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Brewing Ethnic Tension Causing Worry in South Kyrgyzstan

While political protests and arrests continue their cycle in Kyrgyzstan, some observers have noted a current of ethnic tension in recent incidents. The county's south, where most protests have centered, is now witnessing violent skirmishes among ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.

Upheaval increased on November 17 and 18 as police banished hundreds of citizens who were trying to organize a dissidents' conference in Bishkek. Two hundred of these arrived in the south by bus on November 17. Police had reportedly left 129 of them overnight in the frigid Suusamyr Valley, according to activist Ramazan Dyryldaev. Dissidents have confronted authorities repeatedly since March, when at least five citizens died in clashes with police in Ak-Sui while protesting the imprisonment of parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Meanwhile, episodes with ethnic overtones have cropped up in recent weeks. On November 1, according to RFE/RL, ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik youth fought after an anniversary party in Batken province, leaving 12 people injured and destroying five houses. Earlier, local journalists reported fights between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz youth in Jalalabad and Osh, during Kyrgyzstan's independence anniversary festivities on August 31. Some observers claimed chants by some Kyrgyz youth demanding ethnic Uzbeks' expulsion precipitated violence. An Osh-based journalist who requested anonymity noted that while authorities are rounding up political dissidents by the dozens, no ethnic instigator has served detention. Some observers worry that ethnic resentments will boil over while President Askar Akayev chases political enemies.

The latest round of political clashes involves citizens rallying behind another gagged reformist politician. Kyrgyz authorities are facing down supporters of Usen Sydykov, a parliamentary candidate barred from recent elections by a court ruling. This court ruling spurred a recent march from southern cities to Bishkek. According to the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, more than 1,000 protesters are demanding the resignation of President Askar Akayev, the release of jailed opposition figure Feliks Kulov, and the reinstatement of Sadykov. Authorities, including First Vice-Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, have warned that civil disobedience in the South may potentially lead to anarchy. This characterization raises the specter of ethnic clashes and other forms of social breakdown. This danger becomes more acute as authorities focus intensely on quelling political opponents and largely ignore the threat of deteriorating inter-ethnic relations in the south.

That threat is increasingly apparent, especially among ethnic Uzbeks. A recent poll by the Osh-based Uzbek Cultural Center found that more than 60 percent of 1,436 ethnic Uzbeks polled do not find the government's policy toward them adequate. Over 79 percent of them say they need a political party, and over 76 percent of those polled want the state to switch to a Latin alphabet. In all, 78 percent of the respondents said that the Uzbek language should be given the status of an official state language. Local observers suggest that the perceived and real discrimination among ethnic groups, scarce resources and ineffective local administration are aggravating ethnic relations. "Competition for scarce economic resources such as jobs, spots in markets, water, housing space, and other social benefits is taking increasingly ethnic lines," said Husan Soliev, an assistant to the head of Osh's makhalla, a grassroots self-government. The state lacks strong dispute-resolution systems, Husan says. Moreover, some local sources say that representation of ethnic minorities in regional and local administrations has decreased drastically since 1990 and that increasing poverty makes the lack of representation increasingly dangerous.

Historically, Kyrgyz leaders have prevented ethnic violence largely through policies that promoted free market and land ownership in order to defuse the possibility of confrontation. They also overtly appealed to ethnic minorities. In 1994, under the slogan "Kyrgyzstan is Our Common Home," Akayev created the Assembly of Kyrgyzstan's People and embraced Russian as the official language. Authorities also moved to make pacts with the regional elites, including ethnic Uzbek leaders. However, local analysts say that the increasing concentration of economic and political power within Akayev's inner circle, combined with ongoing clashes between authorities and regional camps, weaken these outreach efforts' stability. For instance, according to local newspaper Osh Sadosi, Davran Sabirov, the president of the Uzbek Cultural Center and a parliament deputy, has protested against a recent statement by a fellow lawmaker invoking the mass emigration of ethnic Uzbeks.

These currents can spur ethnic hostility as Akayev overtly promotes Kyrgyz nationalism as a tool to silence political protest. The president has announced the year 2003 the year of Kyrgyz Statehood and presided over numerous festivities in honor of Kyrgyz historical heroes. Harnessing such symbolism can have unintended consequences, especially with memories of the March riots fresh. Local activists are urging the government to support community mediation and grassroots organizing initiatives to address long-standing economic and social problems. Foundation for Tolerance International, a nongovernmental organization based in Bishkek, has formally tried to promote dialogue among Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and among between Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers in the Batken region, near Kyrgyzstan's borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But as long as authorities focus only on silencing political enemies, citizens discouraged from airing their grievances against the government may increasingly turn on one another.

Alisher Khamidov is currently a Muskie Fellow graduate student at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.

Brewing Ethnic Tension Causing Worry in South Kyrgyzstan

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