Ethnic tensions

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Ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan?

The essence of internal conflict in Kyrgyzstan is in the struggle between various tribes for power. This struggle continues between the North, with its prevailing Chui-Issykkul clan (where the Sarybagysh tribe prevailed recently) and the South with its Osh clan.

 

Revolution, tension and conflict

In June 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiev, former Prime Minister, won presidential elections and ruled Kyrgyzstan until his overthrow by popular revolution in April 2010.

 

After the collapse of his regime and the inauguration of an interim government in 2010, Kyrgyz society lived in tension, intimidated by followers of Bakiev, who said they would seek to cause unrest. At that time the authorities sought the support of the Uzbek population in the south, to help minimise the influence of the ousted southern Bakiev clan.

 

In May 2010, influential southern Uzbek politician Kadyrjan Batyrov spoke to his voters and persuaded Uzbeks to take part in the political process. His speech was taken by some leaders in Kyrgyz society as a call for autonomy.

 

The nervous situation escalated into the largest armed conflict of the last twenty years, between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks residing in Osh and Jalalabad, and in some Uzbek border districts. Interethnic violence killed more than 400 people, wounded 2000, and destroyed a huge amount of mainly Uzbek property. According to international humanitarian organisations, more than one million people were involved.

 

In October 2011, Batyrov, who fled the country during these events, was sentenced to life in prison and confiscation of property in absentia.

The ethnic tensions are vibrating all the time and in 2010 a peaceful revolution and popular revolt unsettled life in Kyrgyzstan. And the tensions between the ethnic groups are mostly contained, although the struggle between the North and the South are present.

 

Kyrgystan demographics

A full third of Kyrgyzstan's population is under the age of 15 and one-third of the population lives in urban areas with the majority living in rural areas. The largest ethnic group are the Kyrgyz, a Turkish people, who account for 72% of the population. Other ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan include Russians (9.0%), Uzbeks (14.5%), Dungans (1.9%), Uyghurs (1.1%), Tajiks (1.1%), Kazakhs (0.7%), and Ukranians (0.5%). There are more than 80 different ethnic groups in total in Kyrgyzstan.

 

Since 1979, the percentage of ethnic Kyrgyz has risen from 50% to more than 70% today, while the percentage of European ethnic group like Germans and Russians, as well as Tatars, has dropped from 35% to 10%. In 1989, there were about 101,000 Germans in Kyrgyzstan, most of whom have since emigrated to Germany.

 

The most widely practiced religion is Islam, accounting for 80% of the population, followed by Russian Orthodoxy at 17%.

Homes and property were destroyed during the 2010 riots, including this supermarket. Image credit: Inga Sikorskaya

Causes and consequences

Problem areas had developed prior to the violence between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These included unregulated language policy and the illegal status of the Uzbek language. Politically, the Uzbeks were not satisfied with the low percentage of ethnic Uzbek representatives in the authorities and security services.

 

As part of the Concept of National Unity and lnter-Ethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic, signed by the President Almazbek Atambaev in 2013, an action plan is being developed to strengthen interethnic harmony. It is expected to create the basis for the consolidation of society, the integration of ethnic communities, and provisions for multilingualism. But most of this is yet to become a reality. A lack of impartial evidence about what happened during the clashes, and the apparent impunity of the principal instigators and perpetrators of violence, raises difficult questions.

 

The role of local media is also important. They demonstrated their significant role both before and since the 2010 violence. According to hate speech analysis, some media in Kyrgyzstan had a powerful influence. This hate speech created negative public images of minorities, and anxiety, anger and discontent spread by the media provoked ethnic negativity and created conditions for the growth of xenophobia. This then stoked the violence.

 

While the mayhem was seemingly sparked by a brawl between a group of Kyrgyz and Uzbek youth at a casino in the southern city of Osh, at its core lay deeper contradictions within the country's polity. First, there is the competition over power and resources between the northern Kyrgyz elites in the capital Bishkek and their southern counterparts, mostly originating from the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

 

Second, the diffused poverty in the south, especially acute in the countryside, and the perception of wealth inequality between communities, lends itself to easy political manipulation.

 

Third, the under-representation of minorities at all levels of the state's political and security apparatuses has created much tension. And finally, the widespread corruption plaguing the country's institutions and politicians' notorious links to the criminal underworld also played a role in the violence.

 

Unfortunately, few of these circumstances have been mitigated or changed, so the potential for conflict in Kyrgyzstan remains.

 

Source: The Guardian and others

Questions on ethnic tensions

1. What are the two main ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan? What are the causes for the tensions?

2. Is the ethnic tensions rooted in religious differencies?

3. Do we have similar ethnic tensions in Denmark? Do you know this from your own school?

4. How is the tensions related to equality aspects?

5. How do you think ethnic tensions can be tackled in the best possible way?

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