Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Report 193 / Europe & Central Asia

The Pogroms in Kyrgyzstan

Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the pogroms, Kyrgyzstan risks another round of terrible violence.

Executive Summary

An explosion of violence, destruction and looting in southern Kyrgyzstan on 11-14 June 2010 killed many hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, destroyed over 2000 buildings, mostly homes, and deepened the gulf between the country’s ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. It was further proof of the near total ineffectiveness of the provisional government that overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, and is now trying to guide the country to general elections in October. Given the government’s slowness to address the causes and consequences of the violence, the danger of another explosion is high. Even without one, the aftershocks of the looting, murder and arson could seriously damage Kyrgyzstan’s ailing economy, cause a significant outflow of ethnic Uzbeks and other minorities, and further destabilise the already fragile situation in Central Asia in general. The route back to stability will be long and difficult, not least because no reliable security or even monitoring force has been deployed in the affected area. It should start with an internationally supported investigation into the pogroms, as visible an international police and diplomatic presence as possible to discourage their recurrence, and close coordination on effective rebuilding of towns and communities.

The most disturbing and dangerous consequence of the violence is that the central government has now lost de facto control of the south. Melis Myrzakmatov, the mayor of Osh, a ruthless and resolute young nationalist leader, has emerged from the bloodshed with his political strength, and his extremist credentials, stronger than ever, and is now the south’s pivotal political figure. Given this, there is a strong risk that any attempt at investigation or even reconciliation will be subordinated to many politicians’ desire to enlist his support for the October elections. The government seems reluctant to challenge this nationalist mood, which it clearly feels is popular within the majority Kyrgyz community. If the south remains outside of central control, there is a strong risk that the narcotics trade, already an important factor, could extend its power still further, and that the region could quickly become a welcoming environment for Islamist guerrillas.

Though the government blames external elements, including Islamic militants, the pogroms in fact involved many forces, from the remnants of the Bakiyev political machine to prominent mainstream politicians and organised crime, especially the narcotics trade.

Most of the violence took place in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, with a less bloody outburst in and around the region’s other main city, Jalalabad. The forces that stand behind the violence have not yet been fully identified. This is unlikely to happen without an exhaustive and professional international investigation. Certain things are, however, clear. Although the profound belief in the Uzbek community that the pogroms were a state-planned attack on them is not borne out by the facts, there are strong indications that prominent political figures, particularly in Osh city, were actively, perhaps decisively, involved. Most security forces in the region, who in Osh currently answer to local leaders rather than the capital, were slow to act or complicit in the violence. The pattern of violence in Osh moreover suggests a coordinated strategy; it is unlikely the marauders were spontaneously responding to events. The criterion that guided looters in all the districts attacked was ethnic, not economic. June’s violence had been prefigured by serious ethnic and political tension in Jalalabad in May. At the time, however, this was largely ignored by the central government and the international community.

Successive governments have failed to address ethnic tensions in the south, or even admit their existence. Many features of the 2010 violence strongly resemble the last round of bloody ethnic clashes, in 1990. At that time there was no attempt to address the root causes of the problem, and the same phenomena burst to the surface in an even more virulent form twenty years on. During the intervening two decades, state neglect and economic decline have deepened social deprivation, increasing the pool of poorly educated and mostly unemployed young men who, in 2010 as in 1990, proved particularly susceptible to destructive rhetoric.

One of the most striking differences between 1990 and 2010 was that twenty years ago a large number of elite Soviet troops were deployed in the region for six months to normalise the situation. This time, a weaker government facing a greater challenge has refused any external help, arguing that it can handle the situation itself. Even the token and already delayed deployment of 52 police advisers by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been the target of repeated protests by nationalist demonstrators who seek to weaken the central government. Few international observers or foreign governments believe that the government is capable of assuring the bare minimum of governance in coming months; an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt to remove Myrzakmatov has weakened the government, and the president, even further. It has also reinforced Myrzakmatov's hold on the south.

The international community’s response to the crisis was inglorious. Most countries deferred to Russia, which declined to send peacekeepers and has since predicted the country’s disintegration. The UN Security Council did nothing. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) deployed with laudable speed, while key UN agencies were initially frustrated by internal security rules that even some senior UN officials felt were excessively constricting – and which played into the hands of local officials in Osh who appeared keen to limit the number of outsiders in the area. Looting of aid convoys was a serious problem for some time after the Osh authorities announced that order had been restored.

The situation throughout the country remains tense. In the south, however, it is explosive. The government tries to maintain a facade that the situation is returning to normal. In fact the Osh authorities are pursuing a punitive anti-Uzbek policy that could well trigger more violence – and in the view of many observers, Kyrgyz and international, may be intended to do just that. Moderate ethnic Kyrgyz are aggrieved at sweeping foreign allegations that have made them the villains of the crisis. Meanwhile, there is already talk within the Uzbek areas of Osh – largely secular and middle class, a long way from the Islamists’ core constituency in the south – of the welcome that the jihadi guerrillas would receive if they stepped up their activities in the south. The conversations are so far restricted to a tiny segment of the Uzbek community. Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the pogroms, however, the country risks, sooner or later, another round of terrible violence.

