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Kyrgyzstan: The national question and imperialism

The reality behind the ethnic conflict

The Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan has been the scene of a bloody conflict since June 10. Estimates of the casualties vary widely, with the country’s interim president estimating up to 2,000 deaths. As many as 275,000 people have fled the conflict areas, hoping to make it to Uzbekistan, a country that closed its borders to the flood of refugees after accepting a first wave. Most of the dead and wounded are people of the Uzbek nationality. The center of the conflict is the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad.

Uzbeks flee Kyrgystan, June 14, 2010
Uzbek refugees flee into Uzbekistan to escape
violence in Kyrgyztan, June 14, 2010.

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous landlocked country, neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kazakhstan and China. It has a population of 5.3 million, the majority of Kyrgyz nationality, with Uzbeks making up 14 percent of the population, along with Tajiks and others. People of all three nationalities, along with others, are spread throughout the three Central Asian countries of Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan.

Covering ethnic conflicts anywhere in the globe, bourgeois media implicitly propagate the idea that people of different nationalities are naturally hostile towards one another and that horrifying cases of mass killing and ethnic cleansing are the inevitable consequences of thousand-year-old conflicts. To the contrary, there is nothing natural or inevitable about ethnic violence. In every single instance, ethnic conflicts can be traced, often directly, to the divide-and-conquer strategies of imperialism, along with their client states and mercenary armies.

The recent history of bloody ethnic or national conflicts in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq are clear examples of conflicts engineered and promoted by imperialism. The case of Kyrgyzstan provides another piece of evidence that, absent imperialist plots coupled with the deprivations of capitalist economies, people of different nationalities can live in perfect harmony.

A brief look at the history of Kyrgyzstan illustrates this point. In the late nineteenth century, tsarist Russia annexed most of what is today Kyrgyzstan through a treaty with China’s Qing Dynasty. Kyrgyzstan was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. In 1916, the Kyrgyz people rose in a rebellion against the Russian Empire, but the Tsar savagely crushed the rebellion, by some estimates killing more than half the population. Bourgeois history rarely mentions this genocide because it does not fit well with its fictional image a relatively calm and idyllic Russia under the Tsar that was usurped by the violent communists.

Ever conscious of the potential for unity between various oppressed nationalities against its own oppressive rule and exploitation, tsarist authorities actively promoted clashes between the peoples of Central Asia, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. In his book, “The Peoples of the Soviet Union,” Corliss Lamont quotes a cotton grower describing the relations between the peoples in this region under the Russian Empire: “The past was a stairway of years carpeted with pain. The Uzbeks feared to go along the street of the Arabs; the Tajiks carried sticks when they walked through the Uzbek quarter.”

The Russian Revolution and the national question

The October Revolution of 1917 materially altered the relationship between the Russians and the oppressed nationalities. The revolution transformed tsarist Russia, what used to be called the “prison house of nations,” into a country where equality of the nationalities was actively promoted by the state, with special emphasis given to funding development in areas most oppressed by the tsars.

In September 1920, the Congress of Eastern Peoples was held in Baku, a city that was to become the capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. This congress called on the workers of imperialist countries to fight against the racism promoted by their own capitalist class and to embrace the peoples of colonized countries as their partners in the struggle for a world-wide workers’ revolution.

That congress, and the orientation of Russian revolutionaries to fight all vestiges of national oppression, inspired the peoples of Central Asia and the rest of the world. It launched the wave of anti-colonial struggles that shook the imperialist world and liberated many formerly colonized countries.

By 1919, Soviet power was first established in Central Asia. In December 1936, the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a full republic of the Soviet Union. Based on its commitment to address a legacy of national oppression under the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union implemented a program of affirmative action by allocating resources for development.

During a period when the Soviet Union was effectively in a race against time to industrialize before being invaded again by western imperialists, the Russian revolutionaries demonstrated a preference for prioritizing development in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics, areas that were among the least developed in the entire world.

