Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic conflict explodes

For workers’ unity against pogroms and ruling elites!

Barely two months have passed since the revolutionary events in Kyrgyzstan led to the overthrow of former President Bakiyev and the emergence of a ‘provisional government’ led by Roza Otunbayeva. Now the country is going through a brutal ethnic conflict which could lead to the collapse of the state. According to official data, over a hundred and seventy people have been killed and thousands injured. Unofficial sources, including the Red Cross, say that hundreds have died. Neighboring Uzbekistan has been overwhelmed by over 700,000 ethnic Uzbek refugees fleeing the pogroms and has now shut its borders to stop more arriving. The Bishkek government in Kyrgyzstan has announced a general ‘call up’ of all males under 50 to the army and declared a 24 hour curfew over the three southern regions. The President has ordered the troops to “shoot to kill” to restore order.

The crisis is centered in the cities of Osh and Jalalibad on the edge of the Fergana Valley in the South West of the Kyrgyzstan. The former President, Bakiyev, comes from Jalalibad and had his power base in Osh, the country’s second city. In the weeks after the April events, his supporters attempted to mobilise for an uprising in the region, at one stage even taking over government buildings. His support had been seriously weakened, however, and the attempt was quickly put down. Bakiyev is currently in exile in Belarus. His most notorious son, Maksim, was detained in London, on Monday, on charges by Kyrgyz authorities that include abuse of office and misuse of state funds.

It has not taken the provisional government long to alienate the masses. It did reduce the tariffs paid by the population for electricity, gas and water – but this is about the only promise it made in April that it has gone any way to implementing. The benefits from these actions have been wiped out by the escalation of the economic crisis; a blockade imposed on the country by both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has seen GDP drop by a further 15% since April, according to some experts. Economic activity in some regions has practically ceased and the budget deficit is mushrooming, meaning that by the autumn workers in the state sector will probably not be paid.

The other key demand of the masses last April was for the nationalization of key parts of the economy. This demand was popularly supported due to the way the Bakiyev regime ruthlessly used privatization to exploit the country’s resources. Within days of coming to power, the provisional government “nationalized” two of the country’s main banks, until then controlled by the Bakiyev clan, and reportedly a further 30 companies have since been taken over. But there have been no benefits for working people. Around $16 million was reportedly looted from the safe deposit boxes in one of the banks – money which quickly found its way into the pockets of the new government ministers. Taped recordings have emerged that in case indicate a minister accepting $400,000 for appointing a relative to a foreign ambassadorship. In another recording, two ministers discussed how $1million could be laundered. In just the same way, the state apparatus was purged of Bakiyev supporters and replacing them with friends and relatives of the new government ministers. One gang of crooks has simply been replaced by another.

Trafficking of drugs

But it is not just bureaucrats and businessmen whose positions have been threatened by the change in government. Osh city is a key centre for the trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan, through Central Asia to Europe. Under Bakiyev, the drug barons who control this trade had created a modus operandi with the authorities, bribing to ensure officials ignored their activities. These same barons are worried that if the provisional government manages to establish a degree of stability it will be forced to address the drug trade issues, maybe not to stop the trade, but more to take part of the trade under its own control. These concerns have been heightened by the overtures that Kyrgyzstan’s leader, Roza Otunbayeva, made to the Kremlin. One baron has even openly stated that it is easy enough to bribe a Kyrghiz official, handling the Russians will be more difficult.

Claims that the uprising is inspired by pro-Bakiyev elements attempting to disrupt the country in the run up to next month’s constitution are undoubtedly credible. But it is also without doubt that they are working hand in hand with criminal elements, which played a role in provoking the violence that broke out last May and now over the past week. This is borne out by eye witness accounts that describe how heavily masked armed gangs appeared to spark the recent ethnic massacres. It is clearly in the interests of both the Bakiyev clan, and the drug and criminal barons, to destabilize the southern region, if not Kyrgyzstan, as a whole.

