Many of southern Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Uzbeks, facing continued harassment from local authorities, are pondering their future in the Kyrgyz Republic. Thousands are packing their bags, perhaps for good.
On July 21, repeating a request for police monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help pacify the South, provisional President Roza Otunbayeva admitted her government does not fully control the region.
“I believe that international [police] forces should be deployed [in Kyrgyzstan] because we are so far unable to protect our citizen's rights. This is not because I acknowledge [our] own powerlessness, but the situation is very difficult," RIA Novosti quoted Otunbayeva as saying.
But faced with daily protests, the police monitors may arrive too late to stop a permanent demographic change.
For those wishing to leave, options are limited. Despite language and cultural ties, authoritarian Uzbekistan is not a desirable destination. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have also imposed stiff restrictions regulating visas and work permits for Kyrgyz citizens. Uzbekistan's border with Kyrgyzstan remains closed. Russia is, for many, the only logical destination.
According to some informal estimates, at least 20,000 Uzbeks have permanently left southern Kyrgyzstan since the ethnic violence in mid-June that left hundreds dead. This figure does not include the hundreds of thousands displaced or the estimated 100,000 that temporarily fled over the border to Uzbekistan. On July 16, the United Nations said that some 75,000 were still internally displaced.
"Every day two plane-loads of residents are flying out of Osh to Russia. That would make about 400 people a day. Keep in mind that people are also leaving by train and car. We're seeing a mass exodus," an Osh-based journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org.
There is chaos at passport offices, he added: “Everybody wants to get a passport to flee the country. Whole families and neighborhoods are leaving.”
Travel agents confirm that Russia is the emigrants’ primary destination. Malika, an Osh-based tour agent who would only provide her first name, said tickets to Moscow and other Russian cities are sold out for July and August. Due to the high demand, tickets have also doubled in price.
"An average one-way ticket from Osh to Moscow now costs 27,000 som [about $600]. But you have to use your connections to buy one, even for business class," Malika said.
Diyora, the director of an Osh-based non-governmental organization that works on education development and who asked her last name be withheld for safety concerns, told EurasiaNet.org that she feared the renewal of ethnic violence and has decided to leave for Russia.
"The conflict is not over. It can erupt anytime. Whatever the case, it will be very hard for many Uzbeks [to live in Kyrgyzstan]. I see no future for us and for our children in this country," Diyora said.
Economics is another reason Uzbeks are leaving.
"Many people lost their livelihoods. The bazaar in Osh provided employment to several thousand local residents. Now it is in ruins. Many houses and businesses have been destroyed. People don't believe the state will reimburse their losses," said Ulugbek Sokin, a local journalist.
Police harassment and a rise in nationalist rhetoric in local media may be augmenting the emigration trend. Local newspapers and television in Osh and Jalal-Abad are teeming with nationalist editorials and broadcasts, some of which are calling for the mass eviction of ethnic Uzbeks. Many others fear government officials in Osh orchestrated the burning of Uzbek neighborhoods to clear the way for urban development plans to house ethnic Kyrgyz.
Despite the tense atmosphere, not all Uzbeks are eager to leave, however.
“If everybody leaves, who is going to defend our rights? We must continue to fight for our rights,” said Turgunbai Abdiraimov, a retired engineer from Osh. Concerned the exodus will only further marginalize his community, he added that the Uzbeks should use the legal system and make appeals to the international community to defend their political rights.
Uzbeks are not the only ethnic group that is fleeing. Observers estimate that thousands of ethnic Russians have left permanently for Russia. The Russian embassy in Bishkek, however, said it had no idea how many were making the move. There are also widespread reports of Kyrgyz in Osh leaving for Bishkek and Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyz officials are aware of the exodus of ethnic minorities, but they appear unable or unwilling to stop the trend. "We have more important problems here. A lot of people are still missing. The city needs to be rebuilt. The economy needs to be dealt with,” an Osh government official told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.
However, the official acknowledged that the exodus would have negative implications for the local economy.
"We managed to collect only 20 percent of taxes compared [year on year] with last year’s [June] average. In some other towns, authorities collected even less,” he said. Uzbeks in Osh operated a majority of the tax-paying businesses, the official added.