Skip to content

A new big boss? Interethnic patronage networks in Kyrgyzstan

Article by Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova

March 1, 2021

A new big boss? Interethnic patronage networks in Kyrgyzstan

Following the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan on October 4th 2020, a coup d’état took place on October 5th as a result of popular discontent with the results of parliamentary elections. There were young political groups and several established politicians from different opposition parties who played an important role in the protests.[1] However, this change of power in Kyrgyzstan has ‘deeper and more structural causes than a mere power struggle’.[2]


Along with many other groups and individuals, supporters of Sadyr Japarov came out in force – the new rulers (Sadyr Japarov, Kamchy Tashiev, Talant Mamytov) being seen as ‘patriots’ by their supporters, and as ‘nationalists’ by many of the ethnic minorities, as well as by smaller more liberal or cosmopolitan elements in the Kyrgyz population. During the course of October 6th when Japarov was released from prison, he managed to be acquitted by the Supreme Court and become Prime Minister, before subsequently becoming acting President. During his 40 days in government, he managed to put his supporters in key positions (The State Committee for National Security, Speaker of Parliament, Prosecutor General and later acting President, after Japarov resigned in order to be a president, etc.).


However, instead of holding new parliamentary elections, Japarov pushed for parliament to decide on presidential elections and a referendum on the form of government.[3] He also initiated the drafting of a new constitution of the republic and established a council to draft the constitution. These actions divided society into two camps.[4] Throughout these political dramas and subsequent discussions about the political situation in Kyrgyzstan, the situation of ethnic minorities was largely ignored.


There is a paradox in current Kyrgyz politics: Why is Japarov popular despite his complete disregard for the rule of law and the constitution? As I mentioned in previous research, the popularity of Japarov among the Kyrgyz citizens is that of a ‘native son’ (өz bala).[5] He is seen as a ‘simple man’ with several hats, who seeks authoritarian power, but promotes his legitimacy as national leader through his perceived personal suffering (his imprisonment) and his successful use of kinship, familiarity with Kyrgyzstan’s criminal elements, apparent commitment to ending corruption, ‘native son’ status, ritual symbols and genealogy – values that many ordinary people identify with.[6] This essay puts forward an analysis of the situation of ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan and provides their views based on my previous research as well as recent follow-up interviews via telephone. The essay discusses the interethnic patronage networks of Kyrgyz state authorities and Uzbek businessmen and seeks to understand their vision of the future.


Ethnic minorities and business

Ethnic Kyrgyz comprise 72 per cent of the population in Kyrgyzstan. The largest minority are the Uzbeks, comprising 14.6 per cent of the population, concentrated mainly in southern Kyrgyzstan near the border with Uzbekistan. More specifically, they are located mainly in the city of Osh and around Osh and Zhalal-Abad provinces in the Fergana Valley. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks reside in roughly equal proportions in southern Kyrgyzstan. For example, in 2009 the population of Osh city (total 258,000) was almost equally divided between Uzbeks (48 per cent) and Kyrgyz (43 per cent), while other ethnic groups made up the remaining nine per cent.[7]


Historically, the two ethnic groups have lived side by side, in constant contact with each other through a state-business ‘symbiosis’.[8] More specifically, Uzbeks have dominated business activities – trading in the bazaar, working as shopkeepers, café owners and drivers – while Kyrgyz have tended to occupy local government structures.[9] However, the conflict of 2010 drastically changed and destroyed this symbiosis, and with it threatened the Uzbek business sector.


The conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz that erupted in the city of Osh in the summer of 2010 was the worst the region had seen in years. On June 10th 2010 intercommunal clashes erupted as a result of political crisis in the country. Nationalism intensified in the country after the summer’s deadly clashes, and a decade later a common discourse promotes Kyrgyzstan as ‘the land of Kyrgyz and the rest, i.e. the ethnic minorities, are guests’. This remains a strongly held view not only among the youth, but also among the older generation in the South.[10] There is greater poverty in the south. Aspects of nationalisation, ethnic strife, and migration contributed to or created a sense of the Uzbeks being an ethnic minority, and have clearly sharpened the divisions between communities.


