Class Act

Following on our previous post about violent ethnic disaggregation in Krgyzstan, here’s an item from yesterday’s paper that I found interesting. It begins (emphasis mine):

MOSCOW — The violence that has claimed scores of lives in Kyrgyzstan is frequently ascribed to ethnic tensions, but regional experts say the causes are more complex.

I don’t believe in a narrative of long-simmering ethnic tension,” Alexander A. Cooley, a professor at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and an authority on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview.

Indeed, ethnic distinctions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are so slight as to be hardly distinguishable, Professor Cooley and others say. Both are predominantly Muslim and they speak a mutually comprehensible Turkic language.

The most notable distinction, the one that is most responsible for the animosities that led to the recent violence, Central Asian experts say, is economic: Kyrgyz are traditional nomads, while Uzbeks are farmers.

That divide has translated today into a wide class distinction, as Uzbeks have prospered and now own many of the businesses in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has engendered resentment. Among the first buildings to burn in rioting over the weekend was the “People’s Friendship University,” singled out apparently because it was built with donations by wealthy Uzbek businessmen.

Not a narrative of ethnic tension? It is actually, instead, a class struggle? I thought that was a remarkable thing to say, especially from a scholar who wrote in 2005:

The country is divided ethnically and geographically… The rule of law is often ignored in favor of clan-based politics and regional affiliations.

One also must take note of the plain fact that what is happening here is violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as Kyrgyz and Uzbeks; it isn’t as if the poor Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are linking elbows and crashing in on the wealthy Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as they nibble toast points together in gated multicultural enclaves. No, the Kyrgyz are driving the Uzbeks out of Kyrgyzstan, and reducing Uzbek villages to cinders, rubble, and corpses.

For all that the two groups are in Dr. Cooley’s eyes “hardly distinguishable”, this isn’t the first time the tension between them has boiled over, and it appears never to have been much below a simmer. This May 5th article at, for example, describing a spate of unrest that shortly preceded the current fighting, refers to ethnic tension in its opening sentence. We read:

Inter-ethnic tension has spiked in Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital Osh, which is home to a large ethnic Uzbek minority. The lack of Uzbek representation in government agencies and law-enforcement bodies is the main source of discontent.

…Residents called each other and reported that roaming groups of young Uzbek men wielding sticks and guns were going to attack ethnic Kyrgyz and vice-versa. Some reported shooting. People in Uzbek communities started organizing squads of young people to protect neighborhoods, shouting, “The Kyrgyz are coming.” Other neighborhoods organized ethnicity-blind civilian defense brigades in an effort to preserve order.

In confronting the recent rumors [of impending widespread bloodshed between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, which though a month premature, turned out to be true, as we can see], many Osh residents had in the back of their minds the bloody events of 1990, when land disputes sparked rioting that led to dozens of deaths.

“The reason why people believe these rumors is fear generated by the inter-ethnic clashes of 1990 when there were lots of brutalities,” Maksuda Aitieva, the director of the Osh Media Resource Center, told “In southern Kyrgyzstan, there is no common legal platform for the Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks where they can jointly address their issues and problems.”

Prejudice and a lack of trust exacerbate the tensions.

“Representatives of the titular nation (Kyrgyz) are afraid of the political and public activity of ethnic Uzbeks, and don’t want to see ethnic Uzbeks in governmental structures,” said Svetlana Gafarova, and expert on inter-ethnic issues from Southern Vector, an Osh-based non-governmental organization (NGO). “They prefer that ethnic Uzbeks keep a low profile and [remain] passive. As for ethnic Uzbeks, they say this is their native land, that they are not foreign and alien and should have certain rights.”

Uzbeks make up the second largest ethnicity in Kyrgyzstan. According to the Kyrgyz Statistics Committee, there are 766,700 Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan out of a total population of 5.4 million. But unofficial sources suggest the number is closer to a million. The majority of Uzbeks live in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbeks complain that they are under-represented in the state structures, including law enforcement agencies. Some Kyrgyz activists admit this is a problem.

The Ferghana Valley, where Osh, the epicenter of the latest round of violence is located, straddles three ethnic homelands: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and also Tajikistan. Relations amongst these groups have always been tense, with frequent bloody flare-ups.

So why try to present this as a class struggle? I’m reluctant to jump to conclusions as regards Dr. Cooley’s motivation — and to be sure, there is deep economic stress in this part of Kyrgyzstan, as well as an ongoing political conflict between supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and the new “interim” government (Bakiyev himself took office as the “interim” president when he replaced Askar Akayev in 1990). But stress only reveals a society’s natural fault-lines, and in this region they are ancient, and deep. So it is hard to see why anyone would focus on class, rather than ethnicity, to explain this conflict.

Well, there is one conclusion that does seem plainly within jumping distance, if I were the jumping sort. It is that to see this (obviously) ethnic violence as a class struggle would sit comfortably in the mind of, say, a Howard Zinn, for whom all of history is explicable as such a “narrative”: a struggle for social justice by the oppressed against their oppressors. It would also, of course, be a nice fit for the well-intentioned liberal sort, who must at all costs preserve the pernicious delusion that Diversity is the summum bonum of an enlightened human community.

All mere speculation, of course. But it’s all I can come up with after a long day, and it does do the job so nicely…

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  1. JK says

    I don’t think this is ‘class warfare’ CIA Factbook gives (rounded) 65% Kyrgyz, 17% Uzbek.

    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  2. bob koepp says

    Whether or not we call the ensuing butchery “class struggle,” it seems to me that ethnicity is regularly employed as a proxy for a mix of social, economic and political factors that are the “real” driving forces behind the violence we see.

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I think that’s backwards, Bob. The underlying fault-lines are ethnic and cultural, and all the rest of it builds upon and follows from that.

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    Do you mean that Kyrgyz want to butcher Uzbeks because the latter are primarily farmers rather than nomads?

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    No. I mean the Kyrgyz wouldn’t want to butcher the Uzbeks if the Uzbeks were Kyrgyz too.

    But the farmer/nomad cultural dissimilarity is a big one, and may well be an original cause of the Kyrgyz/Uzbek ethnic speciation in the first place (though maybe not).

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Nor, I imagine, would the Kyrgyz want to butcher the Uzbeks if the Kyrgyz were Uzbeks too. But they’re not. I guess that my concern is that, even though a conflict flares along ethnic lines, the powers and interests at play might not have a lot to do with ethnic differences. I wonder if this isn’t so in the present case.

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Oh, about that I’m sure you’re right, Bob: you can bet that just about every unsavory angle you can imagine is at play here.

    Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Permalink