May 19 was another day of turmoil in Kyrgyzstan. Roughly 1,500 people marched towards Jalalabad’s private university, demanding the provisional government terminate support for Kadyrzhan Batyrov, an ethnic Uzbek and one of the leading members of the Uzbek diaspora who founded the school. Reportedly, the crowds consisted of ethnic Kyrgyz. Local media reports also suggested that hundreds of local Uzbeks mobilized to resist the crowds. Two ethnic Kyrgyz were shot and killed, and over 60 were injured as a result of the clashes (www.24.kg, May 19).
Batyrov enjoys strong political influence and is among the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Jalalabad. He has been a devoted supporter of the provisional government and is believed to be the key person shooting at protestors in Jalalabad on May 19. He claimed that previous riots in Jalalabad were instigated by a criminal leader known as “Black Aibek” who is allegedly supported by the former President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s, family members. As the provisional government continued accusing Bakiyev supporters of involvement in the unrest on May 19, Batyrov showed that he is willing to defend the provisional government.
In an interview to a local online news agency, Batyrov said that the Uzbek diaspora is no longer willing to be a mere observer of the political process in the country, but is ready to take action (www.ca-news.org, May 19). Yet, some of his critics see these calls for the mobilization of Uzbeks as Batyrov seeking to protect his own business interests in Jalalabad and expanding his political power. Batyrov denies rumors that his chief aim is to separate parts of Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbeks are the majority, into an autonomous entity. He strongly supports the idea of a parliamentary republic.
Jalalabad has been wrecked by continuous tensions since Bakiyev left the country on April 15. According to Kyrgyz NGO leaders, the interim government failed to react to the growing concerns in the south swiftly enough, instead preferring to blame the former President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, of instigating the unrest. While Bakiyev’s family might indeed be behind fomenting the chaos in Jalalabad, the provisional government has overused this rationale to the point that it is no longer convincing. As a result of ineffective policies, what initially seemed to be a political disagreement has descended into inter-ethnic conflict between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
The local populace is increasingly worried about the possibility of Uzbek leaders seizing political power in Jalalabad. These concerns reflect the fact that the provisional government still lacks full support in southern Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks constitute 10 percent of the population in the country and almost half of the residents in southern Kyrgyzstan. Similar to the other ethnic minorities, Uzbeks are under-represented in the Kyrgyz political establishment. Some Kyrgyz experts fear that the May 19 turmoil will spread and spontaneous clashes will contaminate southern cities and villages.
Amid the ongoing unrest, the provisional government has rushed to establish Roza Otunbayeva as an interim president until December 2011. In this position, she would fulfill the functions outlined for the prime minister, along the lines of the new constitution’s draft presented on May 20. By nominating Otunbayeva as an acting president, the provisional government has sought to fill an apparent power gap in the country. The decision is to be included in the referendum on June 27 (www.akipress.kg, May 19). The government also announced a state of emergency in Jalalabad city and the Suzak district, where tensions have also spread.
The Jalalabad turmoil reveals the complexity of political competition in Kyrgyzstan. There was no apparent reason for the clashes to turn into inter-ethnic violence. While latent tensions among local Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have been a problem for decades, with the latter group often excluded from the political process, the desire to co-exist peacefully outweighs the urge to reach justice through violence. Importantly, these conflicting moods can be easily exploited by political leaders. Under Bakiyev, opportunities for the local Uzbek population arguably decreased with only a few leaders able to enter parliament and government.
Otunbayeva’s government faces tough decisions in relation to Jalalabad. If the interim government publicly condemns Batyrov, it risks frustrating further ethnic Uzbeks in Jalalabad and throughout the country. Yet, if it leaves him untouched, it will lose support among the ethnic Kyrgyz. To date, Otunbayeva has called for inter-ethnic peace and has offered assurances that the new government is ready to treat all citizens equally. It is crucial for her government to maintain a balance between the nationalist public and ethnic minorities, including Meshketian Turks, Uzbeks, and Russians –all of which suffer in the ongoing instability in the country.