One year after ethnic violence rocked southern Kyrgyzstan, leaving over 400 dead, gunshot wounds have been established as the main cause of death. Activists believe the country is still awash with firearms, and security experts say weapons are likely to keep featuring in domestic political struggles, especially as officials seek support from gun-toting associates or even arm themselves.
During the violent overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, protestors seized hundreds of weapons in several cities. Then, in June, security forces lost control of more firearms in the south. But already, before last year’s upheavals, Kyrgyzstan’s porous border with Tajikistan provided a gateway for small arms, traveling along the drug-trafficking routes north from Afghanistan.
Their potential is clearly devastating. An exhaustive investigation into the June 10-14, 2010, ethnic bloodletting found that though a majority of participants were unarmed, most of the deaths and injuries were the result of gunfire. The independent Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission (KIC) estimated that two-thirds of the 470 killed during the violence had been shot and of the 1,930 injured, half had suffered gunshot wounds.
Miroslav Niyazov, a former chair of the National Security Committee (GKNB), warns that authorities have no idea how many guns are floating around the country because, in addition to the weapons lost last year, criminal groups have been importing them from Afghanistan for years.
“We can safely say, ‘A lot of guns.’ Talk is of thousands, rather than hundreds. That, in turn, is a threat that can cause local conflicts, and local conflicts can escalate into civil conflicts and, eventually, civil war,” Niyazov told EurasiaNet.org.
“While there is still open opposition between political factions, especially north and south, arms will always be in demand,” he added.
The proliferation of arms represents “a grave threat” to national security, says Alexander Zelichenko, a former police colonel and director of the Bishkek-based think-tank, the Central Asian Center for Narcopolicy.
“It’s common knowledge that after [Bakiyev’s overthrow on] April 7, a great number of arms appeared among the ordinary population. Participants in the political events of 2010 disarmed security services, Special Forces and the police,” he said. “During the conflict in Osh, whole [military] battalions handed over their weapons to non-military personnel.”
Rather than addressing the risk, parliament seems intent on increasing the number of weapons in the country. Following a fistfight in the legislature on April 1, GKNB officers locked down the building and searched several deputies and their staff. They seized at least 11 firearms, including a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Afterwards, Speaker Akmatbek Keldibekov from the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt party proposed legislation that would allow deputies to bring weapons to work.
“Any given politician surrounds himself with his personal bodyguard, and has other forces -- informal forces -- that support him, and also have easy access to weapons in the event of a conflict,” said Niyazov. The continued proliferation of weapons is thus “inevitable,” while the “risk that political confrontations can become armed confrontations is ever-present.”
Human rights activist Toktayim Umetalieva, a former presidential candidate, spent several weeks in May and June touring the country with a “peace caravan,” collecting arms -- everything from Italian pistols to grenades -- from civilians.
“We have been conducting explanatory work in every region, acting as mediators between the police and the common people,” Umetalieva told EurasiaNet.org. The activist, who intends to run for president again this fall, says the government offered civilians nominal sums for returning weapons -- “$100 for a Winchester pump [shotgun]; $30 for a grenade.”
Umetalieva believes people are scared to relinquish their weapons. “The people are sick of conflict and want to give the weapons back, but some do not fully trust the police not to put them in jail, so this is a major barrier,” she said. Others believe they need the guns to protect themselves.
Niyazov and Zelichenko argue that the June violence was a direct consequence of elites -- including criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking -- jockeying for influence during the power vacuum following Bakiyev’s overthrow. Domestic powerbrokers further destabilized the situation by deploying civilians in armed political confrontations, as happened in Jalal-Abad in May.
“After the so-called ‘revolution,’ the vertical power structure collapsed overnight,” Niyazov explained. “A small group [of politicians] came in and appointed their own mayors, governors and akims [district heads]. But the ex-mayors and ex-governors retained their weapons and their supporters. A perfect example of the effects of this was the armed disorder in the south in May 2010, a month before the events in Osh.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.