Kyrgyzstan Debates Rival Ethnic Policies

Kyrgyzstan Debates Rival Ethnic Policies

Wednesday, 1 June, 2011

Public debate about how Kyrgyzstan should manage ethnic relations is intensifying ahead of the anniversary of last year’s violence in the south of the country. As IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova explains, the government’s vision of how to shape a more harmonious future is being challenged by a rival document from the Ata-Jurt party, which focuses more on a dominant Kyrgyz identity.

What’s the background to these ethnic policy strategies – why have one in the first place?

The need for an ethnic strategy was identified as an urgent priority as the authorities in Kyrgyzstan began facing pressure to address underlying problems which had been left unresolved over many years, and which culminated in a conflict between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in June 2010. That violence left over 400 people dead, many more wounded and up to 400 000 people displaced.

In drafting a new strategy, the authorities were supported by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The broad-based working group that produced the draft was overseen by a new office in the presidential administration called the Department for Ethnic and Religious Policy and Cooperation with Civil Society.

The resulting official document, the “Draft Concept for Ethnic Policy and Consolidation of Society in Kyrgyzstan”, was made public at the end of March. 

How does this strategy paper envisage tackling the roots of ethnic tension and preventing further conflict?

As one Kyrgyz official has put it, an ethnic policy consists of a whole series of actions designed to ensure that the interests of all ethnic groups are represented in key areas of public life, through civil and political participation and through language, education, cultural and media policies. In the area of education, the official strategy proposes transforming schools so that they can deliver multilingual education. Media and cultural institutions will be required to reflect multiculturalism in their coverage and activities.

What’s the difference between this document and the one produced by Ata-Jurt?

The fundamental difference is that Ata-Jurt’s vision of ethnic policy, as set out in the “State Ethnic Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic”, made public on April 27, is founded squarely on the notion of Kyrgyz ethnicity as the central element of nationhood. Broader society is seen as a union between the Kyrgyz and other ethnic groups, while cultural and language policies would focus on Kyrgyz identity.

This contrasts sharply with the official draft, which sees the foundation of national identity shifting from one’s ethnic origin to one’s citizenship.

It’s an important distinction, since whichever document is supported by parliament and gets passed into law will set the direction in which Kyrgyzstan as a state will manage ethnic issues. Ultimately, this will determine whether people from all ethnic groups enjoy equal access to public life as long as they hold citizenship, or whether the interests of ethnic Kyrgyz as the titular nation will be dealt with differently from the rest. 

Isn’t there a danger that suggesting different communities have different rights could take the country further down a road that has already led to serious bloodshed?

That’s exactly what critics of the Ata-Jurt proposal are warning.

One of the key factors in the 2010 conflict was that ethnic tensions were highlighted to advance political interests. Since the violence, ethnicity has again been exploited as a way of winning power, and an overt streak of nationalism has emerged in politics.

Ata-Jurt, which won more seats than any other in the October parliamentary election, describes itself as the voice of “national patriots” rather than Kyrgyz nationalists. From its leading position in the legislature, Ata-Jurt is attempting to play the lead role in shaping future ethnic policy, and in doing so, it is effectively undermining the authorities’ efforts to create a strategy based on consensus rather than on one particular group in society.

How does Ata-Jurt explain its objections to the official concept, and how does its own draft propose to treat ethnic minorities?

Nadira Narmatova, who was part of the team that drafted the Ata-Jurt document, has said the party does not believe the official alternative reflects the “mentality and interests of our people”.

As some critics of the Ata-Jurt strategy point out, the party has its own views on the root causes of last year’s conflict, arguing that these arose out of a lack of patriotism among part of the population. Thus, the party’s interpretation of ethnic integration is less about protecting minorities’ interests than about developing their sense of patriotism. As Narmatova put it, along with rights, minorities have duties such as working towards national unity. 

What has been the reaction to Ata-Jurt’s concept paper?

Criticisms range from suspicions that Ata-Jurt is seeking to win popular support ahead of the presidential election later this year, to accusations from the likes of political analyst Pavel Dyatlenko that the party is set on a “policy of assimilation”.

In official circles, Ata-Jurt’s move is been seen as an attempt to attract attention by hijacking an important policy debate, while improving the party’s image by demonstrating a commitment to human rights and respect for cultural differences.

Some political analysts worry that if Ata-Jurt’s nationalist approach goes unchallenged, it could widen the ethnic divide and lead to discriminatory policies. 

How can Kyrgyzstan move towards reconciliation and peace-building with a vision of ethnic policy that’s built around one group?

This is a challenge the authorities seem be struggling to deal with. What’s certain is that if they fail, the consequences will be disastrous. Communities will be driven even further apart, some groups will be marginalised and potentially radicalised, and the emergence of aggressive nationalist rhetoric will jeopardise any nation-building effort and threatening stability.

As the anniversary of last year’s violent clashes approaches, the debate on ethnic issues is becoming increasingly politicised. Depending on where they stand, various political groups will exploit the issue in order to shore up support for their particular presidential candidate. That can only stoke tensions in a country which is still coming to terms with the recent conflict. 

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London. Additional insights provided by Askar Aktalov, an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

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