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June 30, 2010

Refugees Returning Home in Kyrgyzstan Face Difficult Conditions

by James Brooke

In Central Asia, most refugees and internally displaced people from last month's interethnic fighting in southern Kyrgyzstan have returned to what is left of their homes. But the root causes of the unrest remain unaddressed, and experts say violence could soon erupt again.

A swelling population is fighting over scarce farmland and irrigation water.  Migration to Russia for work, a key escape valve, has closed off.  And now there is June's legacy of 2,000 people dead and thousands of houses burned in riots.

That is the picture painted by experts studying Kyrgyzstan's Fergana Valley.  Kathleen Kuenast, an American anthropologist with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, says that half of the region's population there is less than 30 years of age.

"It is truly the most fertile region, where anything and everything grows very well.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that it is the most populated part of Central Asia for the same reasons.  There is a lot of contestation over resources, primarily land," she said.

In recent years, unemployed young men journeyed more than 1,600 kilometers north to Russia, where work was plentiful in the oil boom economy.  But with the world economic crisis, Russia's economy shrank, construction froze and tens of thousands of Central Asia workers were sent home.

Thomas Wood, a Eurasia specialist at the University of South Carolina, has studied the impact of the economic downturn on Central Asia.  "In combination with this, as in the rest of Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan has been plunged into a major economic crisis that has been worsening in roughly the past 10 years.  The Kyrgyz migrant laborers for a long time were a very important component of the Russian economy as well as the south Kazakh economy.  With the global financial crisis, what you see is fewer job opportunities for them in Russia and Kazakhstan.  So you've got a lot of people from all ethnic groups who were working abroad, returning to the Fergana," he said.

Twenty years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia lost an outside arbiter to decide land and water use issues in an area that now includes four independent nations.  Since then, public services have eroded, pushing down levels of education and nutrition.

Kuenast says that during Soviet times, many people in the southern Kyrgyzstan ate better and received better schooling. "We have truly a huge number of youth that are disaffected, that have half of the education their parents did, very little economic viability or hope," she said.

Without jobs, young men cannot afford to get married, increasing levels of frustration.

The U.S. government is giving $42 million in emergency aid to Kyrgyzstan, much of it directed at creating summer public works jobs for young men in the riot torn areas of the south.

The interim government in Kyrgyzstan took power after riots in April in Bishkek, the nation's capital.  After three months, its control of the country is shaky.  In Southern Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbeks say Krygyz government soldiers and vehicles participated in attacks on their communities.  Today, ethnic mistrust is high.  There are calls by Uzbek leaders for autonomy.  There are reports that both groups are arming.

Zamira Sydykova, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, told conference participants that she worries that talk of Uzbek autonomy is increasing. "Autonomy -- it's one of the requests could come from Uzbek diasporas, Uzbek cultural centers and leaders who will try to play the game, who will try to involve in some of the political affairs of the country," she said.

But Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia specialist at George Mason University, told the conference that some form of local autonomy might be the only way to quell ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan. "There already are de facto Uzbek autonomous regions in the south.  And it is not simply entire regional territories, but there are sections within cities that are mixed cities that are in essence autonomous.  So the immediate question is:  Do we give these de facto autonomous regions legitimacy or the does the government continue to fight to wrest control back from these regions?  A productive outcome would be to recognize this autonomy and try to create some kind of cooperative framework where there is local rule within the framework of the greater Kyrgyz state,'' he said.

Kyrgyzstan is the world's only nation to host an American and a Russian military base.  Russia has had a military presence in Kyrgystan since the 1876, when Czar Alexander II absorbed the area into his empire.  In 2001, the United States opened a military transit center, a staging area for NATO's northern supply route to Afghanistan.

Both bases are in the north of Kyrgyzstan.  A mountain chain separates them from the turbulent south.