This summer's tenth anniversary of the 1990 Kyrgyz-Uzbek riots in Osh coincided with a recent exponential growth of interest in the theme of conflict in the Ferghana Valley, and its Kyrgyzstani city of Osh in particular. The area has been re-defined in the popular imagination as a tinderbox of ethnic conflict just waiting to explode. However this picture is far from the reality lived by Osh residents.
Interethnic tension among Uzbeks and Kyrgyz does indeed exist in Osh part of the legacy of the brutal inter-ethnic fighting in 1990. That conflict was sparked in part by heavy Kyrgyz in-migration over a short time period from rural areas into a traditionally multi-ethnic town with a large Uzbek majority. The in-migration occurred at a time of growing unemployment and rising nationalism. Ultimately, a dispute over land distribution for homeless Kyrgyz flared up into very bitter inter-communal rioting leaving hundreds dead.
Since then, mutual suspicion has remained high. Intermarriage is rare and social segregation is strong. Questions about equal access to education and jobs are issues of great concern for Uzbeks. For Uzbeks in Osh, the difficulty of positioning themselves between an Uzbekistan that considers them as foreigners, and a Kyrgyzstan that doubts their loyalty leads many to describe their situation as being "between two fires."
Nevertheless there have been very few significant incidents of ethnic or other violence in Osh or the Valley as a whole since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In much of the Valley outside Osh, mixed marriages between groups such as Kyrgyz and Uzbek, and Uzbek and Tajik are high. Life-cycle rituals are similar, and communities are largely intermixed.
Only a few Uzbeks have left Kyrgyzstan, compared with massive Russian out-migration. With government support, higher educational opportunities in Uzbek language have widened considerably. There is more of a sense now than five years ago among many Uzbeks that they have a future in Kyrgyzstan. Many additionally realize that their future is, in some respects, brighter in Kyrgyzstan, which is relatively open, than that of their ethnic kin in more authoritarian Uzbekistan.
Recent developments -- such as the celebration of Kyrgyzstan's first cosmonaut, Osh Uzbek Solijon Sharipov, as a national hero, and the naming of the Uzbek mayor of Osh's Nookat region as Mayor of the Year 1999 serve as positive, albeit limited, signs of a state in which Uzbeks can advance.
Local people have developed various mechanisms to ensure that the 1990 events do not reoccur. Zoya Yevstratenko, a 71-year-old Russian widow in Osh, serves as one inspiring example. For some time tensions in her neighborhood had been rising between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and between Kyrgyz and Russians. The ethnic balance of her apartment block had been altered by the immigration of Kyrgyz replacing Russians who had emigrated. Tensions grew between adults over issues such as waste disposal, and fights between children were frequent. In response to this, Zoya organised a carnival performance for the neighbourhood children. Every day for a month she rehearsed with them music, songs, poetry and dances in the open air outside their apartment block.
At first people were reluctant to get involved, but slowly parents began providing assistance with a variety of organizing activities, including making costumes. The June 14 concert was such a success that another one was organized the next month with much greater parent participation.
The concerts transformed the neighborhood, significantly reducing the level of inter-ethnic tensions. "People who weren't acquainted before now know each other and drink tea together," said one Russian man. "It's great, really, the effects are so positive," said a Kyrgyz neighbour. "Before the kids fought each other a lot, Uzbek against Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz against Russian, but now they play as friends together in the evenings." Everyone is eager for the program to continue, and people from neighbouring blocks of flats are also showing an interest in launching similar initiatives.
Zoya Yevstratenko herself is modest about her achievements. "I never thought I would do this," she said, "but the children were just hanging around with nothing to do. In the Soviet times there were activities provided, such as Pioneer [Communist youth] camps." She told us that she neither asked for nor wanted help from the authorities, but drew on her 30 years of experience as a nursery school teacher.
The approach of uniting divided communities through children is one that needs to be encouraged. The NGO Foundation for Tolerance International has been bringing Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik children together in the south of Kyrgyzstan through activities such as environmental protection and the joint celebration of the spring Noorus festival.
With border disputes, land shortages, unemployment and state nationalism, the Ferghana Valley contains significant potential for ethnic conflict to erupt. In spite of this, Osh has been spared from a repeat of the 1990 riots. This is partly due to government policy, but also due to the determination of local people to find solutions to their own problems.
This October, Osh will celebrate 3,000 years of history as a multi-cultural city. It is that anniversary, rather than the unfortunate events of 10 years ago that city residents are focussing on. By drawing on the examples of people like Zoya Yevstratenko, one can hope that the relative peace of today will continue.
Dr Antonina Zaharova is a Senior Research Officer of the south section of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences and an expert on ethnic relations in the Ferghana Valley and the history of Osh. Nick Megoran is a post-graduate student at Cambridge University. His email address is [email protected]