The appearance of a figure convicted in Kyrgyzstan on charges of separatism and inciting ethnic hatred at an international rights forum has enraged politicians in Bishkek.
Ethnic Uzbek entrepreneur Kadyrzhan Batyrov, a native of the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad, spoke on September 20 in condemnation of Kyrgyzstan’s president at an event held by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Batyrov, who has lived in Sweden for the past five years evading imprisonment over charges he incited ethnic unrest in his home country in 2010, said current plans to tinker with the constitution were part of President Almazbek Atambayev’s plot to permanently usurp power.
He also used the platform to condemn the plight of fellow ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who he argued are marginalized and underrepresented, and focused in particular on the situation of rights advocate Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his purported involvement in the violence of 2010.
The remarks were like a red rag to a bull to officials in Kyrgyzstan and about as badly timed as could be. Authorities loyal to Atambayev are mounting an intensifying onslaught against opponents to the constitutional reforms, which will likely be put to a referendum on December 4, and Batyrov is being used as the stick with which to beat them.
Even if he had tried, Batyrov could hardly have done more to compromise fellow critics of Atambayev. The Jalal-Abad businessman is referred to regularly in Kyrgyz media with the separatist epithet and the undocumented claim that he sparked the unrest of six years ago by calling for territorial autonomy for Uzbek-populated areas is widely accepted as gospel truth. Being put in the same basket as Batyrov then is political poison for public figures in Kyrgyzstan.
The Foreign Ministry fired off a furious press release expressing dismay that a man convicted by Kyrgyzstan’s courts of organizing ethnic unrest should have been able to speak at an event organized by ODIHR, a subordinate body the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“For many years, [Batyrov] has manipulated the ethnic card in his own interests and put the peace and stability of this country at risk,” the statement said,
As even deputy foreign minister Duyshenbek Chotkarayev had to admit on September 22, however, Batyrov is not subject to an international arrest warrant as Interpol has refused Bishkek’s petition to that end, deeming it to be political motivated.
Undeterred by that information, former foreign minister and member of parliament Ruslan Kazakbayev said that Kyrgyzstan’s law enforcement authorities should pursue not just Batyrov, but also those that were seen with him at the ODIHR event in Warsaw.
“We all saw these people that were sitting next to that person who is convicted by us in absentia to life in prison. They smiled and chatted to him. And take note, some of them were citizens of Kyrgyzstan,” Kazakbaev was quoted as saying by 24.kg.
With smiling now apparently a category of behavior worthy of punishment in the eyes of at least one MP, some tireless advocacy representatives could be on the receiving end of more harassment. As news website Kloop.kg documented, the aforementioned smiling offense appears to be a reference to Tolekan Ismailova, a rights activist who has been subject to personal smears from no less than Atambayev himself. Images from the ODIHR event show Ismailova sitting next to Batyrov and even smiling.
It does feel as though some people are looking for trouble, however.
Batyrov’s choice of a human rights platform to air his unhappiness with Kyrgyzstan’s government is going to serve as more grist to the conspiracy mill of those in Bishkek that view rights issues as a covert way for the West to subvert Kyrgyz national values and sovereignty. The rights agenda is already under attack as it is with the proposed changes to the constitution.
Under the proposed constitutional amendments, the concept of human rights will be watered down by being folded into an overarching system of “supreme state values” that would also include “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.” All those notions presuppose a move away from individual to collective rights, with all that this implies.
It is unlikely Batyrov’s speech has done much to halt the momentum of this trend.