Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 15

Ethnic minorities suffer in Central Asia

by David Nissman

Until the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the nineteenthcentury, Central Asians did not discriminate on the basis of languageor ethnicity. It was not that Central Asian society was egalitarian. Many of the local rulers were tyrants, the slave trade flourishedand, with the exception of the semi-nomads such as the Turkmensand to a certain extent, the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, the bulk of theCentral Asian population was sedentary and was dominated by thefeudal traditions of rulers and their noble subordinates. Ethnicdiscrimination was introduced only as part of Westernization.

Russian-speaking minorities in the Central Asian Republics

The Soviets vastly expanded the educational system in the region,and ethnicized both it and the political system. First they stressedthe nativization of local government and party bodies, and thenthey sovietized all these institutions. In practice, this meantfirst the elevation of the local titular nationality over othergroups, and then the russification of all, especially from thelate 1930s until the end of the Soviet period. That approach wasreinforced by a large in-migration of Slavs and other highlymobile groups. Among this new population were highly trained techniciansand other skilled workers who essentially filled the positionsof the new industrial and other institutions built by the Sovietregime. In almost all cases, Russian came to be the only languageused in official institutions, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding.It was inevitable that with independence, the status of the Russianlanguage and its bearers would decline.

This linguistic fact, the source of much controversy, has beenexacerbated by the fact that social and professional differencesalong ethnic lines were and are more pronounced in Central Asiathan in other regions of the former Soviet Union. In the past,the local, core population was primarily engaged in the agriculturalsector, although in recent years, these groups had made some inroads in the government, education and health fields. But evenafter independence, ethnic Russians continue to dominate heavyindustry and the technical intelligentsia.

These differences and the higher salaries in areas Russians dominatednaturally set the stage for conflict. Since independence, membersof the Russian intelligentsia whose jobs brought them into contactwith the core population as well as russified members of the corepopulation have been losing jobs due to the passage of languagelaws. Russian ethnographer Valery Tishkov noted in his 1993 monographon Russians in Central Asia and Kazakhstan that Russian women,even less likely to know the local language, have often been thefirst to lose jobs. But all Russians were at risk: The Russianlinguistic problem is severe. Russian mastery of the local languageis extremely low: in Uzbekistan it is only 4.5 percent, and inKyrgyzstan, for example, it is 0.9 percent. And Russians thussee the language issue as an ethnic lever directed against them:One recent poll in Kyrgyzstan found that 68 percent of the Russiansfelt that the Kyrgyz language law changed the status of Russians,24 percent thought it made it more difficult to gain access toeducation, 17 percent thought it became more difficult to finda job, and 12 percent thought it easier to lose a job.

Non-Russian Minorities

If the ethnic Russians both demand and attract the most attention–owingto the Moscow-led campaign on their behalf–other ethnolinguisticminorities in Central Asia sometimes have suffered even more.These groups include not only members of dominant nationalitiesin other newly independent republics such as the Kazakhs and Uzbeksin Turkmenistan, the Tajiks in Uzbekistan, and the Uzbeks in Tajikistanand Kyrgyzstan, but also peoples deported to Central Asia suchas the Meskhetians who were in Uzbekistan until driven out in1989 and the Crimean Tatars many of whom remain in Kazakhstanand Uzbekistan. Also, there are minorities indigenous to the territoryof the republic concerned, such as the Dungans in Kazakhstan andKyrgyzstan, as well as nations like the Uighurs of Kazakhstanand Kyrgyzstan. In some instances, special institutions have beendeveloped for them and an effort is made to satisfy their wishto maintain their ethnic cohesion (the Dungans), but in others, no particular attempt has been made to accommodate them (theCrimean Tatars and the Meskhetians).

The problems of all ethnic minorities have been exacerbated bythe economic collapse following the dissolution of the USSR andthe assertion in each republic of a kind of affirmative actionthat has led to an enfranchisement of the core nationalities andthe disenfrachisement of the others. At the same time, some ofthe governments have been making an effort to accommodate theaspirations of at least some of their ethnolinguistic minorities.As is often the case, the devil is in the details, and for thisit is worth looking at each republic individually.


