Local Tensions Trump Beijing’s Power in Southern Kyrgyzstan

By Casey Michel

Jalalabad school gates

Kyrgyz school children hang around the main entrance of school in 2011, the broken iron gates are a result of the violent riots in 2010. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

Khairulo Mamadaliev talks in trajectories. He talks about the linkages of southern Kyrgyzstan, especially of Jalalabad, where Mamadaliev, an ethnic Uzbek, has spent most of his 43 years. He talks of the region’s past, to its directions shifted and ethnicities sifted. It’s an area he’s immensely and gregariously proud of, and he has no problem taking visitors through and narrating the shape it has taken.

But reaching the recent stretch of that narration is not a part he enjoys sharing. He’ll light up about Babur’s march through Osh on his way to beginning the Moghul Empire in 16th-century India, or the centuries-old Chinese artifacts found in the region. But anything recent, anything following 2010 ethnic riots between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks that saw nearly 500 citizens – mostly Uzbeks – die, and his voice coarsens.

“You see that?” he asks as we drive down Jalalabad’s Lenin street. We slow down as he points to a small beige building, roof caved, fenced off from passersby. “Uzbeks lived there. Uzbeks built that. And the Kyrgyz burned it to the ground.” We move a bit further. “And that – that, there,” he continues, pointing to a black-front store, still boarded. “Uzbeks built that. And the Kyrgyz burned it down.”

This goes on, block after block. More houses. More storefronts. A university – windows still shattered, classrooms still empty. Uzbeks built it. Kyrgyz burned it down. The refrain continues. Over 100,000 Uzbeks fled the violence, with many yet to return – and those who are back are looking at their businesses and livelihoods in someone else’s hands. And then Mamadaliev raises his hand and points to a fresh-painted school near the end of Lenin. “You see that?” he asks. “That school. That was an Uzbek school. Uzbeks built that. But it’s not an Uzbek school any more. Now it’s Kyrgyz.”

This is where the trajectory turns, broadens. “Jalalabad has 21 schools,” he tells me, driving on. “Used to be mostly Uzbek, and some Russian. Now we still have 21 schools, with three Russian. But only three are Uzbek.” And the other 15? “Kyrgyz.”

With that, Mamadaliev turns quiet. His hands grip the wheel a bit tighter. His words linger in the car as we wind our way out of the city.

I try to ask Mamadaliev about what I’d really like to know – about China’s role in this city, in this region. He spent eight years working as a shuttle-man, as a transporter, bringing goods from Kashgar and southern Xinjiang back to Central Asia. He notes that one of the places cleaned up in Jalalabad, an off-shoot of the city’s main bazaar, was rebuilt with Chinese investment two years ago. But it’s not Chinese who manage it. “It’s the Kyrgyz,” Mamadaliev says.

KZ Osh Market Burnt

A trade bazaar in Osh city in 2011, more than a year after clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the Osh region. The market was set aflame and the roof remained under construction then. Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

And that seems to be the theme in those areas still reeling from 2010. The Chinese presence in Jalalabad and Osh is even more muted than you’d find in Bishkek. But where conversations in Bishkek, talks on directions and roles, inevitably bounce toward the Eurasian Union, American bases and Chinese clout, in the south it’s almost always about ethnic identity, rather than national trends. Vendors at Osh’s bazaar will readily hawk Chinese wares – but that’s just their job. Local retailers can talk about their China-made glasses or China-sewn trousers or China-crafted glassware, but they’re more interested in making sure you understand their ethnicity, before any conversation can continue. (Not that these ethnic concerns are necessarily limited to Kyrgyz-Uzbek differences; one thirty-year-old named Rotmir, an ethnic Bashkir, told me he’d be in full support of joining the Eurasian Union simply because he considers himself “Russian.”)

Residents, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz alike, don’t deny the Chinese economic underpinnings. They appreciate the goods, to an extent – “cheaper than the original,” they’ll say – and the road-development even more. But the geopolitical weight China could throw around doesn’t seem to stir much interest in southern Kyrgyzstan, especially when compared to the legacy of the 2010 riots. Chinese investments have brought part of Jalalabad’s bazaar back to life – but, according to Mamadaliev, at the expense of one ethnicity over another.

And that may point to one of China’s largest questions in the region. Beijing seems to have little issue with letting its investments and potential remain muted in the region – all the better to avoid contributing to the Sinophobia running through Central Asia, fanned by large-scale fears of economic domination and rumors of Chinese money-laundering in the new construction throughout Bishkek. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could very well help smooth the inter-state conflicts that are running through the Ferghana Valley. Although it offered little more than bland statements while the riots were actually taking place, the SCO has already managed to bring together the first visit from Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon this week for the first time since 2008, a sign of the group’s potential.

But people in southern Kyrgyzstan have other realities they want to discuss. Mamadaliev readily admits that Chinese has supplanted Russian as one of the three languages worth learning. But the conversation inevitably shifts back to 2010, to the aftermath and the legacy of the pogroms unleashed that summer. It isn’t China’s economic potential that keeps Mamadaliev concerned for the futures of his three young daughters. It isn’t Beijing’s regional pull on which people in Jalalabad and Osh dwell. As the seemingly zero-sum world of Chinese and Russian hegemony in Central Asia continues, this festering and unaddressed situation may well stand as China’s headache moving forward. The legacy of 2010 remains a local problem China will find itself having to help manage – one of the thornier, and largely overlooked, issues to come alongside Beijing’s rising power in Central Asia.

Casey Michel is a Bishkek-based journalist and a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He can be followed on Twitter at @cjcmichel.


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