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Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks Say 'Our Voices Are Not Heard'

Soldiers and policemen patrol the streets of Osh during curfew hours on June 21.
Soldiers and policemen patrol the streets of Osh during curfew hours on June 21.
It will go down as one of the crueler ironies of the interethnic clashes convulsing southern Kyrgyzstan that the violence was fueled, in part, by ethnic Uzbeks' concerted effort to integrate into Kyrgyz political life.

In the aftermath of the April 7 uprising that prompted the flight of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, ethnic Uzbek leaders sensed an opportunity to end discriminatory practices in the south and gain a political voice -- an effort that already began to backfire in late May when Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed at the People's Friendship University in Jalal-Abad.

The latest clashes, which left hundreds if not thousands dead and displaced an estimated 400,000 Uzbeks, may serve as the death knell for the dream of integration.

"My interpretation is that Uzbeks were trying to be good citizens of Kyrgyzstan, that they bent over backwards to represent themselves as loyal citizens of Kyrgyzstan," said Morgan Liu, a cultural anthropologist at Ohio State University who has spent the better part of 16 years studying ethnic Uzbeks in the Ferghana Valley. "One of the real tragedies from this is that, whatever the success of that project, it's now closed off. There's no possibility of rescuing that project."

As Uzbeks slowly return to their homes in southern Kyrgyzstan, the question looms if any kind of deeper rapprochement is possible, if Kyrgyzstan can guarantee long-term security for ethnic Uzbeks, and if the Kyrgyz government can somehow satisfy Uzbeks' overarching demand for greater meaningful participation in the Kyrgyz state.

"I'm afraid there's no good news," Liu said. "The big question is what does it mean to be a loyal Kyrgyzstani citizen without invoking an ethnic identity. Until that's worked out, there's no place ultimately for ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan."

'Living In Parallel'

The background to the ethnic Uzbeks' push for rights and voice is the long-standing complaint that they are treated as second-class citizens in Kyrgyzstan. When I visited Osh and Jalal-Abad in May, Uzbeks charged that extortion rackets, aided by or including police, routinely shook down Uzbek businesses for money while Uzbeks were frequently fired from jobs in Kyrgyz businesses without cause and schools in Uzbek neighborhoods remained chronically underfunded.

While Uzbeks were prominent in business, often to the consternation of Kyrgyz who found themselves squeezed out of commercial sectors, they were underrepresented in parliament, in local administrative positions, and in the police and military.

"The situation we see today has been brewing for years," Jalalitdin Salahudinov, head of the Uzbek National Center, said when I interviewed him in May. "There are no equal opportunities. There's a barrier between Uzbeks and government, and because of that barrier our voices are not heard."

Ethnic Uzbek leaders said relations with majority Kyrgyz worsened under ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
It was common for southerners to describe Uzbeks and Kyrgyz as "living in parallel," readily distinguished by dress, appearance, and language, with distinct traditions, fairly low rates of intermarriage, and infrequent business partnerships. Ethnic Uzbek leaders said relations worsened under Bakiev, who stoked Kyrgyz nationalism and gave his cronies free rein to monopolize wealth and power in the south -- often at Uzbeks' expense.

In keeping with a reputation for political quiescence, few Uzbeks participated in the political demonstrations surrounding the overthrow of President Askar Akaev in 2005. Despite anger within the ethnic Uzbek community, they seemed to keep on the sidelines as the political opposition worked to mobilize against Bakiev's increasingly despotic regime.

Led by Kadyrjan Batyrov, a prominent businessman and politician, Uzbeks in Jalal-Abad marched to the central square to take part in demonstrations on April 7 calling for Bakiev's overthrow -- a bold move given the extent of support for Bakiev in Jalal-Abad, his home city. But a similar demonstration in Osh was scuttled by ethnic Uzbek leaders for fear that public demonstrations by Uzbeks could lead to interethnic violence.

Slippery Slope

When interviewed in May, Abdurashid Khojaev, president of the Uzbek National Center in Osh, seemed to sum up the sense of caution among Uzbek community leaders. "We do not want power or authority, and we do not want clashes," he said. "There's no word among Uzbeks about autonomy. We saw how much blood there was in 1990 because of gossip about autonomy. We know that if we start a fight with the Kyrgyz, it could open the way for extremists, terrorists, and the Taliban."

