One Year Later – Situation Improves But Scars Remain in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Posted by Daniel Rosenblum
July 2, 2011
Girl Near Ruins of Her Family Home in Osh on June 11, 2011

The Kyrgyz Republic experienced a tumultuous year in 2010. A popular uprising overthrew the Bakiyev regime, a provisional government took power and declared its intention to create a parliamentary democracy, with meaningful checks and balances to executive power. These ideas were ratified by the people through a constitutional referendum. Meanwhile, ethnic violence claimed the lives of over 400 people, destroyed several thousand homes, and displaced over 300,000 Uzbeks in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad. Competitive parliamentary elections were held in October, followed by the formation of a coalition government in accordance with the constitution. Meanwhile, the combination of political turmoil and ethnic violence dealt a serious blow to economic activity throughout the country, curtailed trade with Kyrgyzstan's neighbors and strained the government budget.

Last July, I attended an international conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, where bilateral and multilateral donors pledged over $1.1 billion in aid to stabilize the Kyrgyz economy, provide emergency relief to displaced persons, and support the country's unprecedented experiment in parliamentary democracy. The U.S. did its part, contributing $145 million, of which nearly $50 million represented previously unplanned, emergency aid. By the end of the year, we had nearly doubled that $50 million, making major additional contributions to the international effort to repair and replace destroyed housing in Osh and Jalalabad, providing food aid to displaced families and others affected by the violence, and launching an extensive stabilization program that dispenses small grants at the community level to promote reconciliation and provide short-term employment opportunities.

The day after the donor conference last summer, I travelled down to Osh to see for myself the impact of the June events. I was staggered by the extent of the destruction. And the destruction I saw wasn't just to homes and shops. As depressing was the damage done to mutual trust and security between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.

I returned to Kyrgyzstan last week to see how the country was faring nearly one year later and -- more relevant to my specific responsibilities as Coordinator of U.S. Assistance -- to assess the impact of our assistance over the past year. While it's impossible to draw firm conclusions based on a couple of days on the ground, most of those I spoke with believe some degree of stability and normality has returned to daily life but that underlying tensions remained serious in the southern regions. On a day-trip to Osh and surrounding areas, we saw first-hand several of the USAID programs that are aimed at providing economic opportunity and improving basic social conditions, while promoting ethnic reconciliation whenever possible.

One such program in the small, ethnically mixed village of Mady in the Kara-Suu region is helping renovate a badly dilapidated Soviet-era sports center. When completed, this will be a complex where village youth, Kyrgyz and Uzbek alike, can play soccer, basketball, and volleyball, receive instruction in wrestling, gymnastics and other sports, and participate in a range of other group activities. With funding provided through USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), local NGO "Erbol" is overseeing reconstruction of the center and has taken on responsibility for creating and organizing the youth programming it will offer.

Mady is really two settlements joined together, one Kyrgyz, one Uzbek. The people of the settlements have traditionally gotten along very well, but it was not immune from last June's violence: 55 Uzbek homes were damaged, and five local men were killed (though the deaths occurred not in the village but in the city of Osh). The local officials with whom we met talked about plans to build new multi-ethnic schools, which they said had been requested by the local Uzbek population, and remarked that there had been more than 100 multi-ethnic marriages in the area in the past year alone. They also described donor-supported efforts to rebuild housing, and the potential for state compensation for victims' families.

Nonetheless, even in this village where local officials and NGOs seem motivated to overcome the ethnic divide, underlying tensions remain. When the discussion turned to the causes of last June's violence, the local Kyrgyz officials pointed to alleged provocations on the part of the Uzbek population. Later, back in Osh City, we toured the Osh Bazaar, once one of the largest open air markets in Central Asia, which was heavily damaged through burning and looting during the June violence. Managed and staffed largely by Uzbeks (but frequented by people of all ethnicities), the market is only operating at 10 percent of its pre-June capacity, and many shopkeepers have been prevented from reoccupying their former stalls by the city administration.

A year later, commerce and trade has returned to Osh, and nearly all of the homes destroyed in the violence have been at least partially rebuilt, with the help of the US and other international donors. But the wounds have not fully healed, and it will take continued effort by the government and civil society -- and targeted help by the international community through programs like the one we saw in Mady -- to ensure a stable and prosperous future for all citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic.


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