Accepted paper:

"We went to Russia to rehabilitate our souls, and now we are back": Historicity and coexisting heterogeneities of urban space in Osh, Kyrgyzstan


Caitlin Ryan (University of Colorado at Boulder)

Paper abstract:

This paper focuses on urban transformation and the making of urban identities in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Osh is often described as an ethnically divided city and as a tinderbox. Indeed, several parts of the Fergana Valley, including Osh, have seen deadly episodes of violence in the last 25 years. Riots in Osh in 2010 echoed similar patterns of violence in the city in 1990, leading many to conclude that underlying ethnic tensions are the primary problem. Since the late 1990s the region has also seen significant amounts of foreign aid for peace building and conflict prevention, which also take ethnicity as the central issue around which to intervene. Such programs promote Western liberal principles of equality and tolerance across ethnic lines—principles that are ill suited to the spatial history of ethnic difference in Osh. In this paper, I suggest that ineffective peace-building projects have more to do with the limited set of "tools" available to the outside expert than they do with the real causes of violence, such as uneven development. I make this argument through textual analysis of influential public reports about the 2010 riots, which privilege a version of Osh's recent history that is primarily focused on ethnic difference. To counter that dominant narrative I draw on data collected in 2015-16 from mobile and participant-led interviews that draw attention to the multiple trajectories of Osh's residents and infrastructures since the 1970s. As the quote in the title suggests, the riots in 2010 had a profound impact on the city's large youth population. While some have permanently left, many others are pursuing new futures in a new urban landscape. A focus on these stories complicates the teleological use of history by mainstream development actors. It also highlights the multiple, mobile and mutable identities that, together, are producing urban space in Osh. As the late geographer Doreen Massey (2005) warns, when one dominant narrative exists about a place, geography is turned into history and space is reduced simply to time. I heed Massey's call for greater attention to the political possibilities that attend a spatialized representation of the world by seeking to recover a multidimensional sense of urban space in Osh. Ultimately, to understand contemporary urban life in Osh beyond the narrow focus on ethnicity is to come back around to understanding peace and conflict in new ways.

panel REG-08
Politics and Identity in Kyrgyzstan