In the first week of May, an ethnic Uzbek delegation met with leaders of the interim government in Bishkek to call for provisions in the draft constitution that would benefit the Uzbek community. Demands included proportional representation for ethnic Uzbeks at all levels of government administration and state recognition of the Uzbek language, meaning that street signs, textbooks, and official documents would be printed in Uzbek as well as Kyrgyz.

Uzbek leaders also called for the deletion of a line on official documents that signifies the ethnicity of the document holder and for a change in the country's official name, from the Kyrgyz Republic to Kyrgyzstan, in an attempt to counter a perceived nationalistic direction in the articulation of Kyrgyz statehood.

Kyrgyz police search detained ethnic Uzbeks in Nariman, in Osh, on June 21.
At a local level, Uzbek leaders in the south worked with police to strip dark tinting off car windows and to pull over cars driving without license plates -- a response to numerous complaints that extortionists in unmarked cars with darkened windows were shaking down Uzbek businesses with impunity.

Though many of the Uzbek demands appeared innocuous, the fact that minority Uzbeks were tampering with a delicate interethnic dynamic was enough to infuriate some Kyrgyz.

Madeline Reeves, a research fellow at the University of Manchester and an expert on ethnic Kyrgyz in the Ferghana Valley, described the push for recognition of the Uzbek language in particular as a sensitive issue -- indelicately handled -- that inflamed raw nerves for many Kyrgyz.

"I was struck by the language [demand], because who would it hurt?" Reeves said. "In one sense nobody, but as far as a lot of Kyrgyz are concerned that could be the first step towards autonomy."

Deeply Held Suspicions

The prospect of an Uzbek autonomous region in southern Kyrgyzstan has been a source of constant suspicion for decades. While the ethnic Uzbek leaders I spoke with uniformly denied interest in an autonomous region, many Kyrgyz contended that, in private, Uzbeks continue to long for a different political arrangement -- either an autonomous region or a union of some sort with Uzbekistan.

In June 1990, a perceived drive for autonomy by the Uzbek rights group Adalat contributed to a week of rioting in Osh and surrounding towns, leaving between 300 and 700 people dead.

"A lot of this is rooted in deep-seated anxiety about whether Kyrgyzstan can survive as a nation, whether Kyrgyz are always going to lose control to a larger neighbor," said Reeves. "There's a feeling that if Uzbeks have any kind of political recognition or there's an increase in Uzbek representation in parliament, that threatens our very viability as a nation state."

Uzbekistan's population is more than five times greater than Kyrgyzstan's. Osh and Jalal-Abad, the principal cities in the south, are both located within 10 kilometers of the border with Uzbekistan. Until massive displacement last week profoundly -- and possibly permanently -- altered the region's demographics, both cities were nearly evenly divided between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz.

If the push for constitutional reforms disturbed the Kyrgyz, the activities of Batyrov were a direct affront. Batyrov, a wealthy businessman with a large following among Uzbeks in Jalal-Abad, gave a televised interview in which he suggested that Kyrgyz security forces could not be trusted to protect ethnic Uzbeks and that alternatives, namely Uzbek patrols, would supplant Kyrgyz in protecting Uzbek neighborhoods in southern cities. Though Batyrov later apologized for his remarks, his interview reinforced the suspicion of many Kyrgyz that minority Uzbeks were pursuing a secret agenda to break free of Kyrgyz authority.

'No Turning Back'

On May 14, Batyrov, who had been outspoken in his support for the interim government, led armed Uzbeks in recapturing government buildings in Jalal-Abad that had been seized the day before by forces loyal to Bakiev in a purported attempt to restore Bakiev to power. When houses in Bakiev's home village on the outskirts of Jalal-Abad were burned in an apparent retaliatory gesture, Batyrov was widely blamed by ethnic Kyrgyz.

"When he did that, there was no turning back," said Liu, the Ohio State professor. "Kyrgyz demonized him for playing sides in this, and the provisional government targeted him."

Even those who held Bakiev cronies accountable for masterminding the June 10 violence pinned blame on Batyrov for mismanaging Uzbek demands.

"It's not the Uzbek nation but Uzbek leaders -- Batyrov particularly -- who are responsible for what happened," said Tavaldo Rosaliev, a former parliamentary deputy. "They were talking a lot about [the south] becoming an autonomous oblast, raising separatist issues. Interethnic dynamics have to be dealt with delicately, and that speech of Batyrov's was like a match to a powder keg."

