Monday, May 30, 2011

Vortex Of Unrest

I've wanted to visit Central Asia for a long time now. It's a region that falls well underneath the radar of most peoples' consciousness and yet has a rich history and varied ethnic and cultural patchwork. In fact it is the cline at which the Indo-European and Oriental peoples meet, producing physiognomies from classic European to Han Chinese with everything in between, especially in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The town of Osh where I am now epitomises both the best and worst aspects of this fact.

The main entrance to the Osh bazaar says "World Peace" along with a monument with three doves, whilst behind lie burnt out stalls from last year's clashes.

Osh is situated at the eastern end of the Fergana Valley, which is quite a misnomer as it's more of a flat, oval-shaped bowl. The Fergana Valley is the most fertile and densely populated region of Central Asia where all manner of crops thrive. It is also a mainly Uzbek area. Nevertheless it is split between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan forming a complex vortex at the very heart of Central Asia. The convoluted borders, including two Uzbek and one Tajik enclaves in Kyrgyzstan and another Tajik enclave in Uzbekistan were drawn by Stalin in the 20's when he was Commissar for Nationalities in a classic piece of divide and rule. Even the different nationalities themselves are the creations of Russian colonialism - before the arrival of the Russians there was no consciousness of a Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik or Turkmen nation. During Soviet rule this did not make much difference as internal borders were mainly administrative and did not form real barriers, and all nationalities were subordinate to Communist dogma.

If the Central Asian states were at all prepared for independence, then they were prepared by the Soviet system.
When the union collapsed in '91 so did the region. Borders sprang up where before there had been none, separating once close communities; subsidies from Russia withered away; once-integrated industries and supply chains fell apart; and there was a mass exodus of the Russian and German intelligentsia who often held key positions in academia, the arts and industry. And as the chips fell the people holding the reins of power were the Party Secretaries and other Communist strongmen. People not well-versed in democracy, market economics or the rule of law, but experts at propaganda, cronyism and intimidation. So whilst paying lip service to democracy, usually by changing the name of the Communist Party to some combination of People, Freedom and Democracy and holding elections where no opposition was allowed and (just in case) the votes rigged, the same old guard has maintained power. Of the five post-Soviet, Central Asian countries only Kyrgyzstan has managed to change its president in the 20 years since independence, and that only thanks to popular uprisings and protests (for my pedant readers Turkmenistan has also had a change of leaders, but that was due to Turkmenbashi having a heart attack and he has since been replaced by his named heir who is just as bonkers - not what I would call a regime change). Arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances are common in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (and not unknown in the others) whilst the various presidential families have accumulated assets in the billions of dollars. To fill the ideological void propaganda-bloated national narratives were created by massaging history, or even making it up altogether, in an effort to create a nationalistic, jingoistic glue and to deflect from the mass theft propagated by the ruling classes.

In all the countries, except perhaps Kazakhstan, buoyed as it is by huge oil and gas revenues, living standards plummeted and are only now, slowly, reaching their Soviet levels. No wonder the Soviet times are viewed with nostalgia and longing by the majority of people old enough to remember them. The West doesn't particularly care. At first because these countries were so strategically insignificant and then after September the 11th concerns such as human rights and free speech were relegated way behind stability, the War on Terror and energy security.

Being at the the edge of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan Osh is a mixed city with peoples of different backgrounds all rubbing along quite peacefully: from conservative Muslims all the way to hip young students and everything in between. This is one of the reasons why the city's bazaar is/was so famous as being the largest, liveliest and most colourful in Central Asia with plenty of cross-border trade. Which is why the violence that flared up in Osh last year was so unexpected, both in its suddenness and intensity (the stories, and some of the mobile phone clips, are truly disturbing). The overriding narrative in the Western media was of inter-ethnic fighting between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, but the reasons were far more complex (in the same way that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were not about theological disagreements about the infallibility of the Pope) and murky - many blame the ex-president, Bakiyev, who had been ousted a couple of months before as well as a lingering resentment over the Uzbek's business success. Walking round the town today it is hard to imagine that such atrocities happened, the only indication being the odd burnt-out shops dotted around here and there and the preponderance of shipping containers doubling as stalls in the bazaar. Nevertheless there is a simmering rage that hides below the surface that shows itself if you are willing to ask the questions. Hopefully it will die down rather than rear its ugly head again.

The violence, or "civil unrest" according to the official euphemism, (I detest such dishonest hijacking of language - it makes the situation which led to the deaths of two thousand people sound like it was caused by excessive coffee consumption.) had as one consequence the influx of a veritable alphabet soup of INGOs such as the OSCE, OECD, and ICRC to name but a few. I was extremely lucky to find a guide and friend in Aiday: a Kyrgyz girl who helped me remember that I travel in part to shake up my Western parochialism with regards to "developing countries". Well-educated, bright and more fluent in English than many Brits, she had lived in Europe but had returned home because she could have a better quality of life back in Kyrgyzstan. She also works for UNICEF and introduced me to the secret, and somewhat incestuous, world of the INGO ex-pats. I have always found this community to be particularly curious and was thrilled when she invited me to the weekly ICRC Friday party. There was, however, one thing I needed to do before attending. No-one is allowed in without being part of the club and so I had to devise my own TLA (Three Letter Acronym) so that I wouldn't be found out as soon as I introduced myself ("Hi, this is John from WASH [WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene], pleased to meet you, I'm Sue from ACTED."). So I became "Erik from TIT" - Trans-International Travelling. It didn't take long for the penny to drop: "TIT? I haven't heard of them. hey, wait a minute, you're just an unwashed backpacking hobo." Although my cover was blown I already had my foot in the door and managed to affix myself to the bar.


drakborg said...

Thank you for the great writing. Always a pleasure to take part of your thoughts. I was in Central Asia in 1992 and 2000. You make me want to return.

Big Bule said...

Interesting that you mention Russian and German intelligentsia. I have never seen these two mentioned together in a post-Soviet context.

Was the German intelligentsia so relevant? (I have no clue about it).

Erik said...

@Drakborg: Thanks, I value your opinion. You were there in 92? must have been "interesting". Do you still remember much from that time?

@BB: Although the German minority at 3% was pretty small they were almost all well-educated and had key positions - 90% of the pre-soviet population has left. Also at that time German was the first foreign language in schools.