Rising Discrimination Accelerates Ethnic Sorting out of Central Asia

By Paul Goble
None of the five republics in Central Asia were ever ethnically homogeneous. Joseph Stalin, in fact, purposefully drew their borders so that there would always be a local minority that he could use against the ethnic majority, either as his agents in place or as a target on which to shift the anger of the majority away from Moscow. Since 1991, however, all five republics have become far more ethnically homogeneous. This has largely been the result of people fleeing countries where they had, often, lived for many years due to violence or the fear of violence and moving to neighboring states where they are members of the titular nationality.
That process had slowed in the early 2000s, but now there is evidence that it is accelerating again, not because of violence or fear thereof, but rather because of increasing ethnic hostility by ethnic majorities directed against minority groups as well as discrimination against the latter in the workplace and more generally.  And what is worrisome is that xenophobic attitudes among the titular majority nationalities appear to be far stronger among young people than among their parents, who grew up in Soviet times when “internationalism” was highly valued.
The attitudes of the majorities and the experiences of the fleeing minorities will make it far more difficult for the governments in the region to deal with one another, and far more likely that at least some politicians will exploit these ethnic hostilities to the point that border conflicts in this already tense and unstable region will become ever more likely.
Recently illustrative of this wider trend has been the flight of ethnic Kyrgyz from the Dzhirgatal district of Tajikistan. Many Kyrgyz fled the region in the 1990s because of civil war. But the current exodus, which has reduced this minority’s share of the region’s population by an additional 50 percent, is reported by those Kyrgyz still living in the region to be due to “discrimination on an ethnic and racial basis.” And they add that younger ethnic Tajiks are far more likely to display anti-Kyrgyz attitudes than the older generation, which was born and grew up in Soviet times (Centrasia.ru, November 13).
Local officials play down the problem and say that the departure of anyone from their region is entirely voluntary, the result of personal social and economic problems of kinds found everywhere.  But local Kyrgyz residents dispute this, pointing to frequent discrimination against them. At least a third of them say that they hope to leave once they save up enough money to do so and find a place in Kyrgyzstan to move to.

One Kyrgyz resident of Dzhirgatal told a CentrAsia journalist that he could not find work “only because he is a Kyrgyz,” adding that his patience with the situation was running out.  Another Kyrgyz there, a taxi driver, said he and other members of his nation faced discrimination of both an open and a concealed kind; they feel they are being forced out, despite what the authorities say. And many local Kyrgyz say that “discrimination is especially developed” among young Tajiks. “The older generation,” they say, “is more loyal to one another” (Centrasia.ru, November 13).