One Year After Ethnic Riots in Kyrgyzstan
What Has Changed?

Interview with Eric McGlinchey
June 30, 2011

One year after ethnic violence rocked southern Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz interim government and the international community have worked to rebuild trust in the region and move forward with elections planned for this fall.

Central Asia scholar Eric McGlinchey, a 2010–11 National Asia Research Fellow and Assistant Professor at George Mason University describes current conditions in Kyrgyzstan as encouraging. Although some troubling factors still remain, the outlook for Kyrgyzstan has greatly improved since the 2010 riots. This Q&A builds on Dr. McGlinchey’s article in Asia Policy 12, “Exploring Regime Instability and Ethnic Violence in Kyrgyzstan.”

Could you give a brief overview of the ethnic uprisings in southern Kyrgyzstan last June?

Southern Kyrgyzstan is an ethnically diverse area. While there are several ethnic groups, the two largest are the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations. In urban areas of southern Kyrgyzstan, these two populations have been living side-by-side peacefully since 1990, when there were ethnic riots, but since then it has been quiet. Unfortunately, in June 2010 there was a second round of ethnic clashes in which an estimated 400 people died in Osh and Jalal-Abad, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, although some ethnic Kyrgyz as well, and there was a lot of property damage.

Your article in the upcoming Asia Policy issue refers to structural causes as the leading driver for the June 2010 clashes. Can you explain?

The article differentiates what I see as the structural causes, or deeper underlying factors, from the very proximate causes like the allegations of rape and street fights that occurred immediately before the riots. The biggest structural cause is political instability in Kyrgyzstan, which is greater than in just about any other Central Asian state. It is this political instability that gave rise to the violence in the first place. In environments where there is an absence of centralized government and power in the region, these structural preconditions allow the more proximate causes to give rise to violence in the first place.

How would you describe conditions in Kyrgyzstan today, particularly in the south?

It is a patchwork. There is improvement, but there are also some not-so-encouraging developments. We should be heartened that it has been a year without renewed violence, in part due to efforts by the government to help rebuild the south. Fortunately, after a slow start, there has also been a sustained international effort. The presence of international organizations that can act as intermediaries helps mitigate conflict. While that is positive, what distresses me a little is that if you look at the political rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan, you see two things. One is very strong nationalist language among a large number of politicians. The second is that among the more reformist political parties, the ones that maybe are Western-leaning or democratic-leaning, there is silence. While the reformist parties are not necessarily engaging in the nationalist rhetoric, at the same time, they are not rejecting the nationalism of the other parties. That silence is disturbing.

What is the role for outside states in shaping Kyrgyzstan’s political landscape?

Four countries in particular—the United States, Russia, China, and Uzbekistan—have important roles. The United States provides one of the largest sources of revenue for the Kyrgyz budget through payments for the U.S. transit center. I spoke with a very candid vice commander at the transit center, and he said that the net addition of the U.S. transit center in Kyrgyzstan for 2011 was going to be $200 million. This is a small portion of the U.S. budget but represents a lot of money to Kyrgyzstan. The problem in the past has been that a lot of these payments, particularly for fuel, have been directly accessible to the Kyrgyz executives, which has caused other political leaders great frustration. The United States has to work with Kyrgyz partners to ensure transparency of payments.

Russia did not intervene in the June 2010 events, although Kyrgyz President Otunbaeva directly requested assistance from Russia. Nonetheless, Russia can be a critical intermediary and may have the ability to reduce the appetite for violence in Kyrgyzstan.

China has a huge economic role in Kyrgyzstan. A contentious issue in southern Kyrgyzstan is economic disparity. Considerable economic wealth is concentrated in the elite, the political authorities, and the Kyrgyz. If the economic divide were to disappear, a lot of the tension would disappear as well. China is critical in that.

Finally, turning toward Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz political elites have told me directly how grateful they are that Islam Karimov is in power in Uzbekistan. This is strange to hear. While Karimov is one of the most autocratic people in the world, he really does not have the ability to intervene on the Kyrgyz side of the Fergana Valley where there is a large Uzbek population. If someone other than Karimov was in power, it is easy to imagine a scenario where Uzbekistan would send forces across the border if there were renewed violence, given that Uzbekistan actually has a military capacity whereas Kyrgyzstan does not. Political elites have told me that in the space of ten hours Uzbekistan could cordon off the entire area that is of interest to it. That might be hyperbole, but if not for Karimov, a significant portion of Kyrgyzstan could today be occupied by Uzbekistan.

With the upcoming presidential elections in October, are ethnic tensions likely to rise again?

This question is the one that I lose the most sleep over. Democracy, which everyone loves, can inadvertently lead to distressing outcomes.

In April 2010 the interim government had very good intentions in wanting to rid the country of a corrupt parliament. That is a good thing. However, in the rush to hold elections and create a more democratic parliament, the government burned bridges with a lot of politicians in the south who could affect the potential for ethnic violence. The problem is that a lot of campaigns are based on nationalism, so politicians can often score political points by stressing their national and nationalist credentials. That is one avenue or road to violence. Democracy can work at cross purposes with political stability and interethnic cooperation. That is disturbing.

As we look toward the fall elections, what developments could potentially trigger renewed violence?

Fortunately, we have already passed two potential trigger points. The first was the anniversary of the riots, and that passed peacefully. The other big issue has been international reports about the violence, many of which were released in May. These reports initially were strongly disputed, but such opposition has faded. I am fairly optimistic that it is unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that another trigger will give rise to renewed ethnic violence. Kyrgyzstan is far more politically stable than it was a year ago. The only potential issue would be a prolonged dispute about the timeline for the elections, but, regardless, there is a caretaker government to provide a sense of stability.

This interview was conducted by Kate Wilkinson, a Bridge Award Fellow at NBR.