2011-11 Briefing on land issues in Osh, Kyrgyzstan


Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and “capital of the South” is situated approximately 700 km south of the capital, Bishkek, in the Ferghana Valley: a fertile plain shared – with a jigsaw puzzle border – by Kyrgyzstan with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and bounded by ascending mountain ranges that stretch east to China and south to Afghanistan and beyond.

The City itself claims a 3000-year heritage and was, in its heyday about a millennium ago, a major centre of production and trade on theSilk Road.  At its heart sits Suleyman-tuu (Solomon’s Throne), a mountain: a UNESCO-designated World Heritage site.

The population of the city officially still stands at just under a quarter of a million, owing to the lack of any reliable census data since independence in 1991.  However, the real figure is believed to be much higher; perhaps twice as much, owing to a general trend toward urbanisation and a rise in birth rates, particularly amongst the ethnic Kyrgyz.

In the early Soviet period, the population of the city was three-quarters Uzbek.  Immediately prior to June 2010, just under half the population was ethnic Uzbek, with ethnic Kyrgyz accounting for an additional 40%, and various other ethnic groups – Russian, Tatars, etc. – completing the balance.

Traditionally, the ethnic Uzbeks were seen as sedentary: farmers, traders or urban-dwellers.  The Kyrgyz were pastoralist and semi-nomadic: a tradition reflected in the prominent use of ethnic/national symbols, such as the yurt (bozui).  Whatever the reality of such ethno-historical stereotypes, they faded considerably during the 20th Century.  Even so, during and particularly after the Soviet period, urban Uzbeks were viewed as being more engaged in trade and commerce, or the professions, while urban Kyrgyz were better represented in state service: not least, in the police and military.

Perceived cultural or vocational differences were often physically manifested in choice of habitation.  Many ethnic Uzbeks live in the mahallahs: long-established neighbourhoods characterised by low-rise, walled compounds in which an extended family will be housed in several buildings around a communal courtyard.  Ethnic Kyrgyz, while no longer choosing to live in yurts, tend to favour apartments in the multi-storied buildings that were constructed during – and, to a lesser degree, after – the Soviet era in the newer parts of town.

That said, differences in residential pattern were never hard and fast. Osh – by comparison to the nearby town of Uzhgen, where inter-ethnic clashes in 1990 left 300 dead – was relatively mixed and enjoyed fairly good inter-ethnic relations prior to June 2010.

Civic Challenges:

Osh Citycurrently faces a number of significant challenges: the most prominent of these being the continuing inter-ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks following the violent clashes that rocked the city from 10-14 June 2010.  Official estimates put the death toll then at over 400 – unofficial estimates are much higher – and almost 400,000 people were displaced, internally or across the border into Uzbekistan.  Although the majority of those displaced returned shortly thereafter, nearly 2000 houses inOsh and Jalalabad were severely damaged or destroyed, with about a third of the total in Osh City.

Relations between the communities have been poisoned by the June 2010 events.  There is much less integration than before.  Ethnic Kyrgyz, feeling regionally isolated and bolstered by official accounts that lay the blame for the start of the violence on Uzbek ‘separatists’ – or panicked by rumours of spreading Islamic fundamentalism – have increased their display of Kyrgyz ethnic national symbols, particularly in urban designs (such as the new municipal flag or the mosaics depicting yurts and Kyrgyz horsemen on the walls lining Monueva Street, which borders Uzbek neighbourhoods), as well as the exclusive use of the Kyrgyz language – although Russian is also still acceptable – and the rhetoric of a mono-ethnic national identity.

Regardless of who or what sparked the violence, the Uzbek community suffered disproportionately in the June events, accounting for at least three-quarters of the casualties and almost all of the real property destruction.  Uzbeks remain aggrieved by the lack of redress for those crimes, while members of their community accused of crimes against Kyrgyz have been prosecuted – and, allegedly, persecuted – rigorously.  Young Uzbek men, who are now frequently harassed by the police in ‘sweeps’ that aim to pick up the perpetrators of last year’s crimes or ‘terrorists’, but which often serve as cover to extort money, have withdrawn from civic life into their mahallahs.  Many have migrated abroad, to Kazakhstan or Russia, reinforcing a siege mentality amongst those who do not have the opportunity to escape, as well as the vulnerability of the families that are now left without their productive male members.