And the region is a tinderbox. Osh was the centre of the brutal ethnic conflict that shook the Fergana Valley in 1990, before being put down by Soviet troops. Nearly all the country’s 750,000 Uzbek’s live in and around Osh. Many are refugees from the brutal Uzbek regime. Excluded from the few benefits that went to the region during Bakiyev’s rule, the Uzbeks tended to support the new provisional government. But the world economic crisis has even affected this part of the world. As soon as the crisis hit Russia, millions of migrant workers, many from Central Asia, were forced home, putting even more stress on the stretched resources in the region. As the poor of the region saw hope in the April uprising in Kyrgyzstan, they began to take things into their own hands, by taking over the land and homes of those they saw as guilty of the crimes of the past. Due to the sporadic and unorganised way in which this happened, this inevitably led to further social and ethnic tensions.

Now these various factors have led to an explosion of ethnic conflict. Whole areas of Osh and Jalalibad have been torched to drive out Uzbeks. Cars and shops have been burnt. The authorities, by sending in troops and police, and also by mobilising the defense squads first set up and then disbanded during the events of April, have found it difficult to control events, particularly as many Uzbeks complain that the troops have often sided with the pogromists. The correspondent from Al Jazeera in Osh reported that "people on both sides of this increasing divide between the ethnic Uzbek community and the Kyrgyz community are absolutely terrified. People are ready and packed, ready to go at the first sign of trouble or danger."

Whipped up ethnic violence

What is important to underline however is that many witnesses and officials believe that the fighting did not erupt spontaneously between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks was whipped up. Several Uzbeks reported that before being forced to flee the region, Kirghizia friends and neighbours had offered help and warned of the dangers. There are even reports of Kirghizia and Uzbeks neighbours joining up to defend their homes.

The local and national authorities however do not see this instinctive unity, even now still demonstrated, as a basis for resolving the crisis. Instead they look to outside forces for help. The Governor of the Osh region, for example, commented that in a number of areas there have been no confrontations because “there the Khirghizis themselves defended the Uzbeks, even going so far as to beat up their own people to prevent attacks”. But rather than call for this practice to be extended and organized, he went on to call for help from Russia and God.

While the cities are without water, gas and electricity, people from the rural areas are ferrying in foodstuffs to help the urban populations. Reports say that the hospitals are overflowing with wounded and that pogromists are attacking medical staff, in an attempt to stop them treating the injured. In many ways, these scenes are reminiscent of the ethnic conflicts that swept the Balkans and Caucuses in the 1990s.

The Kyrgyzstan provisional government that came to power on the back of a revolutionary uprising is incapable of carrying out radical reforms and is doing all it can to stop the development of further revolutionary events. But only a renewal of the revolutionary protests, linked to radical reforms, could cut across this inter- ethnic conflict. Instead the actions of the provisional government are leading the country down the path to catastrophe. The use of police and troops to control a large section of the country has set a clear precedent, illustrating that new government is prepared to use military force to maintain its rule. Commentators have speculated that the government could prove incapable of bringing the south under control, thus leading to the de-facto split of the country into two or more warring regions. With the south separated from northern Afghanistan by little more than a couple of hundred kilometres, this could lead to fundamentalist groups getting a stronghold in the middle of Central Asia.

The crisis however is causing problems for the country’s neighbours. What has happened in Kirghizia is a clear example of what could happen in any other of the corrupt dictatorships and semi-dictatorships of Central Asia. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan immediately closed their border in April during the mass uprising. Faced with tens of thousands of Uzbek and lesser numbers of Tadjik refugees massing on its borders, Uzbekistan was forced to allow about 50,000 refugees in, before closing its borders again, claiming it had no more facilities available to deal with them.

Unable to solve the crisis using its own resources, Kyrgyzstan’s head, Roza Otunbayeva, appealed to Russia to provide military assistance: “We call on the head of the Russian Federation Dmitrii Medvedev to send physical forces to separate the sides, because our orders to separate the sides using arms against the provocateurs are not being fully implemented”. She went on to say that the Khirghiz army is not strong enough and that the police are completely demoralized.

