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6. Ethnic conflict in the Osh region in summer 1990: Reasons and lessons

Abilabek Asankanov

Abilabek Asankanov

The territories of the former Soviet Union have experienced several interethnic conflicts, particularly in Sumgait, Fergana, Noviy Uzgen (Kazakhstan), and Tuva. The bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh is still going on. Here, I shall focus on the Osh conflict in the summer of 1990, which involved the large Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups of Central Asia. This conflict shares several common features with conflicts elsewhere, but differs also. Furthermore, as elsewhere, in this "Turkic self-genocide" the ethno-territorial interests of the people were aroused. This tragedy was prompted by the difficult socioeconomic conditions and under-utilized labour resources in the region. The conflict is also connected with the struggle for access to power. A certain part of the population was seeking power and "greater liberty."

As we shall see below, this conflict was characterized by the cruel forms which it took: murder, rape, arson, and massacre. This report is based on statistical material, periodicals, research, observations, and analysis of our own sociological observations. Nearly 2,000 people Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Russian - of the towns Osh, Uzgen, Jalal-Abad, and Kara-Suu, where the tragic events happened, were interviewed in a survey carried out in May 1992.

The population of the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan is composed of Kyrgyz people (54.6%), Uzbeks (27.1%), Russians (about 10%), Tajiks (1.5%), Ukrainians (1.3%), and many others.1 The polytechnic population has increased through immigration from other republics, particularly neighbouring Uzbekistan, at the expense of natural increase in the native population.

In Uzgen, the main conflict took place on 5-7 June 1990, with sporadic outbursts of criminality on other days as well. Both sides committed arson, killed horses, and plundered shops and offices. They were armed with smaller guns, pistols, sticks, and rods. Murders in Uzgen, Osh, and other regions were committed by strangulation with wire or rope; torture and beating; assault and battery using axes, stones, and other hard objects; and guns. There were cases when the victim was burnt, to make identification impossible. Rape was characteristic of both sides, as were various forms of humiliation and torture, such as parading women naked in the street.

It is still early to draw any final conclusions as to the results and lessons of these bloody events. We may only sum up the number of victims and the material damage caused to the inhabitants of the region and the state, and venture some preliminary remarks. During this "self-genocide," according to official data, more than 300 people were killed, including about two dozen people who could not be identified. Three dozen disappeared. The material damage, according to preliminary data, runs to about 100 million roubles.

A number of different economic, social, and political factors can be adduced as reasons for the ethnic conflict in the Osh region. In economic terms, Kyrgyzstan had been developing one-sidedly, serving as a source of raw materials for industrially developed regions of the Soviet Union. In the region, industry developed at a slower pace in small towns where the mining and processing branches of industry were predominantly under Union control. The population had been mainly engaged in agriculture with its hard manual labour, cultivating tobacco and cotton and breeding sheep and cattle. By the late 1980s, the Soviet Federation of Trade Unions calculated that more than 80 per cent of the population had incomes lower than the living wage and were on the verge of poverty.2

The Osh region, where over half of the population of the republic lives, has been lagging behind the average level for the republic in most respects. Among those interviewed, 57 per cent pointed to the backwardness of the economy in the region, low wages, and low living standards as the main causes of the tragic events in Osh. All those interviewed, whether Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, or Russians, mentioned these as the main causes of this Turkic "self-annihilation." To be more precise, 51.9 per cent of the Kyrgyz respondents identified these as the main causes, as did 57.3 per cent of the Uzbeks and 75.1 per cent of the Russians.

The existing economic structure, weak socio-cultural structures, and a high birth rate among the native population, led to a situation in which nearly 150,000 people in the republic (or every sixth inhabitant) were engaged in industry, of whom three-quarters were young people.3 This social group is the main destabilizing force in the republic. The bulk of the crowds committing excesses were youths. Thus, 78.7 per cent of those interviewed said that young men aged 20-29 took the most active part in the conflict. This was also confirmed by the militia.

The advent of a market economy undoubtedly brings unemployment, especially among young men. This could significantly aggravate the situation in the future. The population of the Osh region is expected to number three million in 18-20 years, making Osh, especially the areas near the Fergana Valley, the most densely populated area not only in the republic and in Central Asia, but in the former Soviet Union. The population is by and large concentrated in the plains - conveniently for agriculture and industry - in areas near the Fergana Valley in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Here, the density of the population requires changes in the economic structure. The republic needs to build plants and factories to process raw materials.

