Kyrgyz Attacks on South Asian Workers Reflect Far Deeper Problems

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 81

(Source: Cabinet of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic)

Executive Summary:

  • Bishkek has sought to attract workers from other countries to fill the void of a million Kyrgyz workers abroad, a substitution that has sparked xenophobia and violence, most recently on May 17 and 18.
  • The tense situation has been exacerbated by Kyrgyzstan’s weak government, the tradition of public protest, and the populism of Bishkek politicians whose declarations encourage protests even as the regime uses repression against them.
  • Such protest actions are becoming a grave threat to Kyrgyzstan’s stability as Bishkek has made it easier for citizens to arm themselves, leading many to believe their government cannot protect them and prompting some to bring guns to protests. 

All observers of the post-Soviet space know that millions of Central Asians have left their countries to work in the Russian Federation and further afield as they can earn more there than they can in their impoverished homelands. These observers are equally aware, especially in the wake of the Crocus City Hall terrorist act, that the presence of Central Asians in Russia has sparked a sharp increase in xenophobia—something Central Asian labor migrants have felt and regional media have widely reported on (see EDM, March 26, May 15;, April 1). Far fewer, however, are aware that tens of thousands of South Asian immigrants have come to Central Asia to fill the jobs left vacant in the region by those working abroad or to acquire a cheaper education, especially in medicine (, May 22). Now, those who have ignored this potentially explosive pattern are being forced to confront it after a violent pogrom against South Asian migrant workers shook Bishkek on May 17 and 18 (;, May 18; The Diplomat, May 23). This event and the official response have raised new questions about the capacity of Bishkek to cope with other issues, including Islamist threats from Afghanistan, territorial disputes with Tajikistan, and Russian and Chinese pressure on Kyrgyzstan in the future. In the past, all these have provoked protests by the Kyrgyz population and a simultaneously populist and repressive response from Bishkek (see EDM, January 28, April 8, 2019, October 20, 27, 2020, September 20, November 3, 2022)

The events of May 17 and 18 had their immediate roots in a fight that broke out between Kyrgyz and Pakistani workers at a pizza parlor on May 13, widely covered on Kyrgyz social media. Four days later, in the middle of the night, approximately 1,000 Kyrgyz attacked South Asian workers and students in their hostels and the factories where they were employed, wounding many and forcing the factories to close. These attacks led to the evacuation of 5,000 South Asians to their homelands and even threatened the survival of medical schools where more than 20,000 South Asians were enrolled and paying full freight for their coursework, unlike Kyrgyz students, who are heavily subsidized. An estimated 60,000 South Asian workers were in Kyrgyzstan before the attacks, though that number is disputed. (For the official chronology of events, see Kyrgyz Ministry of Internal Affairs, May 18; for discussions providing more details, see, May 18;, May 19;, May 24)

The proximate causes of these events can be found in the tradition of spring protests in Kyrgyzstan (, May 18). Additionally, the situation has been further inflamed by Bishkek’s decision to keep increasing quotas for immigrant workers despite the widespread belief that the number of illegal migrants has grown too quickly due to a lack of proper enforcement of regulations and widespread official corruption. Some senior Kyrgyz officials, including the current president, have claimed they have no choice but to do so as the population will not take jobs that foreigners are eager to fill. The experience of immigrants in Russia in recent months, specifically the harsh treatment of Kyrgyz workers, also served to push tensions to a boiling point (, November 17, 2023).

Other deeper economic and sociopolitical causes are certain to continue to play out in the future. Since acquiring independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has become more Kyrgyz, more Islamic, and less welcoming to outsiders. The share of ethnic Russians in the population, for example, has dropped from 21.5 to 5.9 percent, a reflection of both higher birthrates among the Kyrgyz and the departure of a million of them for work abroad. As a sign of Islamization, more mosques dot Kyrgyzstan’s landscape than schools do. Many were built in the last 15 years, not in the 1990s as elsewhere in Central Asia (Stan Radar, May 4, 2023;, May 29, 2023). These trends have worsened rather than improved relations between the Kyrgyz and the Russians. The Kyrgyz population has experienced or knows about Russian mistreatment of Kyrgyz immigrants in Russia, and the Russians who have come to Bishkek since Moscow launched its expanded war against Ukraine have found far greater hostility to themselves than ever before (Stan Radar, July 26, 2022). 

Russians are far from the only outsiders against whom the Kyrgyz have become more hostile. In the past, Kyrgyz residents have attacked Chinese businesses in Bishkek, resentful of Beijing’s use of corruption against Kyrgyz elites and its repression of the Kyrgyz in China (, November 11, 2020). As the latest events in Bishkek show, the Kyrgyz are increasingly prepared to act on their resentment of South Asian workers and students as well. Lying behind this factor is yet another that may be even more important: many of the residents of Kyrgyz cities, including Bishkek, have only recently arrived from rural areas and are more traditionally Kyrgyz in their language use and views. Thus, they are generally less tolerant of outsiders (, May 18, 22).

In this case, as in the past, Bishkek’s official approach has only worsened the situation. On the one hand, more than any other government in Central Asia, Bishkek has allowed for admittedly incomplete but nonetheless real multi-party democracy and referenda have been held on key issues such as border accords. Kyrgyzstan has been celebrated for this progress, but it has also encouraged protest and led some members of the elite to engage in populist rhetoric and take counterproductive actions. One potentially disastrous example of the latter was Bishkek’s decision in 2022 to make it easier for residents to own guns, implicitly acknowledging its own weakness and opening the way for opponents to arm themselves, as some did on May 17 and 18 (, November 23, 2022). On the other hand, the Kyrgyz authorities have then engaged in massive but incomplete repressions against opponents and protesters. That ineffective policy has continued in the current case and has only increased the hostility of many in the population and some in the elite to those currently in power (, November 24, 2022;, May 18).

This pattern means that the events in Bishkek on May 17 and 18 may well be the harbinger of even more radical actions in the future. Such acts may be taken by the people and government not only of Kyrgyzstan but also elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, whose commentators are paying close attention to these events—even as some in the West are still inclined to view the attacks as a minor matter (, May 19).