This appeal was initially met with caution by the Kremlin, although Russia immediately sent troops to reinforce its airbase just outside Bishkek, as well as some well publicized humanitarian aid. Otunbayeva attempted to sweeten the pill by suggesting that, if the Russians intervened, the American air base at Manas near Bishkek would at last be closed (For now, the US have transferred flights to Afghanistan that are normally routed through Manas, so that these flights now have to depart from Rumania.)

Dangers of outside intervention

But comments from the Russian high command show the possible dangers of such an intervention. General Major Leonid Ibashov, who led the Russian intervention in the Tadjik civil war in 1992-3 (The Russians are still in Tadjikistan, and control its southern borders with Afghanistan), does not agree that the “illegally removed from power ex President Bakiyev” is the organizer of the conflict. Ibashov further commented, “The reason for the inter ethnic conflict is the social division of society, which for now has been directed against people of other nationalities. This happens when the state is weak”. While this clearly demonstrates the problem any “peacekeeping force” would face – they can attempt to suppress or partially suppress conflict using military and police methods but they cannot address the underlying cause of the conflict – Ibashov’s comments about Bakiyev also shows that a Russian intervention force would not be a neutral force. If the Russians are to play a higher profile role it may well provoke Uzbekistan to take military action to take over those regions of Kirghizia it claims as its own (including Osh). The Uzbek government is already reportedly amassing heavy artillery on its border.

So for now, the option of using troops of the ODKB – the collective security pact between the former soviet states of Euro Asia – under Russian direction, as a “peacekeeping” force, is being discussed.

Kyrgyzstan or part of the country, under the rule of some type of Russian or even ODKB ‘protectorate’ will not be welcomed either by Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev or by China (Kirghizia has a 400 km border with China’s troubled SingYiang province) and even less by Afghanistan’s occupying powers.

The CWI is opposed to the blockades of the country currently organized by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We warn that the whole experience of the Balkans, Caucuses and other regions of the world, demonstrate that the intervention of foreign troops of capitalist states, under the guise of ‘peacekeeping forces’, will not resolve the underlying problems. We are opposed to the deployment of troops from any country in Kyrgyzstan, which inevitably would be there primarily to defend local and regional capitalist property and interests, and which would used against working people and youth. Instead we call for workers and the poor to build on and to develop the important points of cross-ethnic defence already in existence, to organize their own united defense forces, run on democratic lines, to defend all ethnic groups and nationalities from the attacks and provocations of pogromists, criminal bands and from various sections of the ruling elites.

Socialist alternative

Last April, the CWI warned that the replacement of one pro-capitalist president by another in Kyrgyzstan will change nothing. We commented that “without a socialist programme and organization, capable of defending these rights [democratic and social rights of all workers] over the long term, such revolutionary events can result in just another ‘Colored Revolution’, in which the revolutionary energy of the masses is exploited by another section of the capitalist class in their own interests. Already the new government, using the same language as used in 2005 [after a previous uprising], say the priority is to ‘restore order’. The same clique will come to power only without Bakiyev.” Now that the country has become embroiled in ethnic bloodletting, the need for a workers’ organization, with a socialist programme, has become even more acute than it was in April.

Such an organization is needed to fight the attempts by the sections of the ruling elite and criminal bands to divide the poor masses along ethnic lines, by creating trans-ethnic defense forces to defend all workers and poor from ethnic attacks. It is needed to oppose the attempts of the ruling government and elite to introduce a new constitution to consolidate their power. Instead revolutionary committees of workers and the poor should organize new elections to the people’s ‘kurulta’, to discuss and organize a genuine form of people’s power. A socialist alternative would see genuine nationalization, by expropriating the wealth of all the ruling elite and ensuring that the nationalized industries are controlled and managed by workers’ committees, as part of a democratic planned economy. Socialists call for political and economic power to be taken out of the hands of the ruling elite and criminal bands, for the creation of a government of workers and poor to establish a socialist Kirghizia, as part of a Central Asian Socialist Federation.

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June 2010