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Published on: June 18, 2010
The Killings in Kyrgyzstan

The grim news from Kyrgyzstan continues to roll in.  Hundreds and possibly thousands are dead; up to 400,000, half the Uzbek population in Krygyzstan, have been driven from their homes; like so many millions of victims of ethnic violence before them, they are frightened, terrified, suddenly destitute, separated from loved ones whose fates they do […]

The grim news from Kyrgyzstan continues to roll in.  Hundreds and possibly thousands are dead; up to 400,000, half the Uzbek population in Krygyzstan, have been driven from their homes; like so many millions of victims of ethnic violence before them, they are frightened, terrified, suddenly destitute, separated from loved ones whose fates they do not know, and living in improvised camps.  Women have been raped, children mutilated, homes burned and neighbor has turned on neighbor in an orgy of violence.

It is, in other words, another day on Planet Earth.  The international community is wringing its hands from a great distance; nearby countries and local warlords are scheming to make the most of the situation; evidence accumulates that dark political forces may have planned the massacre in cold blood.

Modern history is littered with tragedies like this, many much larger and even more violent than the horror in Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan where the worst of the violence took place.  Each act of violence, each rape, each murder, each act of pillage and arson is an incomprehensible horror, but the last two centuries have been piled high with atrocities — like the skulls of their victims that the Mongols once heaped into ghastly pyramids outside the cities they sacked.  Darfur, Chechnya, Rwanda, Bosnia, the gassing of the Iraqi Kurds: and that is only taking us back to the Clinton administration.  The ethnic and ethnically-tinged religious massacres and ‘cleansings’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe and the Middle East alone are too numerous to list.

Kyrgyzstan_Osh_Refugees

Ethnic Uzbeks fleeing violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, wait in a border village, hoping to enter Uzbekistan (courtesy of United Nations).

We still do not know much about the events in Kyrgyzstan, but from what we can see this looks like a typical modern horror story.  The decay of a vast and multilingual empire leads to vicious ethnic conflicts as national groups attempt to build states: the old German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires dissolved into the same kind of murder, chaos and ethnic cleansing that we have seen in the wake of the USSR’s collapse.  There is probably much more to come in central Asia, and Africa, where the collapse of the old colonial empires has covered the continent with weak multiethnic states which may have decades of murder and war in the future.

So far, globally, the replacement of the old empires with nation-states has been responsible for tens of millions of deaths and created tens of millions more refugees.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the consequences (the 400,000 refugees created this week in Kyrgyzstan are roughly half of the total Palestinian refugees created in the Israeli War of Independence); so is the ‘frozen conflict’ in Cyprus and the genocidal wars and ethnic cleansing between Greeks and Turks earlier in the twentieth century.  The Holocaust, the expulsion of more than ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in central and eastern Europe after World War II, repeated massacres of the Kurds, Armenians and other ethnic minorities in the Middle East: all these are related to the violence that exploded in Osh in the last few days.

Americans, eternally optimistic and sheltered from the worst of these storms by our own relatively happy history, tend to think that these conflicts rise out of failures to modernize — the failure of ‘backward’ people to get with the program of capitalist development, free trade and liberal political ideals.  Actually, outbreaks of vicious ethnic violence that verges on or crosses over into genocide is more a sign that modernization is taking place.

In most pre-modern societies, the role of the state is small.  Peasants live on the land, speaking one language.  The landlords who rule them often speak another; the merchants and guildspeople of the towns often have still other languages and religious customs.  Like Greeks, Armenians and Jews in pre-Nasser Alexandria, like Germans and Poles and Jews in Lithuania, like the throngs of groups represented in imperial capitals like Vienna and Constantinople, these ‘foreign’ groups have important economic roles to play and live, usually fairly peacefully, side-by-side.  In the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of what we think of today as the Middle East plus the Balkans, the many ethnic minorities were organized under the ‘millet’ system, with each group under its own communal laws overseen by its own officials and religious authorities.  It was a little bit like the caste system in India: people with different languages, customs and hereditary economic roles lived side by side in societies that in many ways were unjust and hierarchical, but in others reflected long established and generally accepted patterns of co-existence.

