uzbeks by casting the country as "our common house," and tensions eased. Though they enjoyed limited representation in the political system, Uzbeks made economic gains and came to dominate commerce in the south.

But discontent climbed under Bakiyev, a native of the south who came to power in 2005 and sought to consolidate control of the economy. Uzbeks joined the opposition that ousted him, and in May, when Bakiyev loyalists seized control of the governor's office here, Uzbeks answered the interim government's plea for help in taking it back.

At the front of the crowd was Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a prominent Uzbek politician, businessman and university chief who argued that Bakiyev's ouster meant Uzbeks would finally get the political rights they deserved. After recapturing the building, the throng marched to the Bakiyev family compound in Jalal-Abad and burned it down.

Witnesses said Kyrgyz and Uzbeks stood side by side in the crowd. But Bakiyev's supporters framed the conflict in ethnic terms and painted Batyrov as a radical Uzbek nationalist, tapping into fears among local Kyrgyz that Uzbeks might gain too much power and attempt to secede.

Five days after the incident, an armed Kyrgyz mob marched on Batyrov's university and clashed with his Uzbek supporters. At least two people were killed and more than 70 injured.

Uzbek leaders urged the government to defend Batyrov, but under public pressure, it opened a criminal case against him instead.

"It was simply an outright betrayal," said Edil Baisalov, who served as Otunbayeva's chief of staff until he resigned this month to launch a political party. "Our enemies tried to frame what happened in ethnic terms, and cowardice on the part of the leadership of the interim government allowed them to do it."

Baisalov said that ethnic tensions in the south had been building for years but that the government's reluctance to remove Bakiyev's supporters, including the mayor of Osh, made the situation worse. "This lack of will and spinelessness spiraled into a complete lack of security," he said.

Felix Kulov, a former prime minister and opposition leader, agreed that the government had erred by failing to eliminate Bakiyev's allies. But he said the authorities also should have persuaded Uzbek leaders such as Batyrov to refrain from making sensitive political demands -- including the recognition of Uzbek as an official language alongside Kyrgyz and Russian -- during an incomplete political transition.

"It's not a crime, but look at the consequences," he said. "It directly contributed to these events."

Kamchylbek Tashiev, a Kyrgyz nationalist politician, said the government's efforts to secure Uzbek votes in the next election had emboldened radicals such as Batyrov, whom he accused of direct involvement in the violence. "Uzbek leaders in Kyrgyzstan are the root cause of this conflict," he said, arguing that it was dangerous to tolerate even talk of their demands.

Members of the government have also begun to blame the riots on Batyrov, who has been in hiding, as well as others they describe as Uzbek extremists. But Jalaldin Salakhitdinov, an Uzbek leader in Osh, said such talk was ridiculous.

"There are no Uzbek extremists. It was Kyrgyz who were killing us, and now the government is talking about Uzbek extremists?" he said. "It's a very good excuse for them to cover up their own incompetence."


© 2010 The Washington Post Company