Some 400,000 people have fled violent pogroms in southern Kyrgyzstan, according to the United Nations. Entire Uzbek neighbourhoods were reduced to ruins as almost half of the region’s roughly 800,000 ethnic Uzbeks tried to escape the violence.
Kyrgyzstan’s government says as many as 2000 people have died.
The government says that the attacks were carried out by supporters of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was overthrown by a popular revolution in April.
It is broadly true that the Uzbeks of the south generally supported that revolution, while many of their southern Kyrgyz attackers did not.
But the revolt that brought down the government involved people from all ethnic groups.
Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions since the end of Russian control in 1991. The “tulip revolution” in 2005 brought down President Askar Akayev, who had controlled the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This was one of a series of revolts in former Soviet republics that were used by the US to help draw countries out of Russia’s orbit and towards the US. Other examples include the “rose revolution” in Georgia and the “orange revolution” in Ukraine.
But the new government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev embarked on exactly the same programme of privatisation as his predecessor, despite opposing it while in opposition.
In April this year a new revolt began in the northern town of Talas when a crowd took over the mayor’s office. Russia had been manoeuvring against Bakiyev’s government as a result of his reneging on a deal to close the big US military at Manas.
But the revolt was also driven by the anger from below about privatisation and rising energy prices. The movement spread across the country in the next 24 hours.
The opposition managed to seize control of the television station in the capital Bishkek, and go on air, live.
When they attempted to take over the government offices the police and the national guard used fierce repression against them.
The police fired live bullets while protesters used stones and Molotov cocktails. Then the people captured an armed personnel carrier and took weapons from the police.
The protesters won the day, forcing the government to resign. Bakiyev fled to Kazakhstan. The opposition formed what has been called a “government of people’s trust”.
Former foreign minister Roza Otunbayeva heads this new administration.
Ethnic tensions have come to the fore because they have been pushed from above. There are reports that Bakiyev fomented the ethnic cleansing in the south in an attempt to destabilise the new government.
But poverty is the root cause with rapidly rising energy prices fuelling the discontent. There are also conflicts over land and water sharing.
The pro-Western regime of Uzbekistan initially closed its border to refugees. For three days, tens of thousands of Uzbeks massed on its border, until the Uzbek government eventually relented and let women and children through.
They have been herded into camps and are not free to leave them.
But the divisions are also the legacy of the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin’s attempt to divide the region to prevent the emergence of challenges to Russian control.
Under Stalin’s regime the Soviet Union divided the region that includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to include ethnic minorities in each state. These divisions have lasted through decades of neo-liberalism and corruption.
The struggle between Russia, China and the US for dominance over Central Asia also shapes Kyrgyzstan.
China sees it as a source of gas and energy supplies. The country also hosts major US and Russian military bases.
All of them see that Kyrgyzstan occupies a strategically crucial position north of Afghanistan, on the route from Central Asia to China.
The US is currently embroiled in a stand-off with the interim Kyrgyz government over whether it should pay taxes on imports of jet fuel for the Manas air base.
This is a giant logistics hub ferrying US and Nato troops in and out of Afghanistan at a rate of 55,000 per month.
When the Bakiyev government promised Russia it would close the US base, the US boosted its payments to the Kyrgz government to keep it open.
Russia, while hostile to the previous government, is nervous about the democratic promises of Kyrgyzstan’s new government to draft a new constitution and hold elections within six months.
People’s determination for a united fight is the only solution to the poverty and division fostered by either imperial or domestic rival rulers.