With modernization, that old system doesn’t work.  The modernization of agriculture drives peasants off the land: machines reduce the need for manual labor in farming and large landholders find it more efficient to farm on a large scale with modern equipment than to rent their land out to large numbers of inefficient tenant farmers at low rents.  The displaced peasants flood into the cities, upsetting the old ethnic and economic balances there.  The government also becomes more important in daily life. Seemingly lesser national decision are, in fact, terribly important and complicated: For example, if public schools are established, what language(s) will they use?  The choice of language for basic instruction not only determines whose kids get the best grades and the best start in life; it determines which groups get jobs as public school teachers.  If the schools in Bohemia teach in German, the Czechs are marginalized. Similarly, integration into the global economic system was hardly the sole reason the Kagame government chose to make English the official language of Rwanda, dropping French.

Ditto the civil service.  What languages are bureaucrats expected to use in their official dealings?  This isn’t just about civil service jobs.  It’s about which ethnic groups will have sympathetic ears in government, whose relatives will make decisions about where government investments are made, who gets the contracts and so forth.

As modern commercial life spreads, the old system of every community living under its own laws also breaks down.  Person A might be Kyrgyz and person B might be Uzbek; whose laws and customs will be used to settle disputes between them, and which ethnic group will produce the judges who administer the laws?

Unfortunately for the peace of the world, intellectuals tend to care deeply about these issues.  It is the Czech intellectuals who want to drive the German-speakers out of the civil service jobs, teaching positions and other learned professions.  But nationalism doesn’t feel to nationalists like a selfish passion in most of these cases.  The passionate nationalist demanding ‘justice’ for fellow group members is also and often primarily thinking of the poor displaced farmers, exploited and oppressed by ‘foreign’ landlords in the country, and wretchedly exploited in the city.  Nationalism is an idealistic program of uplifting the poor — that just happens to create large economic and political opportunities for intellectuals who espouse it.

Each quarrel, each pogrom, each murderous outbreak of ethnic violence is unique, but most of them seem to be rooted in patterns like these.  It can happen where the groups share a religious background — as between Muslim Uzbeks and Kyrgyz; it is often even more bitter and intense when the groups have different religions — as between Orthodox Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks, or Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.

Over the last couple of centuries, this process of rising in-group loyalty and ethnic conflict and displacement (often called ‘national awakening’) has been spreading around the world.  Today we see it in Central Asia and in many places in Africa (where it is often called ‘tribalism’).  There is much more of it to come.  The violence may even grow: the internet allows the rapid development and dissemination of intense group cultures based on paranoiac readings of the ‘Other’, and modern weapons and means of communication allows violent movements to grow and act more quickly than in former times, and to use more destructive weapons when they do.  The Hutu massacre of Rwandan Tutsis was a kind of intermediate phenomenon: radio allowed the genocidaires to act quickly, but lacking better weapons they were thrown back on machetes.

The tragedy of modern life seems to lie in the fact that we cannot live with nationalism and we cannot live without it.  The deep loyalties and affinities we fell towards those who speak our language and share our customs and our historical memories provides much of the social capital that allows modern society to develop and grow.  On the other hand, the conflicts between national and ethnic groups must be overcome if we are to have any hope of peace.  In the twentieth century, communism stood for the idea of a world society that domesticated and suppressed ethnicity in the interests of a single cosmopolitan order.  Fascism stood for the idea of the unlimited assertion of the power and dignity of particular national groups.  Neither worked very well, but the moral problem that gave birth to both visions of the world is still with us, still unsolved.

The ethnic conflicts now ripping through the old Soviet empire (think Georgia, Chechnya and the Caucasus, Central Asia) and its neighbors like Afghanistan have caused more than one war since 1990 and their destructive course still has a ways to run.  The rapes, the murders, the pillage continues; the refugees turn to the ‘world community’ for help.  Fortunately, after centuries of escalating slaughters, we have gotten a little better at the relief part.  The Uzbek refugees are likely to get more help, and get it faster than the Armenians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, Greeks, Germans, Palestinians, Kurds, Poles and so many others who have suffered this kind of fate in the not so distant past.

