Ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan are growing restive, as some community leaders voice complaints about rising discrimination. Members of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration have remained largely silent on inter-ethnic issues, but local officials have downplayed the complaints.
Uzbek community representatives held their seventh annual conference in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad on January 8, endorsing a statement that criticized rising corruption and discrimination, and appealed to Bakiyev to adopt "a clear policy stance" on minority rights.
"We remain targets of a campaign of harassment launched by fiscal bodies, law enforcement agencies, and executive power structures that live on the taxes we pay," the document stated, according to a translation published by the Ferghana.ru website.
"There is among representatives of the titular nation a tendency of incitement of hatred with regard to Uzbeks and other ethnic groups," the document continued. "Economic development and prosperity are impossible without equal terms and opportunities for all ethnic groups."
Comprising roughly 13 percent of Kyrgyzstan's overall population of 5 million, Uzbeks are the country's largest ethnic minority group. Most Uzbeks live in the southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad. In recent years, Uzbeks have agitated for broader civil rights, seeking, for example, the designation of Uzbek as an official language of Kyrgyzstan. They have also called for greater Uzbek representation in the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies, and for greater state support of Uzbek-language cultural activities and education.
The increasing view among Uzbeks is that the March 2005 revolution that ousted former president Askar Akayev and installed Bakiyev was not a beneficial development for their community. Akayev, during the last years of his administration, courted Uzbek support by espousing a policy called "Kyrgyzstan is our common house." Uzbeks also used the People's Assembly, a formal association of ethnic minorities established by Akayev, to represent their interests. Uzbek leaders say that Bakiyev has shown little interest in continuing the Akayev line on inter-ethnic relations, noting that the People's Assembly has lost much of its former influence.
Uzbeks have been alarmed by the nationalist rhetoric employed by Bakiyev administration officials. The government's inability to curb corruption is also a source of concern. "Uzbeks traditionally play a prominent role in the business sector, especially in the south. The rise in corruption has affected this sector the most," said an Osh-based political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some observers believe Uzbek complaints about discrimination are related to a wide-ranging struggle over economic assets unleashed by the March revolution. The redistribution of property has occasionally turned violent, underscored by the assassination in September 2005 of Bayaman Erkinbayev, a prominent Osh-based entrepreneur who at the time of his death was a member of parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The [Uzbek business] elite is worried about expanding redistribution of property that started following last March. Many of them have a lot of property and [business] interests. They are using discrimination rhetoric [in an attempt] to safeguard their property," one observer said.
Kadyrjan Batyrov -- a Jalal-Abad-based entrepreneur with wide holdings who is also a prominent Uzbek community leader in the region -- is believed by some analysts to be a central figure in the discrimination complaints. Aibek Akbarov, first deputy governor of Jalal-Abad and a participant at the Uzbek annual conference told journalists that Batyrov exerted influence over 100 of the 150 meeting participants. Jalal-Abad Governor Zhusup Zheenbekov, meanwhile, claimed that Batyrov was fomenting ethnic discontent after failing to receive government permission to obtain a lucrative land parcel in the center of the provincial capital. "We cannot distribute land-plots in the center to whichever person who requests them," the governor said.
Other observers contend that Uzbek discontent is linked primarily to a breakdown of informal channels of communication among Kyrgyz government officials and Uzbek community leaders. Some Uzbek leaders maintained close personal ties to Akayev. Following the March revolution, however, no Uzbek leader has a strong relationship with Bakiyev. Anvar Artykov, an ethnic Uzbek who was Bakiyev's ally during the revolution, was dismissed in early December as the governor of the Osh region.
Another factor influencing Uzbek actions is an internal power struggle. Many of those recognized as community leaders during the Akayev administration are now facing challenges from influential entrepreneurs, such as Batyrov. For example, in August 2005, Muhamedjan Mamasaidov, a prominent Uzbek leader and Akayev supporter, was forced out as head of the Republican Uzbek National Association.
Regardless of the motivations behind the complaints, it appears unlikely that Bakiyev will respond in a way that satisfies Uzbek leaders. According to a former Kyrgyz official who maintains ties to the Bakiyev administration, the president does not feel inclined to adopt a forceful position on the inter-ethnic issue. "Bakiyev is in a tenuous position. He fears that open promotion of ethnic minority rights may erode his support base among Kyrgyz nationalists," the former official said.
Bakiyev's administration has become increasingly embattled in recent months, amid burgeoning crime and corruption. The administration's inability to bring the adverse trends under control prompted international observers to dub Kyrgyzstan a "faltering state." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The influence of nationalists within the cabinet, including Deputy Prime Minister Adahan Madumarov, seems to have grown as the government's difficulties have mounted.
While central officials have not responded to the Uzbek conference statement, Zheenbekov, the Jalal-Abad governor, denied that Uzbeks have experienced an erosion of their rights. "It's difficult to even comprehend [the Uzbek conference statement]. Neither Uzbeks nor other nationalities were ever discriminated against in our region," Zheenbekov asserted.
The government's reluctance to address the inter-ethnic issue could destabilize southern Kyrgyzstan, some observers say. Several events in recent weeks have revived concerns about the potential for inter-ethnic clashes. In one incident, Kyrgyz women disrupted an official meeting at the Mayor's Office in Jalal-Abad, allegedly threatening to carry out a pogrom against Uzbeks. In making their threats, the women referred to the 1990 inter-ethnic rioting in the Osh region that left dozens dead.
Another troubling episode occurred January 12 near the Uzbek exclave of Sokh, which is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province. Robert Avazbekov, a representative of the Foundation for Tolerance International told EurasiaNet that Uzbeks reportedly beat up two Kyrgyz citizens. The next day roughly 150 residents of the Kyrgyz village Sogment gathered, intending to retaliate. A potentially more serious incident was averted largely through the foundation's mediation efforts.