Сonflicts in Central Asia: Who is to blame / ENG video

Eleven people were killed, 40 houses burned, and 23,000 ethnic Dungans fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. This was the toll of clashes between Kazakhs and Dungans in southern Kazakhstan. In Central Asia, ethnic violence erupts regularly. Why do such clashes occur? What can they lead to?


In the video above, there is a map of the distribution of Central Asian peoples right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As you can see, there were many national minorities living in the north-east of Kazakhstan, and the human borders of Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz peoples differ from the state borders.

Today’s conflicts date back to Soviet times. Where do they stem from?

What causes conflicts? Controversial boundaries

December 2019. Border guards break up scuffles between Tajik and Kyrgyz residents of the village of Chorkukh – who were pelting each other with stones. This conflict arose when the Tajiks put up a fence around a construction site. Land ownership is unclear there, as the village is located on an undemarcated section of the border.

There are 70 such sites on the Kyrgyz–Tajik border, and 58 remain undefined between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Disputes between neighbouring villages over water holes and pastures can easily escalate into mass brawls and skirmishes between border guards, which occur almost monthly.

Number of near-border incidents. Source: Kyrgyz Border Service

In thirty years of independence, only Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have fully demarcated their borders. Other countries have faced problems since 1924, when the Bolsheviks first divided up this multi-ethnic region that had been conquered by the Russian Empire. They did not always follow ethnographic maps, however.

Bukhara and Samarkand, populated by Tajiks in the 1920s, were the first capitals of Soviet Uzbekistan, though Tajikistan was an autonomous republic inside Uzbekistan. The Kremlin made the Uzbek-populated city of Osh part of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, providing it with an industrial centre.

To grow cotton, fields (and the canals to irrigate them) were joined to one republic, although people from the other republic lived on the banks of those canals.

Once the USSR was no more, shots were fired over the borderline. But unclear borders are not the only cause of inter-ethnic conflicts.

What causes conflicts? Numerous national minorities

The Fergana Valley is considered an extremely explosive region. This mountainous oasis measuring 300 by 150 kilometres is home to 14 million people, or a third of the residents of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, plus half the population of Kyrgyzstan. Three million of them are ethnic minorities.


One in seven citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are ethnically Uzbek. In Uzbekistan, Tajiks are the largest minority. According to official data – less than 5%, but unofficially – around 25%.

Although the vast majority of the valley’s inhabitants are farmers, they lack land. There is 5 to 10 times less land per person than in Eastern Europe. The large proportion of young people also heightens the risk of conflict. One sixth of the valley’s inhabitants are young men aged 15 to 24.

Laws are poorly enforced in the region. People turn to fellow citizens and tribesmen for protection, rather than courts, the parliament, or the police. Any conflict over land, lucrative business, or ways to influence officials risks turning into a pogrom.

This happened in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. After the 2010 revolution, Uzbek minority leaders in favour of the interim government confronted local Kyrgyz supporters of deposed President Bakiyev. Political quarrels ballooned into ethnic clashes and, in five days, over 400 people died, mostly Uzbeks.

In the enclaves of the Fergana Valley, the situation seems equally explosive.

What causes conflicts? Enclaves

Imagine your name is Firuza, and you live in a Tajik village just one-and-a-half kilometres away from Tajikistan itself. Your field is there, but it’s very hard to reach.

The outskirts of your village are mined; the checkpoint only opens three days a week, and you’re only allowed to carry 5 kilograms of goods. Until recently, that was life in the Tajik enclave of Sarvak in Uzbekistan.

There are eight such enclaves in the Fergana Valley – three belong to Tajikistan, two to Kyrgyzstan, and one to Uzbekistan. This was never a problem in Soviet times, but after the republics gained independence, people living in enclaves became cut off from the world.

Residents of the tiny Kyrgyz enclave of Barak in Uzbekistan even addressed US President Barack Obama in 2011, promising to add his surname to their village if he helped solve their problems. But the American president was unable to help the Kyrgyz farmers.

Inhabitants of the Sokh enclave have literally been living behind barbed wire for seven years. They are in conflict with the Kyrgyz authorities over access to water and grazing land, and also with Uzbekistan over the right to schooling in their mother tongue. Even though the enclave belongs to Uzbekistan, it is inhabited by Tajiks.

Kazakhstan managed to avoid problems with enclaves, but ethnic conflicts were inevitable.

What causes conflicts? Migration, deportation and lawlessness

In the 1920s, the Kremlin began sending workers, engineers, gulag prisoners, and military refugees to Kazakhstan. It also sent two-and-a-half million representatives of “unreliable” peoples there – Chechens, Ingush, Poles, and Crimean Tatars. Over one million inhabitants of the European part of the USSR moved to Kazakhstan for the so-called Virgin Lands campaign.

When it became independent, ethnic Kazakhs made up less than half of the population. In just 30 years, the number of non-Kazakh residents has halved, but conflicts between Kazakhs and people descended from migrants became more frequent.

Since the early 2000s, ethnic riots have flared up seven times, leading to clashes with Azerbaijanis, Uighurs, Chechens, Kurds, Tajiks and Dungans. Local Kazakhs often accuse minorities of violating laws and bribing the authorities.

“Chechens, Dungans, Uzbeks and Kurds all consider themselves persecuted since they are a minority with no access to power. The Kazakhs also consider themselves a minority, because these ethnic groups are hermetic, receive privileges, and somehow negotiate with the state,” says Sergey Abashin deom Eauropean University at St. Petersburg.

To calm inter-ethnic tensions, Nursultan Nazarbayev created an advisory body – the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, and even established a holiday – the Day of Gratitude. However, such measures scarcely compensated for the corruption, lack of equality before the law, or equal opportunities to influence the authorities.

Fortunately, frequent inter-ethnic clashes have not led to a major war in thirty years, nor are they likely to. Why not?

Why won’t there be a war?

First of all, its largest neighbours – Russia and China – will not allow it. Beijing requires peace in Central Asia to transport its goods to the West.

Three-and-a-half million migrant workers come to Russia from this region annually. For Moscow, additional refugees are far from desirable.

Secondly, authoritarian leaders in Central Asia realise that their economies cannot withstand a war.

Labour migration to Russia in 2018 (in thousands)

Thirdly, many states in the region are undergoing – or have recently undergone – a regime change.

Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is trying to attract Western investment. Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev recently handed the reins to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon is grooming his son, Rustam Emomali, the mayor of Dushanbe, as his successor. Wars would seriously weaken their chances of retaining power.

What is the result?

After the USSR, Central Asian countries inherited unresolved border issues and significant ethnic minorities. Inter-ethnic tensions are exacerbated by a common problem – corruption.

Bribery and the clan system have corroded the courts, police, and the executive, making it impossible for disputes to be settled fairly.

The strong leaders who used to keep ethnic issues dormant are gradually departing, but at least there is a chance to resolve border problems. For example, after coming to power, Shavkat Mirziyoyev quickly agreed to demarcate 85% of Uzbekistan’s border with Kyrgyzstan.

Ethnic conflicts will subside if the governments can initiate a dialogue and – most importantly – reduce corruption, and give their citizens equal access to justice and law-making.

The explainer was part of Belsat TV news show That Way / Vot Tak (11.03.2020)

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