Kyrgyz–Uzbek Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4129-4150:

After much huffing and puffing about his popularity, Bakiyev flew into exile, vacating his ceremonial tent on the edge of Jalalabad. He and his associates and relatives now face criminal prosecution in Kyrgyzstan on charges that include murder and corruption. Hours after Bakiyev escaped, a crowd of protesters set his sprawling family home on fire. Though Batyrov says the place was already burning by the time his men arrived, the prevalent view in Kyrgyzstan is that it was Batyrov’s Uzbeks who did it. “I told them, ‘Don’t touch the house, it belonged to Bakiyev’s grandfather, and he’s a veteran of World War II,’” Ashukan Saparova, an elderly Kyrgyz woman who lives across the street, told me when I visited.

As word of the bonfire spread, the Kyrgyz grew infuriated. How dared the Uzbeks burn a Kyrgyz home? “They shouldn’t have done it. I’m a woman, but if someone burned my father’s house, I would also want revenge,” Mavlyanova, the Kyrgyz NGO activist who had a son in Batyrov’s kindergarten, told me. Though ethnic clashes had taken place even before the arson, they intensified in the following weeks. A Kyrgyz crowd rampaged through Batyrov’s Peoples’ Friendship University, burning classrooms, breaking windows, and decapitating the statue of the Uzbek leader’s father. It was late May, right around finals.

“Students started running away,” recalled Anara Samatova, a professor of literature, who is Kyrgyz. Samatova collected exam papers and followed her students out through the back door. In the next few days, Jalalabad descended into hell. Hiding in her apartment, Samatova peeked out the window and saw a group of armed Kyrgyz men interrogating an Uzbek teenager dressed in a black T-shirt. She knew the kid was Uzbek because his captors called him sart, a derogatory term the Kyrgyz use for Uzbeks, the local n-word. Samatova couldn’t hear what the gunmen were grilling him about, but she overheard the kid protesting: “But my house was burned too.” With that, the men shot him, put his body in a car, and drove off.

Next up in the war’s path was Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and a bustling hub of the south. Tensions had been brewing there for years, as the Uzbek commercial class dominating the city rubbed up against the influx of poorer rural migrants, most of them Kyrgyz. In fact, an element of class had seeped into the conflict. Many rural Kyrgyz resented the Uzbeks for their perceived wealth. It’s a deeply flawed stereotype, but one that proved very resilient.

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Central Asia’s Land of Cotton

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4701-4717:

Uzbekistan’s cotton troubles have a long history. In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial planners insisted the Uzbeks ramp up their cotton production to feed the commercial demands of the realm. At the time, Russia was importing a lot of cotton from the United States at a high cost. The newly conquered Central Asian plains, with their arid climate, provided an ideal setting for building a domestic cotton industry. Hundreds of cotton gins sprung up throughout the region. Deeming the local strain of cotton too crude, the Russians introduced an American strain whose longer fibers were better suited to producing fine clothes.

Aided by Russian financial incentives, cotton began to displace traditional food crops grown by local farmers and became the primary cash crop. A senior Russian colonial official “acknowledged bluntly that cotton was ‘the central nerve and main point of interest and concern of the local population. At the same time it is also the link connecting Turkestan with Moscow and the rest of Russia.’” Russian engineers built a railway line, in part to facilitate the cotton trade. The Russian push succeeded: in 1860, Central Asia supplied no more than 7 percent of cotton to Russian mills. By 1915, that figure had grown to 70 percent.

The Soviets continued the practice, and the obsession with cotton began to take its toll on the land. “Moscow turned Central Asia into a mega-farm designed to produce ever greater quantities of cotton. To this end irrigation kept being expanded beyond the capacity of Central Asian rivers, the soil exhausted by monoculture kept getting saturated with chemical fertilizers, the crops sprayed by clouds of pesticides and herbicides, and instead of fully mechanizing the production, cheap native labor was routinely used for harvesting the [cotton],” writes Svat Soucek, an eloquent chronicler of Central Asian history. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, fudging cotton-output figures gave rise to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared high-ranking officials both in Tashkent and in Moscow. The leaders of independent Uzbekistan continued the cursed agricultural model.

