Photo Gallery: Kyrgyzstan on The Brink

Foto: D. Dalton Bennett/ AP

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

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?
Von Erich Follath und Christian Neef

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."

A Paralyzed Country

The appealing image of a democratically governed country in the heart of Asia begins with Askar Akayev, a physicist and the first president of Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Akayev was an enlightened man who, unlike the rulers of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, had not been the head of the local communist party in the past. He governed Kyrgyzstan with a reasonably effective parliament, and the country even had an opposition and a free press. Meanwhile, his counterparts in other Central Asian countries were authoritarian rulers from the start, convinced that there was no other way to govern their nations, which had come into being almost overnight and in which Turkish and Persian-speaking ethnic groups, Russians, Koreans and Chinese lived in close proximity to one another.

But eventually Akayev also revised the constitution to suit his needs and allowed members of his family clan to line their pockets. The country's relatively poor south revolted against the more affluent north, and in 2005 Akayev was forced to resign. His successor, Bakiyev, made the same mistakes and lasted only five years.

Is Kyrgyzstan Ready for Parliamentary Democracy?

The provisional government that came into power after the Bakiyev regime was overthrown in April planned to do things differently. It drafted a constitution based on the German model and had it validated in a referendum. There was talk of curbing the president's powers, eliminating abuses of authority and doing away with nepotism. After parliamentary elections slated for October, Kyrgyzstan would become the first parliamentary republic in Central Asia.

But then came the mass murders of Osh, and Kyrgyzstan has been paralyzed ever since.

Is a bitterly poor country that is passed on as a trophy to yet another feudal family clan every few years ready for a parliamentary democracy? Political observers are not convinced that it is. Its neighbors, arguing that a Kyrgyzstan based on the Western model would be a danger to itself, have already started beefing up border security.

Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his American counterpart, US President Barack Obama, share this assessment. Obama fears that the election in October will bring "radicals" into power in an absolutely legal way. "Then we'll have to face the same tasks that are now being solved in other regions," Medvedev said during a joint news conference with Obama in Washington in June. "For example, the tasks that are being solved in Afghanistan now." In other words, Kyrgyzstan would begin to develop in line with the Afghan model of the Taliban era -- and that would be extremely dangerous for Russia and Central Asia.

Medvedev believes that the situation can still be saved if the Kyrgyz leadership shows "courage and tact" and seeks dialogue with the country's other ethnic groups.

Is this what it's doing? Why is the transitional president, who has been highly praised in the West, blaming the bloodshed in Osh on "dark forces?" Why doesn't she call a spade a spade, and why is she heeding the advice of advisors who want her to reject the deployment of an international police force in the crisis zone?

The Search for Truth

For weeks, four people have been trying to discover the truth about what has happened in Osh: the two children of a world-renowned author, a courageous journalist and a former deputy governor.

The siblings are Shirin and Eldar. She is 32 and he is 30. Born in Bishkek, they are "children of the north," says Shirin, with little in common with the rural people of the south. Besides, they have spent most of their lives in the West. For them, Osh is an exotic place.

Perhaps this is precisely why their journey is so important.

They are standing on the edge of the city's destroyed market, where Kyrgyz women have spread out what is left of their harvest -- melons, cucumbers and tomatoes -- on an abandoned street. Some of the women recognize Shirin and Eldar, especially Shirin.

She is wearing a white dress with a pattern of large, colorful flowers, her black, shoulder-length hair framing a full, round face. It is the face of her father, who she resembles more than her brother Eldar does -- the face of Chyngyz Aitmatov.

During the Soviet era, Aitmatov was known as the "intellectual father of the Kyrgyz people" and as the "voice of Central Asia." Under Stalin, he was a tax collector, a warehouse worker and a machinist, before studying veterinary medicine and literature and eventually becoming the most popular Soviet writer. Two of his books, "The White Steamboat" and "Jamilya," have been translated into 80 languages. The French poet Louis Aragon once called "Jamilya" the "world's most beautiful love story."

