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From The Socialist newspaper, 23 June 2010

Ethnic conflict explodes in Kyrgyzstan

For workers' unity against pogroms and ruling elites

BARELY TWO months have passed since the April revolutionary events in Kyrgyzstan led to the overthrow of president Kurmanbek 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.

Rob Jones, Moscow

Whole areas of the cities of Osh and Jalalabad on the edge of the Fergana Valley in the south west of Kyrgyzstan have been torched to drive out ethnic Uzbeks. Officially, over 170 people have been killed and thousands injured. Unofficial sources, including the Red Cross, say that hundreds have died. Neighbouring Uzbekistan has been overwhelmed by over 700,000 Uzbek refugees fleeing the pogroms and has now shut its borders to stop more arriving.

In many ways, these scenes are reminiscent of the ethnic conflicts that swept the Balkans and Caucasus in the 1990s.

The Bishkek government in Kyrgyzstan 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 ordered the troops to "shoot to kill" to restore order. But many Uzbeks accuse the troops of collaborating with armed Kyrgyz thugs engaged in pograms against Uzbeks.

The former president, Bakiyev, comes from Jalalabad 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 recently detained in London on charges by the 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.

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 nationalisation of major parts of the economy. This demand was popular due to the way the Bakiyev regime ruthlessly used privatisation to exploit the country's resources.

Within days of coming to power, the provisional government 'nationalised' 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 indicate a minister accepting $400,000 for appointing a relative to a foreign ambassadorship. One gang of crooks has simply been replaced by another.

Drugs trafficking

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 it, but more to take part of the trade under its own control.

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 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.

It is clearly in the interests of both the Bakiyev clan, and the drug and criminal barons, to destabilise 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 Uzbeks live in and around Osh. Many are refugees from the brutal neighbouring Uzbekistan 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. But 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.

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 but was whipped up. Several Uzbeks reported that before being forced to flee the region, Krygyz friends and neighbours had offered help and warned of the dangers. There are even reports of Krygyz and Uzbek neighbours joining up to defend their homes.

However, the local and national authorities 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 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. Commentators have speculated that the government could prove to be incapable of bringing the south under control, thus leading to the de-facto split of the country into two or more warring regions.

The crisis is causing problems for the country's neighbours. What has happened in Kyrgyzstan 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. She went on to say that the Khirghiz army is not strong enough and that the police are completely demoralised.

This appeal was rejected by the Kremlin, although Russia immediately sent troops to reinforce its airbase just outside Bishkek, as well as some well publicised 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 has transferred flights to Afghanistan that are normally routed through Manas, so that these flights now have to depart from Romania.)

Socialist alternative

Last April, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) warned that the replacement of one pro-capitalist president by another in Kyrgyzstan will not lift the majority of the population out of unemployment and poverty. Now that the country has become embroiled in ethnic bloodletting, the need for a workers' organisation, with a socialist programme, has become even more acute.

Such an organisation is needed to fight the attempts by the sections of the ruling elite and criminal bands to divide the poor masses along ethnic lines. Trans-ethnic defence forces need to be formed to protect all workers and poor people from ethnic attacks.

A workers' organisation is also 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 organise new elections to the people's 'kurulta' (assembly) to discuss and organise a genuine form of people's power.

A socialist alternative would see genuine nationalisation, by expropriating the wealth of all the ruling elite and ensuring that the nationalised 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 Kyrgyzstan, as part of a central Asian socialist federation.

The full version of this article can be read on

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In The Socialist 23 June 2010:

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