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Kyrgyzstan’s Heckling Women Special Forces

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2888-2901:

Walking around Jalalabad, where mayors rose and fell based on the whims of the crowds, I thought of Kyrgyzstan as a bizarre case of direct democracy taken to its most absurd extreme in a society where institutions and laws are weak or nonexistent, where clans are strong, and where poverty makes people edgy, easily manipulated, and ready to attempt risky things.

The presence of loudly disposed women at rallies became a fixture of political life in Kyrgyzstan. Describing a recent rally where a heckling argument occurred between two rival camps, a local journalist mentioned something called OBON. The word sounded like the ubiquitous Russian acronym for Police Special Forces, and I assumed he was talking about riot police. It turned out the acronym stood for Heckling Women Special Forces. These histrionic commandos have been effective in Kyrgyzstan’s modern political history. They scream and drown out their opponents; they can land a punch if need be, or fall on the ground in a theatrical show of sorrow; security forces don’t quite know how to deal with them, they are just a bunch of middle-aged and elderly women. Waiting in a Defense Ministry reception area a few days later, I overheard two senior security operatives, both tough-looking men, discussing the challenges of OBON. “You know, in Jalalabad fifty women were able to seize the governor’s office—what the hell do you do in a situation like that?”

With the mayor’s job in play, a similar round of musical chairs occurred in the provincial governor’s office. After the music stopped, the man who ended up sitting down was Bakiyev’s former ambassador to Pakistan. A few days later, in a flurry of new decrees, the interim government announced the appointment of a new Jalalabad mayor. His name was not Asylbek Tashtanbekov, the OBON-backed running champion.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Tobruk, Feldwebel

I learned two new German military terms from my recent reading about how D-Day was experienced by the German military.

Tobruk – Several of the soldiers interviewed in D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015) referred to their bunkers as Tobruks. I could guess its etymology—from Tobruk in Libya, the site of famous battles during World War II—but couldn’t visualize what kind of bunker it might be. Fortunately there are lots of images of tobruk bunkers in Wikimedia Commons, and a very informative site about the Regelbau architecture of German fortifications from the World War II era. Here’s how the latter source defines a Tobruk:

The Tobruk or “ringstellung” is basically a reinforced foxhole, some with a small, two-man habitat attached to it. The simplest version is named Bauform 201 or 58c, but a a variety of bunkers emerged from it. Tobruks are also an integral part of many larger bunkers, where they serve as observation posts and machinegun positions.

Feldwebel – None of the German military ranks are translated in The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006). Perhaps the author simply wanted to avoid having to choose between, say, private first class and lance corporal to translate Gefreiter or Sturmmann (‘stormtrooper’, the SS paramilitary equivalent). There is lots of variation across anglophone militaries, and especially across various service branches. But perhaps the author also wanted an easy way to signal the distinction between Wehrmacht (regular army) ranks and their Waffen-SS equivalents. For instance, an SS-Hauptsturmführer is equivalent to a Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Army captain).

One of the Wehrmacht ranks I was surprised not to recognize was Feldwebel ‘sergeant’. (The same term has been borrowed by several other European armies, including those of Russia and Sweden.) It dates back to the early days of massed infantry tactics that required careful alignment of troops wielding pikes or firing muskets. The Feldwebel was the person who kept the troops in the field properly aligned.

German Wikipedia says Feldwebel derives from Old High German weibôn ‘sich hin und her bewegen’ (‘to go back and forth’) but doesn’t cite a source, and translates Webel as Gerichtsdiener (‘court usher’). The Swiss German rank is Feldweibel, related to Weibel (also Amtsweibel or Amtsdiener), the officer in charge of protocol in various official gatherings.

