Continued failure to enforce the rule of law risks will give the green light to extreme nationalists who could provoke further ethnic strife, according to Dinara Oshurakhunova, head of the Bishkek-based NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society.
Mistrust and divisions persist in southern Kyrgyzstan, as a legacy of the June 2010 clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in which more than 400 people were killed in and around the cities of Osh and Jalalabad in just a few days.
Since then, weak institutions and an official reluctance to challenge nationalists have led to the spread of aggressive rhetoric, often as a pretext to grab land and property from minority groups, Oshurakhunova told IWPR.
In late December, violence flared between Kyrgyz and Tajik residents of the village of Andarak village in Batken province. In late January, several Tajik families were forced to leave Aydarken, another village in Batken, after one of their relatives was arrested in a murder case and Kyrgyz neighbours made threats towards them.
There are also tensions in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament. where Russian-speaking members face regular demands that they address the assembly in Kyrgyz, though Russian is accepted as an official language.
The following are edited excerpts from an interview Oshurakhunova gave to IWPR.
IWPR: How has the ethnic situation developed since 2010, and what are the authorities doing about it?
Dinara Oshurakhunova: The ethnic situation is terrible.
Conflict broke out in Mayevka in April 2010 [where five were killed during attempts to seize land around the Chuy province village] but no one has been held to account. There have been no media reports of houses being rebuilt or compensation paid out.
The events of June 2010 were on a massive scale, so more attention was paid to them and reconstruction is taking place. The question is whether compensation has been awarded fairly. According to the information we have, it has not been awarded to everyone, nor has it been paid out equally. Sometimes people with close links to officials receive compensation when they did not suffer in the violence. What’s more, [some] homes and businesses are not being rebuilt, as their owners are uncertain whether they will be compensated if the violence reignites.
IWPR: What is your view of the violence in Andarak in December?
Oshurakhunova: In Andarak, where arsonists attacked Tajik-owned houses, the conflict is not being handled appropriately. Neighbours and elders on both sides came out and said, “It’s all over, we have peace now. Release these guys.” They let the suspects go. They have not been held accountable.
Will this lack of accountability bring any relief to the Tajiks, who just want the conflict to end?
Batken’s only doctor was sacked. I don’t know whether there were genuine grounds for the complaint against him, but he is an ethnic Tajik and no one wants him reinstated.
Meanwhile, in parliament everyone is raising the language question. This [aggressive debate over language] will have direct consequences – people will see it and copy it. People will say that if members of parliament – those with the greatest oversight over how the law is implemented – talk and behave like that, then it must be OK for us to act that way as well.
IWPR: What do you see as the motivating factors behind ethnic tensions?
Oshurakhunova: These confrontations are basically about redistributing resources and claiming other people’s assets. I don’t have enough land or I don’t have a house, and I can’t bear to see my neighbour doing well while things haven’t worked out for me. I should get what he has, because I’m Kyrgyz and what is he? That’s the basis on which the ethnic issue is taken up and exploited, whereas in fact it’s fundamentally about resources.
This competition for and carving up of resources is going on at the top political level, and also at the grassroots, where the carve-up is taking place on ethnic, religious and regional grounds. And what is the state doing about it? Nothing.
IWPR: How are the police and court officials handling these issues?
Oshurakhunova: The April  violence [pitting police against protesters seeking the removal of then president Kurmanbek Bakiev] demoralised our law-enforcement agencies. No reforms are taking place and very little has changed. Law-enforcement agencies have very limited capacity to deal with ethnic confrontations and social problems. Has the interior ministry learned lessons from June 2010, and is it training its officers to handle such situations? I don’t know.
Our prosecution service is completely toothless. People don’t have a sense that is doing anything, so they carry on breaking the law. Someone needs to put their foot down and say “enough is enough, that’s a criminal offence, a serious breach of the law, incitement and wanton destruction”. That isn’t happening.
In my view, the courts are moribund. Firstly, the selection process for new judges has ground to a halt, and secondly, the authorities have let a genie out of the bottle – the mob. There was a point where the authorities gave in to the mob and let it pressure them into taking decisions, and now they are past the point of no return. Until the authorities learn to identify these people and make them answerable before the law, it is the mob that will dictate terms.
