Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
With numbers estimated at 878,615 (14.6 per cent of the population), according to 2016 government data, Uzbeks comprise Kyrgyzstan’s largest minority and are concentrated mainly in the southern and western parts of the country, especially the Ferghana valley and the three administrative provinces of Batken, Osh and Jalal-Abad. Uzbeks speak an eastern Turkic language which is closest to Uyghur. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school, descended from Turkic-Mongol invaders with strong Iranian influences. Despite their large numbers and geographic concentration, including in Osh province where they are a majority, they have tended to be excluded from exercising political power since Kyrgyzstan’s independence.
Large groups of Turkic tribes started to move into this part of Central Asia following the Mongol invasions of the 13th century which saw the disappearance or absorption of many of the native Iranian peoples. Other tribes arriving in the 15th and 16th centuries were to coalesce into what would become known as ‘Uzbeks’, forming for a while their own state (‘Uzbekistan’) which would break up into three parts and eventually be absorbed into the Russian empire during the mid to late 19th century.
Until 1924, most settled Turkic populations were known as Sarts by Russian authorities, and only those speaking Kipchak dialects were called ‘Uzbeks’. The current existence of an Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan flows from the creation in 1924 of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and Uzbek SSR which would become independent states after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. It was also in 1924 that the Soviets abolished the term ‘Sart’ and that all of the settled Turkic speakers would be known as Uzbeks.
Uzbeks were able to share a quota of the administrative and political posts within Kyrgyz SSR under the Soviet Union, but these began to be put aside as Kyrgyzstan moved towards independence in 1991. Clashes between Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz in 1990 in the city of Osh resulted in some 300 people dead, according to some reports. The spark to the conflict appeared to be claims of discrimination by the Kyrgyz-controlled Osh City Council (despite an Uzbek majority population) which announced in June 1990 the construction of a cotton processing plant on land under the control of an Uzbek-dominated collective farm.
Following an agreement signed in 1991, Uzbeks were to receive a share of the positions in the municipal administration. Tensions remained high between Uzbeks and state authorities as Kyrgyzstan increasingly moved towards asserting the ‘Kyrgyz’ nature of the state and enhancing the prominence of the Kyrgyz language from a legal and political point of view.
The disenchantment of the Uzbek minority continued as the Kyrgyz authorities refused to acknowledge any need for increased state use of the Uzbek language, despite the fact that Uzbeks now surpass Russians as the country’s largest minority. While there are Uzbek language schools operating in Kyrgyzstan, there has not been clear and unmitigated support from education authorities; textbooks and other materials in the Uzbek language continue to be lacking or unavailable, and various other obstacles remain in place, preventing parents from ensuring their children are taught in their traditional language.
Despite being used in some official areas, the Uzbek language does not have any official status, even in the Batken, Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces. This has indirectly led to the continued under-representation and even absence of Uzbeks employed in government offices. Demonstrations calling for an official status for the language and for some kind of proportional representation of Uzbeks in state administration in the southern provinces were held in 2006. A former governor of the Osh province alleged that he was removed from his position by President Bakiyev because of his Uzbek ethnicity. Tensions between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz remained high, as did resentment among the Uzbeks about the control of many of the state structures and administration by the latter. These factors may also be behind the October 2006 murder of the head of the Center of Uzbek Culture in Osh.
Interethnic tensions reached a climax in June 2010, when violence between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz in Southern Kyrgyzstan left at least 470 people dead, with estimates rising to a possible 2,000 fatalities. Approximately 400,000 people fled the violence in early June, with 100,000 crossing the border into Uzbekistan. Most returned within a relatively short time.
In the aftermath of the conflict, ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, who were collectively accused by many Kyrgyz of instigating the violence, suffered intensified discrimination and persecution in the legal, social, economic and political spheres. In the face of the ethnic discrimination that was aggravated by the violence in 2010, many members of the ethnic Uzbek community reportedly adopted documents stating they were ethnic Kyrgyz in an attempt to keep career and social opportunities open. In addition, Uzbek-owned small businesses in southern Kyrgyzstan continued to face disproportionate checks by the authorities, sometimes leading to business closure or disruption. This reportedly intensified in the summer of 2014, and was seen by some Osh residents to be in retaliation for the shutting off of gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan by Uzbekistan – an example of how international tensions can have a negative effect on minority communities. The judicial response to the 2010 violence largely targeted members of the ethnic Uzbek community, even though they comprised the majority of victims.
Numerous chronologies of the violence of 2010 have suggested that heated rhetoric in the months leading up to the conflict played a significant role in pitting Uzbeks and Kyrgyz against one another. Kyrgyz-language newspapers published several anti-Uzbek editorials, including one that recommended that Uzbeks be expelled from Kyrgyzstan to allow impoverished ethnic Kyrgyz to take over their land. At the other end of the spectrum, leaders of the country’s Uzbek National Cultural Center were rumoured to have called for an autonomous Uzbek region within Kyrgyzstan, but it has been suggested that these remarks were purposefully distorted by certain leaders of the Kyrgyz community.