In his later life, Aitmatov spent 16 years as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to France and the Benelux countries. He lived in Brussels, mostly with his children, until shortly before his death in 2008.

In his writings, say Shirin and Eldar, their father was critical of the destruction of cultural traditions. In the end, he no longer trusted the people in power, and his books became imbued with a deep sense of pessimism. Aitmatov was on the search for a "reasonable religion" that could offer people a new moral footing.

"In 1990, when there was bloody violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh over landholdings, and more than 1,000 people died," says Eldar, "our father flew here immediately. He appeared before agitated crowds and calmed them down. No politician had the courage to do this at the time."

Aitmatov named Eldar, a taciturn young man with glasses and a pockmarked face, his sole heir. He now manages the International Aitmatov Foundation in Bishkek. "We need to do what my father would have wanted us to do," he says.

When the unrest broke out in June, the two siblings traveled to Bishkek. Together with friends, they collected medication, food, clothing and tents, took the donations to the airport and spent an entire night waiting there until a cargo plane could take them to the city.

Now Shirin and Eldar have returned to Osh, this time with several camera teams. Their goal, they say, is to document the horrible things that happened in Osh, "so that people in the future will be able to draw some sort of lesson from those sad events."

'We Are Turning this Country into another Afghanistan'

Today Shirin and Eldar are touring Kyrgyz and Uzbek neighborhoods, where they meet people like 39-year-old Aigul Joldubayeva, a short and stocky Kyrgyz woman who used to own a small business selling shoes in the market. She is standing in the courtyard of her burned-down house, once one of the better homes in the neighborhood, with a columned entrance and 11 rooms. Now the ceilings have collapsed. "I saved $350,000 (about €255,000) for 10 years," Joldubayeva shouts angrily across the courtyard, "and then I had to watch as it burned down in only an hour."

It all began on the evening of June 10, says Joldubayeva. Her house was on fire the next day, but even two days later, on June 13, there was no sign of the fire department or the police. "What did the government do in that time? It didn't pay for a single brick of my house, and now it couldn't care less about us, either."

Did she see who set the fires? No, says Joldubayeva, but everyone knows who it was. According to Joldubayeva, a mob of 3,000 Uzbeks took to the streets, shouting "Allahu akbar" and carrying torches. "They had planned it a while ago, and they made sure that their women and children were taken out of the city in time."

'We Build Barricades'

Izatullah Zakirov, a 49-year-old Uzbek, offers a completely different account. He says that two houses were burned down in the Shark neighborhood on June 11, and that young Kyrgyz men, not much older than 18, were roaming the streets and alleys armed with Kalashnikovs. By the next day, according to Zakirov, 10 houses were already in flames. "We built barricades with containers and called the police and the mayor. They didn't even pick up the phone."

On the third day, says Zakirov, 500 armed men came from the south and 200 from the north. There was shooting everywhere and they broke into houses and loaded anything that was valuable onto trucks. Then, according to Zakirov, the arsonists came and burned down the houses. Ten people in his neighborhood died, his brother was wounded when a bullet pierced his shoulder, and three Uzbeks are still missing.

Zakirov is wearing blue trousers and a blue shirt -- Red Cross donations. His house is also in ashes. Even the grapevines in the inner courtyard were seared by the flames. His safe, which the assailants broke open, lies charred in the wreckage. "I have nothing against Kyrgyz," he says, poking through the rubble with his foot. "We had a Kyrgyz neighbor until June, and there wasn't even a fence between us. The altercations in 1990 were quickly resolved, albeit with brutal military intervention."

"But I don't understand what happened this time," says Zakirov. A long-distance truck driver, he says he owns his truck and has traveled far and wide, to places as far away as Hamburg, Riyadh and Moscow. "I thought I knew what people were like." Now, he says, he only wants to take his family of seven away from this place. Their papers were burned in the fire, but to obtain new documents they would have to fill out applications in the Kyrgyz language, as required by Kyrgyz officials. The only problem is that the Uzbeks don't speak Kyrgyz.

