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KYRGYZSTAN: Agenda Seen Behind ‘Ethnic’ Clashes

Kuban Abdymen

BISHKEK, May 24 2010 (IPS) - While local and international media reports of the May 19 clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan dwelt on rivalries between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, the two ethnic groups were seen to be united against forces loyal to ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

“The clashes in Jalal-Abad on May 19 were a reaction by both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to an attempt by Bakiyev’s supporters to overthrow the interim government,’’ independent political analyst Mars Sariev told IPS in an interview.

Sources in Jalal-Abad said a group of armed men attacked Teyit, the village of the former president, and burned down the Bakiyev house. But, gradually it became clear that the house of ‘Black Aibek’, a man with a criminal record, had also been burned down.

A few hundred of Bakiyev’s supporters, some armed with automatic weapons, had captured the regional government building but were driven back by Uzbek and Kyrgyz supporters of the interim government.

Aibek, in an interview given to the ‘Moskovsky Komsomolets’ newspaper after the events, said that he was not interested in politics and laid the blame for the violence on a powerful local leader and businessman, Kadirjan Batyrov.

It is well known that Aibek was released from prison a few years ago to counter the influence of Batyrov, an Uzbek leader and a political headache for the Bakiyev regime.

Indeed Bakiyev’s supporters have accused Batyrov of being behind the burning down of the family home of the deposed president who fled the country last month and now lives in exile in Belarus.

The torching of the Bakiyev home Friday evening marked the culmination of two days of violence in Jalal-Abad, which broke out when several hundred Bakiyev supporters, some with automatic rifles, holed up in the regional government building after capturing it a day earlier.

Bakiyev’s supporters were driven out by backers of the interim government, many of whom were ethnic Uzbeks. This led to local perceptions that the minority community was gaining political influence in the region at the cost of the Kyrgyz.

Batyrov, who had been keeping a low profile, surfaced after the events of April in which Bakiyev was ousted from power amid clashes between government forces and demonstrators that claimed 90 lives.

The armed confrontation in Jalal-Abad had roots in the public perception that the acting governor of the province, B. Asanov, had extended support to Batyrov and therefore to the Uzbek cause as well.

Tensions have simmered between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek people in the southern region that borders Uzbekistan since 1990 when violence broke out between the two groups leaving hundreds dead.

Batyrov’s assertiveness was seen as a challenge to national unity and supportive of Uzbek interests in the region including recognition for the Uzbek as an official language on par with Russian.

In March 1996, the constitution was amended to make Russian an official language, along with Kyrgyz, but other languages, including Uzbek, were not given such recognition.

Batyrov’s speeches, repeatedly broadcast on the local television stations in the Osh and Jalal-Abad regions, caused discontent among the population. Warnings from a number of influential elders not to rake up the sensitive language issue went unheeded.

Negotiations with Uzbek elders revealed that the majority of Uzbeks were opposed Batyrov who was quickly isolated along with his armed group. The peace rally held on May 19 was directed at the interim government to pressure it to bring Batyrov to justice and throw out acting governor Asanov.

Sariev said the interim government ‘’could not read the situation before the rally began”. By the time the representatives of the interim government arrived in Jalal-Abad shots were already being fired.

According to witnesses, thousands had gathered at the city racetrack in Jalal-Abad and then split into two groups. While one went to the regional administration building to demand the resignation of governor Asanov, the other surrounded the buildings of the ‘University of Friendship of Peoples’, which belong to Batyrov.

Special forces tried to prevent the angry crowd from getting into the university building by firing in the air. Batyrov’s supporters also opened fire from inside the university, killing two and injuring about 90.

Batyrov has mysteriously disappeared and his whereabouts are unknown.

However, according to Ismail Isakov, a representative of the interim government, Batyrov is now a fugitive from justice.

Isakov has promised to have the governor replaced and take action against the Osh TV and Jalal-Aabad MezonTV channels for broadcasting inflammatory speeches by Batyrov.

At a meeting with representatives from Bishkek, Uzbek elders declared that they had no designs against the Kyrgyz people and that there was no call to be worried about ethnic tensions.

The Kyrgyz, a Turkic people form 69 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s estimated five million people followed by the Uzbeks who form 15 percent but are concentrated in the south. Other ethnic groups include Russians with nine percent and small groups, none of them exceeding two percent of Tatars, Tajiks, Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Ukrainians.

According to a member of the interim government and a native of Jalal-Abad, Omurbek Tekebayev, the state of emergency imposed in the area will be lifted by Jun. 1 and will not interfere with the planned Jun. 27 referendum on the constitution.

Under the referendum voters will decide whether or not to turn Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary democracy.

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