Recent land-grab attempts in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province, during which the protesters seeking to illegally occupy agricultural lands and those forced to defend their property were clearly divided along ethnic lines, exposed the vulnerability of the small Central Asian republic to a new round of interethnic tensions. The recent land grabs in Kyrgyzstan were reported on November 7 when irrigated lands in the vicinity of Osh, which had been rented out to Uzbeks from the Ishkevan village for a term of 90 years in 1993, were seized by some 1,000 ethnic Kyrgyz determined to build homes on the territories. Cotton crops on some of the lands had not been taken care of at the time the conflict broke out. From the outset, the land claims were paralleled by an outpouring of nationalist rhetoric as posters with portraits of ethnic Kyrgyz people killed in the June riots were placed along the region's roads.
Police and special forces established control over the situation by November 8-9 and — after negotiations with local officials — started expelling the protesters from the illegally occupied lands. Checkpoints were also set up at local roads to debar trucks carrying construction materials from entering the area. In response, the protesters – many of them Osh residents whose homes were destroyed during the June riots – convened a coordination center charged with the mission of legitimizing their grip on the lands.
The conflict was switched to a latent mode thanks to law enforcement agencies' intervention but is likely to surface anytime at the former location or elsewhere. In Kyrgyzstan, land grabs became an entrenched phenomenon which recurs whenever the republic slides into a political crisis. The first and most tragic wave of land grabs swept across Kyrgyzstan in the late 1980ies — early 1990ies, the second one was set in motion by the 2005 Tulip Revolution, and the third one shook the republic last spring following the ouster of president K. Bakiyev. Since the majority of employment opportunities in Kyrgyzstan exist in the republic's major urban centers – Bishkek in the north of Kyrgyzstan and Osh in the south – land grabs typically target the adjacent neighborhoods. In the densely populated areas, they automatically translate into open conflicts due to total absence of vacant sites. Moreover, the problem has an ethnic dimension: historically, the Kyrgyz are not involved in agriculture and the arable lands are cultivated by Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan and by Russians in the north.
In 1989 – at the sunset of the Soviet epoch – some 30,000 young Kyrgyz desperate for housing illegally occupied lands in the suburbs of Bishkek. In an attempt to avoid escalation, the administration distributed small parcels of land to those in need, but the resettlement triggered an unchecked inflow of rural Kyrgyz population to the urban areas. Several home building groups aggressively claiming territories around Bishkek and other cities sprang up as a result. In Osh, the Osh-Aymagy group amassed over 7,000 bids for land parcels by May, 1990 and promptly upheld a claim for lands owned by a predominantly Uzbek collective farm sited in the suburban area. The Uzbeks reacted to the pressure by demands for autonomy and an official status for the Uzbek language. On June 4, crowds of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz gathered on the disputed site and the police had to open fire to disperse them. Riots, home burnings, and a massacre of Uzbeks in Osh ensued. Unrest also spread across the city of Uzgen and rural areas where the Kyrgyz were the majority. The Soviet army's forces were dispatched to the conflict zones and fighting was suppressed, but the 1990 death toll in Osh alone reached 3,000.
In the spring of 2010, a conflict over land erupted near Bishkek in the village of Maevka. On April 19, the Kyrgyz from Bishkek stormed the community three times trying to seize arable lands owned for the most part by ethnic Russians and Meskhetian Turks. The clashes left 5 people dead, 9 hospitalized, and 28 lightly injured. Some 730 hectares of the land belonging to local farmers were occupied initially, and afterwards the area where illegal home-building began expanded to several thousands of hectares. Law enforcement agencies eventually restored order and returned the lands to the legitimate owners, but the farmers did lose their crops during the conflict. Supporters of displaced Kyrgyz president K. Bakiyev were suspected to have masterminded the unrest.
Tensions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations in the south of Kyrgyzsatn persist since the June clashes which took at least 2,000 lives. Young Uzbeks are reportedly fleeing in numbers to Muslim militants' camps in the hope to get revenge on the Kyrgyz. Bakiyev's supporters and their Ata Jurt party which championed the recent Kyrgyz elections continue to enjoy serious influence in the region. Further complicating the situation, Osh happens to be a hub on the key drug trafficking route stretching from Afghanistan to Russia. The powder keg obviously awaits another major conflict.