Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan: Unhappy Uzbeks Side With Protestors

The conservative Uzbek minority is showing its support for anti-government demonstrations sweeping the country.
By Ulugbek Babakulov
The march on Jalal-Abad.
Outskirts of Jalal-Abad.
Outskirts of Jalal-Abad.
Centre of Jalal-Abad.
Centre of Jalal-Abad. Photos by freelance photographer Filip Noubel based in Osh, South Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan's alienated ethnic Uzbek population has been stirred up by a wave of anti-government protests in the south of the country.


This traditionally conservative minority's support for the demonstrations is a new headache for embattled Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev, who has since rushed to offer concessions to the community.


Thousands of Kyrgyz demonstrators are marching across the country after an incident in March, when several people were killed by police at an Aksy protest rally in support of popular deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, who was briefly jailed for criticising the president.


While the majority of those involved in the march are Kyrgyz, many Uzbeks have been showing their support by offering marchers food and drink on their journey.


Uzbeks are the largest ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan, comprising almost 20 per cent of the population, and live mainly in the south of the country.


Oskon Kenjetaev, who took part in the recent Tash-Kumyr to Jalal-Abad march, told IWPR how Uzbeks had come out of their homes with tea and cakes for the protestors.


Chinara Abduvalieva, one of the protest leaders, said that although the Uzbeks had not yet joined in the rallies, "their sympathy is a great support. Uzbeks have shown unity with us, and that their hearts ache with ours".


Although the government offered concessions, such as the sacking of the interior minister and reform of the state-run media that had strongly supported the police's version of the Aksy events, the discontent shows no sign of going away.


The Uzbek support has come as a surprise. The community has no close links to Beknazarov, an ethnic Kyrgyz, while Uzbeks are generally seen as conservative and law-abiding.


Moreover, there were clashes between the two communities as recently as 1990 in the Fergana valley, although many suspect that these were orchestrated by the secret police using "divide and rule" tactics.


The Uzbeks appear to have been drawn into the protest movement through resentment and anger. They share the poverty of their Kyrgyz neighbours but have a further grievance over alleged under-representation in the government.


Azamjan Akbarov, leader of the mainly Uzbek National Unity and Agreement party, PNES, has complained that there are no Uzbek faces in the new cabinet. "This can't be a coincidence. There can only be one explanation - it is racial discrimination," he said.


However, he told IWPR that he had warned his compatriots against joining the protest movement in the south. "I tried to explain to them that this could have undesirable consequences. People still remember the events of 12 years ago, when there was an inter-ethnic war," he said.


Uzbek community leaders recently announced they would hold their own rally in Jalal-Abad on June 23, the day that Beknazarov's supporters plan to stage their latest protest.


One Uzbek representative, Kadyrjan Batyrov, insisted the meeting was unconnected to the Kyrgyz protest. "But this doesn't mean Uzbeks do not sympathise with them because we all have the same problems," he said.


Batyrov said that an Uzbek delegation had met the head of state to lobby for greater representation on the eve of the 2000 presidential elections, "We asked the president be careful in his selection of the local governors. But our opinion was not taken into consideration."


Akbarov claimed it was an open secret that government posts were awarded to those who "paid the largest bribes".


"Everyone in the government is Kyrgyz. Are there no worthy people of other nationalities? If this issue is not dealt with the consequences cannot be predicted," he said.


The government has recently announced that three Uzbeks will be promoted to leading government positions, possibly to ensure the community's grievances will not push it into an alliance with the Kyrgyz protestors.


This tactic seems to have paid off. Uzbek leaders later announced that the June 23 protest in Jalal-Abad had been postponed.


However, it may be too late to keep the ethnic Uzbeks from supporting their neighbours.


"The protestors are not only demanding Beknazarov's acquittal," said Alimjan Saliev, an Uzbek minibus driver in Jalal-Abad. "Their grievances are all related to the current difficult situation in this country. If they ask me, I will definitely help them."


Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist


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