by Rhodri C. Williams
Following up on yesterday’s post on displacement of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, the news coming in today has been pretty grim. On one hand, the dime appears to have dropped, with prominent EU foreign ministers expressing serious concerns. The Local reports this morning that Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, urged international intervention yesterday in recognition of the situation’s potential to bog down into an ethnic stalemate:
“The situation is alarming,” Bildt said at a joint press conference with Westerwelle in Stockholm on Monday.
Bildt emphasised the need for rapid action “in order to contribute to the confidence that is a necessity for people to start returning home.”
“If you don’t get people to start moving home fairly rapidly, you easily create a situation that sort of breeds resentment for years to come, and then there could be a very volatile and explosive situation,” he cautioned.
However, new NYT reports from Kyrgyzstan and refugee camps in Uzbekistan do not give rise to a great deal of optimism. In Kyrgyzstan, the interim authorities appear bent on proceeding with a referendum this Sunday on a new constitution virtually as if the clashes had not taken place. How internally displaced Uzbek citizens are expected to vote and whether the 70-100,000 that fled to Uzbekistan will be disenfranchised does not appear to be a priority issue.
Meanwhile at the local level, Kyrgyz authorities seem to be getting it entirely wrong, asserting their power in ways calculated solely to demonstrate that they are in charge and driving beleaguered Uzbek citizens further into a corner. The more the authorities insist on asserting power without acknowledging the wrongs done to innocent Uzbek civilians, the more acute the entirely predictable security dilemma that results.
This dynamic is most clearly reflected in a recent NY Times report on new violence resulting from government removal of barricades set up by Uzbeks to defend their neighborhoods in the southern city of Osh. Without having yet committed to pursuing full accountability for the violence, including a clarification of the army’s role, or to supporting the return and reintegration of the displaced, the authorities began pulling down the barricades and carrying out house to house sweeps looking for weapons and information on the murder of a Kyrgyz official.
Predictably, this resulted in violence including allegedly unprovoked beatings of ethnic Uzbeks by Kyrgyz army officials that killed two and injured many more. As a result, state action justified by the mayor of Osh as necessary to prevent the creation of “zones where the government does not have power” is likely to have further fuelled the Uzbek minority’s desire to live in just such zones. By asserting its power without providing protection, acknowledgment or accountability, Kyrgyz officialdom appears to be actively, if unwittingly, participating in a downward spiral of instability.
As noted by Madeleine Reeves in a recent piece in OpenDemocracy, the insensitive and paranoid official response is probably also serving to fuel the dynamic of violent ethnicisation that has spiraled out of the clashes, undermining not only immediate-term stability but also indefinitely shrinking the space for individuals to express any identity other than a solely ethnically-defined one:
Less reported are the multiple instances where ethnicity has been irrelevant to action: when property has been looted because “they” represent wealth and opportunity that is inaccessible to “us”; when Kyrgyz have sheltered Uzbeks and vice versa; when neighbours have sought to defend their street or their mosque from attack not because they are of the same ethnicity, but because they live in the same neighbourhood and want to have the chance of continuing to do so.
“Inter-ethnic conflict” accommodates no place, analytically, for such kinds of motivation; no room for action (heroic or violent) that is not driven by ethnic antagonism; no room to account for those who refuse to be bound by ethnic classification, or by dint of history, parentage or worldview consider themselves first and foremost to be citizens of Kyrgyzstan or as residents of Osh, rather than representatives of one or other ethnic group.
It also leaves no place for enquiring about difference within ethnic groups, between rich and poor, urban and rural; or about the role of an aggressive, hyper-masculinised identity in protecting “our women” from “their men”. This is a gendered conflict, as much as it is an ethnicised one – something that has been largely absent from media analysis.
To its credit, the NY Times reported this morning on the overwhelmingly female headed household composition of the camps in Uzbekistan, noting both the hardship this imposes on separated families and the promise it holds for a rapid return dynamic if the situation improves in southern Kyrgyzstan:
Several thousand people have left the camps to return, but the majority appears reluctant to do so. Women said every day they weighed the risk of going back versus the anguish of being away from their husbands.
“Everyone is truly scared,” said Raimah Nizamova, 48, a nursery school teacher who has two grandchildren at the camp. “The day before yesterday, we received a call from there and they said, ‘Don’t come back, they are shooting again, they are murdering again.’ We have such stress.”
Zulfia Satvoldiyeva, 34, who has three children at the camp, said many people felt hopeless because their homes and stores were destroyed.
“The idea of returning is horrible to many people,” she said. “Why doesn’t the government in Kyrgyzstan say, ‘Please return, we will help you, we will provide for you, we will make sure that you are safe.’ But they don’t do that.”
Savita Naqvi, a spokeswoman for Unicef in Uzbekistan, said it was extraordinary to have a refugee crisis in which the vast majority of the refugees were women and children. But she said this composition might indicate that the emergency could be solved quickly if Kyrgyzstan became more stable.
“Families have been separated, so there is a lot of motivation to go back,” she said.
Indeed, why doesn’t the government of Kyrgyzstan say “come back, we’ll help you”? Its a simple question that the Kyrgyz interim authorities might urgently pose to themselves this afternoon, as the stability not just of their fledgling regime but of the entire chaotic and strategically sensitive region is at stake.