As for civil society groups, we shout loudly, but even journalists and our colleagues say it’s pointless issuing statements as they won’t achieve anything. But what else can we do? We have only the one method – raising our voices and calling attention to things.
All this is snowballing. I don’t know when it will hit us, because spring is coming [period when protests take off in Kyrgyzstan] and we can see that the geography of violence along ethnic lines is expanding. First there was Mayevka, then June 2010, now Batken and Chuy [scene of violence in Jangi-Jer village, largely populated by ethnic Karachay.] So there’s been conflict with [Meskhetian] Turks [in Mayevka], then with the Uzbeks, now with the Tajiks, and with the [Karachay] people from the Caucasus in Chuy.
Who’s left? The Russians. And now the language issue is being raised.
Why should the search for Kyrgyz identity mean we have to suppress others? Why can’t it be done on the basis of spirituality, culture, law and tradition?
IWPR: What can be done to bring things back under control?
Oshurakhunova: The following factors have to be addressed: national security, public safety, and employment. If these are not addressed quickly, the gaps between different conflicts could get shorter and the scale of violence could expand.
If the government does not come to its senses, if officials don’t stop carving up businesses, and if they don’t tackle corruption, start protecting the public and [strengthen] the security system, then tomorrow, or the next day, conflict could reoccur.
IWPR: How would you describe President Almazbek Atambaev’s approach to these matters?
Oshurakhunova: The president’s decree on urgent measures to strengthen public security offers some hope. It’s designed to prevent destructive forces turning individual conflicts into ethnic violence. He has sent the bill to parliament and instructed the prosecutor general’s office and the State Committee for National Security to implement it.
Thank God our voices have been heard. If his decree starts to be implemented and isn’t derailed, the situation could improve.
When we met [Atambaev] on December 30, he talked about all these things. But it worries me that he still refers to certain “third forces” and “agents provocateurs”.
There are two real “provocateurs” – impunity for criminals and irresponsibility on the part of those who should hold them to account.
IWPR: How does today’s nationalism link to the Soviet era?
Oshurakhunova: Xenophobia is on the rise. There’s anarchy and the seeds of fascism. This does not come from politicians, thank God, but from certain radical individuals.
I remember from my childhood that there were many Russians and only a few Kyrgyz in affluent areas of central Bishkek. We were told, “Why do you speak Kyrgyz? Speak Russian.” But that was then.
Let’s say a Russian passes by and I say, “In Soviet times you used to discriminate against us, so now I’m going to beat you up.” He wasn’t even born when the Soviet Union still existed. People alive today cannot take moral responsibility for the past.
IWPR: What role do the media have to play?
Oshurakhunova: Media outlets here aren’t educational instruments and they don’t expose social ills. They are simply political creations, instruments of influence. It’s a business. Journalists have freedom of expression, but media proprietors won’t let them exercise it. They dictate the rules and if you want a job, you accept their conditions. We need to develop independent, publicly-owned media.
Reconciliation needs to start with media coverage that promotes tolerance, but how can that happen? The media outlets belong to private owners.
IWPR: How can reconciliation be achieved?
Oshurakhunova: These days, no one wants to listen to politicians, members of parliament, maybe not even to the president, the prime minister, human rights defenders or the media. People want to hear from figures in the arts, education and culture – but they remain silent. If an artist or other public figure simply said, “This is not on”. that would be much more powerful.
IWPR: What role do international organisations and NGOs have to play in Kyrgyzstan?
Oshurakhunova: Maybe it should start with funding civic education programmes. There used to be a lot of NGOs that donors funded to work with young people. After 2005, international organisations decided – I don’t know why – that there was no more need and all the civic education programmes were closed. Five years later, are having to deal with totally marginalised young people who think they can achieve everything through threats of violence.
It needs to happen through the arts. If pop singers are performing somewhere and simply start their concerts by saying they are for peace and tolerance, that will be enough. People listen to their idols.
Interview conducted by Timur Toktonaliev, IWPR editor for Kyrgyzstan.
If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team email@example.com.