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Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 222 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South

Kyrgyzstan’s disregard for its Uzbek community is pushing the ethnic minority to a breaking point.

Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s government has failed to calm ethnic tensions in the south, which continue to grow since the 2010 violence, largely because of the state’s neglect and southern leaders’ anti-Uzbek policies. Osh, the country’s second city, where more than 420 people died in ethnic clashes in June of that year, remains dominated by its powerful mayor, an ardent Kyrgyz nationalist who has made it clear that he pays little attention to leaders in the capital. While a superficial quiet has settled on the city, neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold. Uzbeks are subject to illegal detentions and abuse by security forces and have been forced out of public life. The government needs to act to reverse these worsening trends, while donors should insist on improvements in the treatment of the Uzbek minority.

The nationalist discourse that emerged after the Osh violence unnerved the interim government that had replaced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. Until the end of its term in late 2011, it was largely ignored, and sometimes openly defied, by Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, the standard-bearer of an ethnic Kyrgyz-first policy and the most successful radical nationalist leader to emerge after the killings. This did not change when President Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, took office in December 2011. Senior members of his administration express dismay at tensions in the south but say they have no way of influencing the situation there.

Uzbeks are increasingly withdrawing into themselves. They say they are marginalised by the Kyrgyz majority, forced out of public life and the professions; most Uzbek-language media have been closed; and prominent nationalists often refer to them as a diaspora, emphasising their separate and subordinate status. International organisations report continuing persecution of Uzbeks by a rapaciously corrupt police and prosecutorial system, almost certainly with the southern authorities’ tacit approval.

The flight of many Uzbek business people and the seizure of Uzbek-owned businesses have sharply diminished the minority’s once important role in the economy. The sense of physical and social isolation is breeding a quiet, inchoate anger among all segments of the community – not just the youth, who could be expected to respond more viscerally to the situation, but also among the Uzbek elite and middle class. This is increased by an acute awareness that they have nowhere to go. Neither Russia, with its widespread anti-Central Asian sentiments, nor Uzbekistan with its harshly autocratic regime, offers an attractive alternative. While Uzbeks are far from embracing violence and have no acknowledged leaders, their conversations are turning to retribution, or failing that a final lashing out at their perceived oppressors.

The views of southern Kyrgyz have also hardened since the violence. Many feel that Uzbeks brought disaster on themselves with an ill-advised power grab in June 2010. This version of history has not been proven; it is privately doubted even by some senior Kyrgyz politicians, but hardly ever challenged by them. Myrzakmatov enjoys considerable approval among broad segments of southern Kyrgyz society – including among the younger, better educated and urbanised social groups that might have been expected to take a more liberal and conciliatory position.

Ominously, he re-stated and strengthened his tough anti-Uzbek approach in late 2011 in a book on the June 2010 violence. Depicting Uzbeks as an essentially separatist force that threatens Kyrgyzstan’s survival, he stressed the need for non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to understand their future role would be as subordinates.

Government claims that after the June 2010 pogrom, several hundred young Uzbeks from Osh and other parts of the south went to northern Afghanistan and southern Waziristan (Pakistan) for military training with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other radical Islamist groups have further raised tensions. A series of high-profile police raids and clashes have added to suspicions. The risk of radicalisation certainly exists, and there are indications that Islamist groups have benefited from the aftermath of June 2010. Some young Uzbeks undoubtedly did leave for military training, and a few may have returned, but the true number of post-June recruits is almost certainly a fraction of the official figure.

In all probability the one radical Islamist movement that publicly rejects violence, Hizb ut-Tahrir, has benefited most: its articulate proselytisers sound even more convincing to people who feel threatened. Central Asian Islamists fighting in Afghanistan, on the other hand, have so far shown little interest or capacity to extend major operations to Central Asia. Repression and marginalisation of Uzbeks and other minorities in the south will not cause radical Islamist violence in the near future but can ensure that radical forces have a more welcoming operational environment. More importantly, the steady exclusion of Uzbeks from all walks of life risks creating a dangerous predisposition to violence: the feeling that the only means of redress left are illegal ones.

In the meantime, nationalist leaders in the south seem to be confusing silence with success. The lack of clear leadership within the Uzbek community may slow the development of protest, but might also heighten volatility and unpredictability. It seems unlikely that even the most determined ethnic nationalist can keep the Uzbek population silenced forever. The 2009 census showed Uzbeks to have almost equal numbers with Kyrgyz in Osh city and to be a substantial minority in the two main southern regions. The central government’s failure to act on the situation is allowing nationalists to set and implement an exclusionist agenda. The longer it waits, the harder it will be to reverse the situation.

There are signs that the central government is once again looking for ways to remove Myrzakmatov. Previous efforts have failed, and simply changing one person is not, alone, a solution. The situation can almost certainly be turned around, but it will require assertive and long-term efforts by Bishkek to reassert its power in the south and strong, visible support from the international community. Neither is currently apparent.

Bishkek/Brussels, 29 March 2012

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.