Mobility among the native population is relatively low. The policy guidelines that dictate that all school graduates are required to work on the farms are ill-suited. Such a call leads in some places to a surplus of labour resources, thus complicating the situation. It is necessary to enroll village women, especially young women, to work in industry and to stimulate their involvement in society.

The housing problem became one of the most important factors in the tragic events in Osh. Statistically, 47 per cent of the Kyrgyz, 49 per cent of the Russians, and 48.3 per cent of the Uzbeks surveyed thought that one of the main causes of the tragedy was the housing shortage. In Osh region nearly 60.000 families, or every sixth family, was on the waiting list for housing.4 In ethnic terms, the bulk of these still waiting were young native men. For years they have been waiting for dwellings and plots of land, while living in hostels. Among their actions, they formed the informal organization Osh Aimagi.

It was a criminal error for the authorities to give plots of land for housing on the kolkhoz (collective farm) named after Lenin, without the prior consent of its leaders. The bulk of the population in this district is Uzbek. The situation changed radically after opposition to this move developed into interethnic conflict.

One of the causes of the 1990 tragedy was the collusion of the nomenklatura, the militia, and the business sector, who forgot about the elementary social conditions of workers and thought only of personal gain. As President Akaev put it, in the South social and property differentiation was taking place between poor and rich, those who had power and those who did not. When the situation erupted into violence, the corrupt leaders had no control.5 Indeed, they themselves brought on the conflict. Of those interviewed, 43.7 per cent said that the mafia's activity was one of the main reasons for the Osh tragedy (by "mafia" we mean the criminal collusion of business people and the authorities of the district, the city, and the regions.

This problem is closely connected with that of training of national cadres. Especially during the post-war period, it was thought in the former Soviet Union that a precondition for a correct national policy was the training and representation in the organs of power of all the ethnic groups living in the country or in the republic. This was often done to the detriment of the professions, business, and other sectors. It was assumed that any excessive clustering of representatives of one ethnic group in a particular sphere of public life or power would cause discontent among another ethnic group.

In 1990 Kyrgyz constituted 66.6 per cent in the executive committee of the Osh Regional Soviet of People's Deputies, Russians 13.7 per cent, and Uzbeks 5.8 per cent.6 At the same time, however, Uzbeks constituted 71.4 per cent of all those working in the trade system of Osh. These disproportion's were also characteristic of the militia. Ethnic disproportion in the training of cadres caused discontent among Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike.

At the same time, these people, working in the service sector nomenklatura, lived in peace and friendship for a long time. Uzbeks in the service sector fed and served the party workers, the workers of Soviets, and militia workers "at the highest level." The latter provided the workers in the trade sector with success in collecting their capital. Such "mutual aid" among the corrupt upper strata of a region, a city, the militia, and in the service sector guaranteed a smooth social and inter-ethnic facade for a long time.

But this could not go on forever. At the same time the majority of the population - Kyrgyz and Uzbeks - was living in misery and poverty. With greater democratization of the society, activity among the people was growing. People with "trade capital" who had amassed fortunes lacked only power and independence. To gain these, they raised the question of "Uzbek" autonomy within Osh region. They were the inspirers in 1989 of the Adalat Union, consisting of nationalistic Uzbeks, including those favouring separation.

These events coincided with the removal of the Osh Regional Executive Committee leaders. The new leadership began by dismissing Kyrgyz with close ties to the regional commercial mafia, thus causing discontent among the latter. Removed from power, the representatives of the mafia turned to the people for support, inflaming nationalist and separatist sentiments. More than one-third of those interviewed stressed that one of the causes of the Osh tragedy were mistakes in the selection of the cadres.

For the future, the authorities should try to use the existing structures to serve the interests of the people, instead of destroying or dismantling them. Time is needed for the transition of people from one historical occupation to another. Excessive "percentomania" in the placing of national cadres in the public structures of power, without taking into account their professional qualities, damages the national economy. It is necessary to rise above the difficulties of narrow national psychology and interests. However, some local authorities have taken the wrong path in the forming of cadres. Thus, in the Kara-Suu district, after the tragic events, the authorities began mechanically changing the national composition of the militia, recruiting young Uzbeks without paying any attention to their moral, political, or physical training. Although young Uzbeks were reluctant to work in the militia, the local authorities promised them all kinds of possible and impossible social guarantees in order to bring the ethnic composition of militia into conformity with the ethnic structure of the district.