Many Uzbeks face a number of challenges on a daily basis. The main difficulties affect the economically active, who suffer constant pressure and intimidation from the state authorities and criminals alike. As a result, businesspeople have resorted to finding different kinds of creative strategies to keep their businesses secure. Measures include moving trading from the bazaar to the mahallas (neighbourhoods), using mobile phones for taking passenger bookings from the bus station and the airport, and avoiding selling to, or serving, potentially ‘suspicious’ clients. Uzbeks do not openly avoid developing businesses within their economic niches; rather they have tried to turn their existing niches into safer places by using practices that are not visible to the Kyrgyz community, and in this manner, safeguarding their businesses. Some businesses have been turned into ‘safe’ social projects, such as a school, hospital and madrasa. They have created ethnically exclusive zones as well as developed public services that are less likely to be targeted out of distrust.


Respondents to my research also try to use avoidance and concealment of businesses and identities, as well as using video cameras and social networks to evade contact with criminal networks. These securityscapes have developed as a reaction to different ‘anticipations’: the realities are experienced as physical violence, harassment and the seizure of Uzbek businesses.[11] According to von Boemcken et al. “securityscapes can be understood as ‘imagined worlds’ of security and insecurity that goad and structure the lives of people as they go about their daily business.”[12] Thus, securityscapes are based on inter-subjectively enacted social practices and emphasise the individual agency of actors in seeking security – which is especially evident if these actors do not and cannot rely on state authorities. Below I would like to discuss three cases to show how people experience and create securityscapes: 1) Against Suyun Omurzakov’s network; 2) against corruption and the system of ‘dolya’ (share, cut); and 3) balance between ‘low’ nationalism and ‘high’ nationalism.


Searching for security I: Against Suyun Omurzakov’s network

Police Major General Suyun Omurzakov, First Deputy Minister of Interior of the Kyrgyz Republic is the owner of several sport clubs in Osh, where local sportsmen train. He has a low respect and prestige among local businessmen in Osh even though he enjoys higher authority in the law enforcement agencies.


On September 12th 2018, Radio Azattyk’s journalists conducted an investigation into crimes in which sportsmen from Suyun Omurzakov’s club were implicated. They also investigated the Omurzakov family. They reported that Ulukbek Omurzakov, an employee of the Osh regional prosecutor’s office, and brother of Suyun Omurzakov, was involved.[13]


This was supported by the findings of another investigative report entitled ‘Are Omurzakov’s sportsmen enjoying immunity in Osh?’ that confirmed that local businessmen complained about the Omurzakovs’ extortion rackets in Osh.[14] It was reported that after the events were publicised, Ulukbek Omurzakov threatened the businessmen and tried to force them to withdraw their statements. When this failed a criminal case was opened against the businessmen to silence them.[15]


In November 2020, officers of the State Committee for National Security detained Ulukbek Omurzakov in Osh. He was suspected of organising a raid on the coal mining company Zhol-Chirak. Together with the prosecutor, the law enforcers also detained four people from the Mukhammed-Umar sports club who it is reported were found to have ‘seized special equipment, illegally mined and sold more than 82 million soms worth of coal without making the appropriate tax and social payments.’[16] During a meeting with Japarov, local residents revealed that the Omurzakov family had ‘taken over’ the entire southern capital.[17]


In a zoom interview, Aftandil, a local resident, claimed that Omurzakov was linked to President Jeenbekov: “Jeenbekov and Omurzakov belong to the same ‘mafia’, because both come from the Kara-Kulja district. Omurzakov is a millionaire, so he used to share his ‘dolya’ (profit) with Jeenbekov’s Kara-Kulja fund. They are related and Jeenbekov has protected Omurzakov all these years.”


One of the owners of an Uzbek restaurant, Muhammed, told me on the phone that Suyun Omurzakov has been extorting money from the businessmen. “I was threatened by sportsmen and militia because they asked me to sell my restaurant in the city center [to them].” In his view, “Sadyr has ‘courage’ and is not afraid of Omurzakov (i.e. as proof, Uluk Omurzakov was imprisoned).” He comments, “it is acceptable if Sadyr is illiterate, even if he does not know Russian, even if he is a bandit, because he displayed strong courage (‘dukh’). Entrepreneurs just need stability in the government. The criminals are being arrested. Order seems to be coming here. But we have to see how things will go further.”


The arrest of Suyun Omurzakov’s younger brother was seen as a sign of strength and stimulated early confidence in Japarov for many Uzbeks. Locals say that for the safety of the restaurant owners, the arrest was a sign that he could take on Omurzakov’s network. However, things got more complicated later on because Suyun Omurzakov worked hard during the presidential elections to get more votes from the south by mobilising his people in an attempt to save his younger brother from prison.


