Call this wishful thinking, but could a change in the approach to ethnic tensions be underway at Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security, the GKNB? This week its new boss suggested that his agency may no longer conflate ethnic tensions with Islamic extremism – a welcome development and a stark change from the rhetoric under his predecessor.
Shamil Atakhanov told parliament’s defense and security committee on January 16 that his GKNB was watching 29 especially sensitive ethnic flashpoints, the 24.kg news agency reported, and creating contingency measures to calm local populations in the event of violence. At the same hearing, Deputy Interior Minister Baktybek Alymbekov listed 147 potential flashpoints. There was no mention of Islamic extremists.
Atakhanov, who was appointed by newly elected President Almazbek Atambayev in December, also censured Batken Governor Arzybek Burkanov and his subordinates for failing to respond to a December 29 fight between local Tajiks and Kyrgyz in the far distant Lyalyak District, where Kyrgyz residents complain that Tajik nationals are illegally settling on Kyrgyz land, a process they call “creeping migration.”
Batken, Kyrgyzstan’s most remote province, shares porous borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In some places the frontier is not defined, leading to frequent disputes over land and water resources that many observers worry could explode into the kind of ethnic violence Osh has seen twice in the last generation, or worse.
"On the ground, the akims [administration heads] and the heads of local government work poorly. They have no plan of action to prevent such conflicts. They do not speak with the local population," Atakhanov said, in comments carried by Fergananews.com. After his testimony, parliament considered a movement to dismiss Burkanov, the governor.
The old GKNB boss, Keneshbek Dushebayev, regularly dismissed ethnic tensions as the work of Islamic extremists, without providing convincing proof. His assessment of tensions in the multiethnic Ferghana Valley often seemed to equate “Islamic extremist” with “Uzbek.”
Atakhanov’s step may seem like a small one, but, if genuine, it may finally be heading in the direction of addressing one of Kyrgyzstan’s most worrying problems.