Recent interethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan has local observers worrying that prolonged economic and political uncertainty is ripping apart the country's delicate social fabric.
A January 31 brawl between Kyrgyz and Dungan teenagers in the village of Iskra, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, precipitated a broader interethnic clash. Two Kyrgyz boys were allegedly beaten by Dungan youths in a dispute over a seat in a local computer center. Dungans, Muslims of Chinese origin, are one of Kyrgyzstan's smallest minority groups, numbering roughly 50,000. But Dungans comprise roughly 90 percent of Iskra's 3,000 residents.
Tension rapidly escalated following the initial brawl. Large Kyrgyz demonstrations on February 4-5 called for the forced removal of the six Dungan teenagers involved in the fight, along with their families. On February 5, four Dungan youths traveling in a speeding car allegedly fired shots at protesters. The incident prompted the Kyrgyz demonstrators to go on a rampage, beating Dungans and setting fire to dwellings. The violence forced several Dungan families to seek refuge in a local mosque. Law enforcement officials used tear gas to disperse a large Kyrgyz crowd on February 6 and restore order. The next day, police spokesman Mikhail Kopylov told journalists that authorities had made 40 arrests, including the four Dungans suspected of firing at protesters. Overall, the clashes left 20 people injured and about 30 homes destroyed.
The Kyrgyz authorities have attempted to downplay the significance of the rioting. "Such fights happen quite often . . . I can state unequivocally that we will not allow for tension to grow into ethnic conflict," Prime Minister Feliks Kulov said in an interview published by the Slovo Kyrgyzstana weekly February 9,
Nevertheless, a governmental commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Adahan Madumarov found that the clashes were "caused by three factors: economic and social problems and a simple misunderstanding between two ethnic groups." Madumarov also assailed the conduct of local law enforcement officials, saying earlier intervention could have prevented much of the violence. "If law enforcement organs reacted swiftly, we could have avoided [the clash]... All those [local officials] who are guilty of negligence will be punished," Madumarov said at a February 6 press conference in Bishkek.
Political analysts tend to be far more concerned about the significance of the Iskra unrest than are political leaders. In particular, observers expressed concern about the breakdown of informal conflict-resolution mechanisms. Traditionally, aksakals, or local elders, mediated interethnic differences on the local level. The Iskra clash signaled that their influence has eroded. The People's Assembly, a formal association of ethnic minority groups, acknowledged this trend in a statement issued on February 9. "We realize that it is important to establish local councils of ethnic development for integrating and strengthening friendship among people of different nationalities," an assembly statement said.
In a commentary published in weekly Vecherny Bishkek on February 9, columnist Zinaida Sorokina sounded an alarm. "The conflict in the town of Iskra has rocked not only local residents, but also, without exaggeration, the whole [Kyrgyzstani] society," Sorokina wrote. "The walls of our