Concern about Kyrgyzstan's civil rights climate is prompting the country's sizeable Uzbek community to throw its weight behind the government as election season approaches. The show of support comes even as many express frustration that their own interests have gone unnoticed by President Askar Akayev's administration.
Comprising roughly 13 percent of Kyrgyzstan's overall population of 5 million, Uzbeks are the country's largest ethnic minority group. Uzbek election preferences are sure to be driven by memories of the bloody 1990 rioting involving Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the southern Osh region. Akayev's domestic policies, casting Kyrgyzstan as a "common house," have helped restore a sense of order, and have reassured many Uzbeks that they are welcome in Kyrgyzstan.
Now, with Akayev's pending retirement in 2005, many Uzbeks are approaching the parliamentary and presidential votes in 2005 with apprehension. They are keen to see Akayev's "common house" course continued, but wonder what will happen if Akayev leaves the political stage.
Akayev has publicly stated that he will not run again, but the issue of the incumbent's candidacy remains unsettled. The constitution appears to bar Akayev from seeking another term. However, some local political analysts believe the Basic Law could end up being reinterpreted to enable Akayev to seek re-election. If that occurs, Uzbeks could be counted to be strong Akayev backers. "Akayev should stay in power because he will ensure stability and peace," Gafur Soliev, an Uzbek retiree, told EurasiaNet. "Others cannot do it."
Regardless of Akayev's final decision on the 2005 presidential election, Uzbeks are likely to look to the incumbent president for guidance on how to vote in the parliamentary poll, scheduled to occur in February. In the event that Akayev indeed retires, Uzbeks also will be eager to see if he endorses a particular presidential candidate.
At present, Uzbeks are wary of the growing influence of Kyrgyz nationalists in politics. Nationalist sentiment is arising out of the frustration generated by the country's stagnant economic conditions, some observers say. Among the more outspoken adherents are leading members of the opposition, including parliamentary deputy Adahan Madumarov and Omurbek Tekebayev, a former presidential candidate and leader of the opposition group Ata Meken (Fatherland). Both men have expressed distrust of Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek population
This association has prompted many Uzbeks to steer clear of the country's opposition movement, according to one journalist based in Osh, a city with a large Uzbek population. "The reason why Uzbeks play no role in Kyrgyzstan's opposition movement can be explained by the fact that the opposition movement is dominated by Kyrgyz nationalists," said the journalist, who requested anonymity. "The rhetoric of these politicians frightens many Uzbeks."
Uncertainty over the future has already prompted several Uzbek community leaders to join the pro-presidential movement "Alga, Kyrgyzstan!" (Forward, Kyrgyzstan!), the journalist added. Their action is meant not only to protect the status of Uzbeks, but, also, to protect what whatever economic gains that have been made by the Uzbek community during Akayev's tenure, the journalist said.
As many Uzbek entrepreneurs see it, political change could pose a threat to their economic livelihood. "If new people come to power, they will start extorting money from us, and [the cycle of] corruption will start all over again," explained Abdurashit, an Osh restaurant owner who gave only his first name.
For all their outward show of support for Akayev, Uzbek voters are not necessarily content with the status quo. A 2003 poll conducted by the Osh-based Uzbek Cultural Center found that more than 60 percent of 1,436 ethnic Uzbek respondents thought that the government did not do enough for them. Over 79 percent called for the formation of an Uzbek political party, and 78 percent believed that the Uzbek language should be given the status of an official state language.
An additional source of discontent is the fact that Uzbeks are underrepresented in regional and local administrations. "It's time to overcome stereotypes and improve work" in personnel policy, commented Bakhtyar Fattahov, a prominent Uzbek leader, in an interview with the government newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana. "In short, the problem exists, and it should not be silenced."
But for now, chances for a campaign to address these issues are slim. Top Kyrgyz officials are reluctant to tackle such a sensitive issue in an election year. In addition, there is broad concern among Kyrgyz that granting more rights to Uzbeks would lead to additional demands, including long-suppressed claims for autonomy. Such a cycle could ultimately give rise to a secessionist movement, the Kyrgyz thinking goes.
Despite their numbers, Uzbeks have yet to voice a defining set of policy goals, or mobilize around a single Uzbek leader. Ordinary Uzbeks often see the community's leaders as having been co-opted by the Kyrgyz government, said the journalist from Osh, and varying interests hamper the search for replacements. Geographical differences also pose an obstacle: Uzbeks from Jalal-Abad Province tend to be more assertive on civil rights issues than are Uzbeks from the Osh, site of the 1990 riots.
Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.