June 16, 2010 3:00 am
The fuse of ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan this week was lit 20 years ago during a similar clash, writes Charles Clover in Moscow .
The 300 deaths in a week of rioting received little worldwide attention at the time but the events in 1990 set the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the southern city of Osh on a fateful collision course.
The conflict then was over land, which was being privatised under economic reform announced a year earlier by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. An argument erupted at the Uzbek-controlled Lenin collective farm and, on June 4 1990, a confrontation between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz there turned violent.
Its roots were both ethnic and economic: with little arable land to go round, the minority Uzbek and majority Kyrgyz communities turned on each other. In the next few days, even as Soviet troops intervened, 300 died in the worst violence the region had seen since the 1920s.
In scenes similar to those also seen in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who had lived beside each other for generations unleashed a wave of sadistic cruelty, with gang rape and mass executions commonplace.
Memories of the slaughter have not gone away, and after 20 years of relative harmony it apparently did not take much to relight the fires of old hatreds.
Tensions between the two communities of Turkic peoples - who speak a similar language and who under the Russian Empire together inhabited a region then known as Turkistan - existed throughout the Soviet period. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were both creations of Soviet ethnographers who divided the USSR into nations on an arbitrary and highly politicised basis.
For example, the Ferghana valley, where Osh is located, was divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, each of which has suffered bloody civil unrest in the post-Soviet period. In 2005 Uzbek troops fired on a crowd in Andijan, over the border from Osh, killing 187, according to official figures.
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