'There Will Be no Reconciliation'

Shirin and Eldar, the children of author Aitmatov, have filmed accounts like Zakirov's. And although the siblings, who spent their childhood in tranquil Brussels, are even less qualified than Zakirov to determine who was behind all the hateful and sadistic acts, they have understood one thing: "The Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks no longer speak to each other. There will be no reconciliation."

"It doesn't matter who started it," says Cholpon Jakupova. "The far more serious problem is that we are turning this country into another Afghanistan."

Jakupova, a 51-year-old lawyer and Kyrgyzstan's best-known human rights activist, heads the Adilet human rights organization. She too has been in the city for days, searching for victims of the pogroms.

She has been canvassing police stations and government offices since the early morning and has tried in vain to gain access to a basement under the theater where some of the arrested Uzbeks are supposedly being held. She has rushed past begging Uzbek women selling the last of their belongings next to the university, and she has even searched for witnesses in nearby Jalal-Abad.

Now Jakupova is sitting, exhausted, in front of her lodgings, chain-smoking and trying to process what she has learned throughout the day. Significantly more Uzbeks than Kyrgyz were killed, she says, but most of those arrested were Uzbeks. She says that she met a man today who had just sold his son -- for $5,000. "This is a completely lawless place," says Jakupova. "The area is in the hands of warlords."

'Politicians Closed their Eyes for Four Days'

According to Jakupova, the four-day-long killing spree was not the result of spontaneous violence. Very young Kyrgyz men who worked on livestock farms in the surrounding poor mountain villages came into the city, says Jakupova. Their looting rampages were fueled by accounts of Uzbek riches, and in the ensuing mayhem two different worlds collided.

"The new politicians in Bishkek closed their eyes for four days," says Jakupova, taking a long drag of her cigarette. "In fact, probably even longer than that. They dragged the ethnic minorities into their power games, which have crippled the country since Bakiyev was overthrown."

The whole thing may have been a calculated game, says Jakupova. "A few people in the government of President Otunbayeva pushed through the new constitution to get themselves into the parliament, which will be Kyrgyzstan's new center of power starting this month. After that, they are the ones who will decide what happens in the country, not Otunbayeva. But the constitution would never have been approved if the pogroms hadn't happened in Osh. People were desperate to restore the peace after that, and so they voted yes. It was a farce."

Minority Groups Increasingly Referred to as Parasites

And the Uzbeks? An agreement was reached in April, says Jakupova. In return for voting for the new leadership, the Uzbeks were promised a certain number of seats in parliament and the post of mayor or governor of Osh. Now the Uzbeks have been neutralized. Nevertheless, the seeds have been sown for an Uzbek national movement that could wash across the region's borders and represent a threat to stability -- because ethnic Uzbeks comprise one-third of the population throughout Central Asia.

A country in which such inhuman policies are pursued is not ready for a parliamentary democracy, says Jakupova.

She has known the new president since Otunbayeva's days in the opposition. She recently met with the president and presented her with a draft decree she had written.

"I told Otunbayeva: Sign it and you'll be able to stop the country's disintegration." "What does it say?" the president asked.

"That you will get rid of the autocratic people who surround you, the ones who are behind the pogroms." "They'll rip me to shreds," the president replied.

"But under the constitutional referendum," Jakupova told Otunbayeva, "you are the only legitimate politician in the country. All the others were not even appointed by the parliament."

"She did nothing. She is an indecisive woman," says Jakupova. Most of the men she was referring to have since left the government to campaign for election. According to Jakupova, each of them has now founded his own party and is selling slots on his candidate list for up to $500,000 apiece. Young party supporters, says Jakupova, are being called "law enforcement officers" and have been given weapons. "These are militias, but no one is intervening."

