Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 1 – Who’s afraid of the big bad master plan? Rebuilding Osh’s mahallahs in brick

by Kaigyluu

‘Kaigyluu’ is the pseudonym of a longtime TerraNullius reader with broad experience working on housing, land and property (HLP) and legal reform issues in many countries post-socialist, post-conflict or both. Having provided an earlier briefing on the politics of property in southern Kyrgyzstan after the 2010 ethnic riots, he, she or it now follows up with an update in two parts. Part one focuses on the local and regional politics of rebuilding Osh, while part two, tomorrow, addresses the policy choices of international actors involved in humanitarian response and reconstruction.

International attention on Kyrgyzstan, limited as it was during the Tulip Revolution (Redux) of April 2010 and inter-ethnic riots that followed two months later in the south of the country’s geologically and politically unstable Ferghana Valley, has long since waned and turned elsewhere. Indeed, with the Western military drawdown in Afghanistan, the importance of Central Asia – exemplified by the bidding-war between the US and Russia over the Manas airbase outside of Bishkek – has diminished correspondingly, while the problems in the region continue to fester and grow.

At least in terms of rebuilding and reconciliation (including international reconstruction assistance) in the aftermath of the June 2010 clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the ‘southern capital’ of Osh, as well as the nearby city of Jalal-Abad, progress would seem to be consolidating. The latest government shuffle, following the collapse of the yet another parliamentary coalition, saw the appointment of Jantoro Satybaldiev as Prime Minister. Satybaldiev, a former Head of the Osh Administration, led the central government’s reconstruction effort following the June 2010 clashes. He was a key partner of UNHCR, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and other international actors in this, and seen as a counterweight to perceived hard-line nationalists in the south, such as Osh’s current mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov.

Not only can Satybaldiev’s ‘promotion’ be construed as a reward for his work in the South, it is also hoped that his elevation will give him the authority to overcome the last hurdles to secure the housing, land, and property (HLP) rights of those displaced by the June 2010 events.

A ‘friend’ of the post-2010 reconstruction effort is sorely needed in high office. This past summer, the City of Osh began long-threatened expropriation of land and the demolition of at least two dozen houses, as well as several business premises, in order to widen roads: this, despite ‘iron-clad’ assurances to donors that reconstructed houses would be not be touched. It is feared that this is but the precursor for implementation of a new urban plan: one that is rumoured to include the replacement of the traditional Uzbek enclaves with ‘modern’ apartment blocks and, amongst the conspiracy-minded, one that is said to mirror – or even predate and predict – the patterns of supposedly spontaneous destruction that occurred from 11 to 14 June 2010.

The international community funded the reconstruction of almost 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed during clashes. UNHCR and ICRC led the emergency response, providing two-room (28 m2) shelters for affected households before the onset of winter in 2010. The ADB provided an additional $24 million to expand (up to 100 m2) and complete 1,500 of those shelters in a second phase of reconstruction in 2011-12.

However, optimism over Mr. Satybaldiev’s elevation may be misplaced. It is debatable whether the new Prime Minister will wish to expend precious political capital to protect those affected persons, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are from the minority (but substantial) Uzbek community. He seems still to accept, if not actively encourage, the inevitable replacement of the mahallahs – the traditional neighbourhoods composed of walled family compounds favoured by the Uzbeks in the centre of Osh – with high-rise apartment blocks. Off the record, even Mr Satybaldiev’s patron, President Almazbek Atambayev is said to have expressed puzzlement and mild exasperation at the international community’s obsession with preserving and reconstructing the mahallahs, in the face of the inexorable march of modernisation and progress.

Meanwhile, the legalisation of housing reconstructed with international assistance after June 2010 remains incomplete – only 1/3 have been registered – and uncertain, exacerbating the vulnerability of those faced with the possible expropriation and demolition of their homes.

Government ambivalence reflects broader societal ambiguities and conflicts brought into stark relief by – and, indeed, which fed into, if not actually caused – the conflict: ethnic, religious, and cultural; north v. south; urban v. rural; the transition from communism and a command economy to democratic and market pluralism; residual (communist) concepts of land rights; conflicting mandates and relationships between different levels of governments, government agencies and officials, and international agencies; and the interrelationship between international humanitarian, human rights, and development regimes.

Possible personal motives of individual politicians aside, it must be admitted that policy-makers in South Kyrgyzstan, and in the region generally, face an extremely complex situation and daunting set of problems: economic stagnation and decline; migration of the most educated; increasing pressure on land and water resources from a growing population; demands for subsidised housing as the rural population shifts to urban centres; and towns and cities that have received little or no investment in infrastructure since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While nature fringed the rich Ferghana Valley with rough terrain – including rugged mountains and parched terrain – the legacy of the USSR was to add arbitrary and tortuous borders between the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. These borders were not intended to serve sovereign states and sought to give each republic a share in the breadbasket, as well as ethnically mixed populations. (Kyrgyzstan has dozens of ethnic groups, with the Kyrgyz making up around 70%, and the Uzbeks just under 15%, of the populace). The resulting crenelated boundaries result in some national pockets being virtually inaccessible to the metropolitan centre, physically surrounded by a neighbouring state or, as in the case of Osh, cut off from its social and economic hinterland by an international border less than 20 km away. (Bishkek, by contrast, is over 600 km away, connected by a bad road that is impassable for much of the winter.)

