'A Completely Lawless Place': Kyrgyzstan Has Become an Ungovernable Country

By Erich Follath and Christian Neef in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

In the wake of ethnic violence in June that killed almost 2,000 people, Kyrgyzstan has been plagued by violence and lawlessness. Now the country is to become the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia. But is it ready for democracy?

Photo Gallery: Kyrgyzstan on The Brink Photos
AP

Editor's note: This feature is the first of a series on Central Asia that will be running on SPIEGEL International in the coming weeks. You can read more about future installments in the series here.

The sun is high in the sky, directly above the Taht-I-Suleiman, a giant rock in the middle of the city where the Biblical King Solomon was once said to have preached. In fact, the sun is so unrelentingly bright that the snow-covered peaks of the Tian Shan have disappeared behind a curtain of flickering heat. Somewhere in the city a muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer.

On the surface, Osh seems almost idyllic.

But that impression is misleading. On this morning, four girls were found dead in the cellar of a mosque in Osh, covered with debris. Their bodies, wrapped in carpets, had been completely burned and some had even been beheaded. They were Kyrgyz girls from Osh. Soon afterwards, 13 bodies, including that of a pediatrician, were brought to Osh from Andijan, a city in nearby Uzbekistan. The bodies, their hands bound and, like the four girls, horribly disfigured, had floated down the Ak-Bura River and across the border into Uzbekistan. The 13 dead were also Kyrgyz from Osh.

For the men and women gathered in the tent cities near the large white regional administration building, the case is clear. "The murderers were Uzbeks," says Gumira Alykulova, a 35-year-old Kyrgyz. Uzbeks, though an ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan, form the majority in Osh. They own most of the city's markets, restaurants and much of the surrounding farmland and, as angry citizens believe, they are determined to drive the Kyrgyz out of the city.

A Wave of Pogroms

Since the bloody four days of violence in June, the small tent city has been one of the main sources of news in Osh -- from the Kyrgyz perspective, that is. Anyone wishing to hear the other side's version of the truth has to drive two kilometers farther down the road to an Uzbek neighborhood like Shark.

Shark looks like it has recently been carpet-bombed. The district was completely burned down, with nothing but blackened foundation walls remaining where many buildings, including the schools, once stood. The Uzbeks in Shark blame the Kyrgyz.

According to official figures, more than 370 people died in the pogroms, when the Kyrgyz went on a rampage against the Uzbeks and the Uzbeks against the Kyrgyz. But the true figure is probably upwards of 2,000. More than 75,000 people fled to Uzbekistan. The news coming out of the city shocked people around the world.

What happened in Osh? Why are no officials, including the mayor, the provincial administrator, the chief of police and the head of intelligence, willing to say how the killing began? Why are the newspapers avoiding the issue?

The silence that has descended on Osh after the so-called incidents has instilled fear in the residents of a city that was cosmopolitan for centuries, a peaceful trading center and a crossroads on the legendary Silk Road.

Osh is 3,000 years old, even older than Rome. Caravans from China once passed through the city, and even Alexander the Great is believed to have stopped at the Taht-I-Suleiman en route to India.

A Lawless City

But since June this city of 250,000 has been only a shadow of its former self. The four days of violence left behind a broad trail of destruction. Major thoroughfares like Kyrgyzstan Street are devastated, with all of the businesses on the right side of the street, as well as cafés, restaurants and a Muslim hospital, burned to the ground. The left side, where the Kyrgyz live, remained unharmed.

This is one version of the events: Uzbeks attacked a student dormitory at the University of Osh and raped female Kyrgyz students. This prompted the Kyrgyz to retaliate.

According to another version, the rapes never occurred and the riots were deliberately provoked.

Osh is now a lawless city. At night, men wearing camouflage uniforms without shoulder insignia rule the pitch-black streets, during hours of revenge and violence. Some 3,000 ethnic Uzbeks have reportedly been arrested, while others have been abducted or simply disappeared. All Uzbeks in government positions were let go.

What is happening in Osh is not some provincial drama. Osh has become a warning sign -- for an entire country and perhaps even an entire region.

The pogroms were a consequence of the most recent change of power in the capital Bishkek. After bloody protests in April, the corrupt president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted and forced to flee the country. The government that replaced Bakiyev also no longer exists. Transitional President Rosa Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and then a member of the opposition, rules the country with decrees. She intends to hold parliamentary elections on Oct. 10, but protestors have already returned to the streets in Bishkek, the police are back to using teargas, and opposition members are being arrested once again.

A Decline of Historic Proportions

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous Muslim republic with a population of only 5.3 million, has become ungovernable. This would be a footnote in world history if this country, where the towns have names like Toru-Aigyr and Kurkurëu and the people are called Momun and Oroskul, were not at the center of a region that has alarmed the world's powerful.

The country's decline is one of historic proportions. In the early Middle Ages, the Kyrgyz were the largest power in Central Asia. But then came the invasions led by Genghis Khan, followed by the Chinese and, in 1876, the Russians. Stalin drew the borders of the later Soviet republic straight through areas settled by Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country today. It exports gold and uranium, but the average monthly income is only €60 ($82).

A country without leadership is an ideal haven for extremists and criminals. Fundamentalists fighting the government in neighboring Tajikistan are in the country, as are Uighur activists from China's troubled Xinjiang Province. Drug traffickers use Kyrgyzstan as an important transport route, which passes from Afghanistan straight through Osh. For the world's major powers, Kyrgyzstan is a dangerous weak link in the region.

But the foreign powers also need this small country. China hopes to use Kyrgyzstan to satisfy its demand for natural resources. Moscow needs the region as a buffer zone against the advances of fundamentalist Islam, and the United States uses it as the site of a resupply base for its war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Chaos and anarchy in Kyrgyzstan are the last thing the Americans, Russians and Chinese need. Ironically, the Western press only recently referred to this country as "the Switzerland of Central Asia."

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1. Probably only Russia can help
lakechamplainer 10/09/2010
It does seem as if Russia is the only country capable of providing help. After all, the average person in Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia did better when they were part of the Soviet Union. It seems China is only interested in extracting uranium and the like - when the interest of an outside power is in extracting something rather than trade, the public seems to almost always suffer - see oil exporting countries. The US is just too far away and anyway has clearly not shown any ability to "nation build". It does also seem like the US and other countries should put less emphasis on "elections" and should make clear those in control in countries that they have to respect basic human rights. After a generation or two, then maybe you can have a somewhat "democratic" society. I think in many ways the Jimmy Carter approach to foreign policy, stressing human rights, is the correct one.
2.
BTraven 10/12/2010
Zitat von lakechamplainerIt does seem as if Russia is the only country capable of providing help. After all, the average person in Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia did better when they were part of the Soviet Union. It seems China is only interested in extracting uranium and the like - when the interest of an outside power is in extracting something rather than trade, the public seems to almost always suffer - see oil exporting countries. The US is just too far away and anyway has clearly not shown any ability to "nation build". It does also seem like the US and other countries should put less emphasis on "elections" and should make clear those in control in countries that they have to respect basic human rights. After a generation or two, then maybe you can have a somewhat "democratic" society. I think in many ways the Jimmy Carter approach to foreign policy, stressing human rights, is the correct one.
I agree with you. The country has the potential to become one of the richest ones in that area, however, it has not managed yet to find its own way after independence. It is one of the most beautiful countries in the world therefore it is a pity that no it has no infrastructure which could deal with tourists. It could be a paradise for climbers and wanderers. The climate is not as harsh as in Tibet. I could imagine a reconquista by the Russians oligarch. They are about to reconquer Sochumi. So why not that country, too?
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