After being forced out of the capital city of Bishkek in early April, 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s president Kurmanbek Bakiyev sought refuge in the south, first in the city of Osh and later at his family compound near Jalal-Abad. A southerner, Bakiyev hoped to rally local supporters, even at the risk of inciting civil war. While some southerners did come to his aid, others pushed against him. On April 15, Bakiyev was forced to flee his country and take refuge in Kazakhstan.
Bakiyev’s southern strategy sought to take advantage of the geographical division of his country. Kyrgyzstan is a rugged land; like Afghanistan, its central region is mountainous and lightly inhabited, its centers of population separated by multiple ranges (see map). Overland transportation from the Bishkek in the far north to the Osh region in the south is slow and arduous, challenging national integration. Bakiyev hoped that Kyrgyzstan’s southerners would back their native son, and that the south’s isolation from the national core around Bishkek would buy him time.
Although Bakiyev did gather some support in the south, local ethnic divisions played against him. Uzbeks are a major presence in the Osh region, and Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations remain strained. While a few southern Kyrgyz rallied around Bakiyev, Uzbeks came out strongly against him. Ethnic tensions evidently infused local rallies. “Impassioned supporters of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev,” writes a local blogger, “upstaged a rally … by mostly ethnic Uzbek opponents in his southern power base.” Although the author of the post allowed that the “issue is mostly Kyrgyz vs. Kyrgyz at the moment,” he went on to warn that there “is no guarantee that Uzbeks won’t be drawn in…”
Ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan date partly from the Soviet era. Lenin’s blueprint for the Soviet Union called for the main non-Russian nationalities to be granted quasi-autonomous Union Republics, but Moscow-based leaders were wary of giving such regional governments too much authority. One way to curb their power was to separate them with convoluted boundaries. Such geopolitical intricacies reached their height in the Fergana Valley, an 8,500 square mile (22,000 square km) expanse of intensively farmed land surrounded by lofty mountains. Although Fergana forms a seemingly natural political unit, Soviet authorities divided it in three. The core went to Uzbekistan, the lower valley to Tajikistan, and most of the periphery to Kyrgyzstan. Several enclaves in the area added to the complexity (see map). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, what were now three new countries inherited a problematic political geography.
The problems inherent in the division of the Fergana Valley among Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are compounded by the fact that the core areas of all three are located on the far sides of wide and towering ranges. Such a situation often encourages regionalism, and in Fergana anti-governmental sentiments tend to be pronounced. In 2005, demonstrations against Uzbekistan’s government in Andijan were met with reprisals so violent that they undermined U.S.-Uzbekistan relations, resulting in the expulsion of American bases from the country. Radical Islamism is more firmly rooted in the valley than in any other part of former Soviet Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, although no longer a potent force, has long planned to use the Fergana Valley as the nucleus of an eventual Caliphate.
The constituent republics of the Soviet Union were supposed to be based on ethnicity. Political borders, however, rarely followed ethnic boundaries with any precision. To be sure, zones of ethnic overlap and mixture prohibited any exactitude, but some critics contend that the Soviet Union deliberately weakened its republics by excluding key areas. In Fergana, sizable Uzbek zones – including the city of Osh – were awarded to Kyrgyzstan. As many of the local Kyrgyz people abandoned their traditional pastoralism in the uplands and moved into the fringe of the Fergana lowlands, ethnic tensions mounted. The conflict came to a climax as the Soviet Union began to collapse. In 1990, rioting in Osh pitted Kyrgyz against Uzbeks, resulting officially in 300 deaths and more than a thousand injuries; some observers believe that the actual casualties were much higher. It is thus hardly surprising that local bloggers are concerned about ethnic tensions in Osh and Jalal-Abad in the wake of Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis.
The Soviets not only manipulated the boundaries between ethno-national groups, they also intervened in the development of the very identity of those groups, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.