Thursday, 17 June 2010

An endlessly complex subject - can we unravel the causes of violence in Kyrgyzstan?

Martin Amis is yet to visit Russia but he has written two books about the country.  For the latest, House of Meetings, he claimed to have read ‘a yard of books’, researching his subject.  Orlando Figes, whose poison pen subsequently attracted headlines, disagreed, claiming the novel was based on ’very modest’ reading.

I’d have to agree that Amis’ book was poor and its predecessor, Koba the Dread, which purported to consider the skewed morality of western intellectuals’ infatuation with Stalin, was little better.  His failure reminds the casual observer, drawing on a modest collection of journalism and articles about Kyrgyzstan, that those sources are entirely insufficient to understand a hugely complex situation.

The Ferghana Valley, an ethnic hotbed, where the borders of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan converge, has witnessed the latest horrific outbreak of violence in Central Asia.  The information outlet with the greatest presence in the region, Ferghana.ru, on Monday carried this interview, with Danish journalist, Michael Anderson, who excoriated the European media for its lack of interest and understanding.

The violence in Kyrgyzstan has been portrayed, for the most part, as a simple overspill of interethnic hatreds, which have simmered in the Ferghana Valley since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Although the information coming out of Osh and Jalal-Abad, the two cities worst affected, is sketchy, two themes are repeated in eyewitness accounts and the most informed commentaries, which contradict more simplistic accounts.

Firstly, the casualties, inflicted mainly on ethnic Uzbek populations in southern Kyrgyzstan, are likely to be far higher than any official figures have so far suggested.  Even the most cautious estimates are being revised from the low hundreds, to the thousands.  There are multiple first hand accounts of piled up bodies.

Secondly, there is almost certainly a degree of orchestration to the attacks.  It has been suggested that local authorities colluded, at least tacitly, in what happened.  In Osh a wave of heavily armed men preceded a collection of youths with more rudimentary weapons.  Finally a third cohort of older people and women moved in to loot anything worth taking from Uzbek homes and businesses.

The finger of blame has pointed at the Bakiyevs, whose power-base remains the southern reaches of Kyrgyztsan.  Whether there is direct involvement from the former president, or his son, it seems unlikely that the violence is spontaneous.

There is a deliberate, political subtext to these events.  They are a vicious attack on the Uzbek minority, but they are also a challenge to the authority of the interim government, led by Roza Otunbayeva, the former foreign minister.

The recent history of Kyrgyzstan, its false dawns and the collusion of the US in its misgovernment, is set out in an article by Eugene Huskey, penned after the April revolution.

Post-Soviet Central Asia is endlessly fascinating and dauntingly complex.  But it’s not a region whose problems should be ignored or simplified by a media pressed for time and space.  The USSR’s break-up didn’t cause bloodshed in the region to the extent which many observers expected.

There could yet be a bloody and belated post-script, however, if the old nomenclature regimes fall away and a more authentic nationalism, or Islamism, comes to the fore.  It is no accident that local voices are calling for Moscow to intervene.

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