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Kyrgyzstan: How Real are Uzbek Minority Concerns?

Some say a recent demonstration by ethnic Uzbeks reflected political manoeuvring rather than a real sense of discrimination.
By IWPR Central Asia
Demonstrations are so commonplace in Kyrgyzstan that a gathering of 700 people in the centre of the southern city of Jalalabad might seem nothing out of the ordinary. But the May 27 rally stood out as the first time the highly sensitive issue of Kyrgyzstan’s large Uzbek minority had brought people onto the streets since last year’s March revolution.

The demonstration was overshadowed in the news by a rally at least ten times the size that took place in Bishkek the same day. At both events, participants voiced similar concerns about the failure of President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s government to implement reforms since it came to power last year.

But the organisers of the Jalalabad protest had other, more specific gripes, complaining that Uzbeks lack political representation and demanding that their language be upgraded to official status.

Concentrated in the three southern regions of Osh, Jalalabad and Batken, Uzbeks account for some 16 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, making them the second largest ethnic group.

However, Uzbeks only hold eight of the 75 seats in the national parliament, which works out at 11 per cent. The protesters demanded that their community be given a quota of government posts proportionate to their numbers.

One of the eight Uzbeks in parliament, Kadyrjan Batyrov, who is head of the Uzbek National Cultural Centre of Jalalabad, a non-government community organisation, said his electorate had taken to the streets because of many unresolved problems including discrimination.

“All the letters we have sent to key figures ruling the country over the last 15 years have failed to elicit a response,” said Batyrov. Speaking of the Bakiev administration, he said, “They have always asked us to be patient and wait a little longer. The same was true of the previous president [Askar Akaev]. They have promised to resolve all the issues, but so far it has only been talk.”

A statement issued by Jalalabad’s Uzbek Cultural Centre at its annual conference in January said the minority suffered harassment for police and other authorities, and was increasingly the target of ethnic hostility.

The language dispute is over official status. At the moment, Kyrgyz is officially the “state language” and Russian, widely used as a lingua franca, is an “official language”. While Uzbek is not used in official documents or public life, it is used as the teaching medium at special primary and secondary schools, at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh, and at the People’s Friendship University which Batyrov founded in Jalalabad. Uzbek is a Turkic language like Kyrgyz, but differs significantly from it.

In Bishkek, Alexander Katsev, who heads the international journalism department at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, saw no reason why Uzbek could not be used more widely.

“In a democracy, people should be able to communicate and study in their own language in areas of dense [single-ethnicity] population,” he said. “Since there are Uzbek schools, why not translate some official documents into Uzbek? That wouldn’t go against the constitution.”

However, political scientist Turat Akimov was concerned that with a population of just five million, Kyrgyzstan is too small to cope with allowing linguistic diversity at an official level. The Russian Federation had many times its population, yet used only Russian as the state language, he said.

That appears to be the position the Bakiev government is taking. At a meeting with the OSCE High Commissioner for Ethnic Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, on June 2, State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov said Uzbek could not be granted official status because “we are a unitary state, not a confederation”. Other ethnic communities might start demanding similar rights for their languages as well, he warned.

Some of those interviewed for this report were angry that the Uzbeks were pushing for greater rights.

“If people are dissatisfied with their life here, they can always move to another country. No one will stop them,” said Kuvanychbek Idinov, an ethnic Kyrgyz former member of parliament who lectures at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University.

But most expressed measured concern that the Jalalabad protest ran the risk of inciting ethnic strife. Ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern Osh region in 1990, when Kyrgyzstan was still part of the Soviet Union, left a strong imprint on the country, resulting in a reluctance to over-emphasise ethnic divisions.

This point was made at the May 30 debate in parliament by Davron Sabirov, who represents the Uzbek community of Osh region. Recalling the bloodshed of 1990, Sabirov reminded everyone of the sensitivities involved and suggested that holding a demonstration was the wrong way of going about things.

Another reason for concern is the divide between northern Kyrgyzstan, where political power and much of the country’s economic activity reside, and the poorer south, where many people - regardless of ethnicity - feel inadequately represented.

A more recent political factor in the mix is the perception articulated in the Jalalabad Uzbeks’ January letter that the Bakiev administration is more definably Kyrgyz - and thus less friendly towards minorities - than its predecessor under Akaev.

According to Alisher Saipov, a journalist in Osh, “There is no sense that ethnic minorities’ rights are being discriminated against, although there are some signs of [Kyrgyz] nationalism.”

Anvar Artykov, a prominent Uzbek politician from Osh, suggested to IWPR that the Bakiev government was in some way complicit in provoking the Jalabad protest.

Last year, Artykov was a leading figure in protest movement in southern Kyrgyzstan that led to the March revolution. His ally President Bakiev subsequently made him governor of Osh region, but dismissed him in December in arbitrary fashion. No friend of the government now, he is suspicious of its motives.

“There is no sense to this rally - discrimination against Uzbeks is an entirely invented problem, an attempt by the authorities to deflect public attention from major problems. In short, it is a provocation in which the White House [government] is implicated,” he said.

Political analyst Talant Momunov, who is Kyrgyz, also believes the rally in Jalalabad was not a genuine grassroots action, although he did not say who he thought was behind it.

“Someone is clearly interested in inciting animosity between the two ethnic groups,” he told IWPR. “Although Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have common linguistic and historical roots, meeting the [Uzbeks’] demand would be extremely difficult.”

Saipov agreed that there is a danger public protests could be manipulated, “Holding a rally was the wrong method to choose for addressing these problems. In an already unstable political climate, there could be provocations by both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.”

Astra Sadybakasova is a correspondent for the Argumenty i Fakty v Kyrgyzstane newspaper.

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