Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main minorities and indigenous peoples: According to official 2016 government data, minority groups include Uzbeks 878,615 (14.6 per cent), Russians 360,580 (6 per cent), Dungans 67,622 (1.1 per cent), Uyghurs 54,810 (0.9 per cent), as well as groups of Tatars 27,454 (0.5 per cent), Kazakhs 34,615 (0.6 per cent), Ukrainians 12,691 (0.2 per cent), Germans 8,403 (0.1 per cent), Tajiks 52,279 (0.9 per cent), Koreans 16,957 (0.3 per cent), Jews 472.
Main languages: Kyrgyz (state language), Russian (official since 2001), Uzbek
Main religions: Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity
Over a quarter (27 per cent) of Kyrgyzstan’s inhabitants are members of minority ethnic groups. Ethnic Uzbeks make up the most sizeable minority and primarily live in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad. The second largest ethnic minority is Russians, primarily in the capital Bishkek, and the surrounding area in the north. Dungans (Han Muslims known as Hui in China), Meskhetian Turks, Tajiks and Uyghurs each make up around 1 per cent, with dozens of other ethnic groups including Turk, Tatar, Kazakh, Azeri, Korean, Ukrainian and German communities also making up smaller proportions.
Ethnic Kyrgyzs now make up almost three quarters (73 per cent) of the population. Slavs – mainly Russians but also some Ukrainians – were until recently the largest minority in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in other Central Asian states, a significant proportion of Slavs are rural dwellers. Their numbers have however decreased rather dramatically since independence. The vast majority of Germans have also emigrated, mainly to Germany. Jews, once numerous in the capital and respected for their contribution to health care, engineering and culture, are another rapidly disappearing group. The vast majority have emigrated to Israel, others to the USA and Germany.
Updated March 2018
In recent years the human rights climate in what has often been described as Central Asia’s most democratic state has taken a downward turn, reflected in a December 2016 constitutional referendum that was passed with almost 80 per cent of votes cast. Its provisions include a ban on same-sex marriage and a weakening of the government’s obligation to enact decisions by international human rights bodies. It also expands the prime minister’s powers, fuelling rumours that former president Almazbek Atambayev plans to return and seek the premiership now that he has stepped down. Atambayev stepped down in November 2017, replaced by former prime minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov. While this represented a significant peaceful transfer of power between two leaders, the preceding changes to the Constitution could have profound implications for the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, who continue to experience significant discrimination and exclusion.
Kyrgyzstan is still struggling with the legacy of the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in the Ferghana Valley region in 2010. In June that year, around 470 people were reportedly killed in attacks lasting several days, almost three-quarters of whom were ethnic Uzbeks. Following the violence, the government promoted a narrative according to which Uzbek community leaders with a separatist agenda had organized the attacks while ethnic Kyrgyz had fought back spontaneously. In keeping with this narrative, about three-quarters of those tried for crimes connected ethnic Uzbeks, and the government has at times taken steps to put a more ethnically Kyrgyz stamp on the country’s institutions and public spaces.
In the south of the country, which is home to most of its ethnic Uzbek minority, the impact of this violence is still sharply felt. While there have been few signs of a return to large-scale violence, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks speak of continuing ethnic segregation in their communities. Since 2010, ethnic Uzbeks, despite making up 14 percent of the total population, have made up only 2.5 per cent of the national parliament, and complain of poor representation in lower-level institutions – even in locales where they are the majority. In a February 2016 survey by Saferworld, Uzbeks in the south reported avoiding interaction with state institutions, including law enforcement, hospitals, and schools, out of a fear of unequal treatment.
The legacy of 2010 also continues to generate controversy in the national and international political arena. In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council requested that authorities immediately release Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek activist who was imprisoned for life on specious charges following the violence. The Council found that Askarov, who is 65 and in poor health, appeared to have been subject to arbitrary detention, flawed legal proceedings, and torture in both pre-trial detention and prison. In July 2016, the Supreme Court referred the case to Curi regional court to be reconsidered, but in January 2017 it was announced that the conviction had been upheld – a decision widely condemned by rights groups.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, like its neighbours, is continuing to crack down on suspected Islamic extremists. Many international and local observers are increasingly concerned that Kyrgyzstan, like its neighbours, discriminates against devout Muslims in the name of anti-terror in ways that may end up driving people into the arms of radical groups – although not necessarily violent ones. For example, one 2016 report found that the state ban on headscarves in schools, enacted in 2009, is encouraging more parents to send their children to religious schools, some of which may have radical approaches in their curricula.
In particular, the ethnic Uzbek minority suffers from an official perception of vulnerability to fundamentalist ideology: according to the government’s narrative of the 2010 violence, ethnic Uzbek leaders organized the riots in partnership with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some security personnel claim today that these same community leaders are plotting renewed violence in partnership with Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which is avowedly non-violent). Some Uzbek community activists are concerned that these fears on the part of the state may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with some marginalized Uzbeks turning to radical organizations for social and financial support.
The government has taken a number of steps in recent years to increase its control over religious expression, particularly in the case of Ahmadi Muslims, Bahá’i, Hare Krishna, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants and other ‘nontraditional’ groups. For instance, registration for many religious organizations has been met with official obstruction or denial. The Ahmadi community, who, since being stripped of their registration in 2011 have been unable to meet for worship, have appealed at the Supreme Court without success. According to a 2009 law, religious congregations must be registered with the state in order to gather legally. The Norwegian religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 noted in November 2016 that since the law came into effect, one synagogue, four Russian Orthodox churches, and a Catholic charity, along with 141 state-controlled Hanafi communities, had registered successfully along with state, while no Protestant, Baptist or Jehovah’s Witness congregations were granted official permission to meet. Followers of the pre-Islamic worship practices known as Tengriism also sought registration in 2016 and were denied, reportedly on the grounds that the official recognition of pagan customs would be socially divisive. Several non-violent Sunni movements are banned outright, including Tablighi Jamaat and the fundamentalist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Another recurring issue of religious discrimination is the difficulty experienced by some non-Muslims in the burial of their dead, particularly in rural areas. Burial denial has reportedly been supported or overlooked by police on many occasions and has also been enabled by Article 16 of the Religion Law, which contains a provision stipulating that certain aspects of cemetery use shall be ‘governed by regulations of local municipalities’. Though manifesting as local prejudice, these incidents reflect the broader context of state discrimination and have not been confined to rural areas, but have also occurred close to the capital, Bishkek. Authorities have themselves continued to target religious minorities in Bishkek, with repeated inspections on various places of worship in the city, including evangelical churches.
While Kyrgyzstan has strengthened laws against gender-based violence considerably since independence, enforcement of these laws is often lax. Civil society groups have documented numerous cases of victims finding themselves rebuffed by law enforcement, often facing the attitude that preserving the traditional family unit should take precedence over prosecuting perpetrators or compensating victims. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)’s 2015 report for Kyrgyzstan notes that many women ‘lack the information necessary to claim their rights’, and for women belonging to minorities, among whom knowledge of state languages is less prevalent – for example, ethnic Tajik and Uzbek women – language barriers may pose an additional obstacle to obtaining the requisite information. Other factors can also conspire to prevent minority women from claiming their rights. Women from minorities may be wary of dealing with a predominantly Kyrgyz law-enforcement system. As in neighbouring states, individuals with no family connections among law-enforcement officials often struggle to access justice regardless of their ethnicity: minority women are less likely to have such contacts. Finally, women belonging to minorities may be faced with added pressure to keep gender-based violence a private matter, so as not to shame or make waves in communities that already feel threatened by the state. All of these factors played a role in the virtual absence of any trials connected with sexual violence during the 2010 violence in Osh, in which numerous Kyrgyz and Uzbek women – but more of the latter – are thought to have been raped.
Urbanization in general, particularly in the country’s southern cities, has been one of the primary causes of ethnic tension in Kyrgyzstan and has been identified as one of the factors behind the outbreak of the June 2010 violence. As many ethnic Kyrgyz rural–urban migrants face overcrowding and sub-standard living conditions, the state’s failure to provide land or adequate housing has generated acute resentment. At key flashpoints in recent years this anger has also been directed towards urban minority communities, particularly those such as Osh’s Uzbek business owners with property in the city.
The Kyrgyz Republic is a landlocked state in Central Asia bordering Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south-west and the People’s Republic of China to the south-east. Much of the country’s southern part is made up of the Tian Shan mountainous region, part of the Himalayan Belt.
Modern day Kyrgyzstan lies on the historic path of the Silk Road. It was therefore a route followed by population groups as well as invaders, which partially explains its population makeup. For much of its history after the 13th century the territory of Kyrgyzstan was under the control of Mongol khanates after Kyrgyz tribes were conquered by the son of Genghis Khan, Juche.
They subsequently regained their freedom in the 16th century, only to be overrun in the next century by the Kalmyks, by the Manchus in the 18th century, and the Uzbeks in the 19th century. It was then to be absorbed by Russia in 1876 – and then the Soviet Union – until it declared independence in August 1991. The last two periods of occupation – by the Russians and Uzbeks – and the geographic proximity of Russia and Uzbekistan are reflected by the presence of these large population groups in modern Kyrgyzstan.
Tensions between the majority Kyrgyz and minority groups erupted before independence. In 1990, minority Uzbeks and Kyrgyz violence broke out in the city of Osh, in the Ferghana valley. These tensions remain since Kyrgyz nationals have sought to confirm their pre-eminence in the new state, increasingly replacing Russians and asserting their dominance by establishing Kyrgyz as the main language of government.
While Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, was seen as a moderate leader in his first term of office, criticisms emerged in the latter part of the 1990s as he began to show increasingly autocratic tendencies and began cracking down on opposition groups.
The increasing prominence of the Kyrgyz language, (though Russian remains as a ‘language of inter-ethnic communication’) signaled that the Russian-speaking minority were facing growing obstacles accessing rights, for example to employment, and particularly in the civil service. At the same time, there has been no recognition for the use of Uzbek language, speakers of which have surpassed the Russian minority. Tensions therefore have remained high in the Ferghana valley where Uzbeks are concentrated and there have been demonstrations by Uzbeks against the lack of status of their language and the limitations on their economic and employment opportunities.
As for the Russian minority, the diminishing prestige of their language coupled with limited employment opportunities and a sense that Kyrgyzstan was to be – increasingly – the country of Kyrgyzs led many of them and other Slavs to emigrate: perhaps half of the approximately 916,000 members of the Russian minority left the country between 1991 and 2005.
Parliamentary and presidential elections in the 1990s were seen as flawed, while those in 2000 were deemed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) not to have been free and fair. Pressure from the government on independent media and opposition politicians increased. Further elections in 2005 were again – despite some improvements – deemed not to have been free and fair by outside observers. Large demonstrations on 24 March 2005 led to President Akayev fleeing the country and eventually resigning on 4 April 2005 in what is sometimes known as the Tulip Revolution.
Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev won the presidential elections of 10 July 2005 with 88.9 per cent of the vote. His popularity, however, declined amid accusations that his administration was unable to tackle Kyrgyzstan’s problems of corruption, and concerns over the assassination of a number of parliamentarians. There were large opposition demonstrations in 2006 and April 2007 in the capital Bishkek accusing the president of not fulfilling his electoral promises to transfer some of his powers to Parliament. |In July 2009, Bakiyev returned to office, having reportedly gained 85 per cent of the vote in national elections. The elections were widely criticized by international monitors. In April 2010, deadly clashes erupted between police and thousands of protestors demonstrating against corruption and rising prices. The popular revolts ousted Bakiyev from power and an interim government was formed under the leadership of former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva. A new Constitution was passed by referendum in late June 2010, which included provisions to enable the country to transition to a parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary elections were held in October 2010. Elections were held on 10 October, with 29 parties participating and five winning seats. Although a coalition government was formed in mid-December, state policy towards interethnic relations remained uncertain. Roza Otunbayeva acted as interim president until presidential elections were held in October 2011. She was succeeded by Almazbek Atambayev, who was serving as prime minister at the time. Atambayev served as president until stepping down in 2018.
The instability which followed the overthrow of President Bakiyev saw a rise in interethnic tension in Chuy province, with anti-government protests escalating into attacks against ethnic Uyghur and Dungan businesses. Interethnic violence erupted once again in June 2010 in the south of the country, as clashes took place between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh and Jalalabad. At least 470 people died in the violence, with some reports suggesting that casualties could have been as high as 2,000. Most of the victims were ethnic Uzbeks. Destruction of property overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, targeted ethnic Uzbek areas and Uzbek-owned establishments.
Since then, authorities have undertaken a range of measures to prevent further outbreaks of violence, yet underlying problems of discrimination and inequality persist, reflected in the failure to provide equitable justice for the Uzbek victims of the violence. In June 2015, on the fifth anniversary of the 2010 violence, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors said that ‘the authorities should be given credit’ for some of their efforts to rehabilitate areas affected by the violence, stating that ‘destroyed property has largely been repaired and compensation has been paid to most of the victims’. She went on to say, however, that ‘a sense of insecurity is still prevalent among the ethnic Uzbek community’, and called on authorities to ensure ‘equal access to effective and impartial justice’. The cornerstone of official efforts to prevent further intercommunal violence is the 2013 Concept of Development and National Unity of the Kyrgyz Republic, which some experts consider vaguely termed and open to subjective interpretation – although the tone of the final draft is considerably more ethnically inclusive than that of previous drafts.
