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date: 21 April 2019

Ethnic Conflict in Modern Central Asia

Summary and Keywords

Pre-modern Central Asia saw a lot of violence and wars that had religious underpinnings or originated from genealogical claims. The colonial and Soviet reforms brought about reconsideration of cultural diversity in the logic of ethnic division. In the 20th century, reference to ethnicity became the main language of spontaneous violence escalation and explanation. With the weakening of Soviet rule, the region saw a series of heated conflicts. The most massive of them were the 1989 pogroms against Meskhi Turks in Uzbekistan and the 1990 clashes in Kyrgyzstan that took the shape of ethnic confrontation between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. Lesser disturbances also emerged in the borderlands and in mixed-ethnicity villages.

After the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s saw an increase in social and religious violence in Central Asia. However, despite the violence being different in character, Central Asia had already gained a reputation of a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many experts and politicians listed manifold potential ethnic conflicts about to break out in the region. In 2010, one of these predictions came true in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where a clash erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These expert assessments were also borne out by occasional conflicts over land and water arising between communities that live in the border areas.

Nevertheless, the label of ethnic conflict does not always explain the reasons for violence. The conflicts in Central Asia arise and develop as a variety of local actions, which have different sequences, logic, and motivation. These actions are performed by very different agents—people, groups, and institutes that have their own interests and dispositions. Social and political slogans sound during the events, while the line of confrontation lies between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” The label of ethnic conflict simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.

Keywords: Central Asia, Ferghana Valley, ethnic conflict, ethnicity, border conflicts, nation-building, Soviet, post-Soviet

Introduction: Modernity, Nation, and Ethnicity in Central Asia

If the Russian conquest of Central Asia is to be seen as a starting point for Central Asian modernity, there was a lot of violence and conflict, sometimes described as ethnic, in pre-modern Central Asia. Various tribes, residents of different towns and regions, and state rulers were constantly engaged in a violent struggle for power and resources, attacking neighbors and revolting against overlords, conducting mass killings and purges. However, this violence was usually legitimated and mobilized using religious reasons—usually some degree of deviation from Islam—or by genealogical claims and controversies. Ethnicity, understood as perceived difference of language, cultural practices, and looks, rarely represented the main explanation for the participants of the conflict or for the people who described them in chronicles.

The era of modernity arrived to Central Asia by way of intensified contact with the Ottoman, British, and Russian empires and is particularly associated with integration into the latter. As a consequence, the concept of nation emerged in the region.1 Local cultural features were reinterpreted and sometimes reconstructed as an important principle of delimitation and unification. Genealogy and Islam were still used to mobilize people for political and personal violence; however, many members of the local Muslim society had already started to incorporate these arguments in the general picture, where nation with its supposedly specific history, language, and culture represented the main subject despite still being a rather vague concept.

The Soviet regime, gradually introduced since 1917, made the national principle of legitimation one of its baseline political projects.2 The first national delimitation in Central Asia took place in the mid-1920s, resulting in the creation of two union republics—Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; the latter incorporated the Tajik Autonomous Republic, which, in turn, incorporated the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous oblast. The autonomous republics of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (including the Karakalpak autonomous oblast) became part of the Russian Federation. After some changes, this administrative configuration took its final form by the end of the 1930s. Five union republics were established—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Karakalpak Autonomous Republic became part of Uzbekistan, and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Republic was incorporated into Tajikistan.

The process of delimitation and the following construction of national republics was accompanied by the codification, distribution, and appropriation of not only resources and territories but also national designations, languages, cultural practices, historical heroes, and artifacts. National identification and the corresponding set of ethnic features were actively introduced through education, propaganda, and various administrative practices (e.g., census and passports). At the same time, the old-time principles of self-identification—genealogy and Islam—were prosecuted in the public space that was supposed to become modern and secular or were replaced by/recoded to national history and legacy. Public officials, scientists, artists, workers, and peasants learned to speak of themselves, their own problems, and interests in the language that necessarily included ethnic differences.

It is with the development of nation-building that many cases of dissent and violence in Central Asia started to be perceived as predominantly ethnic. Reference to ethnicity in one form or another gradually became the dominant language of escalation, description, and explanation of these conflicts. At first, they unfolded among the local Soviet elites and were bureaucratic in character. Politicians and intellectuals began to speak on behalf of the nation, engaging in disputes about the territories that should belong to one republic or another, substantiating their points with various historical, demographic, and cultural arguments.3 Such discussions introduced an imaginary antagonism between different nations and ethnic groups, or what came to be known as “ethnoses” in the late Soviet academia, in the language of politics and everyday life. Throughout the Soviet era, this antagonism had been intensifying and expanding, taking over the symbolic field in the first instance. Local intellectuals increasingly posed the following questions: Who were the first to come to this territory? Who descended from a certain ancient ruler, scholar, or author? Who should be the “actual masters” of certain cities and regions? Where are the “real” ethnic boundaries? Who are the ethnic majority (the masters) and who are the foreign minority? Later, these questions were transferred to the level of mass perception. Such arguments, however, did not evolve into violence, largely remaining in oral or written forms, unofficial and private, only rarely emerging in the public space. The central authorities in Moscow that expedited the process of nation-building were trying to keep track of this imaginary conflict, preventing its escalation and acting as mediators and peacekeepers.

The relaxation of Moscow’s control in the 1980s resulted in a series of disturbances in the USSR known as ethnic conflicts. All of the conflicts followed one common pattern: opposition movements emerged in the union republics, making demands upon the local and central authorities. The demands were related to social, environmental, and cultural issues, including enhancement of the role of national languages. These movements brought about tension not only between Moscow and the periphery but also between different population groups within the republics. The demands upon Moscow concerning the empowerment of the “titular” nations were perceived by various minorities as a violation of their rights. This, in turn, made the residents of the union republics increasingly concerned that the minorities were becoming the internal opposition. In many cases, these inner tensions transformed into violence. The most massive clashes of this kind in Central Asia were the 1989 riots in Uzbekistan and the 1990 conflict in Kyrgyzstan, which took place in the Ferghana Valley. A historically multicultural region, the Ferghana Valley was divided between three national republics in early Soviet times. This created the premises for constant discussion of minorities and borders.

The Ferghana Events

In 1989, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic saw mass atrocities known as “the Ferghana events.” In the course of these events 112 people were killed, more than a thousand were injured, and almost 800 houses and public buildings were burned down and plundered. The conflict developed according to the logic of ethnic opposition between the main local population—the Uzbeks—and the minority of Meskhi Turks, who had arrived in the region in the mid-20th century as a result of Stalin’s deportations. Indeed, the ethnic line of separation is beyond any doubt, acknowledged by policymakers and experts post factum.4 Nevertheless, the causes of the conflict and the goals of the attackers remain unclear. The pogroms and killings do not seem to have been planned by any organizations, as they developed chaotically in different localities, snowballing and then receding equally quickly.

The Meskhetian Turks used to live in the south of Soviet Georgia, near the Turkish border, in the region of Meskhetia. This population group emerged as a result of long-standing admixture of Georgians and Turks. In 1944, for reasons unknown, they were deported to Central Asia along with the Kurds. As deportees, they were under supervision of the special services. In 1956, Meskhetian Turks fully recovered their citizenship status; however, they never received an opportunity to go back to Georgia, and most of them remained permanent residents of Central Asia. The largest regional group of Meskhetian Turks was located in Uzbekistan; according to the 1989 census, it comprised just over 100,000 people, 20–25,000 of whom resided in the Ferghana valley, which had a total population of several million people. This group was smaller than the other ethnic minority groups in the Ferghana valley—the Russians, the Kyrgyz, the Tajiks, the Tatars, and the Crimean Tatars. The Meskhetian Turks bore no significant difference from the Uzbeks in regard to culture, religion, or language, occupying a modest social and economic niche in the region and being hardly represented in the administrative system. The society of Meskhetian Turks Vatan (Homeland), which emerged in the perestroika, did not demand any special cultural rights or autonomy in Uzbekistan but was mostly concerned with return to Georgia. In other words, there were no evident premises or background that would explain the riots, except for the general situation of uncertainty and tension in the late Soviet society.

The first encounters took place in the beginning of May 1989 in a small town of Quvasoy situated in the central area of the Ferghana Valley. A series of fights occurred between youth groups divided into “the locals” and “the Turks.” The encounter quickly gained momentum, becoming more and more aggressive. Despite the fact that the authorities managed the situation and ended the local conflict, one person—a “local”—died, and several dozen were injured. After that, rumors and false information began spreading across the region that Turks were raping “local” women, brutally killing children, and tormenting Uzbeks. At some point, photos of victims were circulated as evidence.

On June 3, a mob of Uzbek youths gathered in a suburb of Margilan. They started to set fire to the houses of Turks living in the area and beat up their inhabitants. Despite police and special forces taking action, the pogroms continued on June 5 and 6. Later, the violence spread out to other settlements and the cities of Margilan and Ferghana situated in the center of the Ferghana Valley. From June 7 through June 10, the riots abated in the central parts of the region and moved west to the city of Kokand and the neighboring villages, where thousands of village youths started arriving on hijacked trucks. Most of the pogromists had had no experience in communication with Turks in their everyday life and explained their actions using several reasons. The first was a desire for revenge for the ostensibly murdered children and women raped by the Turks. The second was self-defense from the Turk (or, even more broadly, “Caucasian” or “Chechen”) “attackers,” who, in turn, allegedly had revenge in their minds and were ready to assault Uzbek civilians. Besides rendition of the Turks or protection from the Turks (few as they were in this part of the valley), one of the main demands was the release of the detained pogromists and punishment for the police officers who opened fire on the protesters, killing several people. By this time, most of the Turks were evacuated from their places of residence and accommodated in special guarded camps. Therefore, apart from the plunder of empty houses, the conflict developed more as a confrontation between the local authorities and local youths. The protest in Kokand reportedly involved social slogans that had nothing to do with the Turks.

On June 11, the authorities announced that the situation was under full control. However, a few local clashes happened in other regions of Uzbekistan. From June 11 to June 18, there were mass rallies and minor encounters with the police in Namangan and Andijan, two other major cities of the Ferghana Valley, as well as in several small settlements beyond the valley—Tashkent Region, Samarkand Region, and Sirdarya Region. The last major post-conflict outburst took place at the end of February 1990 in the Buka District of Tashkent Region. One local resident died under unclear circumstances, which caused yet another wave of anti-Turkish rumors and pogroms. Nevertheless, there were no casualties in this conflict.