English Wikipedia cites the same Old High German etymology but translates Webel too simply as ‘usher’ (as in court usher, Gentleman Usher of the Royal Household and of various anglophone parliaments, or White House Chief Usher). If I had to put a contemporary label on all these formal order-keeping roles, I would lump them into the category of sergeant-at-arms, rather than usher. (It’s ironic that “sergeant-at-arms” now distinguishes various sorts of civilian order-keepers from military order-keeping sergeants.)

French Wikipedia gives Feldwebel a slightly different etymology (also without citing a source): “vieil allemand waibel, pièce de métier à tisser servant à ramener tous les fils sur la ligne (peigne)” (‘Old German waibel, the loom piece serving to keep all the threads aligned [comb]’).

The last etymology seems to me to get closer to the source of the term Webel, a Middle High German cognate of English weft, according to Guus Kroonen’s The Proto-Germanic n-stems.: A study in diachronic morphophonology (Rodopi, 2011). The weft threads are those that go back and forth (‘sich hin und her bewegen’) across the warp threads to weave fabrics on a loom.

This reminds me of the first line of the first dialog I had to memorize when I took the Romanian language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in 1969: “Bună ziua, Domnule Locotenent!” (“Guten Tag, Herr Leutnant!”)

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From Political Prisoner to Police Chief in a Day

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 698-721:

The revolution here was so fast and surreal that a man who woke up on a prison bunk became the nation’s security czar by the time he went to bed. Shortly after protesters took over the presidential palace, Felix Kulov, a former police chief and mayor of Bishkek, was sprung from jail and found himself cruising the city’s mad streets in a white sport-utility vehicle, appealing to crazed crowds to stop the looting. “This turn of events was of course unusual,” Kulov, clad in blue jeans and sporting a buzz cut, said the next morning in front of his new digs at the Interior Ministry.

A career police officer who rose to the rank of general, Kulov served as vice president, interior minister, and head of the National Security Service. Just as his personal popularity began to threaten President Akayev, Kulov was convicted of corruption in a dubious trial that Western observers considered politically motivated. It is not that he was necessarily blameless. It is just that he was no worse than the average, so picking on him smacked of selective justice.

For the next five years, Kulov languished in jail with six hundred other inmates. Comrades from his political party, Ar-Namys, supplied the whole prison with food, books, exercise equipment, woodworking lathes, soccer balls, and even special trucks to pump out the sewage. Kulov’s party once gave the cash-strapped prison twenty tons of potatoes. The party wanted to keep its leader fit and healthy, and the easiest way to do it was to support the whole prison. Behind bars, Kulov kept himself busy. He once gave his party comrades a wooden scale model of a ship carved by him and his jail buddies.

The day of the revolution, his supporters drove forty miles to the prison, where the superintendent promptly released him. “This man will be promoted,” Kulov joked shortly afterward. The liberated general sprang into action that very evening, as looters rampaged through the capital, ransacking stores. The police had retreated into their precincts after the storming of the palace and were in no mood to venture out again. Bloodstains were still drying on the spots where the cops had come under a shower of rocks from the protesters. “They were so demoralized,” Kulov recalled. “I could do little more than appeal to the conscience of every officer.”

One evening after the uprising, Kulov addressed the crowds massing in front of the city’s landmark Central Department Store, begging them not to loot. Several other popular shops, like Beta Stores, were overrun, vandalized, and emptied of merchandise.

The hordes of looters and thugs roaming the streets the first two postrevolutionary nights scared most peaceful residents into their homes, where some dusted off old shotguns and vowed to shoot if the marauding crowds approached. But the main department store survived with just a couple of cracked windows, an important moral victory of law and order in the capital.

The police, having absorbed the emotional shocks of being attacked by the protesters, came back to the streets, at one point shooting rounds into the air to keep looters at bay. Thousands of Bishkek residents responded to televised calls by Kulov and others to form militias and patrol their neighborhoods and the city’s landmarks.

