Delicate ethnic balance
DUBAI, 17 June 2010 (IRIN) - Kyrgyzstan’s population of 5.3 million comprises three main ethnic groups: Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of ethnic Russians has declined, particularly in the south, where internal migration has also altered the balance between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks.
In common with its neighbours in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a mixed population dating back to the drawing of the region’s borders by Stalin in the 1920s. Most of the 767,000 ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan live in the south, in the Kyrgyz part of Fergana Valley, the most densely populated area in the region where land is scarce.
Tensions over resources, mainly land, became apparent in June 1990 when young ethnic Kyrgyz demanded land that belonged to a collective farm of mainly ethnic Uzbek. The 1990 conflict was quickly suppressed by Soviet troops.
The epicentre of recent clashes has been the two southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The provisional government that came to power after former president Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted following mass protests this April has been unable to assert its authority and as of 17 June, 191 people have been killed, hundreds more injured and an estimated 300,000 have fled their homes, including 100,000 who found refuge in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kyrgyz were a minority in Osh, the main urban centre in the south. Historically they were mainly nomads living in rural areas, while Uzbeks were farmers and town-based artisans and traders. The borders drawn by Stalin that divided nationalities in the Fergana Valley were largely administrative, and did not mean much in practical terms.
After independence in 1991, the ethnic make-up changed dramatically. Many Russians left and more Kyrgyz started to migrate to Osh, looking for schooling and work opportunities following the end of agricultural subsidies and the disintegration of collective farms. Tensions rose as Kyrgyz started to penetrate traditional Uzbek economic strongholds, including trade and commerce.
As of 1 January 2009, 69.6 percent of the population were Kyrgyz, 14.5 percent Uzbeks and Russians constituted 8.4 percent. Among other ethnic groups, there were about 60,000 Dungans (called Hui in northwest China where they came from in the 19th century and are predominantly in the north of the country), about 52,000 Uygurs, 48,500 Tajiks largely in the south and 38,600 Kazakhs mainly in the north, making up the balance of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.3 million population, according to the National Statistics Committee.
The population of southern Kyrgyzstan was about 2,762,700 people in 2009, according to the National Statistics Committee and the Uzbek population in that area accounts for about 30 percent, while in some districts, such as Aravan district in Osh province or villages, they constitute the majority.
Under first President Askar Akaev, the approach to minorities was more “flexible”, according to some analysts. Ethnic Uzbeks enjoyed economic freedom and some of their leaders were represented politically. However, they tended to be wealthy entrepreneurs, seen by many as out to further their own personal interests rather than building strategic links between the Kyrgyz establishment and the Uzbek community.
Kurmanbek Bakiev came to power in 2005 after Akaev was ousted in mass protests. He was from Jalal-Abad in the south, and began to sideline some of the Uzbek leaders who had benefited under Akaev - in certain cases that meant the redistribution of assets and property to his Bakiev clan.
After Bakiev was overthrown in April some Uzbek leaders, particularly in Jalal-Abad, openly supported the provisional government. Since independence, ethnic Uzbeks had shied away from politics, so such statements were seen as a cause for concern among the Kyrgyz political elite, according to one Kyrgyzstan-based analyst who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.