During the conflict, about a hundred people were killed. Half of them were Turks, a third were Uzbeks, and the rest comprised people of other ethnicities, who were affiliated with either party or happened to be incidental victims mistaken for Turks. The conflict resulted in almost full evacuation of about 100,000 Meskhetian Turks from Uzbekistan to Russia. Such preventive resettlement contributed to the shaping of the conflict as ethnic strife, the victims being the Turkish minority. More than 300 persons were charged with criminal offense, two of whom received the death penalty. The conflict also had political consequences. On June 23, 1989, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbek SSR Rafik Nishanov was relieved of his duties and sent to Moscow. The future president of independent Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, was appointed in his place. One of the first initiatives to calm the situation was mass distribution of state land to the local rural population for private use.

After the conflict, several popular versions emerged as to its possible causes, which largely centered around general social malaise and various conspiracy theories. Some people believed that criminal gang action, turf wars, and elimination of rivals stood behind the conflict. Others blamed various opposition parties, like Birlik (Unity), that followed the same principle as the Baltic Popular Front parties, trying to mobilize support for their political demands that represented a mixture of nationalist and democratic ideas. According to this version, Birlik or some other secret nationalist groups chose Turks as their target in order to show all the “foreigners” whose interests would be the most important in the republic from that time forward, pushing them to emigrate. A third conspiracy theory, one of the most popular in Uzbekistan, claimed that the conflict was provoked by KGB in order to divide and conquer by inciting local strife.

The Osh Massacre

In 1990, the year after the Ferghana events, violent confrontations emerged once again not far from the regions where the pogroms against the Meskhi Turks took place. According to official figures, 171 people were killed and several thousand crimes were documented, including plunder, robbery, rape, infliction of injury, and property damage. However, this time the riots took place in the neighboring Kirgiz SSR, and the ethnic confrontation was now between the Kyrgyz (being the “locals” in “their own republic”) and the Uzbek minority (being the “foreigners”).5

The Uzbeks found themselves in a position of a minority not due to resettlement but due to the aforementioned national and administrative division of Central Asia in the mid-1920s. Back then, numerous towns and villages in the east of the Ferghana Valley were incorporated in the Kirgiz Autonomous Soviet Republic (initially part of the Russian Federation), which became a separate union republic in 1936. This decision was dictated by the fact that the rural districts surrounding these towns and villages were populated by Kyrgyz nomads, who constituted the majority in the area and needed urban centers in order to pursue the Soviet scenario of modernization and development. The division implied that each republic would have a “titular” nation, and all the other groups would preserve their rights of Soviet citizens but become ethnic minorities. By 1989, the Uzbek “minority” comprised 20 to 25 percent of the general population of South Kyrgyzstan, and in some regions the Uzbeks even represented the majority.

On May 27, a protest was organized in the territory of the Lenin collective farm bordering the town of Osh. The protesters demanded distributing a portion of farm land (about 30 hectares) for the personal use of socially deprived town residents. The social issue had ethnic underpinnings, as the collective farm was mainly populated by Uzbeks, and the land was to be distributed to the Kyrgyz who arrived from other regions. The farmers considered the land their property and perceived the decision of the authorities in favor of distribution as an infringement of their national rights. Some Uzbek leaders, invoking the unfair decision in favor of the “titular” group, put forward a protest claim for the creation of an Uzbek autonomy in the south of Kyrgyzstan. The animosities kept building, and on June 4 both parties, as well as public officials and the police, gathered on the disputed territory in order to demonstrate their collective determination to stand their ground. As a riot broke out, the police opened fire. Several people of Uzbek ethnicity died in the encounter. After that, crowds of people stampeded into the city, spontaneously starting pogroms and clashes.

The shooting of protesters opened up a Pandora’s box of violence on both sides that spread across the region. Rumors started to circulate that the opposite side was looking for revenge, which resulted in the creation of self-defense squads—as in the case of the Ferghana events—and assault teams rushing to Osh and other settlements to help their “friends.” The whole south of Kyrgyzstan was engulfed in mass protests, violent clashes, attacks on public facilities and police officers, robberies, and homicides. On June 6, pogroms and killings took place in the town of Karasu, mainly in the areas where Uzbeks resided. On June 7 and 8, the most violent confrontations erupted in Uzgen—a small town with a predominantly Uzbek population—and in the neighboring village of Mirza-Aka, where Uzbeks were an ethnic minority. On June 8, after the murder of three Uzbek beekeepers, riots broke out in Aravan, a large Uzbek settlement. Special troops brought from outside the Kirgiz SSR took control of the situation, and the violence ended by June 10.

Like the events of 1989 in Uzbekistan, the conflict in Kyrgyzstan developed spontaneously in the form of local pogroms, where each side considered itself the victim. There were no unified plans or arrangements regarding movements or self-organization, neither were there any slogans or demands on the government. At first, the Kyrgyz organization Oş aymagı (Osh Region) and the Uzbek organization Adolat (Justice) attempted to control political mobilization, having social objectives in mind. However, as violence broke out, they could no longer control the situation. The self-defense and assault teams were led by local activists, and the main attack force consisted of youths from rural areas and small towns, who showed a propensity for violence.

