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Kyrgyzstan: From Ethnicity to Urbanicity

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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Caitlin Ryan

"Local context matters," Caitlin Ryan said to a room full of students and community members on a sunny afternoon in February. The screen behind her displayed the words "ethnicity and urbanicity." Ryan—a Central Asian expert, a human geographer, and a PhD candidate at CU Boulder—specializes in the post-conflict urban development, particularly in how different inequalities fuel disputes between various groups.

Ryan's lecture encouraged students to reconsider the lenses that are used to study so-called "ethnic" conflicts. As she would explain through her fieldwork, ethnicity can be a superficial factor. Blaming ethnic divides is easy. However, as the case of Osh underscores, the perceptions and realities of ethnicity are recent phenomena, which have been imposed in contexts that formerly identified through different categories.

Osh sits in the southern province of Kyrgyzstan, near the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders. The Kyrgyz people were traditionally nomadic, whereas the Uzbeks were settled under the rule of khanates. That being said, both groups share similar language, religious practices, and cultural perspectives, and have often intermarried throughout the past few centuries. When the Soviet Union incorporated the region into Soviet Republics, the Kyrgyz people were identified as distinct from the Uzbek people through government paperwork. Soviet censuses post-revolution whittled down identification options until "clan" was eliminated, and citizen identity aligned with the "ethnic" namesakes of the Republics. The Uzbeks of Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz of Kyrgyzstan were thus created. The process overlooked the significance of language and clan in favor of imposing a nationality on the people.

Furthermore, urbanization of Osh began as a product of Soviet industrialization. Labor was divided by group: the nomadic Kyrgyz were restricted to animal husbandry, the settled Uzbeks were assigned to agriculture and some industry work, and the majority of skilled industry labor was given to Soviet migrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. Urban housing and land were distributed likewise. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was the settled Uzbeks who inherited the neighborhoods of Osh, and the rural Kyrgyz who settled in the abandoned industrialized apartments of former Soviet workers.

Ryan's argument is that the subsequent protests, riots, and civil unrest are linked to ethnicity not by intergroup violence, but by horizontal inequalities stemming from Soviet impositions. Blaming ethnic divides is easy—what is not easy is considering the historical grievances between groups, rooted in imperialism, that bubble up through the cracks of an unequal society.

Ryan has spent several years in the post-Soviet Eurasia space. Her dissertation is a study of urban transformation in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. She has worked in Kyrgyzstan since 2013, when she ran a series of oral history interviews with the Chechen community in Tokmok, an experience that led her and her colleagues into an unusual encounter with the Chechen-led mafia of Kyrgyzstan and resulted in an unplanned publication on the relationship between various justice systems in the country. Caitlin received a Fulbright fellowship to conduct her dissertation work in Osh in 2015-16. Prior to joining the Geography department, Caitlin spent 6 years in the South Caucasus, working with the Eurasia Foundation and Transparency International.

~Emily Zmak