Perhaps that is progress.

show comments
  • K2K

    Did Stalin’s mapmaking make any more sense than that of the British?
    Why was this Uzbek region made part of Kyrgyzstan?

    It is not at all apparent that these displaced Uzbeks will get much aid from anyone, let alone aid in helping them rebuild their destroyed homes while Kyrgyzstan teeters on the edge of becoming a failed state. These are Turkic peoples, yet Turkey is AWOL.

    Mr. Mead has fallen for the Palestinian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Why not compare the scale of the displaced Uzbeks with the 800,000 Iraqi Christians refugees?; still stuck in limbo, mostly in Jordan and Syria, the great disgrace of the international humanitarians in the 21st century.

    Or the 850,000 Arab Jews expelled from Iraq to Morocco after “the Israeli War of Independence”, who were completely resettled in Israel without official international aid.

    Equally troubling is the failure to mention the greatest displacement and violence in post-colonial history with the creation of India and Pakistan.

    Mr. Mead needs to step back, take a deep breath, and focus on his topic.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    A nitpick, it’s wrong to conflate violence of ethnic competition (such as the conflict in Kyrgyztan) with pograms of racial hatred like the Holucaust and Egyptian discrimination against Copts. You aptly described the mechanism for the former, competition for national resources. But the Jews never demanded the Germany’s schools be taught in Hebrew, nor did they numerically threaten Germany. The Holocaust was about a weird ideology of pure hatred and cannot be explained merely the result of the disintegration of empires. Its perfectly possible to kill your fellow man without an ideology of racial superiority, the two phenomenon are related but separate.

  • Brian Macker

    The centuries long persecution of Jews by Muslims in the area of Israel has little to do with ethnic differences and everything to do with Islamic intolerance of Jews. Jews who lived in the area continuously since 2000 years before Islam was even invented by an [needlessly inflammatory characterization of a well known religious figure removed –ed]. Jews who immigrated to the area and purchased land to live on along side fellow native Jews (who are genetically related) but subjected to terror attacks for that (along with any tolerant Arabs who were selling them land). Jews who were force out of all the Islamic countries in the country in a program of ethnic cleansing, and Palestinians who colluded with Hitler to exterminate the Jews.

  • setnaffa

    The multi-ethnic regions were created to weaken the locals and make them lean on the central government instead of creating their own freedom…

    All this ethnic violence is directly attributable to the lack of Christian influences, like those which stabilized Europe and America.

    Lest one raise the Nazi specter again, remember that the “supermen” worshiped Hitler, Odin, and Thor, not Christ…

    The Taliban seem to have a “weird ideology of pure hatred” that allows them to kill women and children and destroy ancient and priceless works of art while rejecting toilet paper as of the devil…

    The world is full of hate and we need to teach them another way, replacing the spirit of fear with power, love, and self-control from above…

    • Walter Russell Mead

      It’s worth noting that there have been massive waves of pogroms, genocide and ethnic cleansing in Christian countries as well. No religion has a monopoly on this kind of behavior.

  • John

    >>> The decay of a vast and multilingual empire leads to vicious ethnic conflicts

    Right, which is why English should the official language of the United States, why there shouldn’t be 30 spanish television stations, why the door to Home Depot shouldnt be marked “entrada” and why I shouldn’t have to press one to continue in English.

    If you move to The United States, plan on adopting our culture. That includes not flying the Mexican flag, etc. If Mexico is so great, why aren’t you living there?

  • Steffan

    Mr. Mead is correct that this is something that has occurred for millennia. There is literally no patch of dry ground on this planet where something like this has not happened, more than once. It is, unfortunately, human nature, and it will happen again.