Again, as in the case of the 1989 events in Uzbekistan, opinions as to the causes of the conflict in Kyrgyzstan varied. Two thirds of all people killed during the riots were of Uzbek ethnicity. Nevertheless, the Uzbeks were considered the instigators of violence in the dominant memory about the Osh massacre in Kyrgyzstan. The main blame for the killings was put on crime bosses, underground Islamists, or the Soviet special services that ostensibly pitted nations against each other and incited separatists, apparently believing that this would preserve Russian influence in the region.

The Osh Massacre: 20 Years Later

Both conflicts—in Ferghana and in Osh alike—happened at the very end of Soviet rule, striking in their senseless brutality. However, a full-on civil war broke out in 1992–1997 during the post-Soviet period, resulting in tens of thousands of casualties and displaced persons, which far exceeded the number of victims of both earlier conflicts. The revolutions of 2005 and 2010 in Kyrgyzstan and the “Andijan events”—an Islamist uprising in 2005 in Uzbekistan—were accompanied by massive violence. Against such a post-Soviet backdrop, the events in the late Soviet Central Asia with 100 to 200 casualties appear as mere mishaps—being not the climax but a harbinger of future problems. The dominant motivations also underwent changes in the later conflicts. The war in Tajikistan unfolded according to the logic of confrontation between representatives of different regions, notwithstanding the attempts to describe this bloodshed as an ethnic conflict—treating regions as subethnic groups or stressing that one of the sides received active support from Uzbekistan. However, the ethnic interpretation was not popular and was not openly recognized by the opposing sides, who largely appealed to different understandings of religious commitment. Religion and politics were also at the base of many other conflicts, particularly the ones faced by Uzbekistan that tried to counter the activity of Islamic opposition during the 1990s and 2000s.

Nevertheless, although no ethnic conflicts arose before or after 1989–1990 until the year of 2010, the two aforementioned events have created a persistent standard belief within the global milieu of analysts that Central Asia is a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many expert assessments have repeated this belief time after time, listing manifold “potential” ethnic conflicts that are about to break out.

Only in 2010 did one of the predictions come true—the “Osh massacre” literally repeated on the twentieth anniversary of these events.6 According to official data, the new conflict, taking place in the south of Kyrgyzstan, claimed the lives of 426 people and injured around 2,000 more; about 3,000 homes and public facilities were burned to the ground. Not only the time and place but also the character of the conflict echoed what happened 20 years ago—the clashes followed the line of “Kyrgyz-Uzbek” opposition. However, the strife was fueled not by social but by political circumstances.

In April 2010, a “revolution” took place in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, resulting in the toppling of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The ex-president fled to the south of the country, to the town of Jalal-Abad in the Ferghana Valley, where he was born and where he had allies. Later, he went to Kazakhstan and then to Belarus. Nevertheless, the interim government, formed by representatives of the opposition, was concerned about the unrest that might occur in the south in support of the deposed president. Among other measures, the government engaged in secret negotiations with the leaders of the Uzbek community in order to enlist their support. Kadyrzhan Batyrov, one of the leaders, organized protests and spearheaded the campaign of his supporters, entering the village of Teyit and setting fire to Bakiyev’s house there, as if advancing the revolution in the capital. This is when the supporters of Bakiyev and Batyrov went on the offensive, sparking rumors in the region that the Uzbeks were slaughtering the Kyrgyz and ostensibly demanding autonomy.7

On June 10, a minor scuffle broke out in Osh, after which the sides began mobilizing according to ethnicity as in the 1990 scenario. The protests turned into mass clashes, and the police opened fire on the Uzbeks. On June 11 and 12, chaotic pogroms and killings swept over the whole town of Osh, and on June 13, the bloodshed spilled over to Karasu and Jalal-Abad. Several town blocks, mainly inhabited by Uzbeks, were burned down. Tens of thousands of people fled from persecution; many of them crossed the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and were temporarily accommodated in the neighboring country. Arising suddenly, the conflict came to an equally rapid end—by mid-June, the major conflicts had ceased. The refugees gradually began returning to Kyrgyzstan, and the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings began.

Although three quarters of the casualties and the majority of damage was on the Uzbek side of the conflict, the official narrative made the Uzbeks responsible for the violence—just like in 1990. The members of the interim government covered up their negotiations with Batyrov, staging the matter as if they had nothing to do with the beginning of the conflict in the south of the country. The ex-leaders of the Uzbek community were forced to emigrate due to open criminal persecution. They were charged with separatism and instigation of conflict. A renowned local human rights advocate, Azimzhan Askarov, was arrested, allegedly for organizing the murder of a police officer, and sentenced to life imprisonment with many violations of judicial procedure. The vast majority of people arrested and punished for crimes were of Uzbek ethnicity. Many Uzbek educational institutions and media were shut down; some local businesses owned by Uzbeks were formally or informally confiscated. The Uzbek minority began to look for new strategies of post-conflict adaptation. They made attempts to integrate in societies that developed without ethnic segregation; another strategy was labor migration to Russia and acquisition of Russian citizenship as a mechanism of identity preservation.8 Several international human rights organizations, including a special commission headed by Kimmo Kiljunen, investigated the events of the conflict and the post-conflict activity of the government.9 During the investigation, they paid attention to these injustices and found signs of ethnic purge in the actions of the pogromists and the authorities, who often provided the former with arms and support. A number of international organizations, including the UN Human Rights Committee, demanded the release of Azimzhan Askarov. However, the authorities in Kyrgyzstan rejected all allegations of bias and refused to comply with these demands and recommendations.10

