Political instability is encouraging inter-ethnic hostility in Kyrgyzstan. Some Bishkek schools and shops closed on April 20, a day after a pogrom shattered the peace in a suburb of the Kyrgyz capital. Some non-Kyrgyz residents are now saying they want to leave the Central Asian country.
Since the political unrest that forced former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee Bishkek on April 7, squatters have grabbed land in Bishkek suburbs in a move mirroring events after 2005’s so-called Tulip Revolution. For the past five years, thousands have lived in suburban novostroyki, or new constructions, without ownership permits or rights to social services.
On April 19, hundreds of squatters attacked Meskhetian Turks living in nearby villages, reportedly seeking to take over farm plots. In Maevka, locals told EurasiaNet that 28 out of 80 Meskhetian homes were attacked, some burned to the ground. Riot police dispatched to Maevka arrested 130 marauders late on April 19, local media outlets reported. The violence claimed at least five lives and left 28 injured.
Binali Dursunov, 50, says he believes he was targeted for his ethnicity. "They were running around yelling, ’Go away Turks, this is our land,’" he told EurasiaNet.org standing in the gutted, burned shell of his family home. "They went to the Turkish houses and some Russian houses got damaged on the other side of the village as well. Kyrgyz homes weren’t damaged at all."
Praising her ethnic Kyrgyz neighbors, Dursunov’s Meskhetian neighbor Sonya Omurkanova, 40, said, "Our Kyrgyz neighbors were coming out, standing in the gates to the Turkish houses, telling the crowd it is a Kyrgyz home; the crowds then passed by." The Kyrgyz also hid some Turks.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Meskhetian Turks en masse from their traditional homeland in Georgia to Central Asia in 1944. They live throughout the region; an estimated 20,000-30,000 reside in Kyrgyzstan. Other ethnic minorities have also faced violence in the recent past. Last year, clashes in the village of Petrovka, outside of Bishkek, erupted after a rumor that an ethnic Kurd had raped a young girl.
"We are afraid. People are saying there is a crowd gathering again and that they want to come here again tonight," Dursunov said. "We’re ready to go to Turkey. We’re not living here but just existing. ? In Turkey, our faces are the same so no one’s going to look askance at us."
The whole Meskhetian Turk community is nervous. Ethnic Russians in Maevka told EurasiaNet.org they were packing to leave, or at least send their children to Bishkek for safety while they remain to protect their homes.
"We heard that on the other side [of the village] they killed one Russian young man," said Irina Kolichkina, 30. "We are leaving now after we feed our cattle. We packed all our clothes and necessary things in the car. We are going to a friend’s place in Bishkek, but don’t know yet for how long. My husband will be coming back to feed the animals."
One ethnic Russian told EurasiaNet.org he was attacked by the mob. "About 20 or 30 people jumped through my fence and I understood right away I was going to be beaten. They started running towards me and I had a colleague with me who was Kyrgyz. They didn’t touch him," said Maevka resident Nikolai Anikeev, 60. He praised Kyrgyz women for saving him, but said his opinion of Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz had been forever altered.
"I think a lot of Russians will leave Kyrgyzstan soon. If Russian people are not stupid, they will leave for Russia. I was planning to stay here until the last days of my life, but if I have a chance, I will leave for Russia too," he said. "I don’t think this is a land problem because if they get the land today, they will want to take our houses tomorrow."
Dursunov warned of more chaos: "They looted the city and villages and yet the government is still silent. I don’t know what they are waiting for. Do they want more casualties?"
The lack of central authority is feeding the chaos, said Gulnara Ibraeva, associate professor of sociology at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. "The lack of state power brings out all competitive alternative powers like criminals and other groups," she said. She called for the imposition of martial law until the provisional government can consolidate authority.
Echoing a widely held concern, Ibraeva said, "I am sure that someone organized this crowd. They were well organized... Someone paid for this."
Some ethnic Kyrgyz envy those from other ethnic groups with access to land near the capital. "They say, ’I am Kyrgyz, I don’t have the right to this piece of land close to Bishkek. Why is this other person who came from I-don’t-know-where possessing this land? This is my motherland.’ Such logic is very common," Ibraeva explained.
As Dursunov pleaded for mercy, "they told me that they were instructed to do this. I don’t know whether it was true or not, but the most important thing now is that I have nothing," he said. "We are like homeless people now."
Dinara Oshurahunova, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said poverty is fueling the tension. "There are a huge amount of unemployed people in Bishkek now due to the internal migration from other regions of Kyrgyzstan," she told EurasiaNet.org. "A lot of people [appropriated] land [in 2005] and back then the government let them do that. Now people want to use this situation for those land invasion purposes again."
Such land grabs do not happen spontaneously, but are "organized and target the settled villages," she added. "Today, the police are demoralized," she continued. "The government is not consolidated and they don’t have clear measures."
Besides consolidating power, the state must be ready to confront dangerous rumors that help breed ethnic tension, said Ibraeva of the American University. "Rumors are very powerful things. If no one from the state works with rumors, they become real. If people identify the situation as real, the situation will have real consequences."
David Trilling is the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet. Alina Dalbaeva contributed reporting to this story.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.