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

Uzbekistan: Ethnic Kazaks Set to Leave

Residents of an Uzbek border village fear they may pay heavily for their unilateral declaration of independence.
By Daur Dosybiev

Ethnic Kazaks in a tiny Uzbek village are desperate to move to Kazakstan because they fear the Tashkent authorities may persecute them.


The villagers from Turkestanets, which tried to declare its independence from Uzbekistan late last year, have now made an official request to be allowed to cross the border to their ancestral home.


Turkestanets, which is home to more than 600 people, was one of the settlements affected by a border delimitation agreement signed by Kazakstan and Uzbekistan on September 9.


Under the accord, it was one of several disputed areas to pass into Uzbekistan's jurisdiction. But Turkestanets residents have now appealed to the South Kazakstan oblast for the right to live there.


One young man, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that the majority of villagers wanted to move because they feared reprisals from the Uzbek authorities after their well-publicised independence bid came to international attention.


Turkestanets and its neighbour Bagys proclaimed themselves a republic on December 30, 2001, electing a president and a parliament, and informing Central Asian leaders and the United States government of their new status.


At that time, the border delimitation talks had apparently stalled, leaving the two settlements in a bureaucratic grey area and their residents vulnerable.


The Uzbek armed forces had tried to secure the territory on a number of occasions, while the Kazak government seemed to turn a blind eye. Journalists who tried to highlight the villagers' plight were warned to drop the story by officials on both sides.


When no further progress was made, the villagers - the majority of whom are ethnic Kazaks - decided to take matters into their own hands by declaring their sovereignty.


The Uzbek prosecutor's office charged a number of activists - including the "president" Aidar Abramanov - with violating the territorial integrity of the republic. Abramanov went into hiding for half a year in the South Kazakstan oblast, but was arrested on July 15, 2002 and handed over to the Tashkent authorities.


In the aftermath of the "independence" incident, Turkestanets residents fear for their future. "Uzbek president Islam Karimov is not the sort of person who forgets an insult," said one former villager. "Now that Turkestanets is officially in Uzbekistan, he will certainly remember our proclamation and take revenge. I think many of my fellow villagers decided to move to Kazakstan for this reason."


However, one South Kazakstan oblast employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes such fears are unfounded. "If any repressive measures do follow, they will only be taken against politically active people," he said.


Those who do opt for a life in the neighbouring republic will find their path smoothed by the authorities in Astana. When the border agreement was signed, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev assured those affected that, if they wished to move to his republic, they would be granted the status of "oralman" - returnees.


A person holding oralman status is allowed to move to their chosen area, given housing and guaranteed work.


Askar Ermek of the South Kazakstan oblast's migration department told IWPR that 100 of the village's 117 families have already gathered the necessary documentation for oralman status, with the remainder expected to complete the registration process shortly.


The majority of people have chosen to live in Shymkent and neighbouring Taraz. "Their choice is entirely understandable," said Ermek. "The standard of living is higher in Kazakstan, and social problems are dealt with more efficiently.


"The oblast authorities have asked the government for help to provide housing for the villagers, and 145 million tenge - around one million US dollars - has already been allocated from the budget."


When the Uzbek-Kazak border agreement was signed, President Karimov gave assurances that he would not seek to stop anyone who wished to move to Kazakstan.


Daur Dosybiev is an independent journalist in South Kazakstan