The Batken Grub Hoe Wars

According to many participants and witnesses, the above-mentioned conflicts, which unfolded in the form of pogroms, were characterized by opposition between the “titular” majority and the ethnic minority. A number of incidents in the border regions of Central Asia had a different character. Mainly concentrated in the southwest part of the Ferghana Valley, they were much smaller in scope than the Ferghana events and both Osh massacres. These incidents have been repeated on a regular basis and are quite predictable, unlike the sudden conflicts with no clear reasons that involved Meskhi Turks or Osh Uzbeks. Despite these differences, policymakers and experts often categorize these events as the same type of ethnic strife. Indeed, although initially instigated by social and local reasons, the sides in these conflicts actively used ethnicity-related images and rhetoric so as to mobilize their allies and prove their points.11

The most conspicuous incidents took place at the border of Batken Region (Kyrgyzstan) with Sughd Region (Tajikistan) and Ferghana Region (Uzbekistan). This area, where territories of three states come together, historically had serious shortages of water to irrigate agricultural fields, which led to local disputes over priority access to water. In addition, there have been controversies as to whether the piedmont land belonged to local farmers or to former nomads, who used it as cattle pastures. In the course of the Soviet national and administrative division in the 1920s, political boundaries of three Soviet republics were drawn between the farmer and ex-nomad settlements in the region. In 1936, these republics gained an equal status of union republics, and since 1991 they have become independent states. Separate enclaves have been established in the Batken region—Vorukh and Sokh, politically attached to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, respectively. As a result, the former local claims concerning water, pastures, and other infrastructure took on a transnational (and in the public discourse an interethnic) character.

Local clashes at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan occurred throughout the Soviet era—in 1936–1938, 1969, 1970, and 1975; in the last case, several people were injured, and special troops were sent into the region to stop the violence. Confrontations also took place in 1982 and 1988. The cause of all these conflicts was the dispute concerning historical and political rights to a certain territory. After every incident, state commissions were established to find a compromise and harmonize the new rules of water- and land-sharing in the borderlands according to new demographic and infrastructural realities. However, these decisions were temporary and particular in character, and new rules led to renewed dispute.

The last conflict in the Soviet period happened in 1989 and was not very remarkable against the backdrop of the Ferghana events. Land disputes reignited over the territories that different local population groups regarded as theirs by right. The residents of Kyrgyz villages started irrigating agricultural lands near the village of Aksai, which they considered their pastures. In response, on July 9 the residents of Tajik villages in the enclave of Vorukh turned off the water supply—the pipeline running to Kyrgyzstan across the territory of Tajikistan. On July 11 armed clashes broke out, and people started burning houses, which resulted in nineteen people killed and one injured. After the police and special troops stopped the violence, another inter-republic committee was established to end the dispute. However, it never got a chance to do so. Disputes and clashes on the border continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The last serious escalation of the conflict took place on January 11, 2014, when Kyrgyzstan was constructing a road on the disputed territory. Military personnel of both states exchanged gunfire, which resulted in eleven injured people. This entailed mutual accusations and increased tension among the residents of the region. In 2015, disturbances on the border repeated; however, there were no casualties.

Another confrontation took a similar turn. These events happened in the same part of the Ferghana Valley, on the border of Batken Region and Sokh, an enclave populated by ethnic Tajiks but surrounded by Ferghana Region of Uzbekistan. It was here that the land disputes of 2005, 2010, and 2013 led to clashes between the villagers of Hush’yar, Chorbag, and Sogment on different sides of the state border. Before long, informal leaders, public officials, and armed forces of both countries rushed to defend their people. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan manifested territorial claims against each other; furthermore, the conflict was taking the shape of ethnic strife in the expert and political discourse. These local incidents attracted much attention from governments around the world, public and international organizations, which feared that the clashes might grow into a full-fledged chaotic ethnic conflict between the neighboring countries.

Conclusion: Violence and Ethnicity

The most prominent conflicts in the Ferghana Valley that took place in 1989, 1990, and 2010 drew considerable scholarly, analytical, and media attention. However, many more small-scale incidents happening in the countries of Central Asia can be considered ethnically motivated—for example, several local clashes in Kazakhstan between Kazakhs and Turks (Buryl, 2017), Kazakhs and Tajiks (Bostandyk, 2015), Kazakhs and Uzbeks (Karamurt, 2014), Kazakhs and Kurds (Mayatas, 2007), Kazakhs and Chechens (Malovodnoye and Kazatkom, 2007; Novy Uzen, 1989), Kazakhs and Uyghurs (Shelek, 2006); clashes in Kyrgyzstan between Kyrgyz and Dungans (Yrdyk, 2013); clashes in Tajikistan between Tajiks and Armenians (Dushanbe, 1990), etc. More incidents took place in the Soviet era, but they were always kept from public knowledge.