The socio-cultural aspects of the Osh region are weakly developed, compared to other regions of the republic. Strictly speaking, there is no effective system of medical care in the South. Kyrgyzstan ranks lowest among the former Soviet republics in the number of its doctors. As a result, infant mortality is very high in the Osh region; in fact, it is the highest in the republic.

The republic, especially the rural areas of the Osh region, needs far more educational and cultural institutions. For example, only 25 per cent of children in the Osh region attend kindergarten; in the rural areas only 16 per cent.7 The number of schools constitutes only 65 per cent of what is actually needed. Furthermore, the south of Kyrgyzstan lags far behind the rest of the republic in the number of cinemas, clubs, theatres, museums, and libraries. As for everyday repairs and other services, the Osh region ranks lowest in the republic. Every second respondent expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the service institutions. All these factors lead to social tension and discontent among the population.

National concord depends by and large on the culture of relations among nations and groups. Inter-ethnic conflicts usually take place when general culture is low, and the traditions, interests, languages, and customs of some nations are neglected in favour of others. Thus, 20.7 per cent of respondents said that the cause of the tragedy was the low cultural level of the population: 16.3 per cent of Kyrgyz and 20.1 per cent of Uzbeks mentioned the low cultural level as the cause of the inter-ethnic conflict, whereas 40.3 per cent of the Russian respondents pointed to this factor.

From the middle to the late 1980s, there was considerable growth in political activity and national self-consciousness among all the peoples of Kyrgyzstan, and indeed the whole Union. A gradual liberation from totalitarianism in the republic, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, was marked by the active growth of informal public unions: national movements, national and cultural centres, associations, societies, and the like. The "National Democratic Front of Kyrgyzstan," consisting of Kyrgyz, and Adalat, consisting exclusively of Uzbeks, appeared in the Osh region in 1989. Later, Osh Aimagi, which was exclusively Kyrgyz, emerged. In these two informal groups, nationalistic Osh Aimagi and separatist Adalat objectives took shape.

Osh Aimagi undertook mainly the social tasks, such as getting plots of land for individual housing for the Kyrgyz. It demanded the territory of the Lenin kolkhoz of the Kara-Suu district, planning to create a Kyrgyz village there. In this kolkhoz, however, the bulk of the population was Uzbek. Discontent among the kolkhoz inhabitants swiftly became inter-ethnic opposition.

Representatives of the Adalat group submitted 20 claims, including Uzbek autonomy in the Osh region and recognition of the Uzbek language. More than one-third (35 per cent) of the Kyrgyz respondents considered the Uzbek aspiration for autonomy in the Osh region to be the cause of the Osh conflict.

In fact, such demands for autonomy were raised not only by separatist groups like Adalat. In the late 1980s the awakening of the national consciousness was characteristic of the greater part of the Uzbek population in the Osh region. The idea of national separatism also was typical of educated, well-to-do Uzbeks in high posts and Uzbek aksakals (elders), who were held in high respect. They were the inspirers and sponsors of Adalat, but at the same time they preferred to keep in the background, as we will see below. In March 1990, a petition signed by 23 Uzbek inhabitants of Jalal-Abad town including 16 communists, two Heroes of Socialist Labour, and one Hero of the Soviet Union - was sent to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and of the Kyrgyz SSR, where the creation of the autonomous republic was declared.8 Such declarations also appeared in Uzbekistan, for example in the Tashkent Institute of Microbiology.

These claims put forward by various leaders of the informal unions became a principal cause of the Osh tragedy. If only the regional party committee, the regional executive committee, and the leaders of the Central Committee of the republic had acted more resolutely, this tragedy could have been prevented. The party leaders in the republic and in the Osh region did not change their approach, nor display any resourcefulness in this matter, but worked in an old command-administrative style. They either prohibited informal movements or gave them free rein.

