Provisional Government Grappling with Simmering Ethnic Tension in Kyrgyzstan

As it strives to keep a lid on inter-ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan, the country’s provisional government is confronting a lose-lose proposition.

The government’s dilemma is connected with the violent clashes that have occurred over the past two weeks. When supporters of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev briefly seized government offices on May 13-14 in the southern cities of Batken, Osh and Jalal-abad, ethnic Uzbeks were prominent in helping the provisional government reestablish its authority. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

Five days later clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Jalal-abad left at least two dead and 71 injured. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. 

A source of particular animosity for many Kyrgyz was the perception that a group of Uzbeks, led Kadyrjan Batyrov, a local Uzbek community leader and prominent businessman, were involved in an arson attack on Bakiyev’s family compound in the village of Teyit, near Jalal-abad, on May 14. Under pressure from Kyrgyz protesters, Acting Defense Minister Ismail Isakov said on May 20 that authorities had opened a criminal investigation against Batyrov, local news agencies reported. His location is currently unknown.

Although a provisional government-imposed curfew has helped ease tension in southern Kyrgyzstan, the interim leadership still must finesse how to proceed with Batyrov. Allowing Batyrov to avoid arrest could galvanize Kyrgyz opponents of the provisional government. Arresting him, however, would alienate the region’s large ethnic Uzbek minority. As it already stands, Uzbeks are sensitive to perceived prejudicial treatment in media coverage of the Jalal-abad unrest. In a statement published by Ferghana.ru on May 20, Jalal-Abad Uzbek community members said, “We demand an end to efforts in the media that create a public image of Batyrov and Uzbeks as enemies among the Kyrgyz population.”

Ethnic Uzbeks and other minorities have long complained about a lack of political representation in Kyrgyzstan. But complaints can run both ways in the South. In some southern districts where Uzbeks form a majority, ethnic Kyrgyz complain about perceived Uzbek domination of the economy and resources. “Uzbeks have control over the bazaars and property in valued spots. They have a lot of money. And now they want political power. They have to curb their appetites and behave moderately. This is a Kyrgyz country, after all,” a Kyrgyz bank official told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In June 1990, such differing narratives caused a deadly conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. In response, former president Askar Akayev tried to quell ethnic passions by declaring Kyrgyzstan a "common house" and building informal ties with leaders of ethnic minority groups through the People's Assembly, a quasi-governmental structure. Akayev’s liberal policies allowed groups to establish informal spheres of influence in various economic and civil service sectors.

Bakiyev undid many of Akayev's policies that aimed at fostering harmonious inter-ethnic relations. Under Bakiyev, the role of the People's Assembly declined, and the informal division of economic and social sectors was disrupted. Instead, Bakiyev relied on the security apparatus, led by his brother Janysh, to suppress minorities. Observers say that Bakiyev's downfall opened a floodgate of pent-up ethnic tension created by years of biased government policy. The early April unrest, then, triggered a renewed competition over resources in the South.

The Jalal-abad events have alarmed many Uzbek leaders. A statement by the Jalal-abad Uzbek Society claimed that lax law enforcement helped fanned the unrest. “We became convinced yet again that some parts of the security structures of the region, which are responsible for peace and order among citizens, continue to serve as instruments of anti-populist forces,” said the statement.

Batyrov’s involvement in the Jalal-abad events also has intensified internal debate among Uzbek leaders. Prior to May 14, Uzbeks traditionally shied away from aligning with Kyrgyz political factions in promoting their long-standing demands, including the designation of Uzbek as an official language and greater political representation. After Bakiyev's departure, most Uzbek leaders were openly dismayed that the interim government failed to include Uzbek representatives in the government. Observers say that Batyrov's decision to back the interim-government's efforts to restore its control on May 14 was motivated by a desire to enhance Uzbek positions.

Yet Batyrov's move riled some Uzbek leaders in nearby Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s de facto southern capital. "They [Kyrgyz political leaders] have this habit of trying to involve us [Uzbeks] in their disputes and confrontations. But we always emerge as scapegoats [in such clashes]. It's best to stay away from their squabbles," an Osh-based Uzbek community leader told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An ethnic Uzbek journalist criticized Batyrov for not clearing his May 14 actions with other Uzbek leaders. "Many [Uzbeks in Osh] are unhappy about this [Batyrov's decision to back interim forces]. It was clear that this was going to lead to problems. What was he thinking? What did he think he would gain from this? This is still unclear," the journalist said.

Some Uzbek leaders hope the Jalal-abad crisis will force the interim administration to address long-standing inter-ethnic issues. But it appears unlikely that the government can respond in a way that satisfies Uzbeks. According to the Osh journalist, adopting a forceful position on inter-ethnic issues will flame suspicions that Uzbek demands for political representation will likely be followed by demands for autonomy. “Uzbek demands have not been met in the past and they will not be met anytime soon. There is no illusion about that,” said the journalist.

Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Provisional Government Grappling with Simmering Ethnic Tension in Kyrgyzstan

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