A Year After Revolution, Kyrgyzstan's Minority Worse Off Than Ever

After the April uprising was followed by inter-ethnic violence, the Uzbek-heavy city of Osh is entrenching practices that make it near-impossible for Uzbek families to make a living

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An ethnic Uzbek child helps to rebuild houses, destroyed during ethnic clashes, in the city of Osh / Reuters
OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- "What is it like to lose everything?" An Uzbek man asked me over tea last week, his brow crinkled in obvious anguish. "Your wife killed, your daughter raped, your store smashed, your home burned down? What would you do?"

We were sitting in a bucolic place: a narrow, swiftly moving stream nearby gave a gentle burble while birds tweeted above us. The chaikhana, or teahouse, where we were eating lunch was nestled in the outskirts of Osh city, in an Uzbek neighborhood, called a mahallah. Narimon had invited me in this mahallah when he saw me taking pictures of some ruined buildings in the main city market. Narimon isn't his real name, but like most Uzbeks here he is unwilling to speak on the record for fear of reprisal from the Kyrgyzstan government, which is dominated, like the country itself, by the ethnic Kyrgyz majority.

Last summer, crowds of young Kyrgyz men turned these Uzbek mahallahs into scenes of horrifying violence in what people here now call "The June Events" or even "The War." Over the course of about 72 hours in June 2010, upwards of 2,000 people were killed, thousands more were beaten and raped, thousands of buildings and homes were torched, and nearly 100,000 Uzbeks fled across the border toward Andijon in nearby Uzbekistan.

The sudden onset of this violence caught many people here by surprise. There was always some tension between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities: the Uzbeks dominated the business community of Osh, and the Kyrgyz dominated the politics. But until the April Revolution last year, which saw the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, there hadn't been much violence since the 1990 riots, part of a paroxysm of ethnic violence that accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"Thirty years ago, there were no Kyrgyz here," Narimon said. "When they'd come down from the mountains, we'd beat them on their donkeys." He made a disgusted gesture. "Now, they beat us. Kill us. This is how it goes."

Almost every Uzbek you find in Osh has a heartbreaking story of tragedy: homes burned down, family members beaten to death in the street. The local government response has worsened the injustice. The Uzbeks who didn't lose everything in the riots and fires now face a predatory local government that threatens them unless they sign over controlling stakes of their businesses to Kyrgyz. I found several restaurants and cafes run by Kyrgyz that had been owned by Uzbeks before the June Events.

What followed the June violence was economic dislocation on a massive scale: tens of thousands of people, thousands of families have been thrown into chaos, and can't rebuild their lives so long as they must give half of their earnings over to the Kyrgyz. The response by NGOs and UN agencies here has been inadequate as well. While UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which works in Osh) is very skilled at disaster relief, none of the agencies operating in this city have been able to address the fundamental social and economic problems that stem from the June Events.

"These NGOs mean well," Adilya told me. She lost her shop when a gang of Kyrgyz men smashed in her windows, stole all of her inventory and cash, and set her home on fire. "But they hire mostly Kyrgyz to work for them. I can't tell them a Kyrgyz is harassing me."

These NGOs have helped to fund a recovery effort, channeled through the local Kyrgyz-dominated government that Uzbeks feel so uncomfortable approaching for help. Most directly affected businesses have received a credit for rebuilding equivalent to about $1,000. The Kyrgyz I spoke to think this should be enough to fix a few broken windows. The Uzbeks complain that it's not enough if their business was burned to the ground, and besides which the money goes to Kyrgyz businesses first.

Some Kyrgyz businesses were affected as well. I spoke with one restaurant owner whose store was in the path of the rioters: his windows were broken, and the looters stole almost everything inside except the oven. It took nearly 11 months to find new suppliers, repair the damage, and re-open for business. On that same block, however, Uzbek businesses remain burned out husks, never rebuilt and never reoccupied.

It's difficult to look at the current situation and see hope. The Uzbeks have been systematically excluded or pushed out of public life. Most of the Uzbek men I spoke to stayed in their mahallah, afraid to be harassed by the Kyrgyz police. Most of the shoppers and low-level workers at the market are women, since they're less likely to be targeted. The Kyrgyz, on the other hand, insist there are no problems and Osh is a city picking itself up by its own bootstraps. I asked one Kyrgyz man at a political rally for Adahan Madumarov, a presidential candidate, if he thought the tension between communities was a big deal. "You know those Uzbeks," he said dismissively. "They exaggerate everything. They just want UN money."

Kyrgyz here control the government, and the fear Uzbeks feel for the future is palpable. But this is no simple case of ethnic cleansing. The tension here is economic, and has its roots in the very design of the Soviet Union, of Stalin's ethnic policies in the 1930s. By the time Gorbachev introduced market reforms in the 1980s, the Uzbeks, who are traditionally merchants and farmers, controlled a majority of the commercial activity in this little corner of Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz, meanwhile, who were more reliant on animal husbandry, were impoverished by the reforms. The situation only grew worse in the 1990s. Over Kyrgyzstan's first ten years of independence, the country's per capita GDP shrank by 54 percent.

The Uzbeks affected by the June Events are desperate for justice, but they don't know where it can come from. The Kyrgyz control the courts, the police, and the mayor's office. Bishkek is wrapped up in the Presidential election and doesn't want a distraction down south. More than one Uzbek spoke, darkly, of the need to get "personal justice" for what happened. The Kyrgyz, meanwhile, seem to think the Uzbeks are just whining and should get back to work.

Meanwhile, the economic dislocation continues. Every Uzbek with money has either left or is planning to leave for Russia (the only country that will take them in any number). While many businesses have been restored, with a Kyrgyz face, the whole region is in a depression: incomes are down, many businesses are facing mounting debts, and the divisions between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities seems to be growing by the day. It is difficult to see a future for Osh that doesn't end in disaster.