NEW YORK — A consensus is emerging among Kyrgyz experts and Osh residents that fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan stemmed from organized provocation before spiraling into wider inter-ethnic violence.  

Experts have urged caution in assigning blame for the initial fighting on the night of June 10. What now seems clear, though, is that initial reports of spontaneous street violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks failed to tell the full story. 

“I was surprised by the level and quality of the organization, the scale of the clashes, how militants behaved and how many human resources are involved in these clashes,” said Bakyt Beshimov, a visiting researcher at MIT’s Center for International Studies. “It needs serious investigation, but these events were probably generated by very powerful external forces.” 

By June 11, ordinary Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were fighting each other in Osh and nearby Jalalabad, with the minority Uzbeks suffering disproportionately. While reports of the number of casualties have greatly varied, the number killed appears to be in the hundreds with the number wounded in the thousands. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks have fled across the Uzbekistan border. Food is scarce, water often unavailable, and Osh — the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, said to be 3,000 years old — reduced to ruins. 

Svetlana Gafarova, a freelance journalist from Osh, witnessed the June 10 fighting and pinned responsibility on figures from the powerful criminal underworld.  

“It was happening very close to my house,” she said. “I recognized older men from the criminal world who were manipulating the crowd. [Young men in the crowd] were brought from the regions, from the countryside. They didn’t look urban, they came from outside of Osh.” 

The violence came during a period of instability in Kyrgyzstan, ruled by a provisional government since the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April. Bakiyev’s power base was Jalalabad, where protests continued long after the provisional government had brought order to the country’s north, where the United States and Russia have military air bases. Russia declined a request from the provisional government to send peacekeepers to the south to quell the most recent violence. 

Southern Kyrgyzstan, part of the volatile Fergana Valley that’s shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is a major corridor for drug trafficking, with arms widely available and with gunmen personally loyal to criminal figures.

Bakiyev’s fall from the presidency on April 7 meant a power vacuum in southern Kyrgyzstan. To some extent that vacuum was filled by local leaders, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, who exercised restraint within their communities in the tense weeks following the coup. It was also filled by tightly organized criminal organizations that — many Fergana residents warned — had the wherewithal to incite inter-ethnic violence. “The Fergana Valley is a powder keg,” runs a local saying. “It would take one match to blow it up.” 

One rumor in Kyrgyzstan has it that the June 10 violence was the work of forces financed by Bakiyev’s relatives who aimed to undermine the provisional government’s authority and restore Bakiyev to power. 

Kubat Baibalov, who heads the provisional government’s security response in the south, said he had apprehended Tajik militants who admitted that they had instigated violence on behalf of Bakiyev’s brothers. Baibalov and interim government spokesmen said they had videos and wiretaps proving the culpability of pro-Bakiyev supporters. That evidence has yet to be released, but many Kyrgyz experts seem convinced that Bakiyev supporters were the only actors in Kyrgyzstan with the motive for playing off ethnic groups against each other.  

“Bakiev’s people had several approaches to reclaim power,” said Mars Sariev, a political expert in Bishkek. “The most dangerous was to light up inter-ethnic violence.” 

But Eric McGlinchey, a central Asia expert at George Mason University, questioned the theory that foreign militants were involved or that Bakiyev played a direct role in instigating violence. 

“It would be surprising, given these events, if people weren’t saying that [Bakiyev was involved],” he said. “The complexity of this is hard to wrap your mind around, and people are looking for the easy narrative that Bakiyev did it.” 

Bakiyev, who has been in exile in Belarus, denied any involvement. The whereabouts of his brothers are unknown.  

Since Bakiyev’s fall from power, supporters have worked assiduously toward achieving his eventual return. Demonstrators organized by Bakiyev’s former chief of staff seized government buildings in three southern cities on May 14. They were chased out by citizens loyal to the interim government, ethnic Uzbeks among them. 

Clashes resumed five days later with a Kyrgyz mob storming the People’s Friendship University in Jalalabad in pursuit of a controversial Uzbek leader. A precarious order seemed to prevail in the south in the weeks following the May 19 clash, undercut by constant rumors of ‘third forces’ instigating conflict or Bakiyev supporters attempting a return to power.

 “We knew that something was planned because [Bakiyev supporters] kept talking about their intentions,” said Emil Aliev, vice-head of the political party Ar-Namys, speaking from Bishkek. “The first thing they wanted was revenge, the second was the return of the Bakiyev government. All their plans were known but the interim government didn’t react.”

Erica Marat, a research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program in Washington, agreed that the interim government failed to take threats of organized instigation seriously.

“The provisional government was expecting something like this to happen — expecting provocations in the south,” she said. “Either they were not able or not caring enough to take precautionary measures before the worst-case scenario took place.”

If there were high-level hints of organized provocations, Osh residents had no sense in the week preceding June 10 that inter-ethnic tension would erupt into violence.

“For sure someone organized this,” said Fatima Koshkovoa, chairman of the NGO Rainbow, which deals primarily with health issues. “There are so many guns on both sides, so many victims. For this to happen so quickly it must have been well-organized and well-prepared.”

Speaking by telephone from her house in Osh, Koshokova described occasional scuffles and abiding suspicion between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south prior to June 10 but, if anything, gradually improving relations.   

“It took a long time [after 1990’s Osh Riots] for people to start to trust each other again,” she said. “Now it’s more awful than it was in the ’90s and I think the consequences will be awful and it will take a long time to put everything in order.” 

The violence that erupted on June 10 follows, almost exactly to the date, the 20th anniversary of the Osh Riots that erupted on June 4, 1990, and resulted in the deaths of between 300 and 700 people. 

Related Stories