Kyrgyzstan's Dangerous Game: The Politics of Grief
Dilbar, who’s in her 50s, but looks closer to 70, wants her son’s decapitated body back. She says she wants to give him a proper burial. She’s seen the corpse, recognized his birthmarks, tattoos and a scar on his buttocks left behind by a childhood accident. But the Osh authorities won’t return him, she says, claiming they cannot get a close enough DNA match. (Fingerprints are not an option, as his hands are missing, too.) Together with 20 or 30 others who lost relatives to the interethnic clashes last June, Dilbar is picketing the parliament in Bishkek. The scene is both heart-rending and infuriating: The grief of the bereaved is layered with political slogans, some of them taped to the fence behind them. But whose slogans are they? The families’? Or the political groups’ vying for dominance in the country’s shaky ruling coalition?Dilbar and her fellow protesters, mostly ethnic Kyrgyz from the south of the country, are demanding that authorities return their loved ones’ bodies, punish those responsible for the violence, which left over 400 dead, and provide more compensation. A billboard-size, full-color banner hanging from the metal fence shows photos of 65 mutilated corpses, headlined “Innocent Kyrgyz who were brutally killed during the Osh Events.” By implication, the killers were Uzbeks. Another banner calls for the punishment of Uzbek businessman Kadyrjan Batyrov, accused by many Kyrgyz -- including a national commission investigating June’s events -- of instigating the violence. The group in front of parliament calls itself the Osh Martyrs Movement and arrived on March 22. Members pass around laminated photos of loved ones—sometimes a headless corpse, genitals whited out or covered with a piece of cloth. Old men stand on the street crying. Meanwhile, state officials take turns publicly glad-handing the crowd. Political manipulation of moving stories is commonplace worldwide. But when the backdrop for personal tragedy is Kyrgyzstan’s interethnic violence, the game takes on an extra dangerous twist. The Osh Martyrs Movement has gathered at an auspicious time. Inside the imposing white building behind the fence, the weak government coalition looks set to splinter. And the first to rush to the protesters’ aid was a vocal member of the struggle: Kamchybek Tashiev, whose power base is in the south. Just a week before the Osh families began their protest in Bishkek, Tashiev had written an open letter to Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, demanding that Atambayev “solve the problems of those affected by the April 7 [uprising] and June events -- speed up work on DNA identification of those who went missing; commemorate those who died; provide housing and financial aid to the affected families.” Tashiev, of the nationalist Ata-Jurt Party, which entered parliament with the most votes last fall, is in the same coalition with Atambayev, for now. Many suspect they will face off in presidential elections this fall: Tashiev representing the south and Atambayev the north. So it may be no surprise that the banners and placards on parliament’s fence address the country’s most explosive political issue: Who is responsible for the “Osh Events”? The protesters tend to lay blame on the interim government then in power, which is made up primarily of Atambayev’s political allies, including President Roza Otunbayeva, and also on influential Uzbeks who entered a political alliance with that government immediately after it came to power last April.“Stop Separatism!” demands one of the signs, a reference to fears that Uzbeks wish to secede—fears that helped fuel June’s violence. “We do not trust the government of Otunbayeva that supports the separatists!” says another. A third names Atambayev himself as guilty. Is the group really just interested in the return of the bodies, punishment and “moral and material compensation”? When the prime minister met with a delegation from the Osh Martyrs Movement on March 23, he promised aid, but bluntly noted this was about more than the bodies missing since last summer. Atambayev cautioned relatives of the victims to watch out for politicians “seeking to use people's grief to pursue narrow self-interest,” the 24.kg news agency quoted him as saying. Parliament’s denizens have their political ambitions. But when Uzbeks, as a group, get dragged into the mudslinging, they are like the headless goat tossed about in a match of kok-boru, while the real contest is among groups of ethnic Kyrgyz leaders. And kok-boru is a very dangerous game.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.