Representatives of the Uzbek community of Jalalabad city have appealed to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, claiming they are the victims of overt discrimination. “Trends to incite dislike of Uzbeks and representatives of other ethnic groups are being developed and spread around among Kyrgyz,” according to their message. “It is impossible to achieve economic prosperity and improve the living conditions of the people without providing equal rights and opportunities to representatives of all ethnic groups” (Fergana.ru, January 16).
Uzbeks densely populate southern Kyrgyzstan, particularly around Jalalabad and Osh, and make up 30% of the total population of the region. Relations between the two groups have not always been harmonious. Bloody clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz erupted in 1990, resulting in the deaths of 320 people. The present appeal to the Kyrgyz president is without a doubt a very alarming signal, as it is the first manifestation of discontent of among Uzbeks regarding Bishkek’s ethnic policies. It is also noteworthy that since late January the situation in the Osh district has started to dramatically worsen. “Rumors are constantly circulating around the district that bloody clashes have erupted between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. For example, people said that in the city of Uzghen [the very place where the bloodiest clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz took place in 1990] Kyrgyz have killed several Uzbeks. Fearing a massive influx of Uzbeks from Uzbekistan to help their kinsmen, Tashkent has substantially narrowed the width of a border bridge in the city of Karasuu, “Now only pedestrians can cross it,” said Sadykzhan Kamuludin, the former mufti of Uzbekistan and currently the chairman of the Kyrgyz Islamic Center.
Karasuu is an important location for both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The town is located 15 kilometers from Osh and 40 kilometers from Andijan, and the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border bisects the city. Ethnic Uzbeks populate both halves of the city. Bishkek’s relatively softer policy towards Islamic radicals and the advantageous geographic location explain why the city has become a favorite of the radical Islamic organization Hizb–ut–Tahrir. In an attempt to stave off an “Islamic revolution” imported from Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent destroyed the border bridge separating the Uzbek and Kyrgyz parts of the city in 2003. However, during the Andijan events in May 2005 residents of the city restored the bridge and Tashkent has let it remain intact (see EDM, May 16, 2005).
So far, Uzbeks have generally stayed away from the Kyrgyz political revolution. Almost all the protesters who took part in the March 2005 disturbances in southern Kyrgyzstan were ethnic Kyrgyz. However, many poorly educated local Uzbeks suspect that the opposition is also driven by nationalism. According to the fergana.ru website, participants in the Jalalabad demonstration shouted insults against Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The Uzbeks accused the Kyrgyz of destabilizing the situation in Kyrgyzstan, while the protesters blamed the Uzbeks for supporting the regime of ousted president Askar Akayev.
The mutual verbal accusations soon deteriorated into a brawl. According to witnesses, the special police units and police officers that were guarding the Jalalabad district administration building were in no hurry to intervene. Azimdzhon Askarov, a human-rights activist from the city of Bozor-Kurgan, an Uzbek-dominated district center approximately 30 kilometers west of Jalalabad, told Jamestown, “After the March revolution one hears a lot of accusations that Uzbeks were loyal to the Akayev regime” (See EDM, June 20, 2005; Fergana.ru, March 6, 2005).
The current Uzbek-Kyrgyz conflict in Southern Kyrgyzstan is cause for concern. The Uzbek enclaves of Kyrgyzstan are located in the Fergana Valley, potentially the most explosive region in Central Asia. In the 1920s this single ethno-cultural region was divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. When the Central Asian republics gained their independence in 1991, a large diaspora of ethnic Uzbeks was left outside Uzbekistan. The population of the Fergana Valley is more religious than the population in other regions of Central Asia, therefore the influence of Islamic radicals is the strongest in this region. Leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan come from Namagan, a city located in the Fergana Valley. And Andijan, the city where Uzbek authorities brutally attacked protestors, is also located in the Fergana Valley (See EDM, May 13 and 16, 2005).
Bakiyev’s response, if he chooses to make one, could either douse or stoke the simmering ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.