In June, 2010, an armed conflict between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz occurred in the south of Kyrgyzstan. According to official statements, around 500 people were killed; according to unofficial data – more than 2,000. Most victims were Uzbeks. According to official reports, 3,746 houses were destroyed during these tragic events, and most of these homes belonged to Uzbeks. Consequently, more than 5,000 criminal cases were opened, and 79 percent of the defendants were Uzbeks. Criminal proceedings were brought against 545 people, 400 (73.3 percent) of which are Uzbeks and 133 (24.4 percent) are Kyrgyz (Agency Fergana, June 9).
The events of 2010 have dramatically changed the situation in the south of Kyrgyzstan. After this tragedy, the discrimination of Uzbeks in the South increased dramatically. Until June 2010, ethnic Uzbeks constituted about 17 percent of police officers; now they make up to only 2-3 percent. Uzbek radio, television and newspapers have been closed. The police regularly extort money from Uzbeks, who returned from working abroad in Russia. The number of Uzbek-owned shops and restaurants also dramatically decreased. According to Lada Khasanova, the manager of a guest-house chain in the south of the country, prior to June 2010, the service industry, particularly restaurants and hairdresser salons, had been dominated by Uzbeks. After the June 2010 events, however, Uzbek cafes and restaurants practically disappeared in the South (Agency Fergana, June 9).
Drastic changes have taken place in religious life, as well. Uzbeks are generally more religious than the Kyrgyz (who were nomads in the past). Therefore, the majority of imams in the country’s mosques were Uzbeks until the June 2010 clashes. As Abdumalik Sharipov, an activist from the Kyrgyzstani human rights organization “Justice,” told EDM on June 12, following the summer 2010 riots, under pressure from the authorities, many ethnic Uzbek imams have been replaced with ethnic Kyrgyz imams. Authorities also appointed ethnic Kyrgyz as deputies to Uzbek imams who were not replaced.
As Sharipov claims, the government pressure on underground Islamic organizations has also sharply increased. The largest underground organization in Kyrgyzstan is the party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which advocates for the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, almost all members of this party are ethnic Uzbeks. Prior to the June 2010 events, in contrast to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan practically did not face repressions from authorities, and members of this organization were free to express their views. However, after the violent June 2010 clashes, mass arrests of Hizb-ut-Tahrir began; the group’s activity within Kyrgyzstan is now largely undetectable.
Nevertheless, the senior political science researcher of the Russian Academy of Science, Dr. Alexander Knyazev, who lives in Bishkek, thinks that the decline of Islamist activity in Kyrgyzstan is a very alarming symptom. “Today, the situation in Kyrgyzstan is similar to that in Uzbekistan. Now, just as in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Islamists had to deeply hide their activity. However, secrecy generates the radicalization of views. As a result, terrorist attacks have become commonplace in Uzbekistan. Now, the same can be expected in Kyrgyzstan,” Alexander Knyazev told EDM.
According to the analyst, the dismissal of Uzbek imams and the repression against Islamists are rather beneficial for Islamic radicals who are trying to translate the inter-ethnic conflict into religious terms. This point of view is implicitly shared by the Kyrgyzstani authorities.
When addressing the parliament in April 2011, Kyrgyzstan’s National Security State Service chief, Keneshbek Dushebyaev, said that 400 citizens of the country, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, are currently training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “After the June events, they went to southern Kyrgyzstan,” Dushebyaev said, describing them as “separatists” (Bishkek-based news agency AKIpress, April 29, 2011).
Notably, the location of ethnic clashes is spreading to the north of the republic. Such clashes are occurring between Kyrgyz and different ethnic (not only Uzbeks) groups: Meskhetian Turks, Uyghurs, as well as Dagestani ethnic groups. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are 147 zones of potential ethnic conflicts in Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek-based news agency AKIpress, January 26).
Direct Kyrgyz-Russian conflicts have not been recorded, but there were incidents of indirect persecutions of Russians. In August 2011, a Russian Orthodox cemetery was desecrated in the north of Kyrgyzstan where unidentified vandals destroyed over 30 tombs. About 20 Protestant churches (most Kyrgyzstani Protestants are Russians) have also been robbed in the republic. Prosecutors in Kyrgyzstan demanded an eight-year prison term for ethnic Russian blogger and journalist Vladimir Farafonov, who has been charged with inciting ethnic hatred through the media (RIA Novosti, May 18).
The charges stem from a series of analytical articles Farafonov wrote for the website of the Moscow-based foundation “Russian Unity” and for several regional news websites. In his articles, the journalist criticized Kyrgyzstan’s politics and the spread of nationalism in the Kyrgyz-language media (RIA Novosti, May 18). The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities in Kyrgyzstan to drop the politically-motivated extremism charges against Vladimir Farafonov (The Committee to Protect Journalists, February 29).
Tensions between Russians and Kyrgyz are especially dangerous for many reasons. First, Russians (12.5 percent of the republic’s population) are the second most numerous (after Uzbeks) ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan. Secondly, Russia would inevitably involve itself in the conflict should a clash erupt between Kyrgyz and local Russians inside Kyrgyzstan. Finally, the Kremlin could use the argument of needing to protect Russians being persecuted in Kyrgyzstan as a pretext for reinforcing Russia’s troops stationed in the republic.
“The Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict is a very serious problem. But new ethnic conflicts may be even more catastrophic than the Uzbek massacre. Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic country, and ethnic clashes will cause the demolition of Kyrgyzstan’s nationhood,” Knyazev told EDM.