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Post-Soviet Status: “Respected Thief”

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2402-25:

Kyrgyzstan is a very small country, so rumors and news have a way of traveling fast in the overlapping circles of the country’s movers and shakers who booze, gossip, and do business together. Out of that cauldron, Ibraimova fished out a troubling morsel of scuttlebutt: a contract to kill Sadyrkulov had already been placed with a notorious mobster named Kamchi Kolbayev, a baby-faced, thirty-seven-year-old Don Corleone of Kyrgyzstan.

Following a long Soviet criminal tradition, Kolbayev was the so-called respected thief, a crowned prince of jailhouse aristocracy now entrusted by his colleagues to rule a vast criminal empire according to an informal code of “understandings” that are ruthless but noble, as any bleeding-heart mobster will tell you. Respected thieves require official protection, or at least acquiescence, and Kolbayev’s rise up the criminal food chain coincided with the entrenchment of the Bakiyev regime and the elevation of [his brother] Janysh. Kamchi benefited greatly from the murder of a major competitor: Ryspek Akhmatbayev, the Robin Hood who once dominated the country’s criminal underworld, won a parliamentary seat, and died in a flurry of gunfire outside a mosque.

Kamchi fared much better. One November evening in 2008, crime bosses from across the former Soviet Union gathered in a fancy Moscow restaurant to discuss pressing business matters and anoint new respected thieves. According to a Russian newspaper account of the meeting, the guests included such colorfully nicknamed individuals as Basil the Resurrected, Hamlet, Railcar, the Ogre, the Little Japanese Man, and Granpa Hassan. Kamchi was there too, and his peers crowned the Kyrgyz as a “respected thief,” elevating him to the rarefied top rung of organized crime. The title, peculiar to the Soviet criminal underworld, denotes an eventful life lived according to a rigorous criminal code that prohibits any normal employment, prescribes utter disdain for law enforcement, and usually involves significant prison stints and elaborately coded tattoos. Very few criminals rise to the rank of respected thief, whose closest international equivalent might be the Italian mafia’s capo di tutti cappi. (The original Russian term, Vor v Zakone, is often translated as Thief-in-Law, which is confusing as it conjures a meddlesome mother-in-law.)

A couple of years after attaining the respected-thief status, Kamchi became big enough to land on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of major transnational crime figures whose assets are subject to a freeze. The U.S. government identified Kamchi as a key member of the Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven, and the Twenty), a multiethnic criminal group spread across the former Soviet Union and active in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. “The Brothers’ Circle serves as a coordinating body for several criminal networks, mediating disputes between the individual criminal networks and directing member criminal activity globally,” the Treasury Department says. Tagged by President Obama as “a significant narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Kamchi serves as the Brothers’ Circle’s overseer for Central Asia, a principal staging ground for global trafficking of Afghan heroin.

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Presidential Transitions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2635-44:

The reign of President Bakiyev ended the same way it began, with a revolution and an exile. He fled, first to a large ceremonial tent in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, and then out of the country. Facing an irate populace, his brothers, sons, and cronies ran for the exits too, not all of them successfully. Bakiyev eventually settled in Belarus, at the personal invitation of the local dictator. The only two presidents Kyrgyzstan had known in its twenty years of independence ended up as outcasts and fugitives: one in Moscow teaching physics, the other in Minsk living in a forced retirement. Bakiyev, the hopeful product of the optimistically named Tulip Revolution, mutated into a villain so quickly that his allies didn’t know what hit them. “We got tricked like little kids,” Roza Otunbayeva, the perennial opposition leader who helped bring Bakiyev to power, told me shortly after she helped overthrow him. “He made all the right speeches back then.” During his five-year reign, nepotism and graft surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the master of the one-liner, Bakiyev “stepped on the same rake” that had whacked his predecessor on the head.

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