Kyrgyzstan’s Media Hardening Racist Narratives

July 22

Nationalist press interpretations of the recent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan are adding to tensions throughout the country. Coupled with the refusal of both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to assess their hate, these reports make peace seem increasingly elusive.

Kyrgyzstan’s legislation prohibits the incitement of ethnic hatred, but the weak central government has not stopped the distribution of the chauvinistic editorials and reporting in the Kyrgyz-language press. Certainly, Uzbek Internet portals are distributing hateful messages, too, but most Uzbek media outlets have closed following the June violence.

In the Kyrgyz media, the xenophobic opinions generally follow three inter-related themes:

1. The violent events in April and June 2010 endangered Kyrgyz statehood. Bigger and more powerful states (read: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) will “swallow up” Kyrgyz land. The Kyrgyz must fight for their state.

2. Preserving Kyrgyz statehood requires the titular ethnicity – the Kyrgyz – to assume their “deserved preeminent status” in the country. Ethnic minority involvement in politics and the economy must be limited because the recent events indicate their representatives (i.e. Uzbeks) are unreliable: ethnic minorities did not shed blood toppling the authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April. Rather than work with the Kyrgyz toward building Kyrgyz statehood, the ethnic minority representatives sought political autonomy and language privileges, such narratives attest.

3. The main perpetrators of the June 10-15 violence are Uzbek community leaders and they must be punished severely.

On July 9, the Bishkek-based weekly “Alibi” carried an editorial entitled, “Your Homeland is in a Tough Situation: Wake-Up Kyrgyz!” The editorial claimed that since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, its leaders did little to promote interests of the Kyrgyz ethnic group.

“Kyrgyz leaders pursued policies which discriminated against the Kyrgyz people and turned the Kyrgyz land, which had been cherished by our ancestors, into a ‘common house,’ threatening the stability of the state,” the editorial claimed. “The Jews have occupied the state, our people have been impoverished, the Kazakhs boast that they turned the Kyrgyz into their slaves, there is no national ideology, the Kyrgyz language shows no sign of developing.”

The Osh-based “Kok Mongu” weekly has run several similar chauvinistic reports and opinions. On the front page of it’s July 9 issue, for example, a statement above the newspaper’s flag read, “Those who lost their houses must not be given new land! Either be prepared to live in many-storied apartment complexes, or get out!” The paper was referring to plans to move Uzbeks out of their homes in Osh and build modern apartments in their place.

In the same issue, “Do not awaken the lion!,” compared the Kyrgyz people with a sleeping lion that should not have been disturbed. It claimed that “the gracious Kyrgyz people never raised their hands at anyone during their long history.” The editorial also claimed, somewhat contradictorily, that in the past, enemies of the Kyrgyz were severely punished when they invaded Kyrgyz land.

The “enemies of the Kyrgyz” caused the violence, the author argued, and they [i.e. Uzbeks] received a just response, which should serve as a deterrent for others.

The paper has also asserted that most of the dead in the June unrest were ethnic Kyrgyz, a statement that independent observers unanimously dismiss.

The list goes on. And on. Some Kyrgyz papers have attacked the respected Russian-language Vechernyi Bishkek (“Evening Bishkek”) for being unpatriotic, simply for criticizing such chauvinistic drivel.

Of course, Uzbeks too have added to tensions. Well-known Uzbek singer Yulduz Usmanova’s recent song about the Osh events is being widely circulated on CD and cell phones in Uzbek-populated towns across southern Kyrgyzstan. She depicts the Uzbeks as a peace-loving and industrious people cruelly slaughtered by the Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz will pay a price for the atrocities, she concludes.

Her recordings are hardening anti-Kyrgyz sentiments among the Uzbeks.

In such an atmosphere, when the media presents hatred in such black and white terms, it is no wonder harassment, beatings, and even murder continue. The sad irony is that before the June ethnic violence, the Kyrgyz press featured regular reports lamenting the way Central Asian migrant laborers in Russia – ethnic Kyrgyz included – were mercilessly attacked and murdered by Russian nationalists.

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