Kyrgyzstan, the small Central Asian country which sprung onto the global scene in April, boggling the minds of American news anchors, has returned. What I then called the “red revolution” has turned redder as ethnic violence swept through the southern city of Osh and Jalal-Abad this weekend. On Thursday, marauding gangs began rampaging, attacking Uzbeks, burning government buildings, banks, cafes, and even an Uzbek theater first in Osh and then in Jalal-Abad. Uzbeks locked themselves in their homes as rumors spread they would be killed on the street. Uzbeks, being the minority, fled over the border in the tens of thousands into Uzbekistan. Interim president Roza Otunbayeva declared a state of emergency and countrywide curfew, dispatched troops with shoot-to-kill orders, pleaded to Russia for help, and blamed supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiev for the violence. President Medvedev balked at sending a full force to stabilize the situation fearing that a large force could drag Russia into a much unwanted quagmire. Instead he sent a contingent of 300 paratroopers to protect Russia’s Kant airbase. On Sunday, RIA Novosti reported that Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic leaders were prepared for reconciliation talks. We’ll see how prepared they are and whether they matter in the coming days. The numbers as of now: 113 dead, 1292 wounded, an estimated 75,000 refugees have fled into Uzbekistan. For up-to-date coverage and commentary, I point readers to Eurasianet and Registan.
As always, the Western commentary, while noting the facts and figures around the violence, has mostly focused on the geopolitical ramifications of the events. The conservative Washington Times has already predictably declared the violence to be the result of Russia “work[ing] behind the scenes to influence Kyrgyzstan’s interim government.” I’m not sure how inter-ethnic violence which some fear could turn Kyrgyzstan into the Balkans benefits Russia. Apparently not having much to say, reports tend to give a rundown of events and then place them in the US-Russia context or add fears that Kyrgyzstan might fracture into the next Afghanistan. In regard to explains for the outbreak, most have cited Bakiev’s possible hand to topple the intern government or the ethnic violence of twenty years ago.
Violence had been brewing in southern Kyrgyzstan since April. In May, Bakiev holdouts staged protests and seized government buildings. One person was killed and sixteen were injured in that flare-up, the second since Bakiev was ousted. At the time, Azimbek Beknazarov, the interim government’s deputy head said, “We are waiting for the third wave. According to our information, a group of bribe-takers and supporters of Bakiyev are trying to provoke inter-ethnic clashes. We know who is behind this, but to preserve stability we will give them time to think again.” Well, the third, and most violent to date, has arrived on que. A mere ten days after the state of emergency and nationwide curfew were lifted.
Bakiev’s people behind the violence? Possibly. Probably. Certainly. Then again, maybe not. One article published on Ferghana.ru suggests that the violence might be the result of southern mafia bosses struggling over the spoils after the murder of don Aibek Mirsidikov on June 7. Writes Sanobar Shermatova:
Criminal heroes and the victims of revolution
The first official comment on the event was given by acting governor of the Jalal-Abad Oblast Bektur Asanov. The official explained the death of Mirsidikov by “the fights of the criminal world”. Three days earlier the General Ismail Isakov had to admit that criminal structures had become more active in southern Kyrgyzstan. This issue was raised by the entrepreneurs, concerned with pressure and expropriation of property in the southern regions. The experience of two previous revolutions says that the shift of political power in Kyrgyzstan inevitably leads to re-balance of power in criminal world, closely tied with politics and business. The mafia bosses continue to play important role, providing services to various political forces. Therefore, the political figures have to “pay bills” on time. The best example of patron-client relations between these two social groups is scandalous story of mafia boss Ryspek Akmatbaev that threatened to bombard the White House if Kurmanbek Bakiev did not meet his requirement. The president had to negotiate the criminal leader, producing public indignation. In the post-revolutionary Bishkek the criminal leaders were so unpunished that human rights advocates and dwellers had to organize the special meeting, demanding the president to end the games with criminals. Allegedly, Akmatbaev was assigned to organize the resignation of Prime-Minister Felix Kulov, not demanded by Bakiev anymore. In exchange Akmatbaev was promised to get rid of all convictions and allowed the access to deputy’s mandate. Due to external factors the plans did not come true while the issue was closed up after the murder of Akmatbaev.
The same happened to another Bakiev’s “problem” was Bayaman Erkinbaev. The prominent southern mafia boss and parliament’s deputy, which sponsored anti-Akaev meetings, very soon became the opponent of Kurmanbek Bakiev. The shift in the political position was simply reasoned: the new rulers wanted to have a piece of his property. Some sources report that after the death of Erkinbaev his resources were taken over by president’s brother Akhmat Bakiev that step by step established controlled over all illegal business in the South.
After the revolution and departure of Kurmanbek Bakiev all-mighty Akhmat was kidnapped by Bayman Erkinbaev’s teammates, say well-informed sources. They demanded to return the expropriated property. It is not clear yet whether Akhmat was able to resolve this issue. However, the redistribution of wealth, reasoned by the change of political power, is still going on. One of the versions is that current murder of Mirsidikov is the result of fights in the criminal circles. Whatever the reasons are this murder will be given political background; acting governor Asanov already said that “Bakiev’s team lost its criminal leader”.