Bishkek/Brussels, 23 August 2010

Supporters of detained opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, hold a rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 26 February 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan

Recent political protests in Kyrgyzstan signal the possibility of deeper trouble ahead of presidential elections in November. For the first time in the country’s pro-independence history, there is real competition for leadership in Central Asia’s only semi-functioning democracy.

What has led to the heightened political tensions in Kyrgyzstan?

On 26 February, authorities arrested Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the opposition party Ata-Meken, on charges of fraud and corruption. That incident sparked peaceful protests in Bishkek, including at the capital’s Ala-Too Square, the site of earlier demonstrations that ultimately led to the ouster of two presidents. The past week’s demonstrations were modest, however protests in Kyrgyzstan have previously started small and then snowballed. President Almazbek Atambayev’s government – and especially the judiciary – should ensure that its actions ahead of the November ballot are above reproach in order not to aggravate the already tense situation. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits the president to a single term in office, preventing Atambayev from running for re-election. All eyes are now on how the government and opposition conduct themselves.

Tekebayev has not declared interest in contesting the election, yet he was clearly an irritant to the president as in recent months he claimed the president’s wealth was hidden off-shore. Nevertheless, the manner of his arrest was an ill-advised demonstration of power bound to garner an angry reaction from the opposition. Tekebayev was reportedly detained at Bishkek’s international airport, at around 3 a.m. by officers in plainclothes. The next day, a court ordered him to be held for two months for alleged corruption. Two other members of Ata-Meken were detained in recent weeks as part of an alleged corruption investigation. Ata-Meken, established after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a permanent fixture on the political scene since with varying degrees of power and popularity. Tekebayev has held a series of high profile posts under previous administrations and has never been far from the headlines.

Tekebayev’s detention seems to fit a familiar pattern in Kyrgyzstan: arrests of opposition figures, lack of due process, allegations of corruption on both sides, dubious documents purporting to prove wrongdoing, and the apparent use of criminal investigations to settle political scores. Much of this is possible because political reform in Kyrgyzstan, while ahead of its authoritarian neighbours, has been superficially and selectively implemented.

Do you believe that the protests could spark a nationwide political crisis or trigger violence, as in 2005 and 2010?

The successive ousters of President Askar Akayev in 2005 and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010 were traumatic events for the country. Some of the factors present then are absent today, such as widespread popular discontent with the head of state and his family. Yet President Atambayev’s strategy is risky. Popular opinion can turn if injustices are perceived. Atambayev needs to make sure there is a definitive marker between his administration and that of his predecessors. The arrests of opposition figures in an election year should be carefully weighed up against the perception that they are politically motivated and an abuse of power. The judiciary should ensure due process and impartiality.

The overthrow of two presidents never really revolutionized politics in Kyrgyzstan. Even after the spate of ethnic violence in Osh in 2010, Kyrgyzstan did not see the emergence of a new political elite less tainted by corruption. The country remains divided ethnically between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and geographically between the north and south.

For many politicians and officials, it has been business as usual. Kyrgyzstan’s regions remain poor and underfunded, services are patchy at best, and corruption is rife at all levels of society. High unemployment is masked by migration, and there has been little economic development to speak of. The government attempts to paper over the cracks but has not mustered the political will to address difficult issues such as ethnic tensions, marginalization and exclusion. As a result, Kyrgyzstan remains politically fragile and prone to potential unrest.

What are the regional and geopolitical implications of uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan is, in its own way, a democratic model in Central Asia, a region dominated by authoritarian states. Its neighbours often point to Kyrgyzstan as a chaotic place when in reality it is the only Central Asian republic that has attempted to dismantle the post-Soviet legacy of strong-man rule. Although the journey to democracy will continue to be a difficult one, the effort is laudable.

Russian influence continues to grow as the Kyrgyz government depends on Moscow for financial aid and security assistance. During a visit to Kyrgyzstan this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of maintaining an air base in the country to ensure stability and security in the region. China is also a key strategic partner, and considers the country a useful gateway to Central Asia. Both Moscow and Beijing are concerned about any potential for wider unrest, the rise of Islamist groups and the threat of radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. In August 2016, the Chinese embassy was targeted by a suicide car bomber – an attack that the government blamed on groups fighting in Syria.

The success or failure of Kyrgyzstan will have important regional implications. Kyrgyzstan’s legacy of violent upheaval should serve as a cautionary tale. The fear that it could happen again acts as a deterrent for some domestic actors, however the underlying causes that sparked previous electoral violence have not been addressed. In the past, Kyrgyzstan’s problems have been contained within its borders, but that can no longer be guaranteed. Neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should be mindful that an orderly Presidential election is in their interests too.

What are the chances for a peaceful transition of power in 2017?

A peaceful transition is still possible, but much will depend on the actions of the government and opposition parties between now and November. The election should be an opportunity to strengthen democracy and stability, and could mark a milestone on Kyrgyzstan’s road towards political maturity. All political actors, and the government particularly, should be careful not to squander this opportunity for the sake of settling political scores.

The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can play important roles by pushing for meaningful reforms now and over the longer term. In part, this means offering continued support for institution building. It will also require frank and timely discussions with the Kyrgyz government and political parties about how the upcoming presidential ballot – and the behaviour of the government and the opposition during the run-up to the election – will affect Kyrgyzstan’s credibility as a state moving, albeit tentatively, toward democracy.