So, when are we invading Kyrgyzstan?

The pro-war liberal left is shamefully silent about the killings there.

The world obsesses over the oil spill off the southern coast of the United States while Osh burns.

From Luke Harding's depressing account in today's Guardian:

It was early afternoon when the mob surged down an alley of neat rose bushes and halted outside Zarifa's house. The Kyrgyz men broke into her courtyard and sat Zarifa down next to a cherry tree. They asked her a couple of questions. After confirming she was an ethnic Uzbek, they stripped her, raped her and cut off her fingers. After that they killed her and her small son, throwing their bodies into the street. They then moved on to the next house.

"They were like beasts," Zarifa's neighbour, Bakhtir Irgayshon, said today, pointing to the gutted bedframe where she had been assaulted. A few pots and pans remained; the rest of the family home was a charred ruin. Zarifa's husband, Ilham, was missing, Irgayshon said, probably dead. Only his mother, Adina, survived the Kyrgyz-instigated conflagration that engulfed the neighbourhood of Cheremushki last Friday.

Such horrific descriptions of the violence and killings plaguing Kyrgyzstan are reminiscent of Kosovo in early 1999, which led to the Nato bombing campaign of Yugoslavia and the subsequent toppling of Slobodan Milosevic. The death toll in and around Osh since fighting broke out on 10 June is believed to be closer to 2,000 Uzbeks, rather than the official estimate of roughly 200. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan.

So where, I wonder, are the pro-war liberal-lefties this time round? I've yet to hear from the likes Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, John Rentoul or Christopher Hitchens on the need to "intervene" in Kyrgyzstan. And David Cameron and Barack Obama, unlike Blair and Clinton in 1999, have not despatched bombers in the direction of Bishkek. (The "latest news" section on the Foreign Office website has only two references to the fighting in Kyrgyzstan, and both relate to travel advice for British citizens in the region.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating armed intervention by western powers. I'm not one of those lefties who believes the first response to a humanitarian crisis or a civil war should be to launch a Nato bombing campaign. No, I'm just pointing out the double standard; I'm engaging perhaps in what Cohen calls "whataboutery".

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about the background to the violence, check out the blog of Craig Murray -- our former man in Uzbekistan.

And if you want to know why we in Britain and the west should care about, and feel partly responsible for, what is going on, check out this blog post from the Telegraph's Richard Spencer. Or this provocative piece from the lefty American polemicist Ted Rall.

Spencer writes:

Are not the rapes and killings of hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks at the hands of Kyrgyz mobs, allegedly aided by Kyrgyz troops, just another terrible news story from a faraway place of which we know little?

Well, if I pointed out that just a few months ago the United States agreed to fund and train Kyrgyz troops who were gearing up to fight Uzbeks, that might raise a few eyebrows. And, as it's true, though surprisingly no one else seems to have noticed, point it out I will.

I will also point out that it is no coincidence that the man accused of fomenting the violence, Maxim Bakiyev, son of the leader ousted in a popular revolution in April, was arrested in Britain the other day. It wasn't just because he had, in the way of dubiously rich ex-Soviet princelings, bought a British football club. It was because we were his sort of country.

His father came to power five years ago on a wave of pro-democracy fervour whipped up by our own Tony Blair. George Bush of course had a lot to do with it -- it was his insistence that American power brought with it a responsibility to foment freedom, even in other powers' backyards, that sent a second wave of velvet revolutions across the former Soviet empire, from Georgia to Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan.

Rall writes:

This latest outbreak of violence represents something new. First, it's worse: bigger and more widespread. Second, as most central Asians know, it's delayed fallout from George W Bush's misadventures in regime change.

Bush's military-CIA complex had more than Iraq and Afghanistan on its collective mind. Over the course of six years, they toppled or attempted to overthrow the governments of Venezuela, Haiti, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine -- and, yes, Kyrgyzstan.

In March 2005 a CIA-backed (and in some cases -trained) mob of conservative Muslim young men from Osh drove up to Bishkek and stormed the presidential palace. President Askar Akayev, a former physicist who had been the only democratically elected president in the former Soviet republics of central Asia, fled into exile in Russia.

Kyrgyzstan, like so many central Asian nations, is an unlucky country. Save the Children is preparing to send emergency relief to Osh; you can donate to its campaign here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.