Kyrgyzstan's central government is keeping up the pressure on suspected Islamic radicals, in particular members the underground group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The crackdown is not only squeezing Islamic radicals, it's also placing many local officials in southern Kyrgyzstan in a bind.
Despite zero-tolerance legislation for members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other alleged radical groups, some local officials admit they are reluctant to strictly enforce central government policies. The Islamists, after all, are their neighbors, relatives and constituents, they explain.
The central government has implemented a host of measures - outlined in a new law on religion, signed by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev last January -- that effectively enhances the ability of officials to control spiritual life in the Central Asian nation. The law, for example, imposes stricter rules on registration of mosques and seminaries. Registering a new mosque now requires the signatures of 200 people. Previous legislation required only 10. Clerics must go through periodic exams to establish their theological/ideological reliability. The law also prohibits private religious tutoring, the unsanctioned distribution of religious materials, and proselytizing. In addition, it bans mosques from admitting children. And in February, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Education instituted a dress code that effectively proscribed headscarves.
Local officials quickly discovered how unpopular the government's religious initiatives are, especially in southern regions where religious sentiments run strong. In response to state efforts to impose the dress code, for example, many families stopped sending children to school. Similarly, official attempts to prevent children from attending mosques, control private tutoring and check proselytizing have caused widespread anger.
Met with public resistance, local officials in several Osh Province towns are looking the other way when it comes to Bishkek directives. According to one mayor, one reason for this behavior is that local governments often have few resources and limited staff to implement central directives on religion. "Our budget mainly covers the salaries of local teachers, maintenance of schools, fixing roads and disposing of waste. We apply for various [government and international] grants to cover other costs," he said on condition of anonymity. "Controlling [how the new law on religion is implemented] is the job of the police and SNB [Kyrgyz National Security Service]. We don't interfere with that."
Both Interior Ministry police and SNB activities are controlled by the executive branch of government in Bishkek.
Another mayor of a town of 20,000 told EurasiaNet that central authorities and local government employees operate in two different environments. Because local officials are elected and not appointed like regional governors, he stressed, they are more sensitive to local needs than government functionaries in Bishkek.
"When I was elected, a lot of people placed their hopes in me. I don't want to lose the trust of my people," said the mayor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. He explained that unlike officials in Bishkek, local government employees live among their constituents and are linked through family and ethnic ties.
"When I take a walk to my office in the morning, I recognize every person on my way. One is a neighbor; another is a former classmate. In a small town like ours, people know each other and help each other," he added.
The mayor's assistant said that personal connections and kinship obligations often encourage local officials to go easy on alleged Islamic radicals. Bishkek authorities require local governments to identify and report to security services anyone suspected of having links to Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical groups, he said. But local officials prefer to try local solutions aimed at keeping suspected Hizb activists in check, rather than reporting them to the police.
"If someone turns out to be a [Hizb] member, we try to resolve this problem with the help of the mahalla [local neighborhood council]. We rely on pressure from parents, relatives and aksakals [elders] to force these young people to abandon dangerous thoughts. Usually they [Hizb members] listen to us," he said. The official added that seeing a community member go to prison on religious extremism charges "makes everyone in community unhappy."
Authorities in Bishkek are seemingly aware of local officials' leniency in enforcing anti-Islamic-radical directives. At a government meeting on October 29, Kanibek Osmonaliev, director of the State Agency on Religious Affairs, complained that local officials allowed for numerous violations in the construction of new mosques. An Osh police officer told EurasiaNet that local governments are also often reluctant to cooperate with Interior Ministry representatives on matters concerning suspected Islamic extremists.
To ensure compliance with central rules, Bishkek is stepping up pressure on local governments. In 2008, for example, the prosecutor's office initiated several lawsuits against local government officials in Osh and Aravan towns for improperly distributing land-plots for new mosques. But an official working for the town of Aravan said inspectors often simply extort bribes from local officials rather than ensure compliance with central rules.
These local officials suggest that to ensure effectiveness of central policies, Bishkek must solicit more local input when designing new policies. Instead, the trend in Bishkek seems to be toward increased centralization. Since an October government shakeup, President Bakiyev has moved to expand the authority of presidentially appointed governors and regional administrators. They are now charged with enforcing presidential directives and influencing the composition of local government bodies.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in southern Kyrgyzstan.