Uzbekistan + 1 more

Uzbek refugee issue to pose an immediate post-election test for Kyrgyzstan

Originally published
Simon Churchyard

The winner of Kyrgyzstan's presidential election, widely expected to be the interim leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, will face immediate political challenges. Perhaps the most pressing issue concerns the fate of Uzbek refugees now being accommodated in southern Kyrgyzstan.

In all six candidates are running in the July 10 presidential vote, but none of Bakiyev's five challengers has sufficient popular appeal to beat the interim president, local political analysts say. Bakiyev supporters hope the election will equip his administration with a powerful mandate, opening the way for more substantive stabilization efforts. Since the March upheaval in Bishkek that drove former President Askar Akayev from power, the provisional government has largely failed to foster a new sense of stability in the country.

But before the Bakiyev administration can begin to deal with problematic domestic issues, it appears that it will have to address the Uzbek refugee crisis, a situation provoked by Tashkent's use of force during the Andijan events in May. The presence of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan has placed a severe strain on Bakiyev's already overburdened administration. Bishkek now finds itself pressured from two sides -- the international community, which generally advocates long-term protection for the Uzbeks, and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan's powerful neighbor that is demanding the return of its citizens.

In all, 426 Uzbek asylum seekers are housed at the Sasyk camp in the rocky hills near the Southern city of Jalal-Abad, together with a further 29 held in pre-detention facilities in the southern capital of Osh. When the refugees arrived in May, Kyrgyz authorities initiated well-rehearsed emergency procedures for dealing with natural disasters, rapidly establishing a temporary camp. International organizations quickly stepped in to provide food and shelter, and ongoing collaboration ensures that the refugees are reasonably well looked after.

On the one hand, the international community has urged Kyrgyzstan to properly process the asylum claimants, and to let them stay. The UN High Commission on Refugees, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch, and the US Government have met with Kyrgyz leaders and urged them to grant refugee status. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has personally implored Bakiyev to honor international conventions on refugees.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan has exerted enormous pressure on Kyrgyzstan to return the refugees. The Uzbek government regards many of those who fled the country in the aftermath of the Andijan events as escaped criminals, terrorists, and religious extremists. Citing Kyrgyzstan's obligations under the CIS's Minsk Agreement, along with a 1997 bilateral friendship treaty, Uzbek authorities insist that Bishkek must hand over the asylum-seekers. To persuade Kyrgyz officials to comply, Tashkent has reportedly offered several incentives, including the re-opening of certain cross-border roads that are currently closed. Uzbek authorities are also capable of resorting to more coercive methods. Some Kyrgyz officials quietly voice concern that failure to comply could prompt Uzbek security forces to take action which has destabilizing consequences for the entire Ferghana Valley region, including southern Kyrgyzstan. Refusal could additionally cause Uzbekistan to cut off gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan, some in Bishkek worry.

Tashkent has reportedly tried to exert pressure on the asylum-seekers themselves to abandon their asylum requests. According to accounts provided by refugees to EurasiaNet, Uzbek officials have regularly and clandestinely escorted relatives of the asylum seekers to the Sasyk camp to try to persuade their family members to return. Farhod, a 30-year-old craftsman from Andijon, said his father was coerced into traveling to Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to coax his son into going back to Uzbekistan. "My father visited me. He was threatened by a mahalla [neighborhood] committee official [back in Uzbekistan] who said; 'we'll do whatever we want to you unless you bring your son back,'" Farhod recounted. "So, he was forced to come and see me. But when we were alone, he said, "son, they have forced me to come -- but you stay here, as you'll be killed if you return.'"

Thus far, 31 people have returned to Uzbekistan 'voluntarily,' mostly under suspicious circumstances in the middle of the night when independent monitors and representatives of international organizations have been absent. Four asylum seekers were deported to Uzbekistan after being removed from the camp under false assurances of safety. Unconfirmed reports suggest at least one of these men has been subsequently tortured.

The presence of the Uzbek refugees may be helping to stoke instability in southern Kyrgyzstan. In mid June, demonstrators attacked the Sasyk camp, beating up staff and threatening to return within three days with 400 horsemen to drive the asylum seekers out. The mounted assault never materialized, but military officials admitted that security forces would have been too weak to maintain order in the face of such an attack. Although the protestors claimed to be locals, human rights activists, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet that they strongly suspect that the incident was the work of Uzbek provocateurs.

Bakiyev and acting Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva have given assurances that the asylum seekers will not be returned without due process. At the same time, acting Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov and the head of border services Myrzakan Sybanov have sent different signals. On July 7, for example, Beknazarov indicated that after the presidential election Bishkek could begin deporting some of the 29 Uzbeks being held in the Osh detention center.

Complicating the Bakiyev administration's ability to finesse the refugee issue is the fact that the presence of Uzbek asylum-seekers has riled Kyrgyz nationalist politicians. A recent editorial published in the Jangy Ordo newspaper reflected the nationalists' opposition to accommodating the Uzbeks over the long-term. "We don't have any land left for ourselves," the editorial said. "How long are we going to keep these 'refugees'? We shouldn't have taken any of them.' Such attitudes are commonly expressed by a significant number of Kyrgyz in southern provinces, which are home to a large ethnic Uzbek minority.

In considering solutions to the refugee issue, the international community should be more aware of regional factors that are influencing the Kyrgyz government's decision-making process, said Bob Deen, a representative of ACTED, a French-based development organization that has worked closely with the asylum seekers. "Kyrgyzstan has done all that it is meant to in terms of its commitments to international treaties,' Deen told EurasiaNet. "The international community should acknowledge that the Kyrgyz government is in between a rock and a hard place. It has to deal with pressure from the West to respect its international commitments, but also has to live with its powerful neighbour Uzbekistan. After all, the gas that keeps Kyrgyzstan warm in winter comes from Uzbekistan, not from New York.'

The United Nations recently called for the relocation of the asylum seekers to a third country, as a way both to ensure their safety and to defuse the crisis. However, such a system could simply encourage more Uzbeks to flee into Kyrgyzstan with the hope of a 'free ticket' to the West by claiming asylum, according to local observers.

Some political analysts believe it will not become any easier for Bakiyev to address the refugee question after the presidential election. This is because unofficial refugees continue to flow across the border into Kyrgyzstan, fleeing the ongoing crackdown. These uncounted refugees are able to take advantage of the porous border, and, once in Kyrgyzstan, they are housed by relatives and friends. Local journalists and activists estimate that the number of stealth refugees may already exceed the number of official asylum-seekers at Sasyk.

Editor's Note: Simon Churchyard is an independent analyst of Central Asian affairs.

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