Ethnic violence in a Silk Road bazaar

In 2006, I visited Osh, Central Asia’s most ancient Silk Road market in southern Kyrgyzstan, for a few days while researching my book. I spent time investigating the Osh and Karasuu bazaars as part of my interest in the New Silk Road. (Chapter 5 is titled “Travels on the Synthetic Road.”) I never felt any ethnic tension in the city, although I was warned not to go out late at night.

Still, I’ve been shocked at the violence that I’ve seen in southern Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. A few news reports have suggested that politicos may have instigated and exacerbated the ethnic violence for cynical ends. Perhaps.

However, few news outlets have provided any context about the ethnic violence. The Economist even suggested that the violence may have been a result of Islamic fundamentalism. This seems odd since most of the violence seems to have been Kyrgyz targeting Uzbeks (I’m getting this info from news outlets; it may be wrong). The Kyrgyz are fairly laid back about their religion, especially compared to ethnic Uzbeks. So, it seems hardly likely that the Kyrgyz, who have a love of fermented beverages, would be motivated by Islamic fundamentalism, especially since both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks follow Sufi Islam.

Traditionally, khanates of blended races and tongues ruled Inner Asia. People identified themselves according to their local oases, their ruling dynasties and their allegiance to Islam. That didn’t quite fit the Soviet concept of nationality. So in 1924 , Stalin split Turkestan, as it was then known, into five new “national” republics—the “-stans” as they’ve come to be known—that defied history, geography and culture. His mapmaking resembled an elaborate jigsaw puzzle with arbitrary borders and oddball ethnic enclaves. He effectively divided and conquered the multi-ethnic Muslim populations and attempted to mould them into a new breed, Homo sovieticus.

Uzbekistan, the largest republic, was an especially alien nation. Prior to Russian conquest, it was divided among three khanates centred in Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand, the last not far from Osh in the Ferghana Valley. The Soviets imposed nationhood on a population with no concept of it and standardized many regional Turkic dialects into the modern Uzbek language.

Travelling through the region a century ago, Gustaf Mannerheim, in fact, never used the word “Uzbek” in his diary. Instead, he referred to the local settled population as “Sarts,” meaning “town dwellers” or “merchants,” which at the time referred to ethnic Uzbeks, Persian-speaking Tajiks and even Uyghurs, the Muslims of Western China.

So, “Uzbeks” are traditionally settled farmers, town-dwellers and merchants. They live in agricultural plains, such as the Ferghana Valley which Stalin divided among the republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Osh is on the edge of the Ferghana Valley, and its bazaars were traditionally run by Uzbeks or “Sarts.” Kyrgyz were semi-nomadic herders, who resided in the foothills and alpine valleys of the Tian Shan range. Indeed, many ethnic Kyrgyz still live on the eastern slopes of the range in China.

In the past ten years, trade along the New Silk Road, between China and southern Kyrgyzstan, has exploded. However, besides some Kyrgyz truck drivers, much of the trade in the local bazaars, especially Karasuu, is dominated by Uzbeks. Most goods, in fact, are shuttled into Uzbekistan and then make their way to bazaars across Central Asia.

So, it seems that economic rivalry and control of lucrative local bazaars, along with cynical politicians fomenting unrest for their own ends, are the most likely causes of this ethnic violence.

Interestingly, most Kyrgyz I talked to were suspicious of and resented Chinese merchants in the local Karasuu bazaar and Chinese migrant workers building new roads in Kyrgyzstan. “There’s a lot of fear that Chinese businessmen are taking over the role of local traders,” an American aid worker in Osh told me. I even heard an absurd local story that the Chinese were going to buy Solomon’s Throne, a sacred Muslim mountain in the centre of Osh, to build a resort casino atop its peak. Perhaps this paranoia is a harbinger of ethnic violence to come with the rise of China and the New Silk Road.