It is midnight in Osh. Shots can be heard outside.

The word Bishkek refers to both the Kyrgyz capital and the type of container in which the Kyrgyz prepare their national beverage, Kumys, a fermented product made from mare's milk. There is nothing traditionally Kyrgyz about the capital, which looks like a typical Soviet city, except that it is located 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles) to the southeast of Moscow.

Bishkek's Wounds

Bishkek has become rundown in recent months. The city's former mayor, another casualty of the April "revolution," was considered a capable man, but he was also a supporter of the ousted president. Now the streets are filled with potholes, buildings look neglected and garbage floats in an abandoned fountain. The city only feels somewhat hospitable in the evening, when the darkness covers up Bishkek's wounds.

In the waning heat of a summer day, meagerly dressed people, stroll across the central Chui Prospect, buying Chinese toys for their children, playing the high striker carnival game and paying a few cents to be weighed on mobile carts.

Since the coup, the gates in front of the "White House," the seat of government, have been hanging partly off their hinges. Notes with sinister messages, like "There is no room in Kyrgyzstan for dirty Jews," have recently begun appearing on the wrought-iron fence.

There is a story behind this message. Maxim, the hated son of the ousted president, who controlled the Kyrgyz economy in a shadow government, had dealt primarily with Jewish bankers. But are Jews really the issue?

Hardly. Nevertheless, mendacious slogans are appealing to a nation that defines itself through its centuries-old culture and is faced with its possible demise. Other ethnic groups -- Koreans, Uighurs and, of course, Uzbeks -- have also become targets in Bishkek, where minority groups are increasingly referred to as "parasites," a "mafia that sells our girls for a sandwich" and "enemies of the people who are deciding the fate of our people." The newspaper Alibi claims that the Kyrgyz are the poorest ethnic group in their own country, because they are not money-hungry like the country's 700,000 Uzbeks, who also happen to be producing more and more children. "As long as we have only a spark of proud left, we should declare a cultural war on the Uzbeks," the paper wrote.

For Kalnur Ormushev, such inflammatory speech is nothing short of a nation's declaration of bankruptcy. "Everyone around us is ambitious," he says. "The Kazakhs have oil and want to become a world power, and the Uzbeks think of themselves as the dominant power in the region." But the Kyrgyz? They have no goals, says Ormushev, and all they have to show for themselves are burned-out cities and plenty of presidents. "We lack passion. We're nothing but cattle farmers who move on to the next pasture when the old one's been grazed bare. Being Kyrgyz is a diagnosis."

Ormushev, 60, a slim bespectacled intellectual, was once a deputy governor of Osh and a deputy minister in Bishkek, but then he left politics. He is eating lunch in one of Bishkek's Turkish restaurants. Ormushev now works as a general agent for Havana cigars in the region.

'A Man Like Aitmatov Could Have Sorted Things Out'

"We too have plenty of resources for our population of 5 million," says Ormushev, "but more than half a million people have left Kyrgyzstan. The engineers are gone, and so are all the good doctors and scientists. We are in an intellectual crisis." A man like Chyngyz Aitmatov, he says, could have sorted things out, but there are no longer any men like that left. And now they think they intend to create a democracy in Bishkek, he adds.

Does he believe in the theory put forward by economists in the English-speaking world, who say that democracy in impoverished countries can lead to a rise in political violence?

"Perhaps it's true," says Ormushev. If it is, he adds, the West has good reason to be concerned. "Why did the German chancellor travel to Cape Town to watch the World Cup, instead of going to Osh after 2,000 people had died there?" he asks. Hadn't her government stressed the importance of Central Asia? She could have cut quite a figure as a peacemaker, Ormushev points out.

"But we're irrelevant in the West," says the cigar salesman, smoking a small Habano cigar. "You Germans are jaded. You don't understand that when the Kyrgyz have nothing left to eat, they'll produce weapons and heroin. And they'll join Kim Jong Il and march into Europe."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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