Southern Kyrgyzstan Tinderbox Awaits Next Spark

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 75

Melis Myrzakmatov, mayor of Osh, Kyrgyzstan

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on tensions in Kyrgyzstan’s south has raised pointed questions about the country’s underlying stability. The ICG report, “Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South,” calls the current peace in Osh “superficial,” noting that “neither the Kyrgyz nor Uzbek community feels it can hold.” The ICG describes the central government as unwilling or unable to remove nationalist Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov and engage in the long-term effort that would be required to mitigate mistrust and dislocation between the two communities (http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/222-kyrgyzstan-widening-ethnic-divisions-in-the-south.aspx, March 29).

Still worse, the report warns that anger and resentment building among Uzbek youth may prove to be a fertile ground for jihadist groups, which may become more viable in southern Kyrgyzstan after the ISAF pullout from Afghanistan in 2014. Organized criminal groups that export Afghan opiates to Russia through the region now essentially control it. And the possibility that Uzbekistan could intervene in southern Kyrgyzstan, while seemingly far-fetched at the moment, “cannot be ruled out.”

Clashes between groups of majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek young men in the center of Osh in June 2010 quickly escalated to a conflagration of pogroms that left 420 dead, most of whom were Uzbeks. The ICG and an international commission describe a spontaneous start to the violence that is not fully understood. They generally agree that local Kyrgyz criminal and nationalist political figures organized the pogroms that ensued in Uzbek neighborhoods. Perhaps for this reason, the central government in Bishkek prefers to ignore a tremendously dangerous situation that it cannot control.

In the absence of impartial information, the two communities have accepted widely different narratives of the causes and consequences of the violence. Kyrgyz citizens almost uniformly believe Uzbeks had been “planning a power grab for years, but miscalculated,” and thus “brought ruin upon themselves.” The disproportionately high death toll among Uzbeks is justified as a patriotic Kyrgyz victory over “separatism,” and the counter-intuitively high number of arrests of Uzbeks since the violence is a justifiable response to their initial political provocation.

Systematic arrest, torture and extortion of the Uzbeks, particularly young males, by Kyrgyz police in the south continues unabated. While the country’s Prosecutor General, Aida Salyanova, has acknowledged and taken steps to address the problem, the report describes her as powerless to do so.

Uzbeks thus see no future for themselves in Kyrgyzstan. Immigrating to Uzbekistan is not an option either. Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov showed no interest in embracing Uzbek refugees fleeing the violence in June 2010, isolating and returning them to Kyrgyzstan within weeks. Ironically, thousands of Uzbeks fled to southern Kyrgyzstan after Karimov’s troops attacked protestors in Andijan in 2005. The ICG expresses concern that with no escape or no legal recourse, angry and hopeless young Uzbek men may turn to extreme measures in seeking vengeance for their plight (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1908319, April 5).

Numerous attempts by Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and his governing coalition of northern politicians to dislodge Osh Mayor Myrzakmatov have ended in failure. At the same time, this group does little to challenge the underlying narrative of the nationalist wing, fearing a direct confrontation that it may not win.

Attempts to bridge the social divide have been equally unsuccessful. President Atambayev has “made several statements that could be interpreted as gestures to Uzbeks,” but has failed to follow up, according to the report.

Now, nationalist rhetoric is beginning to dominate the political scene in Bishkek. Atambayev’s most formidable rival, opposition Ata-Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, has called for the government to be run only by “pure-blooded” Kyrgyz (http://rus.azattyk.org/content/kyrgyzstan_tashiev_babanov/24480047.html, February 13). Notable demagogue and Ata-Jurt member of parliament Jyldyzkhan Joldoshova claimed on April 4 that a “Congress of Uzbeks” had been created in Russia, complete with a 3.5 billion-ruble ($120 million) startup fund, and was headed by a wanted Uzbek political figure and a once-respected ethnic Uzbek cosmonaut, Salizhan Sharipov (Vecherny Bishkek, April 4).

In an ominous sign that Atambayev may be tempted to indulge in nationalist politics himself, he leveled his own evidence-free accusation against the cosmonaut for involvement in inciting the violence in Osh during a speech in the city in February (http://www.fergananews.com/news.php?id=18192, February 20).

Kyrgyzstan has been flirting with state collapse since independence. But the uncertainty surrounding Uzbekistan after Karimov’s departure introduces a new dimension of risk to the region. Karimov’s pragmatism during the June 2010 events was surprising, given his propensity to violent over-reaction. A more nationalist leadership, one with a weaker hold on the border areas, or greater evidence of a terrorist threat emanating from the region could create a greater likelihood for an intervention in Kyrgyzstan by Uzbekistan.

Claims of a growing terrorist threat within Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek community are also difficult to substantiate. Since June 2010, Kyrgyz officials have claimed that young Uzbek men have been radicalized in foreign countries, and may have returned to exact revenge (www.fergananews.com/news.php?id=16840, June 9, 2011). Despite the occasional violent incidents that have been linked by the authorities to Uzbek militants (http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/ 2011/10/11/feature-02, October 11, 2011), and the unreliable public statements of the Islamic Union of Uzbekistan (http://furqon.com/component/content/article/195-1432-2011.html?start=2, February 18), it appears that only unsubstantiated evidence exists to support the supposition.