Just as the new calendar year was about to begin, new violence broke out in the village of Andarak in southern Kyrgyzstan. Internecine violence among the ethnic groups of Kyrgyzstan has been flaring up periodically for years with the worst outbreaks in 2010. Kyrgyzstan may be the closest thing to be found in Central Asia to a “bi-national state,” the sort of state that some are proposing be imposed upon the Middle East as a “solution” to replace Israel. It is the second poorest of the ex-Soviet republics. The two main ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan are the Kyrgyz, about 70% of the population, until relatively recently in history a nomadic tribal population, and ethnic Uzbeks, close to 20%. There are also ethnic Tajiks living in the country. And there are lessons to learn from the violence there about the viability of multi-ethnic states in the Middle East.
At first glance, Kyrgyzstani ethnic relations might be expected to be idyllic. Both of the two main population groups consist of predominantly Moslem people speaking Turkic dialects. The Tajiks are also Moslem, speaking a language close to Farsi. Yet the country has seen outbreaks of massive inter-ethnic violence. In June 1990, a violent land dispute between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks erupted in the city of Osh. In the summer of 2010, southern Kyrgyzstan was again gripped by bloody internecine violence. (The New Year’s violence this year was between ethnic Tajiks and Kyrgyz.)
The south of Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Uzbek and was sliced off and glued into Kyrgyzstan by the Soviets in order to provide the country with parts of the fertile Fergana Valley. In the 1990 fighting, a state of emergency and curfew were introduced there and the border between the neighboring Uzbekistani and Kirghiz republics was closed. Soviet troops were deployed to stop the violence. According to official reports 230 people died, but unofficial figures range up to more than 1,000.
Central Asia is a part of the globe that is known by few Americans, with even fewer who have visited it. It is composed of countries that almost no American can identify on a map. Yet it is nevertheless an important region, located just north of Afghanistan and near the heartland of the forces of the anti-Western jihad, a region whose strategic worth is increasingly valued by the West in light of the war against terror. And it is also a region in which there are lessons for other parts of the world with regard to “engineering” artificial states. In particular, it illustrates the folly of proposals to construct “bi-national” and “multi-national” states in the Middle East as some sort of recipe for peace.
Throughout history and until very recently, Central Asians lived within the greater states and empires of other peoples, among them the empires of the Chinese, Mongols, Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Turks and Russians. Most of Central Asia was conquered by Alexander the Great and so was opened up to “Western-Hellenistic” cultural influence quite early. Later the region was incorporated within a series of Islamic states, khanates, and empires, including those of Islamized Mongols. Most of the population was Islamized, although at different paces, with those today called Uzbeks being among the earliest to embrace the faith, and those called the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs converting much later, many only in the last two centuries. Historically the population of the region did not see itself as composed of separate “nations,” but rather as heterogeneous cultural and linguistic subgroups and clans within those larger empires, and where religious and tribal ties were far more important than “national” ties.
The nature of statehood and nationality in Central Asia was radically and artificially altered by the Soviets, who sought to neutralize the political ambitions and independence of the peoples of the region through a policy of divide and conquer. The Soviets also decided to erect boundaries for “Socialist Republics” and similar political structures (like “autonomous oblasts”) throughout the region. Stalin and his people intentionally drew “national” boundaries for these new “nations” that often ignored demography and the ethnic compositions of the populations. They drew borders in an intentional way to include large populations of “alien” peoples in each of the new “republics” being invented. For example, two of Uzbekistan’s largest cities are in fact ethnically Tajik.
The Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and many others were all interspersed throughout the territories of the “republics” in a dizzying mosaic. Cynics suspected that the Soviets wanted such structures to prevent ethnic-based opposition from forming, to focus attention of the ethnic groups in conflict against one another so that their populations would be easier to control, and to foment Russification. The languages of these new “countries” were forcibly and artificially transformed by requiring the use of the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, although in recent years Cyrillic is being widely replaced by the Latin alphabet. Stalinist policies of mass expulsion of populations brought other ethnicities and other tensions to Central Asia alongside uprooted populations from the Crimea and Georgia and elsewhere transplanted there.
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