What are the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks fighting about, anyway?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 14 2010 6:08 PM

Why Can't Kyrgyz and Uzbeks Get Along?

Money.

Riots in Osh. Click image to expand.
Riots in Osh, Kyrgyzstan

The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan erupted in riots over the weekend, as ethnic Kyrgyz mobs attacked Uzbeks in the southern city of Osh. The fighting diminished Monday, but armed Kyrgyz gangs still roam the city. Violence is common in the ethnically divided south. What are the two groups fighting about?

Money. Southern Kyrgyzstan is an economically depressed region, with an average annual income of less than half the national average of $2,150. There is a perception that the city's Uzbeks are significantly more prosperous than their Kyrgyz neighbors and have gotten that way through unscrupulous business practices. While there are no hard data to back up this belief, the perception alone has turned the area into a tinderbox. The slightest sparks—economic downturns, changes in government, or rumors of an inter-ethnic crime—have sent armed gangs of unemployed Kyrgyz youth into the streets.

Real historic cultural differences between the two groups feed today's stereotypes. Until the 20th century, the Kyrgyz people were nomads who hunted and herded in the Tien Shan mountain range that dominates the landscape. (The country's average elevation is more than 9,000 feet.) The Uzbeks, by contrast, have been farmers and traders for centuries.

A lot changed during the years of Russian domination between 1876 and 1991. Large numbers of Kyrgyz abandoned their traditional way of life and became unskilled urban or migrant laborers. Many now work in distant Moscow, with remittances from Russia-based workers making up 40 percent of the national income. A fair number of those who moved into Osh work for ethnic Uzbeks, who seem to own a disproportionate share of the region's businesses.

Over the years, certain members of each group began to resent the other. Many Kyrgyz view the Uzbeks as being motivated exclusively by money and suspect that the Uzbeks have made their fortunes swindling the inexperienced Kyrgyz. The word sart, a common anti-Uzbek epithet, refers to a group of urbanites renowned for their financial cunning. It can also be interpreted to mean "yellow dog."( It's a bit of a confusing slur, since Kyrgyz are phenotypically more similar to East Asians, while Uzbeks tend to look more like Russians or Persians. *)

The Uzbeks, for their part, complained of unequal treatment at the hands of the Soviet-era local Kyrgyz government. There were very few Uzbek-language schools, and the government often nationalized Uzbek farmland and used it to build housing for Kyrgyz highlanders moving into the lowlands.

For more than a century, the Russians managed to keep a lid on any tensions between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks. *  The managed economy limited economic disparities, and oppressed Uzbeks could cross the border into Uzbekistan for a dose of culture or schooling. The iron fist of the central government helped, too. Moscow quickly extinguished the few skirmishes that broke out, and no one ever talked about them.

Glasnost changed everything. As society began to open up, there was a surge in Kyrgyz nationalism. Oppressive policies were accelerated. Crossing the border was no longer an option, as Uzbekistan became a far more oppressive and poverty-stricken country than Kyrgyzstan, even for Uzbeks. When word spread of a government plan to seize more Uzbek-owned land in 1990, the two groups took to battle. Only the dwindling power of the Gorbachev government stopped the riots, which killed hundreds.

Tensions have simmered over the past 20 years. Until now, fighting has never reached 1990 levels, but violence is common. Disputes intensify when the economy tanks, as it has recently. In 2009, the demand for Kyrgyz laborers in Moscow dropped dramatically.

No one yet knows what, exactly, sparked the current riots. Some speculate that supporters of the recently ousted president, whose power base was in the south, are spreading rumors of Uzbek treachery to motivate Kyrgyz gangs. But, so far, those reports are unsubstantiated.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Emil Dzhuraev of the University of Maryland and Thomas J. Wood of the University of South Carolina-Aiken.

Corrections, June 15, 2010: The original stated that Uzbeks appear East Asian, while Kyrgyz look Russian or Persian. In fact, it is the opposite.(Return to the corrected sentence.) The original also stated that the Soviets ruled Kyrgyzstan for more than century. Of course, the Soviet Union didn't last a full century. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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