Once a Soviet Flash Point, Fragile Ethnic Peace Comes to Kirghizia
Improved political, cultural opportunities ease tensions with Uzbeks
OSH, KIRGHIZIA — THERE is a field on the edge of this city in the Central Asian republic of Kirghizia as inconspicuous as it is infamous.Cotton used to grow there, but now it lies fallow, and a gas pipeline stretches along one side. Usually about the only thing to be seen there are children playing. But in June 1990, three days of rioting began there that left at least 300 people dead - forever tainting the field as one of the many flash points of ethnic conflict during the era of perestroika. "I'll never forget that day," says 11-year-old Sanjar Isakov, who witnessed the incident. "There were Kirghiz on one side and Uzbeks on the other. Then there were soldiers.... It was horrible." Many ethnic conflicts, particularly the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, have flared and proved impossible to extinguish. But the events at Osh have turned out differently. After the rioting, the Kirghiz government of President Askar Akayev acted decisively, and this city of 220,000 on the fringe of the fertile Fergana Valley has returned more or less to normal, officials and residents say.
Living in harmony "Now the Uzbeks and the Kirghiz live in harmony," says Usman Yuldashov, director of the Osh bazaar, where Kirghiz traders in traditional felt hats, called Kalpaks, sell their wares along side Uzbeks wearing skull caps. "Akayev is doing all to make sure it never happens again," Mr. Yuldashov says of the rioting. Osh was once a main trading center on the old silk route and is over 3,000 years old. But earthquakes and ideology have destroyed much of the old, leaving the new Soviet architecture to dominate the cityscape. Surrounded on three sides by snow-capped mountains, the city is mostly a collection of one-story houses. The lifestyle is slow and simple, and women in Osh do laundry by hand at the communal taps on street corners. The rioting in June 1990 was largely caused by a lack of arable land, exacerbated by the poor local economy and the impression among Kirghiz that Uzbeks were encroaching on their territory, says Aibek Tilebaliev, a Kirghiz Foreign Ministry official. Some also say the Kirghiz, a traditionally nomadic people with loose ties to Islam, were frightened by the growing influence of the more conservative Islamic beliefs of neighboring Uzbekistan. Others claim the old, hard-line Communist leadership in the region provoked the incident in an effort to clamp a state-of-emergency on the area, preserving their monopoly on power. Whatever the cause, officials say the clashes began after a group of Kirghiz occupied the field intending to build housing, which is in short supply. They were met by angry Uzbeks and conflict quickly followed. Before the rioting started, Uzbek cultural influences predominated. That is changing now. "It was sort of a paradox - many Kirghiz had no choice but to study Uzbek in schools on Kirghiz territory," says Mr. Tilebaliev. "Now we've increased the number of Kirghiz schools in the Osh region."
Domination broken To appease the Uzbeks, the Kirghiz domination of political life has been broken. Political posts are determined through local elections, instead of through appointments made by central authorities in the capital, Bishkek, formally Frunze, Tilebaliev said. In addition, officials ordered the construction of new homes and gave more than 100 cars to victims' families. About 5 million rubles in cash compensation also was distributed, says Batirali Sadykov, chairman of the Osh Regional Soviet, or district council. Though the actions have stabilized the situation, a solid economy is the key to continued calm in the region. Realizing this, local officials are pushing for increased trade with China, only 120 miles from Osh. Economic contacts have grown since the border was opened a few years ago. Kirghizia ships coal and chemicals in exchange for Chinese consumer goods, Tilebaliev says. However, China is reluctant to fully open its border out of fear the democratic ideas taking root in the former Soviet republics may spread, Mr. Sadykov says. "They're a little frightened the influence of the failed coup could extend beyond the border," says Sadykov. "There are also many ethnic Kirghiz living in China, and they're afraid of a rise in nationalist feelings among their Kirghiz." The outlook for Osh is brighter than most areas that have experienced ethnic unrest, yet nearly everyone feels it could easily happen again. "We've achieved stability," says Sadykov, "but one wrong step, one wrong word, and it could set off a new conflict." The instability lurking just beneath the surface has placed President Akayev, who was elected in October, in an awkward position. He says he is firmly committed to bringing democracy and free enterprise to Kirghizia. But citing the potential for unrest, he says there should be no new parliamentary elections. The current members of parliament, whose terms don't expire for more than three years, are conservatives who were elected when the Communist Party controlled the republic's politics. "Parliament members must serve out their terms to avoid any renewal of political and social conflict within the republic," Akayev says.