Incidents, which before the June 2010 events would have attracted little attention, immediately assume prominence when different ethnicities are involved and often threaten to spiral out of control.  Such tension is increased by, and possibly manipulated to support, national political divisions: not least that between the North of the country and the South, heightened by the overthrow of President Bakiev (a Southerner) in April 2010, continued in the struggle for influence between the national Provisional Government and local authorities, such as the Mayor of Osh, and reflected in the recent demonstrations against ‘electoral fraud’ staged by supporters of the two main southern presidential candidates following the victory of (now former) Prime Minister Atambaev, a Northerner and member of the Provisional Government.

Oshenjoys a special status, along with Bishkek, on the same level as a province (oblast).  However, its status is even more distinct, given the present political dynamic. The mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov is a political survivor, having been appointed by Bakiev and successfully resisted the attempt of the Provisional Government to oust him in August 2010.  Afterward, he famously announced that the writ of the Provisional Government did not run in the South.  He has also played the nationalist card to the full, manipulating fears about threats to Kyrgyz sovereignty, as well as that of the North-South divide.  He resisted international intervention in the South post-June 2010, citing the fear of a Kosovo-type scenario developing.  His administration has obstructed reconstruction efforts: largely because this would impede his plans – i.e., the Master Plan – but also, perhaps, because reconstruction aid was funnelled through the state-controlled, and specifically-created, State Directorate for Reconstruction and Development (SDRD), bypassing the municipal authorities.  Notably, municipal cooperation has improved considerably with the ADB-financed ‘phase 2’ reconstruction effort now underway: a process in which a company owned by the mayor is reputed to be the primary supplier of bricks.

Mayor Myrzakmatov will face personal election for the first time in the near future, once the national political situation has stabilised.  However, given his dedicated following and strong personal and economic networks, it is hard to imagine that he will be unseated.

Stressed Foundations:

Arguably, the violence and tension are a manifestation of deeper problems, particularly economic or resource-related, that are not primarily linked to ethnic divisions, though they can exacerbate them.  The country as a whole remains poor, but more so in the South, and has been further impoverished as remittances from migrant workers dried up in the wake of the Global Economic Crisis.  The population is rising steadily, creating land pressure, particularly in rural areas.  This has, in turn, accelerated rural-urban migration, putting greater pressure on strained public services, a weak job market, and limited housing.

The violence last year has negatively impacted upon the city’s economy, which was not particularly strong before.  The Osh Bazaar – reputedly 2000 years old and Central Asia’s largest open-air market, snaking 1 km along the river in the city centre – is a pale shadow of its former self: many shops and stalls were destroyed.  Traders face significant hurdles in rebuilding and re-registering – while surviving businesses are under constant threat from criminal rackets seeking to exhort money or seize the more profitable enterprises.  The Mayor is pushing to relocate the iconic bazaar to the outskirts of the city: coincidentally, to a site very near to the trading estate that he, himself, established and owns.  The diversity and vigour of what was previously an important commercial centre is visibly diminished.

In terms of infrastructure and services, Osh is in desperate need of significant investment and urban renewal.  Public buildings and other structures are generally run-down, having seen little renovation since they were built in the Soviet period.  Despite major construction projects aimed at strengthening cross-border transport links, local roads are in a dilapidated state and unable to accommodate the voluminous increase in traffic over the last couple of decades.  In part, erratic supplies of water, electricity, and gas are due to decayed or inadequate facilities but, also, are subject to external variables; such as the general shortage of water in the region or uncertain gas supplies coming from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Apart from problems with infrastructure, Osh City is under a number of natural constraints in terms of urban planning and development.  As mentioned, usable water is at a premium.  The city is situated in an active seismic zone, which imposes significant restraints upon construction; particularly in the no-go ‘red zone’ areas on or near the fault lines.  Low-rise buildings ramble for many kilometres along the course of the Ak-Bur River, which bisects the city.  The buffer zone around the Suleyman-tuu UNESCO site, while an asset in and of itself, as well as helping to safeguard the distinctive vernacular architecture of the neighbourhoods that surround it, also constrains development – and even the reconstruction of houses after the devastation of June 2010.

The lack of adequate housing – and problems with real property generally – is one of the most intractable problems facing the city.  Little new housing has been built, apart from small-scale private construction, in recent years.  Building procedures are complicated, time-consuming, and are generally ignored – or circumvented.  While important land reforms have been introduced since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – not least, the introduction of private ownership itself – most people are unaware of them, or of their importance, and most land ownership rights are not registered.

