Political unrest continues to buffet Kyrgyzstan, as protestors on June 5 again blocked the main Bishkek-Osh highway. Some local analysts say the recent tension is rooted in rivalries between the country's clans, in reality vast patronage networks that are related to ethnic and geographic factors. Various clans, especially those with their power bases in southern Kyrgyzstan, have grown increasingly discontent with the reluctance of President Askar Akayev's clan to share the perquisites of power.
Since the start of 2002, the Akayev's administration has faced mounting criticism over its policies. Akayev opponents have seized on popular opposition to the government's plan to transfer territory to China to attempt to weaken the president's political position. [For additional information see the EurasiaNet culture archive].
Clan affiliation is playing an important role in the ongoing political struggles. Kyrgyz identity in public and private life is traditionally determined by ties with one of three clan groupings known as "wings." They are the right, or Ong; the left, or Sol; and the Ichkilik, which is neither.
The left wing now includes seven clans in the north and west. Each of the seven has a dominant characteristic, and all have fought each other for influence. The Buguu clan provided the first administrators of the Kyrgyz Republic during the early Soviet era. Following Stalin's purges in the 1930s, the Buguu's influence waned and the another northern clan, the Sarybagysh, came to dominate.
Since the Stalin era, the Sarybagysh clan has provided most Kyrgyz leaders, including Akayev. The clan's support for Akayev was a critical factor in his ability to outmaneuver defeated southerner Absamat Masaliev for the leadership of the Kyrgyz Communist Party in 1990.
The right wing contains only one clan, the Adygine, which has its roots in southern Kyrgyzstan. The Ichkilik, which also has strong links to southern Kyrgyzstan, is actually a group of many clans, some of which are not of Kyrgyz origin, but all of which claim Kyrgyz identity.
Over the past few years, the Sarybagysh clan has increasingly extended its control over key economic and political spheres, leaving other clans with dwindling opportunities. Key government positions, especially in the ministries of finance, internal affairs and state security, have been filled by members of Akayev's clan. For example, Temirbek Akmataliev, former minister of finance and internal affairs, comes from Akayev's village and clan.
Also closely connected to the Sarybagysh clan are Osmanakun Ibraimov, secretary of state, and Amanbek Karypkulov, chief of presidential staff. Other influential government members come from the western Tallas region, the birthplace of Akayev's wife.
Informal power-sharing arrangements among clans helped maintain stability in Kyrgyzstan during the early years of independence. Local observers say the rising political unrest in 2002, including March rioting that left at least five people dead, is closely connected to the northern clan's reluctance and/or inability to address the complaints of southern groups.
Prominent Kyrgyz writer and diplomat Chingiz Aitmatov recently called attention to the North-South question, calling on partisans from both areas to set aside their sectional rivalries and work together on Kyrgyzstan's economic and political development. Aitmatov's appeal was largely dismissed in southern Kyrgyzstan. One commentator, Alexei Sukhov, wrote May 3 in the weekly Res Publica newspaper that Aitmatov was out of touch and did not appreciate the depth of southern resentment over Akayev's policies.
Sukhov asserted that Akayev's policy of appointing political proteges and then rapidly rotating them in the key post of governor of Osh Oblast has caused deep resentment in southern Kyrgyzstan. Many southerners are particularly angry that all of the Osh region's five governors over the past decade have hailed from the northern part of the country. Observers, including Sukhov, also complain that the frequent turnover has exacerbated economic difficulties in the South.
Another important factor in southern Kyrgyzstan is connected with the region's demography. The area is home to a large ethnic Uzbek minority. Many Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan feel that the Akayev government discriminates against them. This perception is pushing some prominent leaders of the ethnic Uzbek community to channel popular frustration through unsanctioned religious groups, especially the Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
One indication that a power struggle between northern and southern clans is intensifying is the fact that many prominent opposition leaders are aligned with southern clans, namely of the Ichkilik group. Prominent public figures and MPs Azimbek Beknazarov, Adahan Madumarov, Omurbek Tekebaev, Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, Masaliev, Bekturn Asanov and Alisher Abdimomjunov all have ties with clans based either in Osh, Jalalabad or Batken regions in south. Analysts say they see growing cohesion and cooperation among southerners in their common aim of ending the Sarybagysh clan's stranglehold on power.
Akayev in recent weeks has reshuffled his cabinet and has made conciliatory statements about a desire to share power with parliament and has met with independent newspaper editors . [For additional information see EurasiaNet]. Despite Akayev's actions, some experts expect unrest to continue. Akayev's moves, in particular the cabinet reshuffle, largely did not address the clan imbalance of power, they say.
Alisher Khamidov is currently a Muskie Fellow graduate student at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.