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Ethnic Uzbeks Stoke Unrest in Southern Kyrgyzstan

While Kyrgyz supporters of arrested Parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov demonstrated in front of Jalalabad's regional court on June 25 and police moved to keep protestors out of central Osh the next day, another constituency has been developing its own agenda. Ethnic Uzbeks are intensifying their demands for more political rights and representation in the new Kyrgyz government. They seek, among other things, a constitutional amendment that would designate Uzbek as a state language on par with Kyrgyz. But President Askar Akayev's government remains wary of such demands. They fear that Uzbek solidarity could lead to claims for autonomy and escalation of ethnic tension in south Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbeks outnumber ethnic Kyrgyz by nearly two to one in some places.

Tension in the south, where a clash between protestors and police led to five civilian deaths in late March, has grown so extreme that Akayev recently devoted an emergency session of parliament to it. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Amid reports that protestors would mistrust any decisions from that session, the legislature delayed a decision about granting amnesty to protestors. Regional governor Naken Kasiyev, promising to relay their concerns to Akayev, persuaded around 1,000 protestors to stay out of Osh on June 26. But the marchers announced that they might attempt to storm the town the day the court expects to rule on Beknazarov's appeal.

Meanwhile, the fifth annual conference of ethnic Uzbeks of south Kyrgyzstan ended on June 20 with its own appeal. The 300 delegates who endorsed the conference statement demanded a more proportionate representation of ethnic minorities in various spheres of economy and political life. The delegates, who came from all over Osh and Jalalabad provinces, urged authorities to designate Uzbek as a state language and expressly include more Uzbeks in judiciary, legislative and law-enforcement functions. They also agreed to demand state support for cultural and educational programs for Uzbeks.

According to some unofficial estimates, Uzbeks constitute 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan's 4.5 million residents, concentrated mainly in the south. But they play scant roles in key political and economic processes and have increasingly joined banned religious groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A few ethnic Uzbeks have thrived as entrepreneurs. But most face grim economic prospects. This may explain why many have grown concerned about their cultural identity.

Uzbekistan's crackdown on Islamist militants has made border crossings extremely hard, especially in the Ferghana Valley. And Uzbekistan's adoption of a Latin script in 1993 has cut off ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, which uses Cyrillic letters, from their heritage. Uzbek schools in Kyrgyzstan continuously report shortages of educational material in Uzbek. Although the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh, a project of the two governments, tries to provide Uzbek instruction, many see it as inadequate. "All the contribution of OSHKUU [the Osh Kyrgyz-Uzbek University] is just a drop of water in the sea," said Akimjan Tohtamuradov, an Osh resident. Since Russian gained official status in 2000 and Russians comprise around 12.5 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks are pressing their claim. "By the constitution all the citizens of Kyrgyzstan are equal regardless of race, ethnicity, language," said Nazirov Sohib, a participant of the Uzbek national conference. "We were born in Kyrgyzstan. It is home to our ancestors, to us and to our children."

At a time when the government is bristling at any hints of revolt, Nazirov told EurasiaNet, many ethnic Uzbeks in the intellectual and business elite were appalled to see only one Uzbek – Deputy Minister of Regional Development Baxtiyar Fattahov – in the new government. Local media have reported that Uzbek communities provided food and shelter to Beknazarov's supporters, and some local observers have seen Uzbeks on the march. Southern residents say that most Uzbeks secretly sympathize with protestors' demands for higher living standards and lower corruption.

The recent Uzbek appeal provoked strong suspicion in Bishkek, according to a source in the Kyrgyz government who asked for anonymity. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told reporters on June 24 that the government is willing to consider some socioeconomic assistance to Uzbeks. But he stressed that such aid would probably not satisfy "ambitious demands," according to the Kabar National News Agency. Some local analysts doubt that Akayev has political will or economic means to help the Uzbeks, and suspect that he is more likely to treat them as a threat. .

A source in the Kyrgyz government told EurasiaNet that some top Kyrgyz officials fear that granting more rights to Uzbeks would lead to further demands, including long-suppressed claims for autonomy and secession to Uzbekistan. These fears have driven Kyrgyz policy since ethnic rioting occurred in 1990. In 1999, a group of Kyrgyz legislators advocated a bill that would forbid the recruitment of ethnic Uzbeks into the Kyrgyz army.

Years ago, Akayev tried to quell ethnic passions by declaring Kyrgyzstan a "common house." Some southern observers suspect that the government has been trying to scuttle Uzbek solidarity since the mid-1990s, when the Uzbek National Cultural Center split into two separate organizations. Now that some protestors in Ak-Sui are demanding autonomy, says a government source, the Kyrgyz elite is alarmed. State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov told the urgent session of parliament that some residents in south are even demanding the annexation of Ak-Sui to Uzbekistan, oppositionist weekly "Moya Stolitsa -Novosti" reported on June 23.

This would realize the government's nightmares. Jantoro Satybaldiev, the mayor of Osh, commenting on his decision to reject protesters' requests warned local reporters of bigger threats. "Confrontational forces are marching on the horizon which can destabilize the region," he said. "In light of this, we must not forget about the ethnic factor that is capable of bringing about tragic consequences."

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

Ethnic Uzbeks Stoke Unrest in Southern Kyrgyzstan

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