The revolution brought housing projects, built a network of railways, roads and airports, built schools and implemented a comprehensive literacy campaign that essentially wiped out illiteracy. Also, the revolution provided health care to all the people in an area where trained medical staff were virtually non-existent.

As a result, peoples of different nationalities lived in relative harmony with one another, intermarried and worked together. There were no significant cases of ethnic conflict during the decades that spanned the Soviet era. Ethnic conflicts re-emerged only in 1990, right before the final overthrow of the Soviet Union, when, under the leadership of the Gorbachev grouping, national chauvinistic policies were reintroduced.

Bourgeois history has it that the peoples of the Soviet Union were severely oppressed by Moscow, forced to remain in the union by the Russian communists and waiting for the first opportunity to declare independence, but the reality is the opposite. The peoples of Central Asia had greatly benefitted from the revolutionary process and had no aspirations to form independent states. No wonder that in a March 1991 referendum in Kyrgyzstan on the preservation of the Soviet Union, 88.7 percent voted to retain the Soviet Union.

With the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the United States jumped on the opportunity to gain control of the former Soviet republics, including in Central Asia. The restoration of capitalism turned each Soviet Republic into a small and weak country competing for transnational capital. The privileged few gained wealth, while living standards for the majority took a dive.

The new bourgeois class, competing against neighboring states for Washington’s favor, sought to provide an outlet for mass discontent by turning it against peoples of other nationalities. The Kyrgyz were turned against the Uzbeks, the Uzbeks against the Turkmens, the Turkmens against the Tajik and so forth.

The process of privatization in Kyrgyzstan was carried out by a succession of governments, each more right-wing than its predecessor. In March 2005, the United States sponsored one of its color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan. The Tulip Revolution, the Kyrgyz flavor of the “color revolutions,” led to the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Washington’s man.

The accelerated implementation of the neoliberal economic model under Bakiyev’s presidency further worsened the standard of living in Kyrgyzstan. With an average monthly wage of $132, over a third of the population now lives below the poverty line.

Washington’s interest in Kyrgyzstan is more than gaining access to its markets and resources. The Manas Air Base, located near the capital Bishkek, is critical to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The air base became even more important after neighboring Uzbekistan closed down the U.S. military base there. Each month, 50,000 U.S. military personnel transit into and out of Afghanistan through the Manas Air Base.

Early in his presidency, in a publicity stunt to placate mass opposition to the base, Bakiyev threatened to close it down. U.S. rent payments were raised from $20 million to $60 million a year, and the base stayed.

The April rebellion

On April 7, demonstrators gathered around government buildings in Bishkek. The police opened fire and killed approximately 75 people. But the angry demonstrators fought bravely and occupied the government buildings, while the repressive forces broke ranks. The mass actions spread to other parts of the country, and Bakiyev’s regime collapsed. The Tulip Revolution was undone.

But Bakiyev refused to step down and took up the tactic of promoting ethnic conflicts in hopes of returning to power. This is what has led to the murder of 2,000 people. Interim government spokesperson, Farid Niyazov, stated: “It’s known that members of mercenary organizations were paid to organize this … They killed both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, and some of them were dressed in the uniform of the militia.”

The organized nature of the violence was so obvious that even the spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, Rupert Colville, said: “We have strong indications that this event was not a spontaneous inter-ethnic clash—that it was to some degree orchestrated, targeted and well-planned.”

Kyrgyz officials have stated on record that Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the ousted president, “started financing the riots back in April,” using Kyrgyz mercenaries in uniforms to go on a killing spree in the southern towns of Osh and Jalalabad. Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, has said that the Bakiyevs have instigated the riots to unseat the interim government and to prevent the referendum scheduled for June 27.

As of this writing, the killing seems to have abated and the plot by Washington’s client, the Bakiyev family, seems to have failed in restoring the Tulip Revolution. The recent tragedy of Kyrgyzstan teaches us yet again that it is only under a planned socialist economy that peoples of different nationalities can live in peace and harmony. Capitalist vultures will constantly promote racism and national conflicts to maintain and safeguard the privileges of the few against the well-being of the many.

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