In most cases, these local incidents were sparked by personal grudges, misbehavior of certain people, crime, fights between youth groups, neighborhood quarrels, arguments between acquaintances or strangers, or land and property disputes. However, rumors were quick to interpret these facts as ethnic confrontation, which led to collective protests and demands of collective punishment. Not all of these clashes were covered by the media; despite few victims, they sustained a general background of tension and uncertainty. Moreover, journalists and experts tended to describe these petty conflicts as ethnic violence.

Some experts, however, object to the categorization of all the lesser incidents—as well as the tragic Ferghana events, Osh massacre, and Batken grub hoe wars—as “ethnic conflicts.” They highlight the fact that “conflict” is often the wrong term for a number of local actions, as they may have different sequences, logic, motivations, and reasons, the agents being very different people, groups, and institutions with their own interests and dispositions. Labeling the events as “ethnic” can be a means to mobilize allies, a hasty explanation given after the end of the conflict or in anticipation of violence that follows a ready-made model. However, social as well as political slogans can be heard during the events, and the confrontation occurs between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” Conflicts of this kind did not always grow into major ethnic confrontations; local ties often became resources for long-standing coexistence, cooperation, and avoidance of escalation.12 The label of “ethnic conflict” simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.

However, this criticism does not remove the link between ethnicity and violence. The nation-building that took place in Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia throughout the 20th century and continues in the 21st has shaped a certain context where ethnicity is perceived by all inhabitants of the region as an important personal characteristic and a factor of political legitimation.13 This is the reason that any minor clash, let alone large-scale pogroms and riots, is immediately examined for a possible ethnic component. As a result, any confrontation is considered “ethnic conflict” in the discursive and behavioral dimension—in equal part instinctively and intentionally, with varied success. This contributes to conflict escalation, engagement of new agents, and the use of resolution mechanisms. The development of Central Asian modernity as an experience of Soviet and post-Soviet nationhood fostered the attribution of violence to ethnic conflict, occasionally concealing its social reasons.

Discussion of the Literature

The conflicts that took place in Central Asia in the late Soviet and post-Soviet eras rarely became subjects of academic discussion or analysis. This was partly due to the fact that the region was relatively closed in Soviet times; there were no open sources or independent specialists. Another reason is the peripheral position of this region in the field of both Soviet and Middle Asian studies. It was only recently that the countries of Central Asia became accessible to non-governmental and international organizations, which had considered them areas of high conflict potential where ethnic divisions play an important role in understanding social relations. Anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, who have been somewhat late to study the Central Asian societies and to publish their works, have criticized these ideas and urged a closer analysis of local realities.

One of the main lines of discussion is as follows. Can the manifold conflicts and clashes that took place in the late Soviet era and persisted after the collapse of the USSR be considered “ethnic conflicts”? Or was this a manifestation of a more complex and chaotic process, where ethnicity was used as an external form of cover-up or manipulation? One of the main arguments against describing the conflicts as “ethnic” is that one might want to avoid mixing the categories of practice and analysis, that is, undertake a separate analysis of explanations provided by all parties concerned.

Russian anthropologists were the first to formulate this critical point. Valery Tishkov, in his article “Analysis of Ethnic Violence in the Osh Conflict,” argued against the belief that the conflict was based on infringement of an ethnic group’s “basic needs”: “it is not the most deprived group . . . who initiates violence: it is groups (to be precise, their elite elements) with . . . well-established cultural institutions who initiate the suppression of ‘others’ ”.14 Tishkov proposed the following counter-arguments. First, ethnic groups are not as consolidated, their members can pursue different goals, thus inciting disputes and conflicts within the group. Second, the conflict is usually instigated not by the most deprived but by the “titular” groups (in fact, their “elites”), backed by resources and institutions. Third, even in the midst of a conflict, not only mutual hate but also cooperation is evident between representatives of the groups in conflict. Bearing all that in mind, Tishkov refrained from describing the 1990 Osh massacre as “a conflict of the two peoples.” Instead he describe it as “a series of specific ‘local’ episodes” without any predetermined program or planned strategy, lacking explicit hierarchy, quick to evolve under a strong influence of mythical rumors and alcohol, characterized by poor thinking and overactivity on the part of “paranoid” persons. The conflict was thus broken down into many smaller details. Each of these had nothing specifically “ethnic” in its character but was accounted for by local, social, or psychological reasons. Nevertheless, ethnicity did not disappear from the scholar’s radar. Tishkov referred to a “past long-term indoctrination and the present-day propaganda for titular ethno-nationalism,” which became the reason for ethnic sentiment among the Kyrgyz who were later sentenced for violence.

The same kind of approach was exemplified in Alexander Osipov’s article “The 1989 Ferghana Events (Constructing an Ethnic Conflict),” published in Russian.15 Osipov noted that ethnicity was not a reason for the events in question but acted as a means of mobilization of the pogromists and—later—as a post facto explanation of the conflict provided by many politicians and experts.

