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Glimmer of hope in Central Asia

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Happier days in Osh Market
Photo © Nick van Praag

Osh was a bustling market town when I first visited Kyrgyzstan a decade ago. Today news reports describe a city devastated by killing, burning and pillage. I can only imagine the huge market placeone of the biggest in all of central Asiagutted and forlorn.

Many Uzbeks have fled or cower in what’s left of their homes. Traders are off the streets. The border to Uzbekistan, just down the road, is closed as are the bakers’ stalls selling delicious rounds of bread. But saddest of all, the complicity among the many ethnic groups that rubbed shoulders on the streets of Osh appears to have been shattered.

From Almaty and Bishkek to Dushanbe and Samarkand, I was struck by the way people from so many ethnic backgrounds seemed to get on so well.

After independence in the early 1990s, there was a greater premium placed on being Kazak in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan and so on in the other ‘stans. Some people saw this as normal; others as ominous. But what I observed on several visits to the region were people of Russian, Armenian, Korean or Tartar descent strolling arm in arm with people of Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uyghur origin.

The Russian empire seemed to me to have done a better job of integrating diversity than the European imperial powers in Africa and Asia who left behind stiff class and ethnic divisions that have dogged many of them for the past half century.

My reading of social relations in Central Asia may be anecdotal but what I saw convinced me that whatever other problems these countries might face in the transition from central planning and socialism to independence and free markets, inter-ethnic tensions would not be a complicating factor. On the contrary, their multi-culturalism looked like a valuable asset in the globalized world of which they were now part.

I was perhaps mistaken. Behind the personal affinities I observed on the streets of Central Asia, stress factors were accumulating. Tajikistan is still recovering from the bitter civil war it went through just after independence.

Elsewhere, successor regimes entrenched their positions. Kyrgyzstan was more volatile. The Tulip Revolution in 2005 toppled the regime while the most recent violent events left many dead on the streets of Bishkek and drove the prime minister into exile. Now Osh, the second city, has been devastated.

Our analysis of the causes of violent conflict suggests it is not the result of a single factor. Rather, it is the accumulation of stresses that make a country increasingly prone to conflict. The media has focused on the ethnic divide between the majority Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks in Osh that seems to have been whipped up by political interests as an extension of the confusion in Bishkek.

The full explanation of the breakdown of relations in Osh is undoubtedly more complicated and includes stresses caused by poverty, inequality, and corruption as well as political manipulation and the settling of scores. Ethnicity may have played a part but the region’s history of inter-communal affinity offers a glimmer of hope for the future.


Submitted by cari on
It is correct that the cause of the violence has several factors. One is drug-trafficking and competition between drug bosses which fuels extreme levels of corruption in government is probably one of the majore factors. As is the reality that there is extreme povery and pluralistic systems of governance at all levels don't yet really exist. But this is also the case in the rest of the central asian countries too. The governance systems of nearly all the central asian countries are more "tsarist" than democratic, and the political games the major superpowers continue to play in that region are fueling the high levels of corruption rather than helping to abate them. But no one seems to be willing to face these issues honestly because the west needs its military bases, and the oil/gas which some of the other countries have. Until these issues are addressed more honestly, there is little the people of these central asian countries can do alone to improve their lives.

Submitted by Anonymous on
We all are profoundly shaken by the violence and killings in the Kyrgyz republic. But to put "glimmer of hope" in the title of the story is at best misplaced and actually suggests lack of empathy. Think about telling U.S. Gulf coast residents that the massive oil spill is actually a great opportunity. (And the claim that the Russian empire did a better job at "diversity" suggests a refresher in the history of what followed that empire's alleged successes in the 1930s and 1950s in central Asia are needed.) What we have now is a long, hard slug to soothe the wounds, find justice, address grievances, sand find a way to bring prosperity to all of central Asia.

Thanks for this comment. We are all shaken by the fighting in Osh. Hundreds of people have died and ten of thousands are displaced. It is an appalling situation and it is unfair to suggest that I am being flip about the human suffering or ignorant of the ethnic engineering of the Stalinist era. The reason for writing the blog post was to object to the portrayal of the mayhem in Osh as being the result of 'inter-ethnic rivalries'. This kind of simplistic short-hand obscures the fact that there is a great deal more behind these clashes than ethnicity. Understanding the factors that sparked the violence is crucial (as the first response in this thread makes clear). I hold my ground about the 'glimmer of hope'. No matter what the reasons behind the presence of people of different ethnic origins in the region, it is remarkable that the vast majority live together in peace. When the long hard slog of recovery gets under way, the tradition of inter-communal amity is something to welcome and build on rather than to dismiss because of its origins in the Stalinist melting pot.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I wish there was a bigger effort to collect true stories from the people affected by the crisis on the Bank's blog site and not just from observers.

Submitted by Turgai on
Whoever carried out atrocities against whom: the tragic outcome of the convergence of ethnic nationalism, criminal interests and alcoholic frenzy is clear. The ethnic nationalist beast that was unleashed over the last weeks is an outcome of the neo-liberal policies and concepts that were shoveled down the throat of Kyrgyzstani society by the international financial institutions (inc. WB) and donors, in cahoots with local cleptopcratic 'elites', since the early ’90s. These did not only legitimized the rotten, Soviet-shaped ‘elites’ who dislocated society and the economy. With their hardly covert westernization including full de-Islamization agendas they also led to an acute identity crisis among the Kyrgyz in particular. The backlash is nationalism and ethnic cleansing.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Ethnic strife is always about something. It is a myth to think that people hate each other for nothing. The problem in those ex-communist new countries is that all rules have changed - both on property (capitalism) and on power (new independence and democracy). This offers ample opportunity for abuses that form a basis for conflict.

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