On January 30th 2021, right after Japarov’s inauguration, Ulukbek Omurzakov was released. A decision was made to release him under house arrest by the Bishkek Pervomaiskiy District Court and it was agreed that Omurzakov should pay 20 million som to the state budget according to his lawyer, Ikramidin Aitkulov.[18]


Another Uzbek respondent confirmed this saying, “See! Jeenbekov was neither meat nor fish; he did not have ‘dukh’ (courage). He did not even say anything to Matraimov [the notorious corrupt customs official]. Instead, Japarov said ‘kusturam’ [‘vomit’, i.e., cough up the extorted money], and he forced Matraimov to bring two billion som. Now Uluk has paid 20 million som to the government.” Whether there has been some negotiation here between Suyun Omurzakov and Japarov’s team is still uncertain; it may be that his younger brother was released because Omurzakov proved that he could be loyal to Japarov.


Searching for security II: Against corruption, ‘dolya’ (share)

The owner of several cafés, Akbar, supported and voted for Japarov because Japarov said that he would fight corruption, in particular he said that he would eliminate the system of ‘dolya’ (the practice by which shares of business profits are given to corrupt state authorities as well as to criminal groups). Akbar also said that Japarov had been in prison and had experienced injustice through his skin (jon terisi menen otkorgon) and (understood) the difficulties of life. Considering the situation of the Uzbek businessmen, Akbar further commented, “we have to follow what the Government says to protect our business. We would not go against the Government.”


When I asked the question as to whether there had been any changes since Japarov’s presidency, Akbar responded positively. According to him, “The younger brother of Kadyr Aliev [pseudonym], one of the important state authorities in Osh, used to be the head of police of Oron [pseudonym]district. He used to collect ‘dolya’ even from sunflower seed (semechki) sellers. [i.e. from small traders such as car washing services, small garages, food services, catering, shops, etc]. When Aliev’s younger brother first came to power, he would invite each businessman into his office (at the request of the precinct officer) and openly tell them that they should share their profits (dolya suragan) as a way to ‘congratulate him on his new position’ (kuttuktap).”


Akbar gave him 2,000 som, saying that he only had that amount of money to give. The businessmen were also required to provide their telephone numbers. Depending on Aliev’s brother’s needs, they would then be called. For example, Albek Ormonov would demand two kilos of meat regularly, and once a month he would order ash (pilaf) for six to seven friends from the restaurateur gratis. Other precinct officers would also come and order the café owners to provide them with catering services. This official would threaten not only local businessmen, but even state officials, saying “I heard you won the tender, where is my share (dolya)? Fortunately, this person has now been fired, and the current new appointee seems to be a trustworthy state official (taza bala eken).”


Another businessman, Alisher, talked about the complexities of the electricity grid: “I have electric service limited to 20 kilowatts for my restaurant, for which I paid 120,000 som, but in winter usage goes beyond 20 kilowatts because I need to heat the premises and have other additional needs. In summer, I have to cool ice cream and other products. So in winter or summer we exceed usage of 20 kilowatts and an electricity inspector immediately comes to me and asks for additional money (dolya). The electricity inspector gives me the option of either paying the full fine to the government or half the fine to him. Of course, I choose to pay half the fine to the inspector.”


Apparently, it is not possible to obtain a 30 or 40 kilowatts supply; if it were available the state authorities would lose the chance to extract their dolya. Instead, they allow only 20 kilowatts and the inspectors ‘deal’ with the violations in their own ways. For a supply of over 30 kilowatts, the state requires the restaurant owner to get a transformer, which would cost 500,000 som. In addition, one also needs to get permissions from an architect, a technical inspector, the village head and finally the public’s consent. It is not easy to get a transformer, so the businessmen have to stay within the 20 kilowatts permitted usage and pay for additional supplies used with dolya.


Another Uzbek respondent told me that the police are considered locally to be even more arrogant (nahalnyi) than criminals, and do not understand the situation of businesspeople. Criminals impose stricter controls than the official laws. According to the respondent you can ‘buy off’ the police, but it is very difficult to ‘buy off’ criminals. Uzbek businessmen have to give ‘dolya’ for the street boys/criminal networks (köchö baldar) and collect ‘grev’ (a remittance or a package sent to a prisoner) for convicts, especially for the ‘bratva’ (criminal leaders). Businessmen donate a small amount of money (for food, cigarettes, soap) to the prisoners. The state budget has very limited funds for prisoners. Apparently, the names of all cafés and restaurants are acknowledged by prisoners, in a practice known as otmetka. Business people describe criminals as less shameless (oni ne naglye) and say they understand that if their business is not doing well that they might have to wait a while for payment.


Three of my respondents told me that the ‘nahalyni’ police had not come to them recently, which is already good news. Nevertheless, we will have to wait and see how things develop – at the moment there is a change of power. This period is called a ‘waiting state’ (sostojina ojidanija) by many businesspeople.


Searching for security III: Balance between ‘low’ nationalism and ‘high’ nationalism

Japarov’s main opponent was a southerner, Madumarov, who is known as a ‘ethnic’ nationalist because of his advocacy against the Uzbek mass media when he was the first Secretary of State.[19] Madumarov got ten per cent of the vote in Osh oblast, whereas Japarov got 82 per cent, so Madumarov was a distant second.[20] However, he is also considered a nationalist by more than just ethnic minority groups. He is still remembered by many representatives of ethnic minorities for his divisive statement of 2007 (made when he was the State Secretary of Kyrgyzstan) when he opined that “Kyrgyzstan is indeed our common home, but other nations here are tenants”.[21]


Most ethnic minorities habitually vote for a northern presidential candidate or party whose leader is a northerner. As such, every Kyrgyz politician tries to win votes from ethnic minorities, particularly Uzbeks. During the elections, Kyrgyz politicians used to win the support of ethnic minorities by recruiting influential people of non-titular ethnicity to their electoral teams. According to Ilias, another Uzbek businessman, Japarov has ‘dukh’ (courage, in Kyrgyz as “erki bar eken”) and is from the north of Kyrgyzstan. “Since Soviet times, we have supported someone from the north”, says one of my respondents. Furthermore, Ilias says “It is easy to deal with state authorities from the north. Northerners, unlike southerners, have very little nationalist thinking. They can also openly protest against criminals. Because of this trust and sympathy, the Southern Uzbeks prefer the Northern Kyrgyz authorities because they have not forgotten the conflicts in Osh of 2010 when the Uzbek community was targeted.”[22] It is important to see distinction between Japarov’s economic populism and cultural conservativism/nationalism, which differs from a more ethnic nationalist like Madumarov.


A strategy was officially adopted to form a civil identity of ‘Kyrgyzstani’ in 2013, not based on ethnicity. Later, on the basis of this decision, the column indicating a citizen’s ethnicity in the national passport was abolished. However, after Japarov came to power, he re-introduced this field by decree in response to a Supreme Court decision based on the current constitution. The ‘ethnicity’ column will again appear in the passports of Kyrgyz citizens. This began to worry ethnic minorities, particularly the Uzbeks who were particularly affected by the June 2010 events. Yet, the indication of ethnicity is voluntary, so they should not have to declare it if they do not want to.[23]


Concluding remarks

To understand why people support Japarov despite his violations of the rule of law, it is important to look at the security strategies of Uzbek businessmen. They have put their trust in someone who is a ‘controversial’ figure, but who also is perceived as having personally experienced the injustice of the law, and is able to show his strength against other strong ‘mafia’ networks. The boundaries of state, business, and criminal have been blurred in the context of Kyrgyzstan.[24] Despite this, we see how many ordinary people want an end to the absurd levels of corruption. Sadly, however, it is quite difficult to avoid having police and others with power trying to extract bribes and dolya in the current environment. [25] As the above examples show, the police, judges and prosecutors are highly corrupt, as the process of reforming law enforcement agencies has consistently failed to meet the expectations of donor organisations and members of civil society due to existing authoritarian political regimes and weak local governance.[26]


People’s personalities and difficulties tend to coincide with the head of the potential state power they want. People are attracted to politicians who reflect their values. In the case of Japarov, people began to identify with him due to shared experiences, ‘dukh’ (courage), and his identity as a ‘northerner with ‘low’ nationalist ideals’. All these aspects contributed to people’s mobilisation.


