Kyrgyzstan, a country of just over five million people, is a multi-national state, with over 80 ethnic groups. Uzbeks make up the largest ethnic minority, with approximately 800,000 people; Russians constitute the second largest, with over 600,000 members. The Uzbek community primarily resides in Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces, much poorer regions than the majority Kyrgyz north, and constitutes over 30 percent of southern Kyrgyzstan's population.
Under ex-President Askar Akayev, the government assured minorities that "Kyrgyzstan Is Our Common Home," as the state's policy on ethnic minorities was known. The politicians who came to power after March 24, 2005 did not attempt revisions of this policy, though the appointment of ethnic Uzbek Anvar Artykov as the governor of Osh province, home to more than 500,000 Uzbeks, was widely seen as an attempt to meet Uzbek interests. (Artykov was later dismissed, and today is an outspoken government critic.) The Tulip Revolution started in a part of the country where Uzbek influence is strong: the city of Jalal-Abad, the second largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In late May 2006, 14 months after the March Revolution, Jalal-Abad again became the focus of national interest, when a gathering of several hundred ethnic Uzbeks demanded that the Uzbek language be granted official status. Protestors also demanded employment quotas for ethnic Uzbeks in government structures.
"There are only 600,000 Russians in our country, and the Russian language has official status, so why can't the 800,000[-member] Uzbek community have the same rights?," commented Erkin Rajabov, a trader at the Osh bazaar.
At a later meeting with President Bakiyev's plenipotentiary representative to southern Kyrgyzstan, Jantooro Satybaldiev, representatives of Osh's Uzbek community, however, criticized the language demand, expressing satisfaction with Uzbek-language schools and media outlets, but expressed support for increasing the number of Uzbeks working as state employees.
Following the protest, many local commentators, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, have speculated that the demonstration and ensuing debate were designed to foment discord between the two groups for political reasons. The charge easily sparks unease among both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. In the summer of 1990, a land dispute between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in Osh resulted in clashes, and the death of some 200 people. Unofficial sources claimed the country lost about 2,000 people. Ordinary Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks alike are adamant about their desire to avoid a repetition of the Osh events.
Attempts are also being made to strengthen ties with neighboring Uzbekistan, long a sparring partner over border issues. President Bakiyev is expected to travel to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, on a state visit in autumn 2006, according to news reports. Considerable controversy, however, surrounded the government's August 2006 decision to repatriate five Uzbek refugees, who had fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan following Uzbekistan's 2005 Andijan uprising.
Government officials are attempting to play down any movement that could encourage such divisions. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, as well as other top politicians, promptly rejected the Jalal-Abad protestors' demands. Agreeing to Uzbek demands could prompt other ethnic groups to follow suit, argued Adahan Madumarov, the Kyrgyz state secretary. "I want to emphasize, we are not a confederation; we are a unitary state," Kabar news agency quoted Madumarov as saying.
That message was again reinforced at Kyrgyzstan's August 5, 2006 kurultai, a traditional assembly for popular discussion of issues of national interest, where Madumarov denied Uzbek community leader and member of parliament Kadyrjan Batyrov, one of the leaders of the demonstration, a chance to speak.