The demographic mix in Kazakhstan is the most complex of thefive republics in Central Asia, and it has been changing withgreat rapidity. According to the 1989 Soviet census, Kazakhs then totaled some 40 percent of the population of just undersixteen and a half million, and the Russians 38 percent. Otherlarge groups included the Ukrainians and Germans, each with approximately5 percent of the total. By January 1, 1992, however, Kazakhstan’spopulation had increased by roughly 400,000 despite the departureof 237,492 people, 77,000 of whom were Russians and 20,000 Ukrainians.The reason for the growth in total population was natural increase,amounting to 200,000, and the in-migration of 58,000 Kazakhs fromRussia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Mongolia. By the beginningof 1995 the ratio of Kazakhs to non-Kazakhs in the country hadbegun to shift noticeably in favor of the Kazakhs: according toan article appearing in Almaty’s Panorama in March 1995,Kazakhs had become 44 percent of the population, and Russianshad dropped to 36 percent, with other groups either decliningor maintaining their percentage of the total. The largest percentageloss occurred among Kazakhstan’s German population: 350,000 leftKazakhstan for Germany between 1992 and 1994, and an additional40,000 departed during the first five months of this year.

The basic cause for the large out-migration is the 1989 Kazakhlanguage law, which makes Kazakh the sole state language. It mustbe borne in mind that if the 44 percent of the Kazakhs were allKazakh-language speakers, a majority of the population in thecountry would still be russophonic. But many Kazakhs do not knowtheir own language and speak only Russian. In 1992 Abish Kekilbayev,the chairman of an official committee on nationality policy, pointedout that during the Soviet rule "the Kazakh language declinedfrom being the vehicle for all kinds of relationships of a peopleunified since early times, into being a family language, a secondaryhousehold language." He added that "only 37.2 percentof the Kazakhs know their language well."

This percentage is now increasing rapidly. Nonetheless, Russianremains the "language of interethnic communication."All of the population is expected to learn Kazakh during the transitionperiod, but the government has done little to provide Kazakh languagetraining for adults. Not even textbooks are available becausethe government claims it does not have the money to print them.

Along with the effect of the language policy among the non-Kazakhpopulation, there is also a nationalization of administrativestructures taking place in the country. In an interview with aMoscow newspaper in 1993, a Kazakh parliamentary deputy (not himselfa Kazakh) pointed out that between 1985 and 1992, the number ofKazakh officials had increased by 420, whereas the number of non-Kazakhshad remained constant, at around 300. Within the Ministry of Education,the proportion of non-Kazakh education specialists had droppedfrom 47 percent in 1989 to 20 percent in 1992.

Ethnic Russians are agitating for dual citizenship and the restorationof Russian to its state language status, demands which have beenturned down by Almaty. This has created an ethnic tension betweenRussians and Kazakhs that shows no signs of diminishing. The Commissionon Security and Cooperation in Europe, in its report on democratizationand human rights in Kazakhstan, concluded that "the issueof Russian-Kazakh relations will perhaps be the most criticalone facing the new country" and warned that this problem"will affect even whether Kazakhstan will be able to holdtogether in its present borders."


Seventy-two percent of Uzbekistan’s 1989 population of just under20 million were ethnic Uzbeks, just over 8 percent were Russians,4.7 percent were Tajiks, 4.1 percent were Kazakhs, and the remainderconsisted of other smaller groups.. Over 60 percent of the Slavicpopulation resided in the Tashkent region. There has been substantialemigration since independence, prompted by an upsurge of Uzbeknationalism. The emigration process has been maintained by thefear of language discrimination which is, by all accounts, notunjustified.

Accurate data on ethnic tensions are difficult to come by dueto the rigid censorship imposed on the Uzbek media. A good casein point is that of the Meskhetian Turks. For example, one Uzbeksociologist recently concluded that in Uzbekistan, from 1979 to1992 "one observes definite consensus and tranquility."In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, forexample, an entire ethnic group, the Meskhetian Turks, who hadbeen deported from Georgia by Stalin, were driven out of Uzbekistan.Beginning in the spring of 1989 and culminating in June of thatyear, a series of clashes occurred between Meskhetians and Uzbeksin Ferghana Oblast. Moscow claimed that the cause of the clasheswas the high rate of unemployment in the region. The end result,however, was that the Meskhetians were driven out of Uzbekistanand acquired refugee status in Azerbaijan where some 30,000 wereresettled, or in Kyrgyzstan, where just under 4,000 found refuge.It is unknown if any Meskhetians remain in Uzbekistan.

The Meskhetians were a small ethnic group in Uzbekistan. TheTajiks, on the other hand, officially totaled 933,000 in 1989,an increase of 2.4 times their number in 1979! The Uzbek populationin the same region had only increased by 26 percent in the sameperiod. These figures have been contested by an Uzbek sociologist(yes, the same one cited above on "census and tranquility")who maintained that this increase in the Tajik population didnot reflect reality; instead, it reflected an official Sovietpolicy that did not wish to see any ethnic difficulties. As aconsequence, the statistics were adjusted to match this policy,and many Uzbeks, at the same time, were registered as Tajiks.

The leading Tajik movement in Uzbekistan is the Samarkand Movement.The CSCE has reported that "the Samarkand Movement, whichclaims to defend the rights of Tajiks in Uzbekistan, is routinelyharassed by the authorities. The government persistently chargesthe group with promoting separatism, though its leaders deny thischarge, stating that they advocate no border changes." Itwas reported in July 1992 that Tajik schools and the SamarkandTajik University were being closed. The reason given by the governmentwas that relations between the republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistanhad worsened. Subsequently, the leader of the Samarkand Movement,Uktam Bekmukhammedov, was abducted by agents of Uzbek securityin Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) following an international human rightsconference, returned to Uzbekistan, and was sentenced to ten daysin a Samarkand prison for "insulting militia officers."

It is impossible to determine whether Uzbekistan’s policy towardthe Tajiks is driven by its changing policy toward Tajikistan,the fear that Tajik refugees may infect Uzbekistan’s Tajiks withthe virus of Islam that Tashkent feels is the cause of Tajikistan’scivil war, or simply a consciously anti-Tajik policy designedto shore up Uzbek identity.

The Russians in Uzbekistan numbered close to 1.7 million in 1989;the present Russian population is unknown but no doubt smaller.Over the last few years, a number of factors have contributedto Russian out-migration: the Uzbek language laws under whichUzbek is the sole state language, the Uzbek citizenship law anda rising Uzbek nationalism.

Uzbekistan’s law on citizenship does not permit dual nationality.Hence, when ethnic Russians, who still consider themselves assuch despite the fact that their families settled in Uzbekistanmany generations ago, refused Uzbek citizenship when it was offeredto them, they were left stateless. Russia, when given the opportunityto grant Russian citizenship to Russians in Uzbekistan, has demurred,fearing an invasion of new Russian immigrants would weaken theirembattled economy even further.

Fear of losing their jobs has also driven many Russians to leave.A U.S. Department of State report pointed out that "non-Uzbekspeakers feel themselves considerably threatened…When governmentorgans and academic institutions are compelled to reduce theirworkforces, it is frequently the Russians who have lost theirjobs."


In many respects, Turkmenistan provides the best environmentfor a representative of a member of a non-titular nationalityto live and work. The population of just under four million ispredominantly Turkmen (72 percent of the total) and more than10 percent of the remainder is also Turkic, if not Turkmen. Russiansamounted to some 9.5 percent of the population in 1989, and manyof them have since left.

Turkmenistan has not suffered the steep economic decline thatother Central Asian republics have experienced and, as a consequence,the regime has been able to keep wages artificially high in orderto induce non-Turkmen technical personnel to remain. In addition,only Turkmenistan’s language law allows Russian to retain itsstate language status. And Turkmenistan is also the only CentralAsian country that permits dual nationality for Russians livingin it.