A process of ethnic consolidation, initiated by regional economic pressures and spurred by instability and conflict has accelerated since June 2010, parallel to a rise in (Kyrgyz) nationalism. Not only has there been an exodus of ethnic Uzbeks from South Kyrgyzstan, as much to more prosperous Russia or Kazakhstan as to join their kin in neighbouring Uzbekistan, but there has also been a retrenchment of ethnic Kyrgyz. For example, the inhabitants of Barak, a Kyrgyz enclave surrounded by Uzbekistan were recently granted land within the main Kyrgyz territory in order to resettle. The Kyrgyz Government did this, after Barak’s residents initially appealed (unsuccessfully) to the international community – including to the community’s namesake, the US President – for support. Similarly, the status and rights of the kairylman, ethnic Kyrgyz born outside of Kyrgyzstan has assumed some prominence: for practical reasons with immigration officials, as well as on the national political agenda. In other cases, there have been inter-state ‘exchanges’ of settlements or individual properties.

Another legacy of the Soviet era, urban infrastructure and planning, exacerbates the current situation. There is obviously a desperate need for development: to replace obsolete or inefficient utilities, roads and buildings, as well as to meet the social and economic needs and expectations of a rapidly changing populace. Unfortunately, urban planning is still very much top-down, non-consultative, and ‘monumental’; attitudes that increasingly fell out of favour elsewhere after the 1970s. The main difference from Soviet times, however, is that present-day planning in South Kyrgyzstan is more commercial, although often still underwritten and directed by the government or government officials, who cast an approving eye toward the urban centres springing up like mushrooms over the Tian Shan mountains in China.

The aspiration to replace the low-rise, crowded mahallahs in the historic centre of Osh with gleaming towers and broad avenues befitting the ‘Capital of the South’ was reflected in a new Master (Generalni) Plan for the city drawn up just prior to – and alleged by some to be the blueprint for – the tumultuous events of 2010. At least it is believed that the draft Master Plan envisages such changes: there has been no public consultation and city officials are loath to disclose its contents. Indeed, even planning officials from the nearby city of Jalal-Abad are unaware of the Osh plan’s contents. At a workshop on urban planning in Osh late last year, Jalal-Abad officials asked their Osh counterparts for details, as Jalal-Abad was engaged in its own planning process. The Osh officials replied that such would best be discussed in private later. Such secrecy is not restricted to Osh: even the new Jalal-Abad plan was drafted by a technician without widespread consultation. Nevertheless, its contents – including the favoured high-rise towers to replace individual family dwellings in the city centre – were eventually made public.

The difference between the two southern neighbours is, to a large degree, one of perception and approach, rather than one of substance. Jalal-Abad, which also witnessed inter-ethnic clashes in June 2010, albeit on a lesser scale, was more willing to work with central government authorities, as well as the international community in the reconstruction effort. Moreover, the local administration made some effort to negotiate with local residents affected by plans to widen roads or other developments.

By contrast, the view in Osh seems still to be very much command-driven: land is given by state and therefore can also be withdrawn by it, preferably with little or no compensation, regardless of what the Constitution and land laws say. Public consultation is “for Western countries”. Development, it is to be feared, is either a case of the government backing projects that it cannot afford or awarding concessions through patronage – rather than putting in place market mechanisms or systems of incentives while still allowing for individual choice.

One gets the sense that a lack of safeguards for development-related displacement is not the only issue that the authorities, local and national, “just don’t get”. That there might be a problem with developments that disproportionately impact one (minority) ethnic group, the Uzbeks, and that would fundamentally change the character of this ancient Silk Road city, just does not register with officials. The municipality – spurred by the June 2010 riots – has eviscerated Central Asia’s largest and, possibly, oldest market – and one of Osh’s main attractions – and is pushing to have its remnants exiled to the suburbs. Meanwhile, the director of Osh’s other landmark, the UNESCO-listed Suleyman-tuu site, said of the skyline envisaged by the mooted Master Plan – mirrored skyscrapers that would shroud the mountain that is the heart in the city – “this is not Osh”, but rather a vision of a boom city in China or Southeast Asia.

Equally, no one seems to see a problem in again displacing communities that were traumatised by the events of June 2010 and, in many cases, have only just returned to their homes. Indeed, the discourse in the South is such that the Uzbeks are blamed – whereas, regardless of the actual cause of the fighting, the vast majority of victims, and almost all the homes destroyed, were Uzbek – and the destruction of the mahallahs and mandatory integration of their inhabitants with the Kyrgyz majority in high-rise housing seen as the only solution to these ‘hotbeds of nationalism and separatism and incubators for extremist Islam and possible terrorism’. Even in the North, while dismissing all southerners as turbulent and irrational, the view is still that the Uzbeks were the architects of their own misfortune.

Conveniently, most Uzbeks may migrate. Those who could, including most of the working-age men, have already done so. Even Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who previously resided in mixed communities no longer feel comfortable living together. Resettlement and ‘integration’ of mahallah residents might provide the final shove for those hanging on. Overall, there is little official concern as to how many families might be displaced – i.e., no proportionality – probably because there is no intention to compensate (fully) those displaced. For the local government, there may be little or no cost in levelling the city centre.

There is likely to be little broader political or economic cost either because, in part, the international community “does not get it” either. At the very least, the international response has been hesitant and confused.

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3 responses to “Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 1 – Who’s afraid of the big bad master plan? Rebuilding Osh’s mahallahs in brick

  1. Pingback: Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 2 – Unen-durable Solutions | TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: Kyrgyzstan cracks down on the ICG in Osh | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: Osh: Urban planning for conflict | Planning reSolution

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