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Ethnic Uzbeks Intensify Civil Rights Advocacy Effort

Ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are intensifying efforts to expand their political and cultural rights. But many Kyrgyz observers believe there is trouble with both the timing and the execution of the Uzbek advocacy effort.

Many of the Uzbeks' demands are long-standing, including the designation of Uzbek as an official language, greater political representation and implementation of a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, analysts point out that a late May protest in the southern city of Jalal-abad showed that Uzbek community leaders are now embracing more confrontational tactics. That shift, they add, heightens the risk of inter-ethnic discord in southern Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbeks make up a significant share of the population. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Overall, Uzbeks comprise Kyrgyzstan's largest ethnic minority, with a roughly 13 percent share of Kyrgyzstan's population.

Kadyrjan Batyrov is among the highest profile critics of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's handling of the "national question." The head of the Jalal-abad Uzbek Society, as well as serving as an MP, Batyrov wields considerable influence within the Uzbek community. At the May 27 rally in Jalal-abad, Batyrov expressed frustration that is shared by many Uzbeks. "We are always asked [by Kyrgyz authorities] to have patience because there are lots of other problems in the country," Batyrov said. "There are lots of problems and that they all will be solved is all we are told, but they [officials in Bishkek] never do anything to solve them."

The Jalal-abad protest, which drew an estimated 700 participants, marked a radical turn for Uzbek community leaders in their efforts to be heard in Bishkek. Uzbek rights activists had in recent years limited their activities largely to the drafting of resolutions and petitions. A congress of Uzbeks held in January, for example, adopted an appeal to Bakiyev to adopt "a clear policy stance" on minority rights issues.

The Jalal-abad protest was the first time Uzbeks took their grievances to the streets since inter-ethnic clashes rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in 1990. Observers say a timely military parade by border guards in Jalal-Abad's main square ahead of the Uzbek protest was in fact a show of strength in designed to intimidate both Uzbek and Kyrgyz factions. However, Uzbek protestors told journalists that roads had also been blocked to prevent them attending the demonstration. Two days later, security forces broke up a counter-protest staged by 60 Kyrgyz youths.

The president has sought to stake out a neutral position on minority rights-related issues. In recent months he has made a number of statements recognizing the importance of the "national question," and in December 2005 he agreed to serve as chairman of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, an organization designed to promote inter-ethnic dialogue. However, he has not demonstrated a desire to act on the specific requests being aired by Uzbeks.

Elements of Bakiyev's political support base, namely Kyrgyz nationalists, are steadfast opponents of the Uzbek demands, in particular the effort to make Uzbek an official language. Nationalists believe that recognition of Uzbek would end up being the precursor of a campaign for Uzbek autonomy. Given Bakiyev's current political difficulties in Bishkek, he is unlikely to do anything that risks alienating his core supporters, Kyrgyz political analysts say. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Iskenderbek Aidaraliyev, the governor of Jalal-Abad who addressed the May 27 rally, suggested that a constitutional amendment on recognizing the Uzbek language was a far-fetched notion.

A lack of cohesion among Uzbek leaders has undermined their advocacy efforts. Some analysts also believe Uzbek leaders are over-reaching with the demand for language recognition. One observer in Osh told EurasiaNet: "The demand for more political representation is understandable. But with their demand to make Uzbek an official language, the Jalal-abad [protest] leaders have pushed things too far."

Analysts add that Uzbeks have hurt their cause through their inability to forge strong links with an opposition coalition in Bishkek that has staged two mass protests in recent weeks, trying to force Bakiyev to accelerate the reform pace and crack down on crime and corruption. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The small turnout at the most recent opposition rally in Bishkek, also held May 27, suggested that the public may be suffering from rally fatigue. If this is the case, the decision of Uzbek leaders to adopt tactics based on public protests would appear to be poorly timed.

Alisher Khamidov Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.

Ethnic Uzbeks Intensify Civil Rights Advocacy Effort

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