For Asanov himself the murder of 36-year old Mirsidikov, “black Aibek”, is good news. Allegedly, people, armed by Mirsidikov, attempted to remove Asanov, appointed by interim government. Their attempt to take over the Oblast administration office and appoint “their own” governor failed; one of the reasons was the involvement of Uzbek community, led by Kadyrzhan Batyrov, that discarded the crowd.
Batyrov and Mirsidikov are Uzbeks, opposing each other. They are antipodes in the big Uzbek community. Batyrov is a businessman that made big money on legal business and made political career during Akaev’s rule. Mirsidikov is typical representative of the local criminal circles. Batyrov was not able to find the right approach to Bakiev’s regime and lost some of his property. On the other hand, Mirsidikov, properly fitting Bakiev’s system (the integration of official power and illegal business), was gaining power. Therefore, the conflict arose between them after the end of Bakiev’s rule. Batyrov provided the immediate support to interim government. Black Aibek played another game. At first, he blamed Batyrov in the burning the houses of ex-president and his relatives. He perfectly knew what he was doing: the news about burning Kyrgyz houses by Uzbeks produced the big annoyance among Kyrgyz.
The anonymous leaders (not typical for Kyrgyzstan) organized the meeting in Jalal-Abad. The crowd devastated the people’s friendship university, founded by Batyrov, demanding to bring him to trial “for inciting of inter-ethnic conflicts”. Uzbek factor was introduced in the political game in southern Kyrgyzstan – the situation became very serious. Under some circumstances the struggle for power may bear destructive nature due to inter-ethnic opposition.
Illusion of Osh tragedy
Negative scenario was demanded only by the supporters of ex-president. Minsk, hosting Bakiev and his family, proposed to send CSTO troops to Kyrgyzstan. It is hard to predict further events – the return of overthrown president with the purpose to rescue the republic, taken over by illegitimate power, not able to control the situation.
Twenty years ago, in order to suppress the riots in Osh Oblast, resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, the government decided to send troops. There is no doubt that the illusion of Osh tragedy was reminding the members of interim government about the significance of the problem when they were discussing the action plan for 6 hours in a row. The curfew, introduced in Jalal-Abad, demanded interim president status from Roza Otunbaeva and stabilized the situation for certain period. I believe the peaceful tactics, adopted by special representative of the government and general Ismail Isakov, was successful. He met few of the requirements, proposed by meeting leaders, and promised to consider others in the government. He did not detain the meeting leaders although 3 persons were killed and 70 were wounded in the bloody event. Isakov promised to bring Kadyrzhan Batyrov to trial; however, Batyrov is still not arrested.
What did Batyrov do, being blamed in inciting of interethnic conflicts? The interim government and Roza Otunbaeva blamed Bakiev’s people, but not Batyrov, in the organization of interethnic opposition. Obviously, the interim government did not change its attitude towards the leader of Uzbek community in Jalal-Abad, but it did not want to publicly protect him either. The relations between two ethnic groups are not easy. On one hand, there are many interethnic marriages. The separatist mood, present at the beginning of 1990s, disappeared thanks to policy of Askar Akaev and the slogan “Kyrgyzstan is our common house”. Nonetheless, we do not see the nation, unified by civic identity. Generally tolerant Kyrgyz are very perceptible for any ethnic independence trends, especially from Uzbek community, the second biggest ethnic group in the republic. Various sources say there are up to one million Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan; this is quite significant amount for the republic with total population of little over 5 million people. Batyrov’s proposal to include in the draft Constitution the official status of Uzbek language in the areas, populated by ethnic Uzbeks as well as appeal for Uzbeks to get involved in politics and defend their civil rights were very brave both for Uzbeks, traditionally distanced from political battles, and Kyrgyz, accepting any signs of ethnic minority self-support as the threat for titular nation’s rights. The riot leaders properly used common discontent in order to force the interim government to get rid of people, able to oppose.
All these games were controlled in Bishkek. Being advised by the rulers in Bishkek, Kadyrzhan Batyrov sent video message via local TV channel where he brought apologizes to Kyrgyz people for some statements. This significantly cooled down Kyrgyz.
After Isakov said that “the measures on conflict prevention in the south produced positive outcome” and “people feel that the republic is led by the government” the interim government faced the counter strike. Former emergency Minister Kamchibek Tashiev demanded the government to fulfill the requirements, set at the meeting in Jalal-Abad: to shut down the people’s friendship university, founded by Kadyrzhan Batyrov, bring Batyrov to trial and remove acting governor Asanov. The ultimatum deadline is June 7. Otherwise, he promised to bring new squads (i.e. militia units). Curiously enough, Black Aibek, the key player in the recent turmoil, was killed on June 7.