“We shall return with victory and invite you all to the celebration party!” With these parting words to journalists, 439 refugees from the May uprising in Andijan, Uzbekistan, boarded an airplane that would carry them to Romania and on to a new host country.
However, 15 Uzbek citizens suspected of involvement in the Andijan uprising still remain in custody in the Osh district jail. As Bulat Sarigulov, director of the Department for Immigration Service within the Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan, told Jamestown, “If the investigation finds these people to be innocent, they too will be transported abroad.” If the subsequent investigation finds them guilty, presumably the 15 should be returned to Uzbekistan.
According to the newspaper Vecherny Bishkek, the new Kyrgyz authorities were put between a rock and a hard place by the international community. They were in fact offered an ultimatum: either friendship with Tashkent (return them to Uzbekistan), or long- term alliance with the West and the United States (send the to a third country). Should Bishkek take the Western option, it would come with substantial economic dividends (Vecherny Bishkek, July 29). Moya stolita novosti suggested that Bishkek’s final decision was likely connected to last week’s visit to Kyrgyzstan by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (see EDM, July 29).
The Bush administration had placed considerable pressure on Bishkek due to its ambiguous attitude towards the Andijan refugees. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly told the new Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, that she would not attend his August 14 swearing in ceremony if even one Andijan refugee was extradited to Uzbekistan.
However much the West insisted, Bishkek simply could not afford to grant political asylum to the Andijan refugees, as it could cause widespread discontent among the residents of southern Kyrgyzstan, who do not wish to share their scarce land with the newcomers (Moya stolita novosti, July 29; see EDM July 26).
There is no guarantee that removing the Andijan refugees to a third country will do anything toward promoting genuine stability in the region. Tashkent still insists that most of the refugees were active participants in the uprising that was brutally suppressed on orders from Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
The distance between Andijan and the Osh and Jalalabad districts of Kyrgyzstan is barely 40 kilometers — about 25 miles. Ethnic Uzbeks make up approximately 30% of the population of southern Kyrgyzstan, and almost all of them have relatives in Uzbekistan. According to Sarigulov of the Immigration Service, the actual number of Andijan refugees currently in Kyrgyzstan is likely much higher than the official number. “No one can provide a precise number of Uzbek citizens who were hiding in Kyrgyzstan, but one can say with certainty that the larger part of the Andijan refugees were not in the camp.” Vecherny Bishkek believes that southern Kyrgyzstan could become a staging ground for Islamic radicals wanting to overthrow the authoritarian Karimov regime (Vecherny Bishkek, July 29).
Inevitably, the mass movement of Uzbek refugees to a third country will trigger an extremely negative reaction from Tashkent, which for the past three months has been demanding that the refugees be returned home. The relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was already strained before the latest events. The more liberal policy of Bishkek towards Islamic radicals has long been cause for strong indignation from Tashkent. Nearly two years ago Uzbekistan’s border police even mined some patches of land along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border in an attempt to cut off the flow of people and information. As a result, five Kyrgyz citizens, including three children, accidentally detonated the mines and were killed (Centrasia.ru, October 9, 2003).
Periodically, Uzbek Special Services agents have caught Islamic radicals in Kyrgyzstan and extradited them to Uzbekistan without coordinating their actions with their Kyrgyz colleagues. For such missions Tashkent typically used Uzbeks born in southern Kyrgyzstan who were later granted Uzbek citizenship and given a job in the Uzbek Secret Service. Not only did that the Uzbek Secret Service kidnap Uzbek citizens hiding in Kyrgyzstan, it also nabbed at least six Kyrgyz citizens on Kyrgyz soil and spirited them across the border (Forum 18.org, October 23, 2003). The March overthrow of Kyrgyz strongman Askar Akayev has made the Uzbek government very nervous. “The Kyrgyz revolution cannot but worry us. Most of all, we fear that Islamists will take advantage of the change of power,” Muhamam Sadik Muhammad Yusuf, a former mufti from Uzbekistan, told Jamestown about two months ago.
Since the relocation of the Andijan refugees, Tashkent has started to implement retaliatory practices. “It looks like the relationship between the two states will sharply deteriorate. If Kyrgyz citizens could get visas to Uzbekistan at the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek before, now they must apply to the Foreign Ministry of the Republic. In fact, it means that any ‘suspicious’ Kyrgyz will not be able to travel to Uzbekistan,” predicts Azimdjon Askarov, a human rights activist from the Kyrgyz city of Jalalabad. “The Uzbek Secret Service has resumed a hunt for so-called ‘Islamists.’ After the transfer of the refugees abroad, agents of the Uzbek Secret Service have illegally transferred to a neighboring state three Uzbek citizens,” he claims.