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At Least 117 People Killed in Kyrgyzstan; An Estimated 80,000 Uzbeks Have Fled

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The interim government has accused former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev of provoking the violence in order to destabilize the country ahead of a planned constitutional referendum later this month. Bakiyev was ousted from power in an uprising this April. On Sunday, he issued a statement from exile in Belarus saying he had played no role in the violence. For more, we’re joined in New York by Scott Horton. He’s a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and a founding trustee of the American University in Central Asia in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He has just returned from a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where he met with several members of the interim government. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin with the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, which has been ravaged by violence in recent days. At least 117 people have been killed in three days of fighting between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in the southern city of Osh. Some 1,400 people have been injured, and an estimated 80,000 Uzbeks have fled and are reportedly crossing the border into neighboring Uzbekistan. The interim government has declared a state of emergency in the region and given security forces shoot-to-kill powers.

Roza Otunbayeva, the interim government leader, urged Russia to send in troops to quell the violence.

    ROZA OTUNBAYEVA: [translated] Since last night, the situation is getting out of control. And today we need the entry of the third party, its forces, or, to be exact, of another party’s forces, because here I am talking about our country, Kyrgyzstan, so we need an entry of outside armed forces to calm the situation down. We have appealed to Russia for help, and I have already signed such a letter for President Dmitry Medvedev.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia has said it has no plans to intervene in the clashes, but on Sunday Moscow sent hundreds of paratroopers to Kyrgyzstan to protect its military facilities in the north.

The interim government has accused the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of provoking the violence in order to destabilize the country ahead of a planned constitutional referendum later this month. Bakiyev was ousted from power in an uprising last April. On Sunday, he issued a statement from exile in Belarus saying he had played no role in the violence.

For more, I’m joined here in New York by Scott Horton. He’s a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, founding trustee of the American University in Central Asia in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. He has just returned from Kyrgyzstan, where he met with several members of the interim government.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You know the government well. You know many of the people in Kyrgyzstan. Explain what’s happening, Scott.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, it’s a really tragic situation that’s a severe test of this interim government. And the government’s laid a heavy charge at the former dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, saying he’s instigated this. And while it will take a comprehensive investigation to establish the facts, after all this has been calmed down and quieted, nevertheless, there really is already significant evidence to back up what the government says. So, last week, before the violence had commenced, there were good intelligence reports circulating among the government that the president’s brother, Zhanysh Bakiyev, had been collecting guns and spreading weapons and ammunition amongst their supporters in the southern region —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is the deposed president.

SCOTT HORTON: That’s right, of the former president, the deposed president -— with the intention of instigating violence in the south. And the reports — I’ve spoken to people directly in Osh who have witnessed some of these events. They’re not spontaneous events. They’re very carefully orchestrated. They’re really more pogroms than riots. So well-armed gangs go in, and they’re systematically targeting Uzbek settlements and killing the population and leveling the settlements. So it appears to be designed to demonstrate what is a fact, that is, that the central government in Bishkek has very little control over the south, and to demonstrate the need for a strong authoritarian president, which, you know, Kurmanbek Bakiyev was always viewed as exactly that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who threw him out?

SCOTT HORTON: He was thrown out by a popular uprising that started in the northern part of the country. And Bakiyev, of course, is from the south. So there is this inherent north-south tension in all of these troubles in Kyrgyzstan, and the current government is composed largely of northerners, is based in the north, has very, very — has very weak support in the south only.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the map. Describe where Kyrgyzstan is.

SCOTT HORTON: I usually describe it as being slightly to the left of China. So we’re talking about the roof of the world and some of the highest mountain ranges, the Tian Shan region. So it is on the eastern periphery of the Soviet Central Asian region, but facing Chinese Central Asia, about as a remote spot in the world as you can get.

AMY GOODMAN: Right next to the very repressive Uzbekistan.

SCOTT HORTON: All the other Central Asian states are authoritarian states, and Uzbekistan, in particular, is extremely authoritarian. Kyrgyzstan has historically been the strong standout in that regard. Although the Kyrgyz leaders have always been wannabe authoritarians, it’s the Kyrgyz population that hasn’t tolerated that, and they’ve overthrown two presidents now. And political scientist Eugene Huskey describes them, for instance, as natural-born anarchists, because they really resent the idea of strong and repressive central government.

AMY GOODMAN: The US has a base there?

SCOTT HORTON: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are they calling on the United States — they called on Russia to bring in troops?

SCOTT HORTON: They addressed — as I understand, they initially addressed a request to Russia for troops to help quell the violence, largely a result of the fact that things had spun completely out of control. They thought that hundreds of thousands of people were threatened by this, and they felt that because of the interethnic element, really the only way this could be successfully calmed without string up the anxieties of the people was to have a third party come in. So they thought Russia should do it. Russia has rebuffed them, although they say now they’re considering it again. President Medvedev’s office says that. But they also directed a request for military assistance to the United States, which I understand were declined this weekend.


SCOTT HORTON: I can easily understand why the United States would say “Why?” and would not want to be drawn in with its military into an interethnic conflict. But, you know, this is the sort of thing that really calls for an international peacekeeping presence. And the government of Kyrgyzstan is openly calling for that. So this is not a case where the request is coming from outsiders or human rights activists. Their government is appealing for that sort of a security assistance. Hopefully, the US and the Russians will agree on something at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: Osh, the site of the killings, is the stronghold of Uzbeks who have come in from Uzbekistan. Are they fleeing the repression in Uzbekistan?

SCOTT HORTON: They absolutely are. Osh is a 2,000-year-old city, an absolutely fascinating place, one of the oldest points of continuous human habitation in the world, a very densely populated area located in the Ferghana Valley. And this region, we have three countries that share the valley, and Kazakhstan is just a short distance away. People have consistently thought that if there was going to be some sort interethnic conflagration in Central Asia, this is where it will start. And in fact, in 1990 there were interethnic riots. It cost 300 lives there.

The reports today are that somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 Uzbeks are seeking shelter and safety in neighboring Uzbekistan. And we have conflicting reports from the Uzbeks about whether they’re being received. But my understanding, based on the latest information I have this morning, is that the Uzbeks are allowing them to cross the frontier and putting them in camps just on the Uzbek side of the border.

AMY GOODMAN: US relations around issues of fuel? I mean, it’s interesting. We just talked about the New York Times report on Afghanistan, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits, perhaps, what, exceeding Bolivia in lithium deposits. We were just in Bolivia, and that was the huge deal there, and now talking about Afghanistan. What about Kyrgyzstan when it comes to fuel and the United States?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, the Kyrgyz offered the United States the use of a military installation in 2001, right at the beginning of this conflict, to support their operations in Afghanistan. That’s stayed in place ever since. But it’s become increasingly controversial. And in, I’d say, the last several years, the controversy has focused on the allegations that the United States was bribing the president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, by having sub rosa payments to him through fuel contracts. And those allegations fueled this revolution, so they led in part to the toppling of the government. So, relations between the interim government and the United States have been, shall we say, difficult, but the interim government has said the US can continue to keep the base, but it’s trying to renegotiate the economic basis of the installation.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, I want to thank you for being with us, contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, also founding trustee of the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where over the last three days, well, close to 120 people have died.

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