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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Land scarcity fuels ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Land scarcity fuels ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 24 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Several violent incidents revived fears of ethnic conflict in December 2011. Such disturbances in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan are caused by a complex range of factors, including migratory pressure driven by poverty, and perceived injustice caused by historical disparities between ethnic groups. This case study seeks to shed light on these ongoing tensions.

When two brawls broke out between teenagers of Kyrgyz and north Caucasian ethnicity in the northern Chuy Valley in December 2011 and January 2012, analysts feared these had the potential to provoke wide-scale inter-ethnic conflict. There have been various sizeable minority farming communities that have had relatively good relations with local Kyrgyz neighbours in the Chuy Valley since the 1930s. However, the lack of economic viability in remote mountainous areas following independence, coupled with a rise in ethnic nationalism, has meant that Kyrgyz internal migrants from impoverished areas have increasingly begun to lay claim to such farmland.

Meanwhile, both a parliamentary and a government commission were established in January 2012 to investigate clashes that broke out on 28 December between ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik in the far south-west of the country, which resulted in the looting of Tajik-owned shops and the burning of houses. This area has seen complex migratory patterns in recent years, with ethnic Kyrgyz moving away in large numbers to find work abroad or in the capital, while ethnic Tajiks from across the border have bought up land and property in their place. In an area where the international boundaries are not yet clearly defined, this trend is of concern to some of the ethnic Kyrgyz population.

Almost a third of Kyrgyzstani adults, including Kyrgyz and other ethnic groups, work as migrant labourers in Russia and Kazakhstan, and in recent years many from the countryside have moved to Bishkek for work. Until poverty and disparities between regions are addressed, grievance over land ownership fuelled by a sense of ethnic entitlements has the potential to lead to further outbreaks of violence in both the north and south of Kyrgyzstan.

Ethnic tensions over land have a long history in Kyrgyzstan. Until the 1930s, the ancestors of today's ethnic Kyrgyz were primarily nomadic, taking livestock high into mountain pastures in the summer and returning to lowland for the winter. Kyrgyz pastoralists were forced out of the fertile valleys of what is now the Kyrgyz Republic when other ethnic groups settled there under the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, with Turkic-speaking sedentary relatives of the Kyrgyz living in the southern Fergana Valley, and European ethnic groups moving into the northern Chuy Valley.

After the Russian Revolution, in the 1920s, the borders of the Kyrgyz Republic were defined, and all citizens were ascribed ethnicities – most of the Turkic-speakers in the Fergana Valley were recorded as Uzbeks, while the vast majority of pastoralists were now officially Kyrgyz. In the 1930s, these ethnic Kyrgyz were forced to give up private ownership of their livestock and end their nomadic lifestyles, often to live in demanding mountainous areas. These mountain communities received massive subsidies from central government as compensation. At the same time, further waves of European migrants were encouraged to move to the Republic during much of the Soviet period, while other ethnic groups, such as north Caucasian ethnicities and Meskhetian Turks, were deported there en masse before and during the Second World War. While some of these immigrants moved to cities, others joined collective farms in the valleys, many of which were ethnically based.

As the Soviet economy and its subsidies collapsed in the 1980s, many Kyrgyz found themselves unable to survive in the mountains and massive internal migration began to the cities and farmland in the valleys. Riots occurred in the south in 1990 when ethnic Kyrgyz, who had been forced by poverty to leave their mountain villages, demanded land in the grounds of a primarily Uzbek collective farm. The total number of deaths in the violence is unknown, but 171 deaths were officially reported.

Soon after, Askar Akaev became President. After independence in 1991, he sought to maintain Kyrgyzstan as a multi-ethnic state with international support. When nationalists in parliament passed legislation that favoured ethnic Kyrgyz in land ownership and use, President Askar Akaev vetoed it three times, before a less discriminatory land privatization act was passed in 1997. In the first years of independence, much of the demand for good farmland among ethnic Kyrgyz was met in northern Kyrgyzstan from land left by the thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and others who left the country for their historical homelands. However, people from many other ethnic groups, including Dungans (ethnic Chinese Muslims), Meskhetian Turks and ethnic groups originating from the North Caucasus continued to farm the land that their families had tilled for decades or centuries. Meanwhile, in the south, the Uzbek community continued to farm much of the fertile land in the Fergana Valley.

In 2005, Akaev was overthrown in the face of widespread allegations of corruption and growing authoritarianism. The protesters were predominantly rural Kyrgyz, and many reported that they had been promised land in the Chuy Valley. An ethnic Turkish community faced severe threats in 2005, and a largely ethnic Dungan village experienced wide-scale damage to its buildings in 2006. There are reports that this violence was in part caused by resentment among ethnic Kyrgyz internal migrants that they were renting fields from non-Kyrgyz.

In June 2010, larger-scale inter-ethnic violence occurred in southern Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, with at least 475 fatalities. Although the direct impact was primarily in urban areas, rural families displaced by the violence in the south were among the most severely affected as they returned to find houses fully or partially destroyed, farming machinery and tools looted or burned, and livestock stolen or dead. Meanwhile, many of the ethnic Kyrgyz participants in the conflict had come from impoverished remote mountainous districts with pastoralist traditions such as Alay and Karakulja.

In the aftermath of the rioting, Kyrgyz-language media outlets tacitly repeated the assertions of certain prominent politicians that land in Kyrgyzstan belonged to ethnic Kyrgyz and that Uzbeks should be regarded as mere tenants. On 7 November 2010, a group of about 1,000 Kyrgyz attempted to seize about 70 hectares of land from Uzbeks near Osh. The authorities took action to disperse the squatters, with promises to look at their requests for land in 2011. In April, it was reported that the government was planning to allocate 31,200 plots of unused land around Osh city, but that the number of registered applicants for land was twice that and rising. While this has alleviated pressure on livelihoods, the fact remains that good agricultural land in the country's fertile valleys is at a premium. As the incidents in 2010 and 2011 show, tension remains high among communities in both the north and south of the country.

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