    Trying to cover up such a crime inevitably backfires. There is no one alive today who participated in the Armenian genocide, but the Turkish government’s continued attempts to deny that it ever happened — plus the fact that many of the perpetrators were given jobs in Ataturk’s first post-Ottoman government — have kept the issue alive long past the time when it would have been forgotten.

    The Palestinian question still begs a few answers. Why, after more than 60 years, are they still refugees? In any other part of the world, they would have long since been absorbed into the local population. Can it be that none of their neighbors want them?

    Why are Hamas and Fatah given any credence when they have yet to prove they can run a convenience store, much less a country?

    More to the point, why were the Palestinians ignored and marginalized by the Arab world until Israel started winning wars?

  • Drew

    “…Why was this Uzbek region made part of Kyrgyzstan?..”

    Who is to say it was. Stalin was infamous for moving entire populations from where they were indiginous to where he wanted them. It was all about imposing the will of the Central Committee (meaning the will of the General Secretary: Stalin) on the mass of the Soviet Peoples. This is what absolute rulers do.

  • http://senatormark4.org SenatorMark4

    This is just plain funny! Getting all exercised about a failure of OUR leaders to demand OUR FREEDOMS be enforced before aid is given. I don’t even have to know the facts about the particular case because every place on earth seems to get our tax dollars for humanitarian aid but they never get out help in instituting the Second Amendment. 800,000 pump shotguns would seriously slow something like this. Armed neighbors are polite neighbors!

  • Paul

    Next there will be a plea to bring them to the United States, and we will have another 400,000 Muslims demanding “Rights”. We cannot solve the world’s problems, and we simply cannot assimilate immigrants who do not want to be assimilated.

  • Sergey

    Uzbeks are farmers. Kyrgyz are historically nomadic herders. Uzbeks are relatively rich, as farmers usually are, and shrewd in commerce (they need to sell their agricultural surplus). Kyrgyz are striken by unemployment harder, they can not survive on substinence farming, like Usbeks, due lack of commercial skills and fertile soil.
    Such conflicts between herders and farmers hardly have anything to do with modernization (except if under modernization you understand agricultural revolution which began 8000 years ago).

  • http://MSN Lorenzo

    Nothing will be done about the the killings in Kyrgyzstan, just as nothing was done about the killings in Rwanda because the world is obsessed with the Jewish state. The UN has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the other countries in the world combined. The UN, human rights organizations and humanitarian labor unions and church denominations spend so much energy excoriating the evils of Zionism that nothing is left for any other human rights situation. The story about 9 Turkish militants killed by Israeli commandos dominates the press and legislatures, while tens of thousands of Uzbeks die unnoticed.

  • Igor Dabik

    I fail to rationalize how the Greek air napalm campaigns in the earlier part of the 20th century against the Macedonians living in Greece aren’t mentioned.

  • Peter

    John above is right. English must be the official language of the U.S. with no apologies given. It is absurd that it is even a question about this.

    And if the illegal Third World invasion of the U.S. isn’t halted, who know what might happen in time.

  • three chord sloth

    This article illustrates perfectly a truth I have long believed: You can either be a student of history or you can be a multiculturalist; you cannot be both.

    In this increasingly profane and ugly world, there are three secularly sacred things worth preserving; the borders, the culture, and the Constitution of the United States. These are the things worth fighting for… and sooner rather than later, you will be fighting for them.

    As this new low/no growth economy grinds onward for the next decade or two (and grind it will; deleveraging is a long, slow process) the chasms created by mass immigration without assimilation will be revealed; the rifts that were papered-over by easy credit and unsustainable government spending will be exposed as toxic and poisonous to our nation. Jobs will be scarce, prosperity elusive. The pressures from both ends will rise; from the common people to expel the illegal aliens and limit future immigration, and from the elites and ethnic lobbies for amnesty and continuing the illusion.

    Things will come to a head, and will be resolved one of two ways. Either the elites who created the mess will apologize and escort the unassimilated to the borders, or the common folk will take matters into their own hands. Since the elites are constitutionally incapable of seeing their own glaring flaws, we’ll be taking the second path. There will be blood. And since the media/government/academy will be on the wrong side advocating the wrong policies, there will be blood squared.

