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

Uzbek Minority Blues

Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, the country's second largest ethnic group, are increasingly unhappy with their loss of status
By Igor Grebenshchikov

With their community estimated to account for around a quarter of Kyrgyzstan's 4.5 million population, Uzbeks have emerged as the republic's second largest ethnic group, far outstripping ethnic Russians.


Living mainly in the south, where they work in agriculture, they have gained a reputation as hard-working, law-abiding people.


And while they are acutely aware that their mother country has become the region's economic and military giant, they are increasingly unhappy with their loss of status in Kyrgyzstan.


Few make much of a noise about their national identity. The historic and cultural differences between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek peoples - descendants of nomadic and agricultural cultures respectively - run deep.


More recent disputes have fuelled this ancient antagonism, including conflicts over borders and natural gas, which Uzbekistan supplies to Kyrgyzstan.


Against this unfavourable background, the Uzbeks are struggling to find ways to express their identity. Their main forum is the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan, which represents the republic's minority groups.


This body serves to control - as well as represent - the minorities, and has the status of a consultative organ of government under President Askar Akaev.


Within this official forum, the Uzbeks remain politically split, while groups such as the Uzbek National-Cultural Centre struggle for leadership of the community.


Davran Sabirov, a deputy in the assembly and vice-president of the Society of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, helped set up the Uzbek National Center in Kyrgyzstan in 1991.


He claims that as soon as the society began highlighting Uzbek problems in Kyrgyzstan, the authorities set up a rival Uzbek organisation to weaken them.


While the various Uzbek organisations fight for supremacy, other Uzbeks have no desire to be identified with either.


"I am Uzbek by name, but in every other way I'm Kyrgyz," said Ernst Akramov, a well-known surgeon and politician. "All my roots are here. I have never even been to Uzbekistan, and in any case, I was born and raised in an international milieu."


Akramov says a 'real step towards equality' for all minorities would involve scrapping bodies like the people's assembly. "The main criteria should be citizenship, not national identity," he said.


As Uzbek community leaders note demands are growing for the state to assign a quota of government posts to ethnic minority candidates.


Alisher Sabirov, a deputy in the national parliament, says this quota need not be totally mechanical. "The fact that there are 14 per cent of Uzbeks in the country does not mean Uzbeks need 14 per cent of government posts," he said.


"But we are in danger of forgetting that Kyrgyzstan is a multi-ethnic state and that Uzbek representation in government is declining. Before, there were eight Uzbek deputies in the Kyrgyz parliament. Now there are only five."


Tension between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan inevitably means Uzbek representatives in the Kyrgyz government are seen as agents of the Uzbek government in Tashkent.


In theory, Uzbeks can compete for any post in the country. In the 2000 presidential elections, for example, Anvar Artykov, an ethnic Uzbek, put himself forward as a candidate. But he was disqualified after failing to pass an exam in the Kyrgyz language.


"Introducing a language test is a move to block candidates that the authorities don't like," said Ernst Akramov. "It doesn't happen anywhere else in the world and shows the extent of prejudice towards citizens who are supposed to enjoy equality under the constitution."


Davran Sabirov says Uzbeks have "virtually disappeared" from the country's power structure. "The excuse is that none of them are competent or specialised enough," he said. "I find it difficult to believe that among one million Uzbeks they could not find anyone with the sufficient expertise."


Political discrimination is not the only source of concern among Uzbeks. They fear their opportunities for getting an education in their native language are also shrinking.


"The Uzbek diaspora used to employ text-books published in Uzbekistan," said Davran Sabirov. "But after Uzbekistan switched to Latin script, this dried up. What we want are Uzbek textbooks published in Kyrgyzstan, but the government says there is no money. As things stand, Uzbek children simply do not get a decent education."


Apart from the problems they face inside Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek community is inevitably affected by the republic's tricky relationship with Uzbekistan. Every time Tashkent reduces the supply of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan feel the heat.


"Naturally, the Uzbek community feels uncomfortable," Alisher Sabirov said. "They get drawn into arguments and really suffer when the Kyrgyz media starts heating up the situation and stirring hostility to Uzbekistan."


Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan blame both governments for the gas dispute. Davran Sabirov says Uzbekistan should solve the problem, so that the diaspora in Kyrgyzstan would not suffer as much as it does.


Ernst Akramov disagrees. "We have a market economy and must abide by its laws," he said. "In the marketplace, you get nothing for free. The same applies to gas."


The attempt to preserve 'Uzbekchilik' - the Uzbek way of life - on Kyrgyz soil, is a continuing struggle. Uzbeks feel a natural pride in their historic homeland but have to hide it. Publicly, they must distance themselves from Uzbekistan, knowing that any demonstration of sympathy will irritate the Kyrgyz authorities.


They do not dare openly approach the Uzbek government about their grievances, while at home, the problems of the minorities are buried under the slogan 'Kyrgyzstan is our common home'.


The slogan is the source of much bitter humour among all ethnic minorities. "If our president says Kyrgyzstan is our common home and we are all equal, we should ensure his words match reality," said Ernst Akramov.


This feeling is common to all ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan, including the 70,000 Uigur. They all complain of the lack of equal opportunities and of discrimination against minorities.


For the moment, their protests smoulder quietly in a country which has 26 ethnic communities, all subject to a government policy of divide and rule. But if their anger coalesces, it may not be so easy to control.


Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor