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Kyrgyzstan: North-South Divide Is A Factor In Politics

President Akaev is from the north High mountains divide northern and southern Kyrgyzstan, where unrest has followed disputed parliamentary elections that ended nearly two weeks ago. A single road unites the two parts of the country. The division is not merely geographical, however. In many ways it extends to ethnic, economic, and political disparities. President Askar Akaev comes from the north; the leading opposition figures from the south.

Prague, 24 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts to challenge the administration of President Askar Akaev could hinge on the opposition's ability to muster support in the capital Bishkek, and more broadly in the north of the country.

The largest protests in the early days of post-election unrest took place in the south. But today massive protest broke out in Bishkek.

Aleksei Malashenko is a Central Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He says the north -- which effectively rules the country -- is more advanced economically and more homogeneous.

"Economically, without a doubt, the north is more developed. Bishkek is in this part of the country. It has all economic centers built during the Soviet years. The population is more homogeneous; I would say more [ethnic] Kyrgyz are living here. Also here [in the north], especially in Bishkek, live big numbers of [ethnic] Russians," Malashenko says.

Malashenko also says the north is less religiously devout than the south. The south is more conservative and traditional, with much stronger religious affiliations. It is also is more agrarian than the north.

Sergei Mikheev is an analyst for the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, who lived in Kyrgyzstan for several years. He says the south is ethnically mixed -- further complicating Kyrgyz politics.

"The south is not monolithic, because in the Jalal-Abad region and in Osh a substantial portion of the population are Uzbeks. In Osh, more than a half of the population is not Kyrgyz but Uzbek," Mikheev said.

Malashenko says one of the driving forces of the opposition is the feeling of resentment against Akaev, a politician from the north who has ruled the country for 15 years.

"There is no doubt that the south feels as if it's being put in a highly disadvantaged position. It is known that when people from the south -- southern governors among them -- managed to get their posts, it happened only because in one way or another they were supported by [politicians] in the north," Malashenko says.

Analysts suggest that clan membership is a very important factor in Kyrgyz politics. But there is no consensus on exactly what a clan is and how it's constituted.

Malashenko says a clan in Kyrgyzstan means a certain geographical region but does not necessary imply family or blood ties.

Mikheev also emphasizes the importance of clans. "It has settled historically that there are two main clan groups in Kyrgyzstan -- southern and northern clan groups. The northern group includes the Chui, Kemin, Talas, and Issyk-Kul regions. The southern group includes Osh, [and] partly Naryn and Jalalabat. These clans have always historically competed for power," Mikheev says.

Mikhneev says the situation is further complicated by the fact that some prominent Kyrgyz opposition leaders are ethnic Uzbeks. The south also has a history of bloody conflicts. Ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clashed in Osh in 1990 leaving several hundred people dead. Mikhneev argues that clan and ethnic loyalties could present major obstacles to unifying the opposition.

Malashenko disagrees. He says the opposition has the potential to unite.

"I think that the opposition has all it needs to become a national opposition. It has originated on these grounds [national movement]; it has consolidated on these grounds; and their demands were not based on the division between the south and the north," Malashenko says.

Malsahenko suggests that opposition's primary goal is to spread the movement's message to the north of the country. There are indications that it is having some success.

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