The ethnic violence which shook Southern Kyrgyzstan over the last week has should draw our attention to how to confront minority rights and interethnic accommodation. I visited Osh in 2006 in order to train UNDP staff on power-sharing and minority rights. At the time it seem like an odd topic. The ‘tulip’ revolution had just overthrown president Akayew and the new president Bakiyew had not yet consolidated his power fully (although I did run into some of my Kyrgyz acquaintances during a protest march in Bishkek over the emerging threats to the short-lived pluralism of 2005/6). The paradigm of the day was democracy and the colored revolutions seemed to be able to sweep away any authoritarian government foolish enough to hold elections in the post-Communist region.

Monument for Peace, Osh

At the time, I had some doubts whether power-sharing and minority rights were the right topics for Kyrgystan. Talking about such topics routinely invites comments pointing out that there is no need or worse, talking about minority rights and power-sharing will only bring about conflict and interethnic distrust. Of course, such an argument confuses cause and consequence. If interethnic relations are good, they are unlikely to be shaken by discussing the institutional policies available to accommodate identity. What struck me in Osh at the time three features which make accommodation more challenging than in the Balkans, the region I mostly worked in:

First, being out of most European institutional frameworks (such as EU accession and the Council of Europe), means that there are no minority rights standards which help guide government policy. Only outside of the reach of an instrument like the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, one realizes the useful compass it provides and how helps to shape a debate focused on rights rather than things one gives to (and takes from) minorities.

Second, the particular Soviet legacy of parallelism was all to apparent with the whole institutional structure favoring little space for communication between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. This parallelism might reduce the points of friction, but they also reduce moderating influences which can help reduce conflict once it does arise (or is provoked, as it appears to have been in the recent violence).

Third, tensions were palpable, but nobody wanted to articulate them. When I went on a trip to Özgön/Uzgen, one of the key sites of a previous spate of violence in 1990, the response was as if mentioning the city’s name was already uncomfortable. The violence was an inconvenient past best not talked about.

Poster celebrating interethnic relations, Bishkek

The violence in Osh is a reminder that although overall ethnic violence might have declined from its peak in the 1990s, it remains a potent global threat. It will not go away by not talking about. A striking weakness of the international intervention over the past two decades is the lack of preventive work on interethnic relations. Yes, poverty helps contribute to causes of ethnic violence, such as land and water shortages. And yes, opportunistic politicians will instigate this violence. However to prevent ethnic violence, it is key not just to address development and democratization (both with their own risks for interethnic relations), but also interethnic relations. It is striking how few international organizations and NGOs thus end up working on improving interethnic relations globally, especially thinking about mediation and new institutional frameworks before conflict erupts.

Florian Bieber is a Lecturer of East European Politics, University of Kent and a Visiting Fellow a LSEE, London School of Economics and Political Science.