Indoctrination conducted from outside ideologically and politically predetermined schemes and models has been covered in the works of various scholars employed by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Central Asia in the 1990s and 2000s.16 These works focused on the international and local NGOs whose activity, according to critics, was inspired by a “danger discourse,” which, in particular, implied that ethnic groups had already been in opposition before the conflict. In her article “Locating Danger: Konfliktologiia and the Search for Fixity in the Ferghana Valley Borderlands,” the British anthropologist Madeleine Reeves argued that external experts considered any community prone to crisis if it was multicultural. According to Reeves, ethnicity, territory, and citizenship were viewed by external experts as isomorphic concepts, and dissociation between these concepts was considered potentially dangerous.17 The researcher contrasted the conflictologists’ optics with the position of “insiders,” who had a less dramatic take on the events and refused to give the situation an entirely “ethnic” evaluation. A similar argument was provided by the British geographer Nick Megoran,18 who considered ethnicity “one element of complex social identity, as a context-sensitive dynamic process under continual re-negotiation.”19 In his opinion, ethnicity in its everyday representation was linked to cross-border kinship ties and social and local diversity rather than to the logic of territorial nation-state. Thus, Megoran highlighted the distinction between the “elite conceptions of ethnicity” and the “popular significance attached to it.” The former, in his opinion, represented a means of manipulation.

This analysis primarily concerned borderland clashes, such as the Isfara events. Reeves, Megoran, and Bichsel, having taken a closer look at interconnections and conflicts in the borderlands of Central Asian countries, showed that these encounters were shaped by manifold social and economic practices and later formatted according to the logic of nation-states.20

The 2010 events in South Kyrgyzstan brought the topic of ethnicity back to the understanding of local conflicts. The texts, based on the researchers’ first impressions of what was happening, demonstrated a significant conceptual shift. In particular, the focus moved from criticism of the “elite” or “external” discourse to a discussion of the way insiders used ethnic categories that defined their behavioral strategies. For instance, Nick Megoran, in his short article “The Background of Osh: Stories of Conflict and Coexistence.” describes the narratives of cooperation and confrontation, dividing the latter into competing “Uzbek” and “Kyrgyz” narratives. Megoran states: “These narratives are of course simplified: everyone has their unique story and perspective. Nonetheless, they are broadly recognisable, and are crucial to understanding the current polarisation.”21 Madeleine Reeves, in her short article titled “Ethnicization of Violence in South Kyrgyzstan,” adamantly returns ethnicity to the problematic field: “I do so not in order to suggest that ethnicity is irrelevant to the current conflict. It is—or it has become so—in ways that deserve sustained analysis. People are being attacked, their homes burned and their businesses looted because they are identified . . . as ‘Kyrgyz’ or ‘Uzbek’ at this moment of reckoning. Ethnicity matters, at the moment, then, in powerful and often violently consequential ways. But this should be the beginning of our explanation, not the end point.”22 The researcher remains committed to a critical view of the concept of “ethnic conflict,” still seeking to discover a more complex social diversity. However, she claims that the postulated goal should not be limited to this: “Understanding the long-term and proximal causes of conflict demands engaging seriously with this progressive ethnicisation of social life, such that at a moment of conflict this is the most powerful, the most consuming, the most compelling social identity available. The analytical task, I suggest, is to understand how and why this process of ethnicisation has occurred when it did, and with such destructive speed, without taking ‘ethnic difference’ to be analytically causal.”

Primary Sources

The conflicts in Central Asia have a very modest collection of primary sources. In Soviet times, such conflicts were silenced and wrapped in obscurity, and all the investigation files ended up in limited-access special services archives. The academic publications only used data gathered from various open sources—newspaper articles, official statements, eyewitness accounts and interviews, and sometimes court decisions. This is the general situation concerning primary sources on the history of the 20th century, which seriously limits the analysis of conflicts and confrontations, as they represent a sensitive topic.

The practice of limiting access to information on situations labeled “ethnic” has persisted in the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia. The governments of these countries consider this a very sensitive subject which can potentially instigate conflict. Due to this fact, they regard primary sources collected by state institutions as secret files, which can lead to renewed confrontation if they are disclosed and publicly discussed.

The only public data regarding the conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s are materials collected and published by international and non-governmental organizations, journalists, and scholars. These data usually comprise analysis of the media, interviews with local residents and public officials, results of surveys, and observations undertaken by independent researchers. As a rule, these data are published together with analysis, thus appearing to have been prepared in accordance with a certain goal or concept.

One group of sources relates to local conflicts at the border between the countries of Central Asia. These sources were collected with assistance from The University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute, the Aga Khan Foundation, the UK government through the UK Conflict Stability Security Fund, The United Nations Development Programme, The United Nations Environment Programme, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other international institutions.23 They provide information on the way border infrastructure, water, and land resources are managed, which issues cause dispute among the locals, and which institutions are involved in resolving these disputes.

The 2010 clashes in Kyrgyzstan were of particular interest. The information regarding these events was collected by the International Independent Commission, Human Rights Watch, and International Crisis Group.24 These organizations filed reports that provided details on the conflict, its background, and its effects.

