REBUILDING CONFLICT MEDIATION INFRASTRUCTURE IN KYRGYZSTAN
The first anniversary of the tragic interethnic conflicts in and around Osh city in June passed peacefully. Discussions, however, reveal a deep divide in Kyrgyz society about the causes and consequences of the events. Some believe they were a one-time occurrence caused by political instability following the April 2010 “Revolution”, which removed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power, and that it was instigated by Bakiyev's supporters in order to destabilize the country. Others think conflicts are inevitable in this densely populated and impoverished multiethnic part of the Fergana Valley. The only way to mitigate those conflicts is to build a conflict mediation infrastructure in order to avoid the escalation of local community disputes into large-scale bloody quarrels.
BACKGROUND: Ever since the first large-scale interethnic conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities erupted around the Osh–Uzgen area in summer 1990, experts, politicians and the international community have expressed great concern about political stability in the area and have focused on building a conflict mediation infrastructure. Conflict mediation uses an alternative dispute-resolution approach to negotiate differences and/or settlements through trusted third parties. Indeed, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities lived in this area together for hundreds of years through good times and bad, and the relations were not always easy. Yet, on most occasions they managed to resolve their differences through their own conflict mediation system. This system was built around the traditional institutions of the society – the councils and courts of aqsaqals (elders), religious leaders and qadis (judges), informal and formal networks of tribal and community leaders. The great shift was introduced during the Soviet reforms, as the Soviet policy-makers greatly centralized policy-making and conflict resolution systems by removing power from local governments and local authorities and concentrating it in the hands of ruling party leaders and government officials. The combination of total state and party domination and of the power of the law-enforcing institutions helped to keep political and social development and interethnic relations under tight control.
The situation radically changed in the late 1980s with the weakening of the ruling party's grip and with the introduction of radical political reforms – perestroika. The escalation of interethnic tensions between 1986 and 1990 illustrated the political and social vacuum left by a significant weakening of state control over political development and social institutions, especially at the local level, as the institutions of civil society were very weak in the late Soviet era. This weakness became especially apparent during the bloody clashes in the summer of 1990, as Kyrgyz government officials struggled to identify the groups and individuals who might represent conflicting parties and pull together a conflict mediation system to mediate mutually accepted ways to move forward. After independence in 1991, both the Kyrgyz government led by western-oriented President Askar Akayev and the international donor community focused on building a conflict prevention system including a conflict mediation infrastructure built around the western approach and western-sponsored NGOs.
One of Kyrgyzstan's leading political experts, Sheradil Bakhtygulov, argued that “…probably over US$ 100 million were spent during the last 20 years on helping to strengthen the civil society institutions in southern Kyrgyzstan, but events in summer 2010 suggest that the international donors very often did not understand the local situation and did to not see nuances of the local political dynamics…” According to government estimates, over 3,000 NGOs have been registered in the country, but only a quarter or a third of these are active at any one time. This is in fact a major problem in Kyrgyzstan and in neighboring Central Asian republics, as in this economic, cultural and political environment not many NGOs can sustain their work without outside support. Meanwhile, the traditional institutions of civil society and the traditional conflict mediation system were neglected, though they developed at their own pace and according to their own dynamics.
IMPLICATIONS: People in Kyrgyzstan had reason to be scared: experts estimated that between 400 and 1,000 people were killed in the interethnic conflicts between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, about 1,900 injured and about 100,000 were displaced. It remains the single bloodiest event within the borders of Kyrgyzstan since the country’s establishment in 1924.
Tensions between local communities, businesses, rival political groups and clans escalated for more than a month in May–June 2010. To be fair, some attempts were made by NGOs and western donor organizations, including OSCE- and UNDP-sponsored or coordinated round tables, meetings and training programs. But the fact that the quarrels spread over wide geographical areas and across social and ethnic groups indicates that the conflict mediation system did not work. Various reasons may be suggested for this. First, there was clearly a lack of communication between disputing parties, including the lack of new media communication. The truth is in this conflict the new media platforms were quite widely used by the perpetrators of the conflict, but were not sufficiently activated by the conflict mediators and civil society institutions. Second, in the time of boiling hostilities there was no trusted impartial third-party representation able to bring together at least the major players before the conflict took place. Third, at the time of crisis the conflict mediation infrastructure was fragmented and dispersed. There was simply no neutral place where all interested parties could reach legitimate and binding settlements and agreements. Fourth, mediation facilitators were scarce on the ground, especially those able to work on systematic ways to deal with growing tensions before and during the conflict.
CONCLUSIONS: The interethnic clashes and political conflicts in Osh Oblast in June 2010 raised several important questions about the need for building an appropriate and effective conflict mediation system. In general, mediation is a part of conflict prevention systems. It works by providing a platform to manage problems, misunderstandings and grievances by bringing people together to negotiation tables, preferably long before the actual conflict explodes, and by providing them with conflict mediation tools, an institutional platform and know-how to handle differences. Because the people in Osh Oblast still do not trust each other, there is still a need to continue working out differences and finding ways to move forward. The first step should be to strengthen both the traditional and western-style conflict mediation systems by granting equal attention and resources to each. The second step should be for government agencies and international donors to focus on building an effective infrastructure of conflict mediation that local communities would have trust in and ownership of, and that would incorporate the power of the new media in future mediation and mediation communication process. And the third step is to conduct needs assessments in order to identify and support the most effective conflict mediation approach workable in the environment of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asia republics, probably something like one-stop community service centers where local communities and citizens can receive a range of services including training and support in conflict mediation.
AUTHORS’ BIOS: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University. He was a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University (summer 2011). He is author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and some others. He has been awarded an IREX 2010–2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for research on public policy reforms in Kazakhstan. The author would like to express his gratitude to Mr. Atajan Yazmuradov of the UN Mediation Unit for his help in preparing this article.