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Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan
Table of Contents
  1. View as Slideshow
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

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan

Crisis Group’s Publications Officer Julie David de Lossy, formerly a freelance photographer of Central Asia, travels to Kyrgyzstan to take a look through her camera lens at the context of our conflict-prevention work.

Returning to Kyrgyzstan after five years away, I found a country that still mixes open-eyed charm, bureaucratic frustrations and decaying Soviet-era infrastructures – all part of a slow, uncertain transition that its population wishes could go faster even if the ultimate destination remains obscure.

Taking pictures that tell a real story in post-Soviet states is always a challenge. Especially in Central Asia. I have to overcome the country’s big empty spaces, the absence of public information and a decades-old culture of suspicion. Then a door opens, I turn a corner, or a new friend helps. Suddenly I get my chance.

View of Osh from the Suleyman-Too, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I want to give a feeling for the context of Islamic radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. But photography means winning people’s trust, and that’s hard. The people of Kyrgyzstan are used to keeping silent to please their parents, keep their jobs, or avoid harassment. Public spaces are one place I can begin to make contact with ordinary folk.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamerlane, a great Central Asian conqueror of the fourteenth century, was the first of his clan to convert to Islam. His people followed him. Violently repressed in 20th century Soviet times, Islam has now returned to public life in the region. Regular folk long for outsiders to see their religion as they do: a mainstay of a moral life.

Man holds a Quran in a mosque in an Uzbek mahalla (neighbourhood) of Osh, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Visiting a mosque, as a Western female, is not particularly complicated. However, pulling a camera out usually means that people just quietly move away. Most Central Asians share a deep instinct to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. Just in case.

Mosque in an Uzbek mahalla, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Youth in Kyrgyzstan has little faith in the future due to rampant corruption, decaying infrastructure, and the country’s lack of bankable natural resources.

Osh park, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I attend a madrasa lesson to mingle in a class attended by serene young women in matching purple headscarves. But they did not let me take a camera in. Each day as I set out to portray a new facet of Islam in Central Asia – for instance, the small minority that might be tempted by transnational jihadism – I know I will face many obstacles along my way.

Pass to the north between the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountain ranges, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union, statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not that anybody particularly wants communism back, or that they took it seriously in the first place. But most Kyrgyz cities didn’t exist as such before the Soviets came. And some in the secular Kyrgyz elite hanker for a bulwark against any back-sliding to fundamentalist religious doctrines.

Lenin statue in Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Drinking over-sweet Nescafé in a lost chaikhana (teahouse), I worry that the whole idea of photographing religious change is a terrible mistake. Then somebody comes to practice his English. Perhaps this is someone with a fresh lead, someone who will take me where I want to go.

Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Weddings in Kyrgyzstan are major social events. No problem with photos here: this is how most Central Asian photographers earn their living. Loving bridal images are taken in front of war memorials, municipal monuments, romantic park benches, or all of the above. Even water reservoirs. For small, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, abundant water is one of its only levers against big, powerful neighbours.

Tortgul reservoir, near Tajik border, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new national symbols were needed in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan chose Manas, hero of the national epic poem, which tells the story of the Kyrgyz Turkic peoples’ struggles to establish their country against Mongols and other neighbours. Islamist puritans, of course, would have things otherwise.

Manas monument, Batken, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Long-distance travel in Kyrgyzstan means driving for hours on roads filled with potholes, dust, rivers of water and apparently indestructible Lada cars. The country may be small compared to its neighbours, but journeys between cities are physical challenges that can seem to stretch toward infinity.

Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Thanks to the many rivers running through the country, especially in the Ferghana valley, agriculture is a significant part of the economy and fills Kyrgyz markets with fresh produce. As any traveller in Central Asia quickly finds, street markets are also fertile hunting grounds for photographers.

Bazaar in Jalalabad, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Mutakallim School in Bishkek, April 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

View as Slideshow

SLIDESHOW | Picturing Islam in Kyrgyzstan CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy