New Kyrgyz Leaders Struggle With Land Wars

By Asyl Osmonalieva

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, April 25, 2010 (ENS) – The new government in Kyrgyzstan is under pressure to restore law and order after violent clashes over land near the capital Bishkek.

Although the land invasions are an anarchic free-for-all driven by genuine grievances, some analysts suspect there is a degree of coordination, possibly by diehard opponents of the new regime.

The Kyrgyz interior ministry said five people died and 40 were injured on April 19 as police battled several hundred people who had seized land around the village of Mayevka, on the northern outskirts of Bishkek.

Such land grabs, generally by migrant populations seeking a better life close to the capital, have been a recurring feature of post-independence Kyrgyzstan, especially at moments of political turbulence. The latest wave was set off by the mass protests in Bishkek on April 6-7 when President Kurmanbek Bakiev was toppled and the opposition took over to form a new interim government.

Thousands of people marked out pieces of land they wanted to take over in areas around the capital, despite warnings from the new government that action would be taken to stop them.

Demonstrators in Bishkek, April 7, 2010 (Photo by Alymkan)

In Mayevka, incomers staked out plots and then set off en masse towards the center of Bishkek to demand recognition for their claims.

Acting city mayor Isa Omurkulov, who went to meet the marchers, said afterwards that he had promised them only that the land issue would be discussed by municipal officials. He said, “There is no free land within the city perimeter. As for private property and agricultural land, we won’t allow anyone to grab it.”

When the would-be squatters returned to Mayevka, violence erupted between them and the village’s residents, who were alarmed at the invasion of their home territory.

The village, several kilometers outside Bishkek, is home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Russians and Meskhetian Turks, a community which Stalin deported from the Caucasus to Central Asia during the Second World War.

A reporter with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting who visited Mayevka after the violence saw smoke still hanging over the village, burnt-out houses and outbuildings, and cars gutted by fire.

Roza Otunbayeva chairs Kyrgyzystan’s interim government. (Photo by Ilias Beshimov)

One resident, a Turkish woman whose house was among those attacked by the raiders, said they justified their actions by claiming they had been part of the protests that ousted Bakiev, and now they wanted payback.

She recalled that they said of the new administration, “We gave you the White House [seat of government] – now you give us land!”

Like this woman, other villagers interviewed by IWPR were still in a state of shock. While the invaders were ethnic Kyrgyz, the residents believed they were targeted indiscriminately, regardless of their ethnicity.

“I am not scared of living among Kyrgyz people,” said one Russian from the village. “We have lived peaceably for many, many years. But I am now filled with apprehension about living in Kyrgyzstan.”

Police were sent in the same evening to quell the violence, assisted by the Patriots, a volunteer civilian force, and arrested more than 100 people. They say order has now been restored.

The following day, April 20, there was another outbreak of land seizures, but this time the action went off peacefully. A group of people, including families with children and elderly people, marked out plots of land with ropes, and set up tents to underline their intention to stay. No violence was reported.

Mayor Omurkulov told IWPR that the area claimed by the would-be settlers was greenbelt land, but that the authorities planned to develop it and build affordable, multi-storey apartments.

{This article originally appeared April 22, 2010 in Reporting Central Asia, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

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