Kyrgyzstan’s disregard for its Uzbek community is pushing the ethnic minority to breaking point, warns the International Crisis Group..
Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines how the Kyrgyz government has failed to calm ethnic tensions in the south and warns of the consequences if the problem is not resolved. Few efforts at reconciliation have been made since the 2010 violence. Osh, the second city, where more than 420 people died in ethnic clashes in June that year, remains dominated by its powerful mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov. He is an ardent Kyrgyz nationalist who pays little attention to leaders in the capital.
“A superficial quiet has settled on the city, but neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia Project Director. “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 Uzbeks as a diaspora, emphasising their separate and subordinate status”.
The nationalist discourse that emerged after the Osh violence unnerved the interim government that 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 Myrzakmatov. He is the standard-bearer of a 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 Atambayev’s administration express dismay at tensions in the south but say they have no way of influencing the situation there.
Many of Kyrgyzstan’s estimated 700,000 ethnic Uzbeks live in the south, and though few express theological or political sympathies with radical jihadis being trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, some are more favourably inclined to them, out of sheer anger, than before. If jihadism in the south is boosted by the Western pullout from Afghanistan in 2014, and if southern Uzbeks become further alienated from the regime, the Kyrgyz government will struggle for control. Its security forces, among the region’s weakest, already have a difficult time. It is thus in the government’s interest to reassure Uzbeks that they have a place in Kyrgyzstan’s future. International criticism has been quite muted, but the UN, donors and other organisations that were relatively slow or ineffective in responding to the 2010 violence could help now by tying economic aid to democratic benchmarks.
“Failure to address either the ethnic problem or the question of who controls the south could have very serious negative consequences: deterioration of ethnic relations and an entrenchment of a defiant and dangerous political leadership there that is determined to set its own political agenda”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.