Will Kyrgyzstan’s Spooks Shoot the Messenger in Ethnic Hatred Claim?
Five years after an ethnic conflict left hundreds dead and Kyrgyzstan’s second city smoldering, the uneven application of racial hatred laws is still hindering open conversations about nationalism.
Last week, veteran journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who is editor of the MK Asia newspaper and a member of an ethnic minority group, was questioned by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security service and informed that tens of people had signed a statement calling for him to be charged for spreading ethnic hatred.
Babakulov had not publicly defamed another ethnicity. His alleged offence appears to be criticizing an ethnic Kyrgyz public figure for doing so.
In a May issue of MK Asia (a local branch of the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets), Babakulov highlighted comments made late last year by Abdyrakhman Alimbaev, a former head of the Writer’s Union of Kyrgyzstan, likening non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to “jackals.”
During the December 7 broadcast of the Kyrgyz talk show Tooluktardyn – “Mountain People” – on state broadcaster OTRK, Alimbaev allegedly said: “Of course, if the child's mother is an Uzbek, an Uighur woman or a Jew, the child may become a trader. […] What do we see today? Kyrgyz women marry men of different nationalities, and Kyrgyz men also marry different women. It is like a lion marrying a jackal or a jackal marrying a lioness.”
The GKNB has charged neither – the secret police force says it is investigating Alimbaev, too. But according to Babakulov, GKNB officials have confirmed to him that an independent expert analysis of his article “On Lions and Jackals” had exposed passages that “could arouse irritation among certain representatives of the titular nationality [Kyrgyz].”
Babakulov claimed that he only came across the quotes trawling local media websites online months after the broadcast. But the nationalist signatories to the statement calling for him to be charged claim he published the piece with the anniversary of the June 2010 ethnic violence in mind.
Among the signatories are members of the Kyrk Choro "patriotic group" famous for raiding karaoke clubs frequented by Chinese businessmen. In January, Kyrk Choro’s head allegedly called for ethnic Uighur traders at a Bishkek market to be dispossessed in favor of Kyrgyz, although he later denied making the comments and was not investigated.
Writing in a June 10 commentary for MK Asia after his meeting with the GKNB, Babakulov also noted that he had been bashed in the infamously unprofessional and jingoistic Kyrgyz-language press:
“The matter has come to insults in the pages of the Kyrgyz-language press. Specifically, the newspaper Fabula attacked my person in one publication, referring to me as a Sart [ethnic slur for Uzbeks], who had ‘thoroughly sullied the reputation of the magnanimous Kyrgyz.’ It is worth noting that after a series of similar articles, the chief editor […] was, by order of the prime minister, made the head of the government newspaper Kyrgyz Tuusu. Will somebody now dare to deny that nationalism in Kyrgyzstan is being cultivated at the level of the state?” Babakulov wrote.
If the GKNB fails to charge Alimbaev – or instead charges Babakulov – comparisons will inevitably be made with ethnic-Russian analyst Vladimir Farafonov. Farafonov was slapped with a fine of over $1,000 for inciting racial hatred in 2012 after he implied, in online articles, that rural Kyrgyz were backwards and called the local press “prisoners of political darkness.”