    Many will feel empathy for the new refugees and will be tempted to ally with them in the name of justice. Keep one thing in mind: the injustice was created by ivory tower academics with their precious theories and by race hustlers looking to expand their fiefdoms. These failed immigrants had their chance to better themselves, to become Americans, but that chance was destroyed through bad leadership and bad advice. The path to America is centuries old; it is well-trodden, well known, and well conceived; if you stray from it you have no one to blame but yourself and your leaders. You chose ethnic pride over America. You chose wrong.

    Viva America. Multiculturalism delenda est.

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  • Rich Rostrom

    “Ethnic cleansing” of this sort is NOT a “natural consequence” of the withdrawal of an empire.

    For one thing, the various ethnic groups have usually been intermingled for centuries in relative peace.

    Where ethnic enimities have broken out into such violence, one inevitably finds a gangster government deliberately inflaming tensions and provoking violence to justify their power.

    Where this doesn’t happen, peaceful relations continue. There has been no ethnic cleansing in Malaysia. Nor in Fiji (despite political instability) or in Trinidad.

    Conversely, the violence in ex-Yugoslavia was provoked with great effort by the ex-Communist Milosevic gang.

    Also: Mr. Mead overstates the number of Arab refugees from the 1948 Israel War. There were 900,000 Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. Of these, about 300,000 lived in territory held by Arabs at the end of the War (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and thus were not displaced. Another 150,000 stayed in Israel and became citizens.

  • Ted

    The fact that a pogrom, bordering on genocide can take place in the 21st century is what we should be focussing on! NATO bombed Yugoslavia, claiming to avert another holocaust (it turned out that 2,000 had died from both sides in Kosovo over 10 years of skirmishing) but when thousands are slaughtered in Kyrgystan within days NATO responds with a defeaning silence

  • nadine

    I have hardly noticed any world “hand-wringing” over 400,000 Uzbek refugees. The world is still too busy engaging in its favorite pastime: Israel-bashing — condemning Israeli commandos for saving their lives from a lynch mob of agents provocateurs trying to beat them unconscious and kill or kidnap them.

    Because for a Jew to kill a Muslim is an outrage. Just ask PM Erdogan! But for Muslims to kill Muslims is simply business as usual. Nothing to see here, move right along.

  • Peter Burman

    800,000 Jews were kicked out of their homes throughout the Middle East when the Arab nations reacted negatively to the UN creation of Israel. And most of the Palestinian “refugees” were told to leave their homes by the invading Arab armies, who promised them that once Israel was destroyed, they could return home. (Home being a new concept, as most of the Palestinians were new to the area to begin with, having moved there because Jews were creating jobs in the area.)

  • peter38a

    Ted, point well taken. Those dirty, thoughtless guys in NATO. But there is still hope. When the US didn’t get involved in the Spanish Civil War “progressives” in this country formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, paid their own transportation and joined and fought with the Republican forces. Credit given where credit is due, when they couldn’t get other people’s sons put in harm’s way they put themselves therein.

    Ted, you and yours could form just such a brigade now and right the wrongs in the world. No more frustration at the inactivity of others you could act at the first hint of trouble. I’ll be looking for your recruiting posters on the internet.

  • peter38a

    Dr. Mead,

    I’ve been reading your comments for some months now and I want to say that your ‘blog’ is not only informative but a tranquil eye in a storm of invective postings on the net. I look forward to it and greatly appreciate the stories about your personal travels and family comings and goings.

    If you were anticipating a “but” I am afraid you were right. I didn’t get a chance to reply to your post on the Palestinians and by your leave I will drop a few lines here in that the topics are not that different.

    When you propose a large immigration of these refugees, full citizenship, education, jobs, etc., I must reply not in our country. The reason is human nature. They don’t want citizenship, education and jobs, what they want is to be “right.” No matter where they go or what is provided for them the number one imperative of their life will always be, “Ask me how I’ve suffered.” Others suffered as much or more but got on with it, there is no alternative, well unless the UN provides one.

