Q&A: Kyrgyzstan’s Ethnic Violence

BY Larisa Epatko  June 16, 2010 at 4:23 PM EDT


Post-violence damage in Shark, a village outside Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

The Kyrgyzstan government and army attempted to stabilize the southern city of Osh on Wednesday, after fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks over the past week left at least 189 people dead.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, had said that the violence appears to be orchestrated. “We have strong indications that this event was not a spontaneous inter-ethnic clash – that it was to some degree orchestrated, targeted and well planned,” Colville said in Geneva.

Armed men attacked five locations in Osh on June 10, including a gym known to be frequented by a criminal gang, which appeared to be aimed at prompting a reaction, he said.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government, which came to power in April after bloody demonstrations ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, contends he had a hand in the latest violence, but he has denied any involvement.

Bakiyev, who was born in Osh, continues to be popular among the local population, while Uzbeks tend to support the interim government, according to an article in the Washington Post.
Aid began arriving Wednesday for the tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes concerned about further violence. Uzbekistan has registered 75,000 refugees, according to a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report.

We received a question on the NewsHour’s Facebook page about the ethnic groups engaged in the fighting: “What is the difference between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks? Do they look different? Do they have different religions?”

For an answer, we went to Robert Templer, director of the International Crisis Group’s Asia Program:

“The differences are very slight. They don’t look different. They both speak a Turkic language that they more or less mutually understand. It would be similar to, say, the difference between Spanish and Portuguese. They are all Muslims, so they have the same religion — predominantly Sunni Muslims.

“And the substantial sort of difference is a relatively minor one nowadays in that the Kyrgyz were a predominantly nomadic people, and the Uzbeks were settled farming people. There are differences in clothing and customs that derive from their past, but the ethnic differences are really very slight.

“And these are people who have lived side-by-side for many centuries quite peacefully. Ethnicity is always a very difficult issue, because often it’s established by bureaucracies and then it becomes a more important aspect of people’s lives.

“There are differences in wealth down in the south in that the Uzbek population — there are about 800,000 ethnic Uzbeks within Kyrgyzstan — and in the south in the towns of Osh and Jalal-Abad, where the main fighting has gone on, they own many of the businesses. And they are dominant in the bazaar, which is a very important trading center for Central Asia — it’s one of the oldest and biggest bazaars in Central Asia.

“It’s a difficult question to answer in some ways because the issue of ethnic identity is a very complex one in Central Asia, but the reality is that there are very few real differences.”