The confession of the leaders of the republic that they did little to keep ahead of events is really striking. The former First Secretary of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, A. Masaliev, admitted in an interview with Pravda that the conflict was quite unexpected.9

Sometimes criminal errors were committed. The decision of the leaders of the Osh region to allot fertile lands of the Lenin kolkhoz for housing for the Kyrgyz youth was one such blunder. This is reflected in the fact that 6.9 per cent of the Kyrgyz, 18.1 per cent of the Uzbeks, and 16.7 per cent of the Russian respondents said that the actions of the local authorities and the party organization caused the Osh conflict. Furthermore, 12.5 per cent of the Kyrgyz, 34.8 per cent of the Uzbeks, and 28.9 per cent of the Russians stressed that the conflict began with the allocation of plots of land for housing. According to 53.4 per cent of those interviewed, the local authorities knew about the coming conflict and failed to take adequate measures to prevent it. This was confirmed by the report of the head of the regional KGB, Colonel A. Mameev.10

Between January and June 1990 the leadership of the Osh region KGB delivered nine reports to the regional committee and to the regional executive committee about the potentially explosive situation between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These reports also contained concrete recommendations. But neither the reports nor the recommendations were given any serious attention.

The "rumour syndrome" played a major part in the inter-ethnic conflict. In answer to the question "What was the cause of the fight between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks?", 43.4 per cent of respondents said that it was the allocation of plots of land. However, 39.4 per cent of those interviewed answered that they began to fight after hearing that '`our folk are being beaten and killed." But actually, there were no murders and conflicts in those places. Lack of objective information, weakly developed mass media, the low level of education among both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, and the inexperience of the militia aggravated the situation.

The reports of the KGB pointed out the great role of trade and service workers in the inter-ethnic conflict. As mentioned above, the disproportions in the cadre arrangement and in trade and commerce were one cause of the tragedy. Of those interviewed 40.9 per cent said that trade and service workers were neutral in the conflict, 15.2 per cent thought that they were leaders and that they instigated the conflict, whereas 25.4 per cent answered that they only sponsored the actions.

Our ethno-sociological investigations confirmed the report of the KGB, according to which the opposing sides, especially Uzbeks, had long been preparing for this conflict. The Uzbeks had probably begun preparations in February 1990. Some of the Uzbek population in Osh began to drive out Kyrgyz tenants from their lodgings, prompted by the threats of Uzbek extremists to set fire to their houses if they did not expel their Kyrgyz tenants. The result was the appearance of some 1.5 thousand young Kyrgyz men in Osh who joined Osh Aimagi.

Of those interviewed, 63.9 per cent thought that the confrontations were premeditated, 24.6 per cent did not respond, and 8.7 per cent said that they did not think the violence was premeditated. More than a quarter of those interviewed answered that the Uzbeks had been preparing for the violence, 17.6 per cent that the Kyrgyz had been preparing, and 15.5 per cent that both sides had been doing so.

What was the attitude of other peoples toward this conflict? Besides Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Russians, there are Ukrainians, Tatars, Turks from Meskhetia, and others living in southern Kyrgyzstan. Of those surveyed, 59.6 per cent replied that other peoples were neutral observers and 21.3 per cent that they tried to conciliate two fraternal nations; only 2.4 per cent replied that the others sided with the Uzbeks, and 6.1 per cent that they took the Kyrgyz part.

To normalize the situation enormous forces were drawn in: the armed forces of the Soviet Army militia and KGB from other union republics. Three quarters of those interviewed answered that the Soviet Army normalized the situation, 38.6 per cent that it was the militia that did so.

All are anxious about the problem of averting inter-ethnic conflicts in the future. Solutions to economic and social problems are also of interest to people. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those interviewed answered the question "what measures should be taken to prevent national conflicts?" by saying that "it is necessary to improve living conditions"; then came such factors as "strengthening of friendship between nations" (48.7%), "the correct arrangement of cadres" (38.4%), and "improving the work of the militia" (38.6%).

For that reason, we may conclude that solving socio-economic problems will help bring about a normal state of inter-ethnic relations in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.


1. Results of All-Union Census on the population, 1989 (Naselenie SSSR: podannym vsevoiaznoi perepisi naseleniia, 1989), Moscow, 1990.

2. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 19 June 1991.

3. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 15 January 1991.

4. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 15 August 1990.

5. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 15 January 1990.

6. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 15 August 1990.

7. Ala-too (literature and feature magazine) no. 2,1991.

8. Pravda, 25 September 1990.

9. Sovetskaya Kirghizia, 23 September 1990.

10. Kaplya-Express, supplement to Literaturnyi Kyrgyzsran no. 1, October 1990.

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