An Uzbek lawyer who asked that he be quoted anonymously said that Batyrov's actions were misinterpreted but that he bore responsibility for the violence.

"Of course Batyrov's speeches raised a lot of questions, kind of led to this thing happening," he said. "Batyrov's mistake was he didn't involve local Kyrgyz in his meetings. There was gossip that he was locked up in his university, preparing actions, and Kyrgyz thought he was preparing something against them."

When I interviewed Batyrov by telephone in May, shortly before his televised interview, he insisted that he had no interest in special arrangements for ethnic Uzbeks, only that they have the same basic rights as Kyrgyz.

"The question of an autonomous oblast has never been raised among Uzbek leaders. It's the Kyrgyz who keep saying that Uzbeks want an autonomous region," he said. "If Kyrgyzstan provided its citizens with a high-school education, we wouldn't be seeing this situation. If people had jobs, if they were busy with something else, this wouldn't be a concern."

Grim Surprises

On May 19, a mob stormed the People's Friendship University in Jalal-Abad, demanding that Batyrov be turned over to them. At least two people were killed in the clashes, with 62 injured and the university badly damaged. The interim government, reportedly in a bind over whether to protect or condemn Batyrov, issued a warrant for his arrest but without making any concerted effort to apprehend him. Batyrov is rumored to be abroad now, possibly in Dubai.

The destruction of the People's Friendship University served as a particularly poignant symbol of the failure of Uzbeks' project to reconfigure their role in Kyrgyzstan. Founded by Batyrov, the university boasted a multiethnic student body, conducted classes in Russian (the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan), and paid considerable lip service to the spirit of interethnic cooperation. For ethnic Kyrgyz, however, the opulent, privately endowed university came to be regarded as a power base for Batyrov and a rallying point for Uzbeks.

With the interim government imposing a curfew in Osh and Jalal-Abad, the situation in the south seemed to stabilize in late May and the beginning of June. Osh residents described peaceful coexistence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks with no unusual tension up until the evening of June 10.

Experts suggested that, behind the scenes, ethnic tension continued in another form as Bakiev cronies, ethnic Uzbek businessmen, and various thugs battled for influence at the vanishing point where criminality crosses into political power.

"When the Bakiev regime fell, other criminals and businesspeople saw the opportunity to take over positions," said Indra Overland, director of Eurasian Studies at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. "There's been this kind of redistribution of positions and wealth and that may be the main driver for what's going on."

Overland described a gradual loss of influence by Bakiev cronies as outsiders, including ethnic Uzbeks, muscled in.

"For [Bakiev's relatives] there isn't much hope," Overlord said. "This was the clan that owned the country, and now you have Uzbek businesspeople taking over the things you got hold of. So I think that explains the desperation, the feeling that this way [by instigating inter-ethnic violence] they can at least stop the government from settling in."

But the great question remained why anyone, including Bakiev allies or members of the criminal underworld, would trigger interethnic violence on a level that could destroy the city of Osh and clear out its population, thereby ruining markets and ruining opportunities to leverage political influence.

Reeves, the University of Manchester professor, argued that, while organized provocations may well have sparked the fighting, the violence fed off tensions that already existed and reached a level of destructiveness that was likely unanticipated.

"What nobody could have foreseen was that this took on a dynamic with incredible speed because of potent social networks and people defending their neighborhoods with the sense that they were being attacked," Reeves said. "It would be a very astute and cynical politician who foresaw the way that dynamic took off."

The ethnic Uzbek leaders I met with in May seemed acutely aware of the dangers in pushing for greater political voice. They spoke of interethnic violence as a real risk and a constant nightmare. '"Kyrgyz-Uzbek violence is the worst thing that might happen in Kyrgyzstan," said parliament Deputy Alisher Sabirov, an ethnic Uzbek.

They hinted darkly at "third forces" that could provoke interethnic violence -- a fear that struck me at the time as vague and paranoid, but that now seems chillingly prescient. No one, however, anticipated the level of violence unleashed on June 10, which not only derailed the project to alter Uzbeks' political role within the Kyrgyz state, but jeopardized Uzbeks' continued survival in Kyrgyzstan.

Sam Khan is a freelance journalist who reported from Kyrgyzstan in April and May. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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