In 2012, an Uzbek-language song containing anti-Kyrgyz lyrics attracted attention after being disseminated among young Osharea residents through mobile phones. The song was promptly banned by the Osh district court, although it was unclear what charges would be sought against its author, an ethnic Uzbek native of Kyrgyzstan who now has Russian citizenship. While media observers acknowledged the song as hate speech, equally militant anti-Uzbek songs and poems that proliferated on the internet in the wake of the 2010 violence were not similarly banned.
Uzbeks continue to face significant marginalization within Kyrgyz society: While precise statistics on the ethnic breakdown of official bodies are difficult to obtain, ethnic Uzbeks, the largest minority group, are said to make up a negligible portion of employees of government authorities, including law enforcement. Yet the notion that the ethnic majority is dominated and threatened by members of ethnic minorities, even when numbers tell a different story, has had a lasting effect on the conditions facing ethnic Uzbeks. This is reinforced by the failure of authorities to deliver justice to the victims of the 2010 violence, with prosecutions focused on alleged Uzbek perpetrators, despite Uzbeks being disproportionately targeted: over 70 per cent of the nearly 500 victims of the 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan were ethnic Uzbeks. Uzbek-owned property also constituted the vast majority of the roughly 2,800 units of private property damaged. International observers and national human rights groups maintain that casualties inflicted on the Uzbek community were the result of targeted attacks which security organs either failed to prevent or actively facilitated. However, this was not reflected in the subsequent patterns of prosecution, with ethnic Uzbeks making up 80 per cent of those accused of crimes relating to the 2010 violence.
Courts continue to sentence ethnic Uzbek community leaders in absentia for inciting inter-ethnic hatred and organizing clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 2010. In November 2014, Kadyrjan Batyrov and Inom Abdurasulov, two of these leaders, were given life sentences, while a third, Karamat Abdullaeva, received a 16-year jail term. This followed the Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court rejection in September of an appeal by Azimjan Askarov against his conviction for creating mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred and complicity in murder. Though his conviction was appealed, it was upheld by a regional court in January 2017 in a decision widely criticized by human rights groups: the imprisonment of the ethnic Uzbek political activist, who prior to his arrest had worked for years documenting police abuses, has been condemned as unfair and politically motivated. The government has also continued to crack down on minority activists and human rights organizations.
Accusations of terrorism have also been used to detain Uzbek critics of the government. An oft-cited case is the arrest and conviction of Rashod Kamalov, an ethnic Uzbek imam in Osh province known for his sermons denouncing the spread of western culture and what he regarded as the decline of traditional morality. In December 2014, Kamolov publicly criticized the country’s security services for what he said was their heavy-handed treatment of devout Muslims, and suggested a number of Muslims were fleeing to Syria to escape torture at the hands of law enforcement. In February 2015, he was arrested for allegedly preaching calls to jihad and in October was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting religious hatred and for using his position to collect and distribute extremist literature, a sentence that was extended to 10 years the following month.
According to Human Rights Watch, 191 people were serving jail sentences as of August 2017 for terrorism- or extremism-related charges. Many are Uzbeks who alleged that they were arrested on false grounds or as a result of planted evidence; many also accused the authorities of mistreatment or torture.
Prior to June 2010, the languages, dress styles and artistic traditions of both ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were key parts of the urban landscape in Osh, in the Ferghana Valley region in which the bulk of the violence took place. In the years following the violence, the role of ethnic Uzbeks and their culture in Osh’s public life has diminished sharply, however, with key cultural centres destroyed or closed down in the wake of the violence. Despite some evidence of a resurgence of ethnic Uzbek culture, Osh’s Uzbeks have increasingly embraced Kyrgyz majority markers in an attempt to avoid prejudice and expand their professional opportunities. For example, majority ethnic Uzbek schools are largely switching their language of instruction to Kyrgyz and Russian, and in 2014 the education ministry did away with the Uzbek-language university entrance exam, citing insufficient interest.
While a number of minorities in the country face challenges in terms of language rights, those experienced by the country’s Uzbek speakers are particularly acute, however. While Uzbek had been used relatively widely in education and local government in areas with high proportions of ethnic Uzbeks, since 2010 the space for Uzbek language in official life has been shrinking. From 2014–15, university entrance examinations will only be available in Kyrgyz or Russian. This is part of a broader context in which the educational aspirations of ethnic Uzbeks appear to be reducing. A January 2014 report highlighted sharp declines in the number of Uzbek students moving on to high school and completing school in Osh city. The reasons for dropping out include financial pressures on families, the need for extra income and favouritism in the allocation of the limited state funds available. Meanwhile, the total number of Uzbek-medium schools has halved in recent years, from 133 in 2009/10 to 65 in 2013/14. The reduction has been particularly prominent among urban Uzbeks in the city of Osh, which lost two-thirds of its Uzbek-language schools between 2010 and 2013. Most have been converted into mixed-medium, Kyrgyz or Russian-language schools.
Land and housing shortages remain unresolved and continue to affect inter-ethnic relations in many urban areas. In Osh, for instance, a number of incidents have flared between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents due to the continued failure of authorities to provide sufficient housing to accommodate the growing population of rural migrants, many of whom live in the city as squatters. In turn, many ethnic Uzbek businessmen have been forced to emigrate from the country due to financial difficulties in the wake of the 2010 conflict.
Updated March 2018.