Further Reading

Bichsel, Christine. Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley. London: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

Kutmanaliev, Joldon. “Public and Communal Spaces and their Relation to the Spatial Dynamics of Ethnic Riots.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 35, no. 7/8 (2015): 449–477Find this resource:

Liu, Morgan. Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Megoran, Nick. “The Background to Osh: Stories of Conflict and Coexistence.” Open Democracy, October 11, 2010.Find this resource:

Megoran, Nick. Nationalism in Central Asia: A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Reeves, Madeleine. “The Ethnicisation of Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan.” Open Democracy, June 21, 2010.Find this resource:

Reeves, Madeleine. Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Shozimov, Pulat, Baktybek Beshimov, and Khurshida Yunusova. “The Ferghana Valley During Perestroika, 1985–1991,” in Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia. Edited by S. Frederick Starr, 188–196. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2011.Find this resource:

Tishkov, Valery. “ ‘Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’: An Anthropological Analysis of Violence in the Osh Ethnic Conflict.” Journal of Peace Research 32, no. 2 (1995): 133–149.Find this resource:


(1.) Adeeb Khalid, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(2.) Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000); and Arne Haugen, The Establishment of National Republics in Soviet Central Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

(3.) Marlene Laruelle, “The Concept of Ethnogenesis in Central Asia: Political Context and Institutional Mediators (1940–50),” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 9, no. 1 (2008): 169–188.

(4.) Pulat Shozimov et al., “The Ferghana Valley During Perestroika, 1985–1991,” in Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia, ed. S. Frederick Starr (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2011), 188–196.

(5.) Valery Tishkov, “‘Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’: An Anthropological Analysis of Violence in the Osh Ethnic Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 32, no. 2 (1995): 133–149.

(6.) Nick Megoran, “The Background to Osh: Stories of Conflict and Coexistence,” Open Democracy, October 11, 2010.

(7.) Matteo Fumagalli, “Framing Ethnic Minority Mobilisation in Central Asia: The Cases of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” Europe-Asia Studies 59, no. 4 (2007): 567–590.

(8.) Aksana Ismailbekova and Baktygul Karimova, “Ethnic Differentiation and Conflict Dynamics: Uzbeks Marginalization and Non-Marginalization in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” in Understanding the City Through Its Margins: Pluridisciplinary Perspectives from Case Studies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, ed. André Chappatte et al. (London: Routledge, 2018), 161–184.

(9.) Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry Into the Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. 2011; “Were is the Justice?”: Interethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and Its Aftermaths. Human Rights Watch, 2011; and The Pogroms in Kyrgyzstan: Asia Report No. 93. International Crisis Group, 2010.

(10.) Cai Wilkinson, “Imagining Kyrgyzstan’s Nationhood and Statehood: Reactions to the 2010 Osh Violence,” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity 43, no. 3 (2015): 417–436.

(11.) Christine Bichsel, Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley (London: Routledge, 2009).

(12.) Morgan Liu, Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); Joldon Kutmanaliev, “Public and Communal Spaces and Their Relation to the Spatial Dynamics of Ethnic Riots,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 35, no. 7/8 (2015): 449–477; and Alisher Khamidov et al., “Bottom-up Peacekeeping in Southern Kyrgyzstan: How Local Actors Managed to Prevent the Spread of Violence from Osh/Jalal-Abad to Aravan, June 2010,” Nationalities Papers 45, no. 6 (2017): 1118–1134.

(13.) Annette Bohr, “The Central Asian States as Nationalising Regims,” in Nation-Building in the Post-Soviet Borderlands. The Politics of National Identities, ed. Graham Smith et al. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 139–164.

(14.) Tishkov, “‘Don’t Kill Me, I’m a Kyrgyz!’.”

(15.) Aleksandr Osipov, “Ferganskie sobytiia 1989 goda (konstruirovanie etnicheskogo konflikta),” in Ferganskaia dolina: etnichnost’, etnicheskie protsessy, etnicheskie konflikty, ed. Sergey Abashin and Valery Bushkov (Moscow: Nauka, 2004), 164–223.

(16.) For a critique of the “peacebuilding” policy in the region, see John Heathershaw, Post-Conflict Tajikistan: The Politics of Peacebuilding and the Emergence of Legitimate Order (London: Routledge, 2009); and Boris-Mathieu Petric, “Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan or the Birth of a Globalized Protectorate,” Central Asian Survey 24, no. 3 (2005): 319–332.

(17.) Madeleine Reeves, “Locating Danger: Konfliktologiia and the Search for Fixity in the Ferghana Valley Borderlands,” Central Asian Survey 24, no. 1 (2005): 67–81.

(18.) Nick Megoran, “On Researching ‘Ethnic Conflict’: Epistemology, Politics, and a Central Asian Boundary Dispute,” Europe-Asia Studies 59, no. 2 (2007): 253–277.

(19.) Megoran, “On Researching ‘Ethnic Conflict’,” 273.

(20.) Madeleine Reeves, Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Christine Bichsel, Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley (London: Routledge, 2009); and Nick Megoran, Nationalism in Central Asia: A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).

(21.) Nick Megoran, “The Background to Osh: Stories of Conflict and Coexistence,” Open Democracy, October 11, 2010.

(22.) Madeleine Reeves, “The Ethnicisation of Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Open Democracy, June 21, 2010.

(23.) Asel Murzakulova, Contextual Factors of Conflict in Border Communities in Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan, Research report (2017); Asel Murzakulova and Mestre Irene, Natural Resource Management Dynamics in Border Communities of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, research report (2016); Christine Bichsel, Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley (London: Routledge, 2009); and Environment and Security: Transforming Risks into Cooperation, report (2005).

(24.) Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry into the Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010; “Where Is the Justice?”: Interethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and Its Aftermaths. Human Rights Watch, 2011; and The Pogroms in Kyrgyzstan, Asia Report no. 93, International Crisis Group, 2010.