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Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
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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

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan

Crisis Group’s Publications Officer Julie David de Lossy, formerly a freelance photographer of Central Asia, travels to Kyrgyzstan to take a look through her camera lens at the context of our conflict-prevention work.

Returning to Kyrgyzstan after five years away, I found a country that still mixes open-eyed charm, bureaucratic frustrations and decaying Soviet-era infrastructures – all part of a slow, uncertain transition that its population wishes could go faster even if the ultimate destination remains obscure.

Taking pictures that tell a real story in post-Soviet states is always a challenge. Especially in Central Asia. I have to overcome the country’s big empty spaces, the absence of public information and a decades-old culture of suspicion. Then a door opens, I turn a corner, or a new friend helps. Suddenly I get my chance.

View of Osh from the Suleyman-Too, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I want to give a feeling for the context of Islamic radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. But photography means winning people’s trust, and that’s hard. The people of Kyrgyzstan are used to keeping silent to please their parents, keep their jobs, or avoid harassment. Public spaces are one place I can begin to make contact with ordinary folk.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamerlane, a great Central Asian conqueror of the fourteenth century, was the first of his clan to convert to Islam. His people followed him. Violently repressed in 20th century Soviet times, Islam has now returned to public life in the region. Regular folk long for outsiders to see their religion as they do: a mainstay of a moral life.

Man holds a Quran in a mosque in an Uzbek mahalla (neighbourhood) of Osh, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Visiting a mosque, as a Western female, is not particularly complicated. However, pulling a camera out usually means that people just quietly move away. Most Central Asians share a deep instinct to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. Just in case.

Mosque in an Uzbek mahalla, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Youth in Kyrgyzstan has little faith in the future due to rampant corruption, decaying infrastructure, and the country’s lack of bankable natural resources.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I attend a madrasa lesson to mingle in a class attended by serene young women in matching purple headscarves. But they did not let me take a camera in. Each day as I set out to portray a new facet of Islam in Central Asia – for instance, the small minority that might be tempted by transnational jihadism – I know I will face many obstacles along my way.

Pass to the north between the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountain ranges, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union, statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not that anybody particularly wants communism back, or that they took it seriously in the first place. But most Kyrgyz cities didn’t exist as such before the Soviets came. And some in the secular Kyrgyz elite hanker for a bulwark against any back-sliding to fundamentalist religious doctrines.

Lenin statue in Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Drinking over-sweet Nescafé in a lost chaikhana (teahouse), I worry that the whole idea of photographing religious change is a terrible mistake. Then somebody comes to practice his English. Perhaps this is someone with a fresh lead, someone who will take me where I want to go.

Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Weddings in Kyrgyzstan are major social events. No problem with photos here: this is how most Central Asian photographers earn their living. Loving bridal images are taken in front of war memorials, municipal monuments, romantic park benches, or all of the above. Even water reservoirs. For small, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, abundant water is one of its only levers against big, powerful neighbours.

Tortgul reservoir, near Tajik border, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new national symbols were needed in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan chose Manas, hero of the national epic poem, which tells the story of the Kyrgyz Turkic peoples’ struggles to establish their country against Mongols and other neighbours. Islamist puritans, of course, would have things otherwise.

Manas monument, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Long-distance travel in Kyrgyzstan means driving for hours on roads filled with potholes, dust, rivers of water and apparently indestructible Lada cars. The country may be small compared to its neighbours, but journeys between cities are physical challenges that can seem to stretch toward infinity.

Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Thanks to the many rivers running through the country, especially in the Ferghana valley, agriculture is a significant part of the economy and fills Kyrgyz markets with fresh produce. As any traveller in Central Asia quickly finds, street markets are also fertile hunting grounds for photographers.

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Mutakallim School in Bishkek, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

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SLIDESHOW | Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy