The ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan, which has so far claimed over 120 lives, could have unpredictable consequences for regional peace and security, writes security expert B Raman.
Concerned over reports of isolated attacks on members of the Chinese community in the Osh region of southern Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese government has started evacuating its citizens from the area.
Beijing sent two planes to Osh on June 14 to airlift about 600 Chinese nationals out of the area, which has seen violent attacks on Uzbeks by mobs of Kyrgyz youth, resulting in the death of over 120 persons, majority of them Uzbeks. Over 40,000 Uzbeks are reported to have fled the area into bordering Uzbekistan.
The Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes are attributed to the eruption of tensions between Kyrgyz supporters of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was overthrown in a popular revolt in April, and Uzbek supporters of a provisional government headed by Roza Otunbayeva.
The support of the Uzbeks for the provisional government and allegations that the provisional government intended to permit the formation of ethnic parties in return for the support extended by the Uzbeks in overthrowing Bakiyev -- denied by the provisional government -- added to tensions between the two communities.
Ethnic parties are banned at present and the Uzbeks, who constitute about one million out of the total population of 5.4 million, are not allowed to have their own political party.
The tensions initially led to violence in the town of Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan on May 19 during which two were killed and many injured, and subsequently spread to Osh on June 10.
An analysis of the May 19 incidents prepared by the London-based Institute For War and Peace Reporting headed by Saule Mukhametrakhimova stated as follows: 'Crowds of young Kyrgyz men surged towards a university associated with the Uzbek community on May 19. They got past a police cordon ringing the entrance gates, but were prevented from entering the university building after security guards put up stiff resistance. Shots were fired at this point, although it was unclear whether by one or both sides'. An eyewitness on the scene told IWPR that this prompted the crowds to fall back. 'When the first casualties happened, the crowd came out of the gate,' he said.
Kyrgyzstan's interim government declared a state of emergency and a night-time curfew in Jalalabad city and the nearby Suzak district, and accused allies of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ousted during mass protests last month, of masterminding the disturbances. Bakiyev is in exile in Belarus, but authorities who replaced him believe his supporters are still trying to stage a coup. They have charged a number of Bakiyev-era officials with disturbances, when protesters briefly seized control of local government buildings in Jalalabad and Osh, the south's biggest urban centre.
'The interim government will not allow civil war,' said government member Temir Sariev, in remarks quoted by the online news agency 24.kg. Referring to Bakiyev supporters, he said, 'At first they tried to confront the interim government, but when we resisted them, they began employing inter-ethnic conflict.'
Events in Jalalabad represent a dangerous shift towards trouble between ethnic Kyrgyz and the sizeable Uzbek community. There were signs of trouble brewing on the morning of May 19, as thousands of people gathered at a racetrack a couple of kilometres from the city. Among the eyewitnesses interviewed by IWPR, a local man said most of the people at the racetrack were young, of Kyrgyz ethnicity, and as far as he knew, not local to the area. A correspondent with RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) said protesters were chanting slogans directed against Kadirjan Batirov, a businessman and politician regarded as the Uzbek community's uncrowned leader, and an ally of the new government.
The British Broadcasting Corporation's report on the violence in Osh said: 'It is not yet fully clear what triggered the violence, but tensions have been high in the area since the toppling of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. When Bakiyev was ousted in an uprising on April 7, 2010, his stronghold in the south became the centre of instability. Among the Kyrgyz population, pro-Bakiyev elements organised resistance to the interim government by seizing government offices and taking officials hostage. The sizeable Uzbek community displayed sympathy to the new government in Bishkek. As Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president, struggled to control the south, well-established criminal elements and drug dealers exploited the power vacuum. The spark for communal violence was provided by a clash between Kyrgyz and Uzbek gangs. It soon turned into street fighting among the youth in Osh. Fuelled by rumours of atrocities on either side, angry mobs from other towns and villages arrived in Osh, forcing large numbers of ethnic Uzbeks to flee.'
BBC added, 'The southern city of Osh is at the centre of a fertile plain known as the Fergana Valley. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the valley was divided between the three independent republics -- Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This created minority populations and some enclaves. The uneasy co-existence of settled and relatively prosperous Uzbeks and traditionally nomadic but -- since the creation of their state -- politically more powerful Kyrgyz population was occasionally interrupted. The last serious outbreak of ethnic disturbance was put down by Soviet troops in 1990. Since then, the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana Valley has become a magnet for increasing trade with neighbouring countries, a thriving market for cheap Chinese goods and the centre of illicit drugs from Afghanistan on their way to the world markets.
'Successive Kyrgyz governments failed to deal with growing corruption and crime. Collapsing infrastructure and widespread poverty contributed to deep public resentment. The Fergana Valley is an area of largely devout Muslims as well as the recruiting ground for Islamist movements. The minority Uzbek population makes up 15 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's five million people. In southern towns such as Osh, Uzbeks are a minority. In some areas of the Fergana Valley, they outnumber the Kyrgyz population. Among the Kyrgyz people of the area, the fear that the Uzbeks may want to grab Kyrgyz lands and join Uzbekistan seems to be a significant factor in spiralling violence that we have witnessed in recent days.'
The China Daily reported: 'There have been no reports so far of casualties among Chinese nationals in the ethnic violence. Some businesses owned by Chinese nationals in Osh have been looted, and Chinese ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Wang Kaiwen, has urged Chinese nationals to stay at home. Gu Ping, another official at the embassy, said a Chinese-run glass shop and an oil factory were raided, causing losses worth millions of US dollars. The number of Chinese living in Kyrgyzstan has been growing since the late 1980s. Embassy statistics show about 30,000 Chinese people are living in the country. More than 7000 Chinese, mostly businessmen, are in the violence-hit region.
'On the outskirts of the capital Bishkek, there is a large Chinese market, described as a 'city within a city', which has a hospital, mosques and apartment buildings. Migrants from China also work in the construction sector, especially on housing projects for low-income people.'
It added: 'It is unclear what triggered the clashes. Some officials have pointed to a conflict at a local casino or rumours of a dispute sparked by a taxi passenger who declined to pay his fare. Others have spoken of Kyrgyz girls being raped by Uzbeks. The ethnic violence raises the risk of a civil war or even a full-blown conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. If the interim government loses control, Kyrgyzstan could disintegrate and cease to exist as a single independent country.'
'Moscow sent at least 150 paratroopers to Kyrgyzstan on Sunday (June 13) to protect its own military facilities in the country and representatives of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a Moscow-led security bloc that includes Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) the gathered on Monday (June 14) to discuss further steps.''Kyrgyzstan's interim government has been unable to gain full control of the country's south, which is separated from the north by mountains. The renewed turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has fuelled concern in Russia and the United States. Washington uses an air base at Manas in the north of the ex-Soviet state, about 300 km from Osh, to supply forces in Afghanistan. Russia also has a military base in the country.'