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Political crisis: Interethnic relations must be protected

Article by Sardorbek Abdukhalilov

March 1, 2021

Political crisis: Interethnic relations must be protected

Kyrgyzstan has been nation-building for the last 30 years and it is seen as one of the most politically dynamic post-soviet countries. Kyrgyzstan has an ethnically diverse population, with minorities constituting about 26.3 per cent of the total population.[1] Meanwhile, the country’s recent history shows that political destabilisation effects minorities, who are among the most vulnerable in relation to accessing political power and exercising full citizenship. The current political leadership stands for equality and interethnic harmony. The political platform of the newly elected President Sadyr Japarov, ‘Serving the Future’ (‘Kelechekke Kyzmat’), provides that the citizens of Kyrgyzstan may be of different ethnic roots, but they all share love for Kyrgyzstan and responsibility for its ancient history and faith in its future.[2] The post conflict situation after the tragic June 2010 ethnic conflict in the Southern Kyrgyzstan distanced minorities from political activism. Today, Kyrgyzstan needs to take significant steps on peacebuilding interventions and comprehensive political reform in interethnic relations. The argument goes that it would be inevitable to increase level of minority participation and representation in public life, including in elected positions if Kyrgyzstan endorses 21st century nation-building.


On the eve of October 5th 2020, the world witnessed how allegations of widespread irregularities, during parliamentary elections triggered street protests in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which eventually ended up storming the main government building, the Parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, and the President’s administration.[3] The building briefly caught fire before emergency services put out the blaze and debris from inside, including government papers, and office furniture was strewn outside. In addition, on the same day, groups of protesters were able to unlawfully release high-profile political figures from prison. The political crisis created the power vacuum and paralysed the functioning of state institutions, which were not able to observe the constitutional order. Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) later annulled the results of the elections amid political unrest. On October 9th 2020, the President declared a state of emergency in Bishkek to stabilise the situation. However, the taken measure did not stop protestors pressuring the President to resign. The situation became hot and the political leadership, including President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the Prime Minister and other top officials, stepped down in order to provide a ‘peaceful transit of the power’ to Sadyr Japarov. Sadyr Japarov, a former parliamentarian who was imprisoned for 11 and a half years and whom was freed on October 6th 2020, assumed power and became the de facto country’s first person. Soon afterwards, the Supreme Court acquitted Japarov in a hasty trial and opened the way for him to become the interim Prime Minister and the country’s acting President.


The events of October 5th were not only about controversial elections results, but were triggered by the incompetent response of the Government to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19-related lockdown weakened the county’s social-economic situation and dramatically increased the level of unemployment. As the UN CERD pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic has been having significant adverse impacts on the enjoyment of human rights, in particular on the right to non-discrimination and to equality.[4] In this regard, COVID-19 remains a potential source of further social tensions, which would also affect interethnic relations in post political crisis Kyrgyzstan.


For Kyrgyzstan this is the third uprising that overthrew ruling presidents in the last 15 years. Both the 2005 and 2010 uprisings also featured political and economic crises, and caused property and power redistributions throughout the country. However, this time the Kyrgyz society managed to build up a tolerance against division. Yet, the sensitive question on ‘who is the true owner of the country?’ has the potential to escalate and endanger public safety and security. For example, Kyrgyzstan’s recent history has been marred by interethnic conflict, predominantly between ethnic Kyrgyz (71.7 per cent of the population) and ethnic Uzbeks (14.3 per cent of the population), with large-scale clashes taking place in June 2010. The causes of these conflicts are complex with their roots in the historical and cultural differences between the two groups, state policies, and actual and perceived socio-economic and political inequality between the two groups.[5] The official State narrative of so-called ‘separatism’ supported by nationalistic political rhetoric has made it easier to paint the ethnic minorities as solely responsible for the June violence, and has given license to law enforcement and security bodies to target them for arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment. As a result, the selective investigations and prosecutions, which have since been conducted, have disproportionately targeted Uzbeks and resulted in few prosecutions of anyone else.[6]


The UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, during his visit to Kyrgyzstan in December 2019 described the interethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan as fragile, in particular the relations between the majority ethnic Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority following the 2010 events in Osh. The Special Rapporteur identified several factors that could bring the level of interethnic tension to a breaking point, such as the underrepresentation of minorities; the issue of minority languages in education and public service provision; cases of claimed unfair treatment by law enforcement and in the provision of public services; and issues relating to resource management, including water and land.[7]


The legal framework of Kyrgyzstan states that everyone is equal before the law and recognises the need for the adoption of special measures promoting the rights of minority communities to ensure that everyone participates in society on an equal basis with others. However, in reality, national minorities, who make up 26.3 per cent of the population, remain underrepresented in both elected and appointed government positions, particularly Russians and Uzbeks the two largest ethnic minority groups. The participation of minorities in public life in Kyrgyzstan is extremely limited compared to the proportion of these minorities to the total population of the country. Even though the Government of Kyrgyzstan has acknowledged that the legal framework provides electoral quotas for political representation of the different ethnic groups, the objectives of the law are not achieved and all quota requirements not fully enforced.[8] In fact, out of the 120 members of parliament, only ten belonged to a national minority.[9] In addition, national minorities are generally underrepresented in government positions or local administrations. A particularly acute problem is the low rate of representation of ethnic minorities in law enforcement bodies in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. Representation of ethnic minorities in public life has deteriorated dramatically since June 2010. The lack of programmes to promote the recruitment of national minorities affects their representation in different public bodies, including law enforcement. According to the de Varennes, the “disproportionate presence of minorities, or more accurately the near exclusion of minorities, has been linked in part to a language barrier as one of the main reasons explaining the low representation of minorities in public life.”[10]


Following the events of 2010, the Government adopted the Concept on Strengthening National Unity and Interethnic Relations in 2013, which underlines the commitment of all relevant stakeholders in the country to ensuring everyone’s equal rights and opportunities regardless of ethnicity. The body responsible to implement this Concept and to develop strategies for conflict prevention is the State Agency for Local Self-Government and Interethnic Relations (GAMSUMO), which was created also in 2013. However, there has been some criticism about the efficiency of GAMSUMO and the state concepts on interethnic relations. For example, a number of concerns were expressed in relation to a new concept of citizenship put forward by the Government which may be perceived as being centred around Kyrgyz ethnicity rather than a national citizenship of all members of the country’s population.


In other words, the policy framework focused on creating a national identity that did not explicitly include all ethnicities and may tend to reignite past tensions by symbolically and concretely ‘leaving out’ minorities from that view of the nation, despite their demographic weight.[11] As it was indicated by the UN Special Rapporteur, the state initiatives deals more with awareness-raising activities such as on combating racial discrimination and intolerance, and does not directly address issues such as education in minority languages or the under-representation of minorities in most areas of public life.


The October 4th 2020 parliamentary elections have opened a new page in the sensitive interethnic relations. According to the ODIHR Election Observation ethnic minority candidates actively campaigned in areas where they comprise a substantial part of the population. Fierce competition within the Uzbek minority has caused a lot of anxiety among members of the community and contributed to their sense of insecurity. There were a mass brawl between supporters of leading political parties in the Aravan district of Osh, resulting in the deregistration of two ethnic Uzbek candidates.[12] In a separate development, a criminal investigation has been launched over the alleged vote-buying by two ethnic Uzbek candidates representing a leading party in Jalalabad. Reportedly, their supporters and relatives were subject to pressure by the local authorities and law enforcement bodies to testify against them. Following these incidents, there were cases of hateful rhetoric targeting the Uzbek community on social media.[13]


After October 5th 2020, minorities were frustrated when they were able to secure relatively recognisable seats in Parliament, but the events of October 5th nullified all their efforts, including financial resources. At the same time, the political crisis provided opportunities for some politicians who support nationalistic rhetoric to get access to political power. For example, Kamchybek Tashiev, leader of the nationalistic Mekenchil party, who formerly said: “I should say openly, and let people not be offended, that the head of government should be a pure-blooded Kyrgyz, who will actually be rooting for the interests of the country”, has been appointed as the Head of the State Committee for National Security.[14] In addition, Melis Myrzakhmetov, the former mayor of Osh, returned to Kyrgyzstan after seven years in ‘exile’ and has started actively participating in the country’s political life again.[15]


One of the notable events after October 5th that directly related to interethnic relations was the returning of the column on ‘ethnicity’ in the passports of Kyrgyz citizens. The changes were introduced on October 16th 2020 after the decisions of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court that recognised the absence of the ‘ethnicity’ column in the ID-passport of a citizen as contrary to Article 38 of the Constitution. In 2017, the controversial column on ‘ethnicity’ was removed from the new passports and installed into a special chip of the ID-card. From now, citizens, if they wish, can indicate their nationality in the ID-card. However, it may be argued that accentuating ethnic origin may also serve to undermine people’s sense of belonging to a cohesive and unified nation.


Japarov alongside his presidential campaign made a demonstrative move to initiate new constitutional order and organised the Constitutional Conference, which worked on the draft of the new Constitution even before the referendum on the form of government in the country took place.[16] On January 10th 2021, early presidential elections and a referendum on the form of government were held in Kyrgyzstan. According to the Central Election Commission Japarov received more than 79 per cent of the vote and more than 80 per cent of voters supported a presidential rule. Right after the presidential inauguration, the Constitutional Conference provided its ‘product’ which has drawn criticism from the legal society. For example, compared to the existing Constitution the draft does not state that every person has the right to freely determine his/her ethnicity nor establish a direct prohibition on coercion to determine and indicate his/her ethnicity. The exclusion of these guarantees from the draft Constitution makes it possible to establish at the legislative level the obligation of citizens to indicate their ethnicity, of which certain sanctions may be imposed for non-observance.[17] For example, according to the current legislation, citizens who refuse to provide their biometric data are deprived of the right to vote in elections and referendums. In the long term, such provisions can lay the foundation for increased manifestations of discrimination against ethnic minorities, as well as other violations of human rights and freedoms, which are prohibited by international law Currently, the draft of the Constitution is under scrutiny of deputies who are still holding their mandate. However, it is expected that the final draft, which solidifies presidential power, will pass with only slight changes.


Multiethnic Kyrgyzstan has for three decades tried to establish nation-building through cultural and historical propaganda on praising national heroes through reincarnating from mythic to real, and ancient to contemporary. The current state-building processes and developing national consciousness include the legends of a nation’s ‘great history’ and grand national ideological projects.[18]


For example, the Manas epic, the world’s longest oral narration, is seen as the main for a national ideological framework. However, without development of a common civic identity, multilingual education and respect for diversity and minority rights it will not achieve consolidated and united statehood. In this regards, the calls of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues upon the Government of Kyrgyzstan to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination framework that would address all grounds of discrimination, as well as more comprehensive legislation to protect the human rights of minorities become urgent. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur suggested that the existing efforts of the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure the effective participation and representation of minorities in public life must be strengthened, including in relation to the operation of quotas in the country’s Parliament. To address the apparently increasingly low levels of employment of minorities in the civil service of the country, including in the police and the judiciary, affirmative action programmes should be in place to increase the hiring of minorities to more closely reflect their proportion in the population. If these measures would take place, there is a high chance that the Kyrgyzstani people will build a strong national identity.


Sardorbek Abdukhalilov is an attorney at-law at Spavediivost Human Rights Organization in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan. Spravedlivost for its outstanding work in improving the position of national minorities was awarded the OSCE Max van der Stoel Award 2014. Sardorbek has more than 15 years of experience in law with specialisation on Human Rights. Sardorbek is 2018 Fellow of the United Nations OHCHR’s Minorities Fellowship.


Image by Ben Paarmann under (CC).


[1] National Statistical Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Kyrgyzstan” brief statistical handbook, April 2020,

[2] The political platform “Serving the Future” (“Kelechekke Kyzmat”),

[3] The Associated Press, Violent Protests in Kyrgyzstan Over Results of Election Marred by Vote Buying, The New York Times, October 2020,

[4] Statement on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its implications under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

[5] Reliefweb, According to the findings of the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry into the Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission, June 2010 (see para. 228-230),

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fernand de Varennes, United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority rights, Visit to Kyrgyzstan, 6-17 December 2019, End of mission statement, OHCHR, December 2019,

[8] According to Article 60 of the Constitutional Law “on elections of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic and the deputies of the Jogorku Kenesh of the Kyrgyz Republic ” in making the nomination list of candidates, a political party should take into account the representation of at least 15 per cent of candidates of different ethnic affiliation, with at least five of them to be included in the list of the first 65 candidates:

[9]In the Parliament (Jogorku Kenesh), 91 per cent of members are ethnic Kyrgyz. Russians have three members, Dungans have two members of parliament, whereas Kazakhs, Tatars and Uighur have one member each. While Uzbeks represent more than 14 per cent of the population, only three members of parliament are members of the Uzbek minority:

[10]  Fernand de Varennes, End of mission statement  of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Visit to Kyrgyzstan, OHCHR, 6-17 December 2019,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bruce Pannier, Brawls And All, Kyrgyz Parliamentary Campaigning Enters The Home Stretch, RFE/RL, September 2020,

[13] ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission Final Report, Kyrgyz Republic: Parliamentary Elections 4 October 2020, OSCE, December 2020,

[14] Minority Rights Group International, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 – Kyrgyzstan, refworld, September 2013,

[15] Melis Myrzakhmetov was mayor of Osh city from 2009 to 2013. He was mayor during the violent 2010 ethnic conflict and he has a genuine following, especially among ethnic Kyrgyz drawn to his nationalistic views. A criminal case was opened against him under the Article «Abuse of official position» of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic. After the start of the criminal prosecution, he fled the republic. In 2015, the Osh City Court, chaired by Sheraly Kamchybekov, found the former head of the southern capital guilty and sentenced him to seven years in prison in absentia. The ex-mayor was put on the wanted list. RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Former Mayor Of Osh Returns To Kyrgyzstan, Says Country Is In ‘Dangerous Situation’, RFE/RL, October 2020,

[16] Radio Azattyk, Kubanychbek Zholdoshev, Constitutional Conference: Doesn’t Wait Until Referendum?, December 2020,

[17] Adilet, Analysis of the draft Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, February 2021,

[18] Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, National Ideology and State-building in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 2008

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