    But me, I’m sorry to reply, that was then, this is now and I have life of my own which I find to be a full time job.

  • http://??? tom kinney

    The perils and the wreckage of modernization as Dr. Mead says…that is correct. And one more element I would add. Modernization more than anything means a closer proximity between cultures that are otherwise separated by centuries of progress and all the misunderstandings that engenders. A proximity ushered in by technologies from faster and more accurate media to transportation.

    A hundred years ago, Arab Muslims behaved in a way that’s vaguely similar to today in regard to their treatment of women; their reluctance to join a modernizing world; their relationship to non-Muslims in their midst. Did we in the west fret about their behaviors then? Not a smidgen because we didn’t know about them, didn’t hear about them, and weren’t confronted with them via immigration and increased proximity in many areas as have developed in this rapidly globalizing world.

    The difference today? We know all these things and just to take one example, the institutionlized Islamic treatment of women is something we find to be intolerable. (Not apparently to our “feminists,” who rarely opine on the subject due aparently to their deep feelings of multiculti baloney.)

    The only real attempt to intervene in this clash of cultures was our attempted liberation of Iraq, because it not only included an invasion and a destruction of the old regime, but from the beginning it had as its core goal, that of democratizing Iraq and thus leaving behind the institutions with which Iraqis could plot their own modernized future. Sadly, we’ve seen how well that’s worked out; which is pretty well in some regards, but at a terrible cost and the distinct possibility it will all crumble back to dust soiled with unprecendented levels of violence and bloodshed.

    But we will continue to hear these stories of horror and our western sensibilities, or perhaps oversensibilities, will prompt us to consider interventions.

    Our choice for the future is to turn a blind eye, or get a grip on how we can terraform these cultures we can’t understand through methods we’ve yet to master.

    It’s not much of a choice.

  • Tashlan

    Having lived and taught in Tashkent (with frequent trips to Bishkek and other parts of Central Asia), I can say there wasn’t much in the way of ethnic conflict in the urban centers. Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkmen, etc., were scattered all over the region long before the Russians arrived. My students’ passports (everyone had to carry it with them) were marked with the ethnicity of the individual; but if any group of people experienced unusual discrimination, it would be the ethnic Russians in particular and non-Asiatics in general. Anyone who might be deemed an “intruder” was looked down upon and mistreated (if the opportunity presented itself). Otherwise, there was a live-and-let-live attitude that pervaded the country.

    It was the leadership of the countries that found interesting ways to antagonize, persecute and assault small groups within their states (when it served their purposes). Islam Karimov didn’t just slaughter people in Ferghana, he managed to drive out most of the ethnic Indians after restoring the reverence of Tamberlane (not known for his kindness to India) while drawing in Koreans for investment and development. One year, during Navruz, he had the Kazak border posts moved two kilometers into Kazakstan (which he was subsequently obliged to restore).

    People do very odd things in that part of the world, but it’s hard to pin it on ethnicity or even cultural differences.

  • Engineer

    So we have a situation where the world’s plethora of multi-ethnic states lack the necessary spiritual capacity to evolve into genuine nations and the choices are to muddle along until some sort of political landmine results in massive bloodshed and refugee creation (Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda, Palestine, etc.) or the national formality divorces into microstates (Czech and Slovakia, rather than Czechoslovakia). But all many successor micro-states will end up too small and/or too primitive to enforce the trappings of national sovereignty so it almsot beholden for someone to exercise an Imperium to keep border secure. That Imperial power will demand recompense and we’re back to, perhaps, an enlightened version of what existed back pre-1914?

  • Sergey

    To avoid these murders and other nasty things earlier or later colonial empires in one form or another should be restored. Just make sure that the supreme rulers are not Asiats.

  • http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/georgieva Elena Ilieva

    Hi, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian aid Kristalina Georgieva wrote in her blog about her visit to Kyrgyzstan after the Referendum. You can see it here http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/georgieva/kyrgyzstan/

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