More than 70 percent of the Kyrgyz that have gone to join ISIS are of Uzbek descent, Ryspek Abdysatarov, a representative of Kyrgyzstan’s Secretariat of the Council of Defense, said at a recent roundtable on security in Central Asia. 24.kg reported that Abdysatarov said there could be as many as a thousand Kyrgyz who have gone to Syria — the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry’s Antiterrorism department says 352 and an International Crisis Group report earlier this year estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 from all five Central Asian states. Numbers are decidedly disputed and estimates vary, quite widely sometimes.
In Kyrgyzstan, however, a narrative has emerged that those who are going to Syria belong to the Uzbek minority concentrated in the country’s south, in its portion of the Fergana Valley. “Mostly,” Abdysatarov said, “residents of the southern regions leave the country for Syria. And there are few representatives of the titular nation among them. “
This is not the first time that Kyrgyz authorities have commented that many of its citizens who leave for Syria are Uzbeks. RFE/RL’s coverage points out that Kyrgyz officials haven’t offered any evidence to back up their claims. The claims, whether true or not, serve to highlight the ethnic divide in Kyrgyzstan, which only five years ago erupted into violence in the country’s south.
During his recent regional tour, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Osh, the center of Uzbek-Kyrgyz violence in 2010, to lay flowers at a memorial for the more than 400 people who were killed.
“Kyrgyzstan has ambitious plans to promote interethnic harmony and to protect the rights of all, including minorities,” Ban said at a conference in Bishkek during his trip. “But it’s important for these policies to be put into practice,” Reuters quotes him as saying to the gathered parliamentarians, government officials and civil society groups in attendance. “Root causes must be addressed fully and impartially investigated and prosecuted.”
Eurasianet noted that most of those prosecuted after the 2010 violence were Uzbeks, as were most of those killed and those whose homes were burned. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Osh live in different neighborhoods and little has been done to integrate them:
“The problem is not just residential segmentation, it is also cultural: apart from the bazaar, there are few inter-communal links between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks,” said Joldon Kutmanaliev, a researcher affiliated with Italy’s European University Institute who is writing his PhD dissertation on the topic.
Other than declarations on the importance of interethnic cohesion, the government’s approach is largely to avoid discussing the violence. “Talking about tragic events again and again doesn’t take us anywhere. Better not talk about it, and let the wounds heal on their own,” said a government official in Osh. Some scholars believe that similar silence after the pogroms in 1990 contributed to the violence a generation later.
In 1990, clashes occurred in Osh between rival Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationalists, reportedly over the land of a former collective farm. Official estimates say that between 300 and 600 people died; unofficial estimates say 1,000.
The Eurasianet report continues on to note that harassment of Uzbeks — in the streets and as part of nationalistic statements — has abated but not vanished. Some progress is being made and there are always stories that break the broader narrative — heartwarming instances of Kyrgyz standing up for their Uzbek neighbors. Still, politics are at play. Kyrgyzstan will have parliamentary elections in the fall and many in the government are reluctant to comment and risk upsetting their Kyrgyz constituents.
Whether true or not, identifying the Kyrgyz who have left to join ISIS as Uzbeks may do more harm than good.