In times when the rule of law does not work and people are tired of judiciary injustice and do not trust the state anymore, they start supporting ‘controversial’ figures, such as Japarov, despite his violations of the rule of law, as the ways to search for justice and hope for change. At the same time, businessmen describe their situation as the ‘waiting state’, by claiming that we will see how things will develop.


Dr. Aksana Ismailbekova is a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum-Moderner Orient (ZMO). Her research work focuses on kinship, ethnicity, patronage, conflict and gender in Kyrgyzstan. Her monograph Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan was published by Indiana University Press in 2017.


Image by Andrea Kirkby under (CC).


[1] Aksana Ismailbekova, Intergenerational Conflict at the Core of Kyrgyzstan’s Turmoil, The Diplomat, October 2020,

[2] Azamat Temirkulov, Kyrgyzskaya mechta i chudo Sadyra Zhaparova, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Central Asia, Medium, January 2021,

[3] Mahabat Sadyrbek, Präsidentschaftswahl und Referendum in Kirgistan. Zwei Schritte zurück im kirgisischen »Demokratie-Experiment«?, Zentralasien-Analysen, 145, January 2021,

[4] Gulzat Baialieva and Joldon Kutmanaliev, How Kyrgyz social media backed an imprisoned politician’s meteoric rise to power, openDemocracy, October 2020,

[5] Ismailbekova, Aksana. 2017. Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[6] Aksana Ismailbekova, Native son: the rise of Kyrgyzstan’s Sadyr Japarov, openDemocracy, January 2021,

[7] NSC, 2009. Population and Housing Census of the Kyrgyz Republic of 2009. Book 1. National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek.

[8] Liu, Morgan. 2012. Under Solomon’s Throne. Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press; Megoran, Nick. 2013. Shared Space, Divided Space: Narrating Ethnic Histories of Osh. Environment and Planning A 45(4), pp. 892–907.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sergei Abashin, Natsionalnoe stroitelstvo v Kyrgzystane i problema uzbekskogo menshin-stva, Fergana News, March 2012,

[11] Ismailbekova, Aksana. 2018. Secure and Insecure Spaces for Uzbek Businesspeople in Southern Kyrgyzstan. IQAS Vol. 49 / 2018 1–2, pp. 41–60.

[12] Marc Von Boemcken, Conrad Schetter, Hafiz Boboyorov, Nina Bagdasarova, and Joomart Sulaimanov, Local Security-Making in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Production of Securityscapes by Everyday Practices, BICC Working Paper 5/2016, Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), May 2016,

[13] Ydyrs Isakov, Bandytskyi Osh, Radio Azattyk, September 2018,

[14] Ernist Nurmatov, Sportsmeny Omurzakova pol’zuyutsya neprikosnovennost’yu v Oshe?, Radio Azattyk, July 2016,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Elgezit, Zaderjan prokuror Uluk Omurzakov — brat zamglavı MVD Suyunbeka Omurzakova, November 2020,

[17], Advokat schitayet bezosnovatel’nym soderzhaniye v SIZO Ulukbeka Omurzakova, January 2021,

[18] Radio Azattyk, Zaderzhannyy po podozreniyu v reyderstve prokuror Omurzakov vyshel na svobodu, RFE/RL, January 2021,; Vyplatil 20 mln — brata zamglavy MVD KR otpustili pod domashniy arrest, February 2021

[19] Interview with my informant in Osh, Zoom, 07.02.2021

[20] President, Referendum 2021, Itogovye dannye ZIK posle ruchnogo podscheta, AKI Press,

[21] Erica Marat, Kyrgyzstan: perspektivy pluralizma, Global Centre for Pluralism, November 2017,

[22] Aksana Ismailbekova and Philipp Lottholz, The Conflict in South Kyrgyzstan Ten Years on: Perspectives, Consequences, Actions, Central Asia Program, July 2020,

[23], V pasportakh kyrgyzstantsev vnov’ poyavitsya grafa «natsional’nost’», October 2020,

[24] Erica Marat, The State-Crime Nexus in Central Asia: State Weakness, Organized Crime, and Corruption in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, October 2006,

[25] I would like to thank Nathan Light for this comment during the Roundtable “Society and Politics in the 2019-2020 Elections and Constitutional Revisions in Kyrgyzstan” Organised by Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES),  February 2021.

[26] Erica Marat, OSCE Police Reform Programmes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: Past Constraints and Future Opportunities, EUCAM, October 2012,; more about The Politics of Police Reform of Erica Marat, can be found here:

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre