Inter-ethnic tension in southern Kyrgyzstan, a flashpoint of conflict during the Soviet era, is again approaching worrisome levels.
The sizable Uzbek population in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions has long felt aggrieved over perceived second-class-citizen treatment at the hands of Kyrgyz authorities in Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. However, the mood of alienation and exasperation within the Uzbek community has deepened noticeably over the past year. The catalyst for rising discontent appears to be court cases involving property rights.
The high-profile cases concern Kadyrjan Batyrov, a member of parliament and fabulously wealthy entrepreneur, who has been leading the effort to foster Uzbek political cohesion, while also serving as the patron of Uzbek-oriented social initiatives. Batyrov, for example, endowed Peoples' Friendship University in his native city of Jalal-Abad. He also was the driving force behind a protest initiative in June, 2006, to secure broader civil rights for Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks, including recognition of Uzbek as an official language. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Last July, a farm owned by Batyrov, along with two buildings constructed with funds he provided, were spontaneously seized by Kyrgyz squatters. A representative of the squatters depicted the incidents as spontaneous actions aimed at redistributing resources to poor residents of the Jalal-Abad region. Batyrov, meanwhile, said the actions were politically motivated -- intended to punish him for his efforts to promote Uzbek rights. The fact that the court cases he initiated have dragged out has reinforced the notion in his mind that politics was, is and will remain the deciding factor. "It took me six months to win a case against those who illegally seized my land. In particular, speaking about my farmland, we lost the case in both district and regional courts. We won the suit only in the Supreme Court. Six months have already passed since the Supreme Court rendered its verdict, but my lands and houses remain in the hands of the squatters,” Batyrov told EurasiaNet.
Some observers have angry words for local law-enforcement agencies, alleging that the police have been negligent. "When the culprits seized the lands in Jalal-Abad, senior law enforcement officials didn't intervene, and [instead] told Batyrov that he should bring his case before the court, which is a bit like calling for police when robbers break into your house, and, in response, them telling you that you should take legal action," a Jalal-Abad lawyer told urasiaNet.
Batyrov’s experience has left many Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan convinced that national leaders employ double standards when it comes to matters involving ethnicity. "The Batyrov case that drags on for almost a year is a clear indication of discrimination against the Uzbeks. When Uzbeks seize Kyrgyz-owned lands, the authorities respond very quickly. For instance, in the village of Arslonbob in the Jalal-Abad region local Uzbeks seized an abandoned camp owned by a Kyrgyz businessman. However, the lands were soon returned to their owner, and the court ordered squatter leaders to pay significant fines," said Azimzhon Askarov, a human rights activist in Jalal-Abad.
Batyrov has not remained idle while he waits for closure in the squatter cases. He has intensified his activities to politically mobilize the Uzbek community. For most of the post-Soviet era, Kyrgyz leaders in Bishkek have been able to exploit the lack of cohesion among Uzbeks, a minority that comprises roughly 13 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population. But Batyrov is determined to change the dynamic. In January, he helped engineer the creation of a movement called Vatan, which is Uzbek for homeland. Five out of the seven ethnic Uzbeks sitting in the Kyrgyz parliament are affiliated with Vatan, which evolved out of a National Unity and Accord Party. Overall, the movement is roughly 80 percent Uzbek, with various other minorities comprising the remaining 20 percent of the membership.
Vatan’s emergence has been an alarming development for Kyrgyz nationalists. Many see the choice of the name Vatan as a provocation, an act that implies that southern Kyrgyzstan is Uzbek territory. "They (Uzbeks) have some nerve to publicly declare a part of Kyrgyzstan to be native Uzbek soil," a Kyrgyz resident of Jalal-Abad complained. Officials have so far declined to official register Vatan on a technicality, saying that any party name has to be in either Kyrgyz or Russian, the two state languages. "Vatan means homeland not only in the Uzbek, but also in the Kurdish, Uighur, and Tajik languages. The new name was to emphasize that we intend to stand for all national minorities," Batyrov told EurasiaNet.
Meanwhile, 200 squatter families are now living on the farm expropriated from Batyrov, and they show no sign of leaving peacefully, no matter what the Supreme Court says. A few families have over the past year built homes on the disputed land, and some squatters vowed to meet any effort to forcefully evict them with force of their own. "We will not give back the lands; we have spent much money on their development. We will fight. Many of us have hoes, but some will be able to get guns," one said.
Given that the Osh region was the scene of violent rioting in 1990 between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, such declarations of intent to resort to arms cannot be lightly dismissed.
Editor’s Note: Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for EurasiaNet
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