Official policies in Kyrgyzstan have often been described as more ‘minority friendly’ than some of its neighbours. There are a variety of mechanisms in place for consultations of minority groups, and state support is available for various minority organizations. By granting the Russian language a special status as a ‘link language’ under the Constitution, authorities seemed to have demonstrated their desire to be inclusive and encourage Russians and other Slavs to remain in the country. Problematically, however, the treatment of the Uzbek minority is unbalanced when compared to the Russian minority: there is no status whatsoever in relation to the Uzbek language despite the large number of speakers.
Kyrgyzstan’s minorities remain politically marginalized, and there is acknowledgement at the national level of the need to invest in building inter-ethnic harmony, particularly in light of the violence that occurred between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan that left over four hundred people dead, primarily ethnic Uzbeks. The Concept of Development of National Unity and Inter-Ethnic Relations, published by the government in 2013, has the stated aim of promoting a common civic identity, developing multilingual education to increase knowledge of the official Kyrgyz language among all citizens while at the same time fostering language diversity by ensuring that citizens can preserve and study their native languages without facing language-based discrimination. The Concept has been characterized as a rare achievement by the ‘moderates’ allied to the president against nationalist politicians, who since 2010 have used ethnic politics as a convenient and effective tool to gain support among ethnic Kyrgyz. Meanwhile, the Department of Ethnic, Religious Policies and Interaction with Civil Society in the President’s Office and the Agency for Interethnic Relations are attempting to establish an early warning and conflict-prevention system at a local level. However, progress at a policy level is not matched on the ground. Minorities are still excluded from policy discussions relating to interethnic relations, and are inadequately represented in state structures and law-enforcement bodies. This is particularly true of ethnic minorities living in the south, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks.
The October 2015 parliamentary elections were notable for their lack of large-scale communal violence. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted in one of its reports that ‘most parties refrained from nationalist rhetoric, and neither anti-minority campaigning nor intimidation of minorities was reported in the course of the campaign’. Nevertheless, national minorities were under-represented on electoral commissions, and, in violation of OSCE commitments, no official election material was available in minority languages – that is, languages other than the state language, Kyrgyz, and Russian, the second official language. Key minority groups were also underrepresented among the winners of the election: while ethnic Russians are nearly proportionally represented, ethnic Uzbeks occupy only 2.5 per cent of the seats in the new parliament.
Kyrgyzstan’s central government largely avoids overtly ethnic nationalist rhetoric itself, though with a recent loosening of press restrictions hate speech has become more common in the national media. While the regime may periodically attempt to silence extremist language when it sees it as a threat to its authority, it has demonstrated double standards in its prosecution of hate speech and incitement. A February 2013 report by a national human rights organization states that while ‘ethnic stereotypes and hate speech’ feature prominently in the rhetoric of ethnic Kyrgyz politicians and in Kyrgyz-language media, statutes prohibiting the incitement of inter-ethnic hatred are ‘for the most part used against minorities themselves’. In early 2013, the parliament took what might appear to some to be a positive step in minority protections when it increased penalties for incitement of ethnic and religious hatred from the previous fine to prison terms of three to five years, rising to five to eight years for repeat offenders. Rights defenders, however, expressed fears that the measure could pose a threat to the falsely accused. In light of the country’s inconsistent application of hate crime legislation, it could also result in more prosecution of members of minority groups and more self-censorship on their part. Authorities do accuse members of the ethnic majority of inciting inter-ethnic hatred in some instances. However, the little research available on hate speech in online media articles suggests it remains frequent, although direct incitements to violence are rare.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Coalition of NGOs ‘For Democracy and Civil Society’
Foundation for Tolerance International
Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights
Kyrgyzstan International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law
Institute for Regional Studies
National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (US)
Center of Multicultural and Multilingual Education
Jalal-Abad Regional Human Rights Organization ‘Spravedlivost’ (Justice)
International Uyghur Human Rights & Democracy Foundation (IUHRDF) (US)
Uyghur Human Rights Project (US)