Kyrgyzstan Closes Borders as Death Toll Mounts; Uzbek Language Demands Central to Conflict
Kyrgyzstan has closed its borders with China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as the death toll in armed clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the Kyrgyz city of Osh reached 50, with 650 more wounded, regnum.ru reported June 12. The border with Kazakhstan remains open. A state of emergency has been declared in the cities of Osh and Uzgen and also Aravan and Karassu districts of Osh region.
A key factor in the clashes between "the political elite of Kyrgyzstan" and leaders of the ethnic Uzbek population in the south is the status of the Uzbek language, the independent online Uzbek news service ferghana.ru reported. On June 1, two weeks after clashes broke out in Jalalal-Abad, members of the Uzbek national center in Osh distributed an appeal protesting what they termed "the violation of the rights of Uzbeks on the use of their native language."
The authors of the appeal say there are about one million ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, which they consider their "historic homeland." The Uzbeks complained that there was a lack of television broadcasting on the state channels KTR and ElTR in their native language. The draft constitution, the subject of a referendum to be held June 27, does not mention that Uzbek language, says ferghana.ru.
Efforts have been made to poll citizens on their attitude toward multilingualism in Kyrgyzstan but observers say that various media in different languages will tend to skew the results of such polls, making them untrustworthy. Uzbeks have also complained of a lack of representation in local governing bodies. Local politicians don't believe lack of minority representation is a problem, but they may not be acknowleding the growth of the Uzbek population, say observers.
Vakhidjan Ergashev, a businessman and public figure in Jalal-Abad, says:
The authorities simply try not to publicize the real figures of the growth of the Uzbek language. Why, for example, are figures missing on the ethnic breakdown of the population by region? In fact, such an analysis would immediately highlight places densely populated with Uzbeks, whose numbers in reality are growing faster than they officially appear on paper.
Asylbek Keshikbayev, an expert on state and regional development says as the native Kyrgyz-language population migrates from the region, ethnic Uzbeks or refugees have moved in. Independent journalist Aleksandr Kulinsky says Kyrgyzstan has not done anything since the 1990s to integrate the Uzbeks into the ruling structures of the country, and now faces the reality that the Uzbek population is significantly larger than the Kyrgyz in the south, ferghana.ru reported. Some observers have called the situation in the south of Kyrgyzstan "a second Kosovo," as the minority population grows, and feels its language issues are unresolved.
Human rights activists from the Foundation for International Tolerance have conducted meetings recently in the region and called for removing the line indicating "nationality," or ethnicity from the Kyrgyz passport in order to reduce discrimination.
In a separate development, Uzbek border guards have cut off Arnasai, a village near Kazakhstan's southern border with Uzbekistan which became an exclave surrounded by Uzbek territory after delimitation of the Kazakh-Uzbek border some years ago, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported. Some families are reportedly running out of drinking water due to the blockade, imposed June 7, Arnasai village governor Basymbek Kalzhigitov told journalists. Kazakh officials are currently in talks on the situation with Uzbek counterparts, who have not explained their actions.