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Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
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

A Kyrgyz opposition supporter waves the national flag near the main government building during an anti-government protest in Bishkek on 7 April 2010. AFP/ Vyacheslav Oseledko

Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan

As Kyrgyzstan prepares to mark the sixth anniversary of a bloody rebellion, there is a growing sense that the overthrow of two presidents has failed to revolutionise politics. Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, but the system remains remarkably unchanged despite elections and upheaval. Those who can leverage their connections enjoy impunity, while many ordinary people live in poverty and lack access to justice.

The government’s failure to deliver adequate leadership, provide basic services to citizens and enforce the rule of law fuels religious radicalisation, ethnic tensions and lawlessness. The poor and politically disenfranchised are turning elsewhere for support. Underneath the political status quo, there are signs of agitation. Several opposition leaders were arrested in late March for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

The April 2010 revolution was supposed to represent a fresh start for Kyrgyzstan, despite its violent beginnings. A national day of protest called for 7 April exploded into a massive uprising, with some 89 protestors gunned down by security forces in central Bishkek. Opposition forces seized power after a chaotic day. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ultimately fled into exile in Belarus, just five years after Kyrgyzstan’s first President Askar Akayev fled to Moscow in the wake of popular protests.

The new interim government said it would deliver reform, accountability, and an end to the staggering corruption of the Bakiyev era. It said it would dismantle the schemes that concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a clannish few. It did not. Under any circumstances, this would be a massive undertaking, but President Almazbek Atambayev, elected to the post in October 2011, has not overseen a real effort to combat political or economic corruption. The spoils have simply been redistributed.

The parliamentary election in October 2015, though peaceful, was in many ways an auction: it is well reported that securing a place on a party list can cost politicians upwards of $500,000. Confidence in government suffers as a result. Politicians lack the initiative to tackle the difficult questions that still face the country such as the persistent north-south divide, ethnic tensions, a breakdown of social and physical infrastructure, increasing religious radicalisation and a chronic lack of economic opportunities. The parliament is semi-functional at best, and national unity is a brittle façade.

Russian influence is growing as the Kyrgyz government depends on financial handouts from Moscow and rests its national security interests with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Meanwhile, the economic downturn in Russia has resulted in a drop in remittances from migrant workers, leaving households across Kyrgyzstan strapped for cash.

The scars of 2010 have not healed.

Central Asia is a tough neighbourhood. Uncertainty in Afghanistan, increasing authoritarianism in Tajikistan and the possibility of a chaotic political succession in Uzbekistan pose serious threats to Kyrgyzstan’s stability. The state’s foreign policies are at best premised on short- to medium-term objectives and financial needs, not on long-term interests. Its relationship with its nearest neighbour, Uzbekistan, is deeply dysfunctional, with frequent border spats underscoring Kyrgyzstan’s inability to protect its frontiers in the face of the overwhelming might of the Uzbek military.

Bazar in Osh city in June 2011. A year earlier, hundreds of Uzbeks from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, were killed and their houses set on fire. To protect their belongings from destruction, Kyrgyz businesses wrote “Kyrgyz” on their shops in the bazar. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyzstan’s domestic trajectory is perhaps the most troubling. While the state becomes increasingly impotent, it has allowed strident Kyrgyz nationalism to define what it means to be Kyrgyzstani. In June 2010, some 400 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, died during inter-ethnic violence in Osh. Those scars have not healed. Today, the Uzbek community has retreated from politics. The government blames ethnic Uzbeks for not doing more to assimilate.

Officials estimate that 70 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic extremists are ethnic Uzbeks, however the underlying ethnic tensions and drivers of religious radicalisation are largely ignored. Families troubled by youth radicalisation are reluctant to seek support for fear they will become targets of police extortion. Senior police officers acknowledge the problem, but say they are unable to prevent this. Public doubts grow when security forces shoot suspected “terrorists” under questionable circumstances, with little verifiable information provided by official statements.

The thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away.

Against this backdrop, divergent ideas about national and religious identities are splintering what little agreement there was about the future of the country. Informal systems of justice and governance have supplanted the state. International aid is of limited value given the weaknesses of the structures it is designed to bolster. But the thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away; the other tactic is to blame outsiders for the country’s challenges.

Kyrgyzstan remains deceptively calm if viewed from afar, but at the local level, there are familiar signs of discontent. Protests across the country are gathering pace with legitimate concerns over the socio-economic situation and the prospect of increased electricity tariffs. Opposition leaders are using these issues to fan anti-government sentiment.

White House, Bishkek, on 3 April 2016. Changing of the guard. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyz politics can deliver sudden and violent change, as shown by the events of March 2005 and April and June 2010. Presidential elections scheduled for 2017 will test the cohesion of the state. Expectations are growing in the south that the next president should be from there.

According to such transactional thinking, power is to be negotiated among regional strongmen, not decided by the democratic will of the people. Even a smooth transition of power is unlikely to ensure reforms. Many members of the political elite survived the convulsions of 2005 and 2010 to emerge with different portfolios and their private businesses intact.

Kyrgyzstan should remain a conflict-prevention priority, as the risks of further upheaval and fresh inter-ethnic clashes have not truly diminished. In a region where most presidents have been enshrined as leaders for life, the Kyrgyz political environment is unique. However, the long-term stability and growth of the country depends on meaningful reconciliation in the south, promotion of a national identity that includes all ethnic minorities inside Kyrgyzstan, and a robust anti-corruption campaign. It will take strong leadership to reform a system of governance that, two upheavals later, remains fundamentally unchanged.