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Minorities in Kyrgyzstan: changed by revolution

Kyrgyzstan’s two revolutions have been followed by violence and discrimination against the country’s minorities.

7 April 2010: people enter Bishkek's "White House". Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Wikipedia / Broke04. Some rights reserved.The upheavals that shook Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and again in 2010 played out along a similar scenario. The country’s presidents, Askar Akayev in 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, were ousted following massive street protests against the corruption and nepotism that marred their tenure.

The two revolutions, as they later became known, differed in that no blood was spilt in 2005, while hundreds died in 2010 in the violence that accompanied Bakiyev’s outster and the ensuing power vacuum. But the general instability in their aftermath had a tremendous effect on the lives of the country’s ethnic minorities, especially Uzbeks, who felt their place in Kyrgyzstan’s future to be no longer secure. To this day, this is such a sensitive topic that local media largely avoids it.

In particular, Akayev’s ouster in 2005 also put an end to his doctrine of encouraging harmony between the country’s many ethnic communities. Under the label “Kyrgyzstan is our common home”, Akayev tried to create a sense of inclusiveness by founding Osh’s Kyrgyz-Uzbek University and Uzbek-language schools in the south of the country, as well as encouraging Uzbek participation in politics. According to Nick Megoran, a lecturer at Newcastle University, the populist nationalists who swept to power after 2005 reversed this course, setting the scene for the violence of 2010.

As a result, an unknown number of Uzbeks and other minority community members changed citizenship and left Kyrgyzstan for good; others continue to live there, but only felt safe after securing a foreign passport, which may be put to use in case the situation in the country deteriorates once again.

2010: The April revolution

In summer 2010, in the power vacuum left after Bakiyev’s ouster, a youth brawl escalated into massive clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, causing extensive loss of life and damage to property, as well as displacing approximately 400,000 people in the four days of unrest. The independent international commission of inquiry set up at the behest of then-interim President Roza Otunbayeva found that 470 people had died, but that number may be much higher.

Following the events of 2010, the numbers of ethnic Uzbeks migrating annually trebled. Kyrgyzstan’s national statistics committee reports that 266 Uzbeks left the country in 2010, a number that reached 931 the following year. Most of them moved to Russia.

Bakhram Abdullayev (a pseudonym), 56, an ethnic Uzbek, was born in Bishkek. After studying in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, Abdullayev returned to his native Kyrgyzstan and worked in a state-owned enterprise for more than 30 years. He witnessed the events in Bishkek first hand. Some of his relatives in the city, as well as in the southern city of Osh, where most of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks live, were assaulted.

“I’ll carry on living here while the situation is stable, but Russia is an alternative option in case of instability”

“At the time, my brother offered me to apply for Russian citizenship,” Bakhram tells me, adding that many Uzbeks from the south of the country and even from Bishkek were left for Russia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan for fear of retaliation. “When I saw what happened in the April and June events (2010), I thought things might get even worse,” he says.

Bishkek, 2005. Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Bakhram applied for Russian citizenship and obtained it three months later. In 1996, President Akayev and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement simplifying Russian citizenship procedures for citizens of Kyrgyzstan who had been born, studied, or worked in the USSR.

For many Russian speakers like Bakhram, this was a perfect opportunity to obtain a Russian passport. Possibly due to the significant number of applicants, however, the agreement was rescinded in 2012. “I was lucky to receive Russian citizenship in 2011 and register in Tatarstan,” Bakhram continues. “I don’t think I’ll be under any pressure there because of religion or ethnicity, since Tatarstan is Muslim and so am I.”

For now, Bakhram is staying and continuing working in Bishkek – he likes his job. But he keeps his Russian passport as an insurance policy in case things heat up again: “I’ll carry on living here while the situation is stable, but Russia is an alternative option in case of instability,” he says. “I see stability in family, stable work and friends who do not care about one’s nationality.”

2005: The Tulip revolution

Kyrgyzstan was already familiar with revolution. In 2005, peaceful protests erupted in the south of the country following fraudulent elections in which the incumbent President Askar Akayev won another mandate. Protesters peacefully took over government buildings in the south, while unrest quickly spread to Bishkek. In the chaos, policemen were beaten and some opposition supporters shot, though there were no casualties. Akayev’s ouster was followed by two days of looting in Bishkek targeting the properties of former government officials, as well as valuable merchandise in shops and markets.

Valeriya Khan at work at Chu market. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Valeriya Khan, a 33-year-old ethnic Korean, moved to Bishkek in 1998 from the city of Chu in Kazakhstan where she had lived with her parents and younger brother to “seek more prospects for study and work,” as she puts it.

But the upheaval in 2005 made Valeriya reconsider this decision. At the time, Valeriya and her family lived opposite the Madina fabric market, one of the largest in the city.

She witnessed firsthand how some looters set Madina on fire during the two days of mayhem in the capital after the president’s removal from power. “From our balcony we saw how people were stealing materials and fabrics, while some containers (used in the market by traders) were burning – it was really scary,” she tells me.

Valeriya’s father suggested the family go back to Chu, as he was a Kazakh citizen and Kazakhstan offered better social benefits. “I also couldn’t find work after completing my studies at the Kyrgyz National University,” she explains, since the 2005 revolution coincided with her graduation.

So, Valeriya and her family moved back to Kazakhstan. “In Chu, it is quiet and good. The state gives women allowances for child birth and free baby diapers for 12 months; food products are cheaper and I have a stable job,” she says. Today, Valeriya and her younger brother work at a local market, selling clothes which they import from Kyrgyzstan. Her vision of stability is “confidence in the future, protection of one’s rights, and stable work.”

As I spoke to Valeriya, her brother intervened to share his experience in Bishkek, where “I was asked to speak in Kyrgyz language only, and this made me uncomfortable. It’s better here in Kazakhstan,” he says. According to official data from the population census, between 1999 and 2009 the number of ethnic Koreans in Kyrgyzstan has shrunk by 12%, losing approximately 2,500 members.

It remains unclear how many citizens of Kyrgyzstan have left the country following the two revolutions. What is clear is that 2010 was a turning point, especially for the country’s sizable Uzbek community. The theme of the summer 2010 events continues to be extremely sensitive, as confirmed by the difficulty encountered during the research for this article. Half a dozen more people refused to share their experience even anonymously with me. One man, an Uzbek living in Osh, said he would be happy to change his citizenship for another country’s, but preferred not to speak about it because he “didn’t want any trouble.” Another, who moved to Turkey and has been given refugee status there, preferred “not to recall anything” of these painful events.  

 

About the author

Zukhra Iakupbaeva is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and a Kyrgyzstan correspondent for EurasiaNet.org. She worked for The Conway Bulletin regional newspaper from 2015 to 2017. Zukhra holds a BA degree in Political Science from the American University of Central Asia. She works as a Programme Manager at the Archa Initiative foundation, which works to preserve Bishkek’s Botanical Garden.

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