(English) Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South

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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.


To the Government of Kyrgyzstan:

1.  Appoint or restore qualified Uzbeks to positions in local administration, education, the judiciary, police and other key areas of government, particularly in areas where there is a substantial Uzbek minority; and make reintegration of the police, currently almost exclusively ethnic Kyrgyz, an urgent priority.

2.  Reopen major Uzbek-language media closed after June 2010. Senior government figures should use these outlets to reach out to Uzbek citizens.

3.  Carry out infrastructure improvements to roads, water and electricity supplies, playgrounds and sports facilities in Uzbek communities, where such features are often considerably below standard.

4.  Extend the anti-corruption campaign explicitly to Uzbek areas, where the population is at particular risk from abusive officials.

5.  Support and reinforce measures undertaken by the current prosecutor-general to eradicate the use of torture by police and security bodies; place the temporary detention facilities (IVS), where most torture takes place, under the justice ministry; enforce rigorously the prohibition of confessions obtained by torture; give defence lawyers adequate security; and make regular rotation of senior police and security officials the norm, in an effort to reduce abuse and corruption. Implement recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on torture, in particular:

a) amend the criminal code to define torture as a serious crime in accordance with Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture;

b) ensure in the Law on Amnesty that no person convicted for the crime of torture will qualify for amnesty;

c) ensure that legislation concerning evidence presented in judicial proceedings is brought into line with Article 15 of the UN Convention against Torture in order to exclude explicitly any evidence or extrajudicial statement obtained under duress; and

d) make police station chiefs and investigating and operational officers criminally accountable for any unacknowledged detention.

6.  Repudiate publicly nationalist rhetoric that asserts the supremacy of ethnic Kyrgyz and reaffirm Kyrgyzstan’s status as a multi-ethnic state in which all groups enjoy equal rights.

To the International Community:

7.  Give energetic, long-term and consistent attention to this problem, including in the following ways:

a) make support for efforts to reduce ethnic tensions in the south the central focus of operations in Kyrgyzstan;

b) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should follow-up on his declarations that UN operations in southern Kyrgyzstan after the violence were a success by calling for a truly inclusive political process and an end to impunity, making these demands the priority for the UN agencies working in Kyrgyzstan.

c) international organisations and donors should actively encourage central government efforts to alleviate tension and restore government political control in the south, making these benchmarks for future economic assistance, and in the meantime avoid funding any programs that might benefit, directly or indirectly, the nationalist exclusionist agenda;

d) international organisations and foreign governments should make clear to Osh Mayor Myrzakmatov and other key nationalist leaders that discriminatory policies towards Kyrgyzstan’s minorities will not only damage the country’s – and Osh’s – international standing, but also their access to international funding; and

e) international organisations should stagger their staff rotations in the south, ensuring the presence of a constant core of senior representatives with an institutional memory of the 2010 violence and subsequent political developments, in order to be able to better evaluate the development of the situation on the ground and the statements made by both official and unofficial political players.

Bishkek/Brussels, 29 March 2012