Both the Uzbeks and Kazakhs have schools and textbooks in theirown languages in Turkmen regions where they predominate. In termsof education, an Uzbek or Turkmen has a choice on completing secondaryschool in Turkmenistan: he can either continue his higher educationin Turkmenistan or in the republic of his titular nationality.The Turkmens claim they have not been plagued with the interethnicconflicts that have disturbed the other republics and there isno reason to think this untrue.


In 1989, the total population of Kyrgyzstan was approximately4.3 million, of which the Kyrgyz accounted for 52.5 percent. Therewere also just under a million Russians, or 21.5 percent: theRussians have been departing since independence, and their proportionof the population has fallen accordingly. As in other CentralAsian countries, they are concentrated in urban areas. Thirteenpercent of the population are Uzbeks, located primarily in OshOblast close to Uzbekistan. There are also substantial minoritiesof Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uighurs and Dungans.

Kyrgyz has replaced Russian as the state language. While Russianremains widely used, it has been downgraded in status. Russiansthere see the language law as the primary factor driving themout of Kyrgyzstan. The Russian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan said thefollowing on this point: "There are a whole series of reasonsfor the migration: the danger of being close to a conflict zone[Tajikistan], worsening ethnic problems, the language law whichdoes not allow immigrants to hold jobs to which they would otherwiseaspire. There are also difficulties in enrolling children in schoolsince more and more educational institutions are switching toinstruction in the Kyrgyz language. As the official language,Kyrgyz is being introduced throughout the republic more and moreintensively, thereby restricting areas where Russian residentscan be employed." Although there is strong opposition toallowing Russian any status at all in the republic, President Askar Akayev has stated categorically that Russian will remainas the language of interethnic communication. In mid -1994, Akayev,in order to stem the flight of Russians from Kyrgyzstan, signeda decree giving Russian "official" status in regionswhere Russians predominate.

The German population, numbering 101,198 in 1989, has also droppedsignificantly as the result of the German policy which permitsformer Soviet Germans to "repatriate." By May 1995,there were only 38,000 ethnic Germans remaining in the country.


A language law was enacted in Tajikistan in 1989 which makesTajik the sole state language by 1996. An amended version of thislaw, passed in 1992, eliminated Russian’s place as the "languageof interethnic communication." There is also a substantialUzbek population in Tajikistan who had expected that Uzbek wouldplay a greater role, at least in the regions where they lived.Like the Russians, they too were disappointed.

According to the 1989 census, 62 percent of Tajikistan’s populationwas Tajik, almost 24 percent Uzbek, and 7 percent Russian. Russianshave been leaving the country en masse. According to a 1992 reportin the Russian "all the non-Tajik population — withoutexaggeration — are sitting on their suitcases waiting to leave."They are departing not only for other parts of the former SovietUnion but to the "far abroad" as well. A U.S. StateDepartment report issued in 1992 stated that continuing hostilitiesin the Kurgan-Tyube region had driven over 100,000 refugees fromTajikistan into Afghanistan by the end of 1992. The continualwar and instability in Tajikistan have made the entire situationof ethnic rights in the country impossible to

determine with any accuracy. At the moment, one must assume theworst.


Language laws ultimately have a transitory character. Eithereveryone learns the language or they do not. By the time the nextgeneration is through primary schooling, they will know the languageof the country in which they live. The problem is that this longterm reality has little meaning in the here and now.

With the exception of anti-Russian riots in Dushanbe in 1990,Russians have not been targeted for arbitrary or irrational actionsby the indigenous populations in Central Asia. Attitudes, however,are not pro-Russian. A survey asked Russians in Kyrgyzstan ifthey felt that Russians had played a progressive role vis-à-visother peoples in the past: 78 percent of the Russians said yes,but only 30 percent of the Kyrgyz agreed. Only 3 percent of theRussians felt they lorded it over other people, but 29 percentof the Kyrgyz said they did. Asked if there had been a russificationdirected at the Kyrgyz, 31 percent of the Russians said yes, and49 percent of the Kyrgyz. Similar polls conducted in Uzbekistanreveal the same disparities in points of view between the Russiansand the core population. The Russians thus will be paying theprice for the colonial attitudes and practices of the former Sovietregime until the present adult generation is no longer on thescene.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.