Soviet Ethnic Policies Split Kyrgyzstan

Conflict between minority groups still lingers today


Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

Kyrgyzstan was already breaking away from the Soviet Union before the latter officially collapsed. A Kyrgyz opposition movement formed in June 1990 and declared full independence in August 1991, four months before USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down. Still, the aftermath of Soviet ethnic policies led to violent upheaval decades down the line.

Former physicist Askar Akayev was Kyrgyzstan's first president. He built a reputation for striving to create a real liberal democracy but shifted into a more autocratic stance as parliament resisted some of his economic policies.

Akayev's rule lasted until 2005, when his administration fell amid a violent revolution. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was toppled by another uprising in 2010. Tribalism, nepotism, corruption, and the meshing of government with organized crime—the nation produces and is a transit point for heroin in international markets—have been hallmarks of Kyrgyz politics for much of the post-Soviet period.

In the early years of its independence, outside observers praised Kyrgyzstan for having one of the best human rights records and the most convincingly Western-style democracy among the former Soviet states in Central Asia, owing to its multiple political parties and relatively free opposition press. The predominantly Sunni Muslim state was also seen as excelling, at least in Central Asian terms, when it came to freedom of religion. Treatment of ethnic minorities, including the country's Uzbeks, was similarly considered good.

This balance proved fragile or illusory in one terrible week in June 2010, when small gangs of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks began fighting in a casino in the southern city of Osh, home to most of Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek population, sparking days of hideous violence. Instigators set fire to people in the streets. Groups of Kyrgyz moved in from other villages to punish Uzbeks, who at the start likely had some advantage in the fighting. Somewhere around 500 people were killed and more than 100,000—some estimates say nearly four times as many—were displaced.

Over the last decade, the Kyrgyz have suppressed or denied evidence of their complicity in the violence. Although the victims were disproportionately Uzbek, hardly any non-Uzbeks have faced legal penalties for murders committed in those days of chaos. The arrested Uzbeks faced what international observers agree was serious police and prosecutorial misconduct, including torture. Kyrgyz security forces at best did nothing to stop the violent assaults and burning of thousands of Uzbek buildings and dwellings, and possibly participated in it.

The Soviet Union baked in some of the problems that erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks by drawing internal boundaries among the various peoples in what started as the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. That partitioning left various ethnic minorities in nations dominated by majorities that did not fully welcome their civic participation or sometimes even their presence.

What had previously been tribal and family identities among groups divided more by nomadism (Kyrgyz) vs. sedentary agriculture (Uzbek) became ethnically politicized after decades of Soviet rule and the imposition of artificial national borders. Fomenting nationalistic division among the Central Asian tribes, most Turkic in background, served a Soviet need to divide and conquer in the lands it annexed. The Soviet system of ethno-nations caused minorities to be seen as unwelcome strangers in a way that had no salience when the groups were merely nomadic and rural Turkic Muslim tribes with long traditions of interaction and trade.

In Soviet times, those ancient patterns were disrupted by the USSR's command-and-control agricultural policies. Soon, many more ethnic Kyrgyz were living in towns and cities among Uzbeks, creating conflict over land and water. The Soviets kept the ethnic tension its own policies exacerbated from breaking out into violence, but by 2010 that constraint was just a memory. An earlier violent bout of Kyrgyz vs. Uzbek conflict happened in June 1990, killing an estimated 300–600, as Soviet power was visibly fraying. The riots were attributed to a giveaway of Uzbek collective farmland to be used for housing Kyrgyz.

Uzbeks are unfairly targeted to this day in Kyrgyzstan, human rights organizations insist. They face arrests for such vague crimes as "extremist activity" or "possession of extremist materials" (which sometimes could merely mean liking a social media post the government thinks is dangerous). And they are far more likely to be tortured once imprisoned.

Uzbeks, though roughly 15 percent of the population today, make up less than 2 percent of civil servants. Kyrgyzstan's current political situation is still marred by the shadows of corruption, ethnic injustice, and mistrust created by 2010's violence and the Soviet policies that helped fuel it.