Staunton, September 3 – Bishkek’s failure to deal with the embedded ethnic hostility between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks after the 1990 clashes, and its unwillingness to address the recent conflicts in Osh that were a reprise of those earlier confrontations means that more such conflicts are likely there, according to Moscow’s leading specialist on ethnicity in Central Asia.
In an essay posted online yesterday, Sergey Abashin, the ethnographer who heads the Moscow Center for the Study of Study of Central Asia, says that because of these twin failures his estimate of the future of Kyrgyzstan is necessarily “pessimistic,” far more so than the views of other commentators (www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=6711).
Although neither Bishkek nor many outsiders wanted to acknowledge it, Abashin says, “ethnicity in the course of the [Osh] conflict became an independent factor which defined the behavior of individuals and entire groups. And this means that the conflict became in the end an (inter-) ethnic one, even if it began more as a social, political or personal clash.”
That course of events took place, he continues, because “the ethnic division into ‘we’ and ‘they’ had already taken place in the heads” of the people involved. As a result, other narratives were reduced to a “marginal” status, even as the powers that be in Bishkek and elsewhere tried to promote them.
The powers that be might have been able to prevent that development had they “interfered in the situation quickly, neutralized the most active leaders of all the sides and maintained tight control over arms and communications, [even as they promoted] discussions about other important questions.”
Many Russian and Western commentators sought to blame the Osh events on Stalin’s national delimitation of Central Asia in the 1920s which led to the rise of “titular” nationalities and minorities. But such explanations are inadequate: ethnic majorities and minorities “exist in many countries,” and that situation does not always lead to violence.
Meanwhile, both officials in Bishkek and some outside commentators sought to blame “provocateurs” and “’ethnic entrepreneurs’ (professional nationalists)” for the conflicts, but such references are superficial as well because these activists, who were undoubtedly present, could not have achieved their aims if conditions had not been favorable.
Drawing on the theory of “habitus” – the idea that people have a predisposition to understand certain things in a particular way and then to act on them as a result – developed by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Abashin argues that the recent Osh conflict was the direct result of the clashes of 1990, which the powers that be never adequately addressed.
But what has taken place in southern Kyrgyzstan in recent months, the Moscow ethnographer argues, leads to the conclusions that “one way or another, the present conflict constricts the field of opportunities for the future and makes the repetition of such clashes still more probable than would have been the case as of the start of this year.”
Revenge and retribution are “not abstract conceptions” in this case but rather “strongly emotionally laden feelings of people which they will keep their entire life and transmit to their children. And this gun will go off at some point beyond any doubt.” That is what Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus” suggests.
If this pattern is to be changed, Abashin says, the powers that be need to take some specific decisions, including ensuring that minorities are represented in local and central offices. Obviously such a quota system “by itself is not a panacea but only a central measure which could give local and a general framework for many other steps, in education, language,” and so on.
Moreover, Bishkek must secure a rapid improvement in the standard of living of all groups because “without this no one will feel himself in any way obligated to the state and somehow connected with it,” Abashin says.
Many people doubt that any of this will be possible and therefore predict that Kyrgyzstan will divide with the south going its own way. And they are even afraid that any efforts to institutionalize ethnicity through quotas or other means will in fact promote precisely that outcome.
That is of course possible, Abashin concedes. Obviously, “the main condition for the preservation of the unity of the country is not institutionalized ethnicity in and of itself but the ability of the powers that be to negotiate with various groups of society, to struggle with ethnic discrimination, to prevent in a decisive way mass violence, and to offer society as a whole real perspectives of social well-being and political stability.”
Unfortunately, the prospects for all this are not good in Kyrgyzstan, Abashin says. “A repetition of the ethnic conflict in Southern Kyrgyzstan is now a very probable scenario of the future,” at least in part because the question is not “what is to be done” but rather “who will do it.”
“Unfortunately, the present elites which have influence (or instruments of influence) on society” are a big part of the problem because they frequently use the ethnicity of the majority to try to “legitimate” themselves and thereby encourage other Kyrgyz to view non-Kyrgyz in a negative way, as “the other.”
Kyrgyzstan needs a new elite, but it is unlikely to get one. And consequently, “the single means of achieving any positive changes in Kyrgyzstan is external pressure of if you want an external protectorate.” But the chances for that are limited because of the political competitions among the potential outside sources of assistance in this regard.
“And so,” Abashin concludes, “in Kyrgyzstan there is no responsible and capable elite, and external forces – international organizations and leading world powers – are not trying very hard to take on themselves all concerns about supporting and helping to find some way out of the social-political dead end.” Consequently, the prospects for that country are bleak indeed.