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Uzbekistan: Little Sympathy Shown For Plight Of Russians

A small group of ethnic Russians held a demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, earlier this week. The group was demanding greater rights and less government corruption, they said, for everyone in the country. Few in Uzbekistan seem to believe the group's protest was aimed at improving conditions for everyone in the country.

Prague, 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The lives of Central Asia's nonindigenous peoples were greatly complicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

This was especially true for the Slavic peoples, many of whom were forced to move to the region or were lured there by promises of greater wages and privileges than they could enjoy in Russia or Ukraine or other areas in the western, European portion of the Soviet Union or the earlier tsarist Russian empire.

After 1991, many of these people left Central Asia. Fearing a backlash from the indigenous peoples, kept in check by Moscow's central control for some 100 years, these people chose to leave for an uncertain future in the lands of their ancestors where, culturally at least, they were on familiar soil.

But not all the Slavic peoples left or could leave. There are still about 7 million ethnic Russians and other Slavic peoples among Central Asia's roughly 55 million inhabitants. More than half of them live in Kazakhstan.

On 20 August, a small group of ethnic Russians held a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Justice in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The group, numbering about a dozen, was protesting against living conditions in Uzbekistan and against corruption and abuses by law enforcement agencies and the courts.

That the protest was even allowed to take place -- albeit under the watchful eyes of Uzbek police -- was noteworthy, since the country is known for its strict control over most aspects of Uzbek life. No action was taken to break up the protest, and no arrests were made.

Tamara Chikunova was one of the protesters. She is the chief of a local human rights organization that opposes capital punishment and torture. Chikunova said the group gathered to promote the rights of all people in Uzbekistan, not just Russians. "The conversation here is not about discrimination but about the violation of human rights. In the violation of human rights, there is no discrimination based on who is Russian, who is Uzbek, who is Tatar."

There are some in Uzbekistan, however, who believe Russians in Central Asia are only interested in improving the quality of life of Russians. Tolib Yakubov is the head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He says Russians in the region have different expectations: "It is understandable why Russians go to demonstrate because this segment of society was always politically active, and they still remain one of the most active groups in society. It is true that during the last 11 years they lost some of the rights they previously enjoyed, but they still wish to enjoy the rights they had before."

Yakubov said ethnic Uzbeks in Uzbekistan are also suffering, but that they react differently. He mentioned the recent strikes against tax increases held at Tashkent's bazaars as an example of ethnic Uzbeks protesting conditions they consider intolerable.

Yakubov did say he thought the Russian group's protest was helpful in demonstrating that such gatherings are possible in Uzbekistan.

Iskander Khudoiberganov is the head of a human rights organization called Civil Assistance. He said anyone who believes that discrimination exists in Uzbekistan suffers from a distorted view of reality. "I think that in Uzbekistan there is not one member of any nationality that can claim they do not have the opportunity, [for example,] to study in school. They cannot say they don't have kindergartens, in particular for Russian-speaking people. No one can say they are not accepted into universities. This sort of view [of discrimination] is exaggerated."

The issue of Russians living in Central Asia is a sensitive one. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used his visits to Central Asia to soothe fears by saying that Moscow will always be interested in the fate of its brothers and sisters in the region.

But it seems from Yakubov and Khudoiberganov's comments that Russian speakers in the region may expect little support from their fellow citizens if their desires would place them in a higher social position than the indigenous peoples who suffer along with them.

(Biloliddin Hasanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)