Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Uzbeks are a minority living mainly in the Chimkent oblast, which is in the southern part of the country and the Zambyl region, contiguous to Uzbekistan. Uzbeks now certainly make up more than the 2.5 percent of the population which they did at the last census (Source: Kazakhstan National Census, 1999) and thus constitute the country’s largest minorities after Russian-speaking Slavs. They speak an eastern Turkic language which is closest to Uyghur. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school: they are descended from Turkic-Mongol invaders with strong Iranian influences. Despite their relatively large numbers and geographic concentration, they have tended to be excluded from exercising political power in Kazakhstan.
Large groups of Turkic tribes started to move in 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.
Areas of traditional Uzbek settlement in what is today Kazakhstan used to change hands between Uzbek and Kazakh rulers, and this pattern continued into Soviet times. Historically the key division lay between nomadic Kazakh and sedentary Uzbek lifestyles.
Most Kazakhs were traditionally xenophobic about the Uzbek sedentary lifestyle, and who were gradually encroaching on Kazakh territory. Anti-Uzbek feelings grew after independence, largely because Uzbeks, with their strong tradition as traders among other Central Asian nationalities, prospered in the market economy. More recently, there is a view that has emerged of Uzbeks as being more religiously devout than Kazakhs.
The emergence of Uzbeks as one of the main minorities in Kazakhstan following the massive departure of Slavic and other minorities following independence in 1991 is beginning to highlight a number of issues that still remain largely unaddressed. Though not a very large percentage of the population, the Uzbeks are concentrated in the densely populated areas in South Kazakhstan region bordering Uzbekistan, and now probably constitute more than a fifth of the population there. There are continuing claims in 2005–6 of a deliberate movement initiated soon after independence to have ethnic Kazakhs as imams in the region, with the only remaining ethnic Uzbek imams in settlements inhabited almost exclusively by Uzbeks. The perception of Uzbeks as more devout Muslims, as well as the 2004 Tashkent suicide bombers being Uzbeks from the Shymkent oblast of south Kazakhstan has led the Kazakh authorities to target specifically religious activities in the south and, in a more or less direct way, activities which tend to be seen as involving mainly Uzbeks.
New legislation adopted in 2005 imposes stringent restrictions on religious activities to suppress ‘extremism’ for reasons of national security, punishing religious communities which operate without official registration. Further legislative changes are expected at the end of 2006.
While there are many schools in southern Kazakhstan which teach in the Uzbek language, they do so with the permission of state authorities without much actual funding support. The Uzbek language has since 1994 been written with the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan, and the Uzbek-language schools in south Kazakhstan followed suite in 1995 since much of the education materials used have traditionally come from the Department of Education of Uzbekistan. Despite suggestions in October 2006 by President Nazarbaev that Kazakhstan should also adopt the Latin alphabet, it still has not done so. This has led to a practical problem for Uzbek school children for two reasons: first, educational materials from the Department of Education of Kazakhstan is either in Russian or Kazakh, and not provided in Uzbek, and those students are now graduating from southern Kazakhstan’s Uzbek schools are seriously disadvantaged if they attempt to continue studies in Kazakhstan’s universities which use the Cyrillic alphabet. From 2000 the government has ordered – against the wishes of the Uzbek minority – that all textbooks used in Uzbek schools be in Cyrillic. Despite some material being translated for the primary schools, there have been continuing problems of delays, poor translations and insufficient documents provided which mean that teachers in these schools must revert to resources from Uzbekistan. There is a continuing situation of discrimination for Uzbek students who wish to receive a government grant to proceed to postsecondary studies: they need to pass a test written only in Kazakh – and in the Cyrillic alphabet – and this in effect constitutes an effective barrier for their continuing their studies.
There were in 2005 a number of Uzbek nationals who had fled to Kazakhstan in the 1990s to escape persecution in Uzbekistan who were forcibly returned to that country where they may be persecuted and perhaps tortured.
A final issue which remains silent but an increasing source of hidden tension is the Kazakh domination of state administrative positions to the almost complete exclusion of Uzbeks filling these positions, even in areas where the Uzbeks are a majority or a very substantial minority in south Kazakhstan.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in