This also reflects an enduring attitude – prevalent amongst both the public and officials – that land and housing are commodities to be bestowed or withheld at the prerogative of the State, not the subject of individual or communal rights; i.e., of the people who actually live there.  This is evident even in the 1999 Land Code, with its system of land plot allocations and withdrawals, but also in disputes over the reallocation of agricultural land into residential use in rural areas bordering the city.

(2)5-Year Plan:

The most marked example of the application of this principle – as well as the persistence of other elements of the Soviet bureaucratic mindset – is in urban planning.  In order to address some of challenges facing the city, the City Department of Architecture and Construction was directed to prepare a new Master (Generalni) Plan for the city.  The Master Plan establishes the framework and direction for all zoning and other development regulations and activities in the city, potentially for the next 20-25 years.

The current Osh City Master Plan was adopted in the late Soviet period (1988) and, as such, is hopelessly out of date.  In any event, it was never fully implemented.  The proposed new Master Plan is currently with the Central Government in Bishkek, which must approve it, although it was believed to have been drawn up prior to the events in April and June of 2010.

There are three main concerns with the draft Master Plan:

1)      The secrecy that surrounds it.  There has been negligible consultation or discussion about a document that will have a profound impact upon the local population for years to come; particularly with those who are most likely to be directly impacted by it.  Indeed, even the approved draft before the Government is not available for public scrutiny: having only been viewed from a distance – and photographed on a cell phone – at ‘public’ discussions organised with international support/pressure last year.

2)      It is believed that it calls for the destruction of the mahallahs in the centre of the city – including those painstakingly rebuilt over the last year – to make way for multi-story social housing.  This, although portrayed as being for the public good and neutral in aim, would disproportionately affect the Uzbek community.  (Indeed, many Uzbeks believe that the draft Master Plan was used as a blueprint for the destruction of specific mahallahs in the 2010 riots.)  It would also target a community that is now feeling especially vulnerable, and for whom the mahallah has been reinforced as a place of social solidarity and safety.  The uncertainty about what the new Master Plan actually contains or will do, however, is perhaps even more debilitating to the reestablishment and perceived security of the affected communities than the potential reality of its contents or application.

3)      It is a throwback to long-since discredited concepts of planning and social engineering, whereby social cohesion and harmony was to be obtained by the destruction of traditional communities and forcible integration.  It represents state planning on a grand, Soviet scale: the administration continues in its exclusive role as decision-maker and provider, market forces and private initiative are overlooked or suppressed, and the individual rights of hundreds – indeed, thousands – are extinguished, or whole populations shifted, without a second thought, and probably little or no compensation, in pursuit of implementing ‘the plan’.

Already, the new Master Plan, although not yet adopted, has had a cooling effect on reconstruction and increased insecurity amongst returned IDPs and refugees and other Uzbek residents of those areas earmarked for ‘modernisation’.  Not only has the rebuilding of homes been affected by the application of red line restrictions under the existing Master Plan – not previously enforced because no one bothered to apply for building permits before – but officials have also cited the provisions of the future Master Plan as a basis for refusing to grant building permission.

The Master Plan, when adopted, will still have to be distilled into more detailed ‘Rules of Construction and Land Use’ by the municipal legislature (Jogorku Kenesh).  Financing will also have to be secured, although there is speculation that Chinese or Gulf investment might be available.  Failing that, there is the risk that the authorities will level the mahallahs first, only to find out later that they cannot afford to put anything in their place – or even compensate the displaced residents.

Generational Change:

As a final note, by way of contrast, the City of Jalalabad – less than 2 hours’ drive from Osh, reached by arching around the appendix of Uzbekistan that juts into Kyrgyzstan – is in a similar situation and suffers most of the same problems as Osh; including, violence and destruction in June 2010, albeit on a lesser scale.  The city adopted a new Master Plan in 2009.   Under the plan, the main street (Lenin Street) was to be significantly widened, up to 70 m.  This would have required the demolition of a large number of houses, including many damaged during the violence last year and subsequently reconstructed.

However, the recently-appointed Mayor of Jalalabad, Mr. Bakyt Adylov – at age 29, the youngest in the country – decided to reduce the planned widening o fLenin Street to 40 m, so as to affect as few houses as possible.  For those who would still lose part of their yards, he promised to reach an agreement on compensation or to provide an alternative property.  Most importantly, if an amicable settlement could not be reached with affected owners, he promised to drop the plan altogether.

– Osh, November 2011

2 responses to “2011-11 Briefing on land issues in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

  1. Pingback: Briefing on property issues in southern Kyrgyzstan | TerraNullius

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

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