Scenes From Central Asia’s Forever War
In Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley, ethnic strife, corruption, and poverty collide in the country’s ongoing fight against extremism.
OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Tall and slender, “Muhammad” sits underneath a fast-spinning ceiling fan in a small teahouse in southern Kyrgyzstan as he nervously asks to be identified with a pseudonym.
Earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan’s security service, the GKNB, and local police officers detained and questioned him and some of his friends. They asked about their alleged ties to extremist groups and accused them of planning to go to Syria to wage jihad.
Muhammad says the allegations were false and the supposed evidence circumstantial, and the GKNB officers soon left them alone. But that didn’t stop local police from extorting a hefty bribe from him and his friends’ families in order to drop the extremism charges. Muhammad, his friends, and their families are all ethnically Uzbek, a large minority group that has faced discrimination and harassment from the authorities in Kyrgyzstan’s corner of the Fergana Valley — a densely populated region of Central Asia that shares snaking borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Some seven years after violence erupted between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities — leaving 470 people dead and about 400,000 displaced — ethnicity remains a particularly prickly issue in Kyrgyzstan.
And it threatens to derail the government’s efforts to come to grips with a rise in extremist activity since the start of the Syrian civil war. Though the majority of the country’s Muslim population is moderate, hundreds of Kyrgyz citizens have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. Exact numbers are elusive, but the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, estimates 500 Kyrgyz foreign fighters, while GKNB statistics show that approximately 600 citizens have made the journey.
The complicating factor: Some 70 percent of them are of Uzbek ethnicity, according to the Kyrgyz government.
That means that inevitably heavy-handed crackdowns by often corrupt and poorly trained police and security forces tend to fall disproportionately on a group that has already faced years of harassment. As Muhammad and his friends learned, the counterterrorism fight can also be a smokescreen for the sort of shakedown jobs that are all too common in the Central Asian country of 6 million.
A senior Kyrgyz government official denied that law enforcement was targeting ethnic Uzbeks in any systematic way or that they regularly faced made-up extremist charges. But the official told Foreign Policy that the government is “still figuring out how to do counterterrorism when one ethnic group is more prone to extremism than the other.”
“There are certainly some officers who do not live up to our standards,” said the senior official, referring to corruption among law enforcement. “These problems may be interpreted as ethnic targeting.”
They may also boomerang. Muhammad says he doesn’t know if he was targeted because of his ethnicity, but activists in Osh and other areas in southern Kyrgyzstan say vague sections of the law surrounding what constitutes extremism can be stretched by law enforcement officers to threaten longer sentences or be used as an opportunity to elicit a large bribe.
That dragnet risks alienating the Uzbek minority even more — and could drive some Uzbeks into the hands of extremism the government set out to avoid, activists and lawyers warn.
Khusanbay Saliev, an attorney at Bir Duino, a human rights organization that provides legal assistance in southern Kyrgyzstan, told FP that despite some local improvements in recent years, there remain systemic issues that are impeding efforts to fight extremism. In particular, many of the extremism cases rely on a section of the law that lists “possession” of extremist materials as a crime. But what qualifies as possession is being applied very broadly to include things like social media posts, where even liking or viewing one online could qualify as possession.
Saliev fears that this could particularly affect at-risk groups like ethnic Uzbeks and poorer ethnic Kyrgyz who may not know their legal rights. He says such efforts will continue to erode public trust in law enforcement and, ultimately, may hamper efforts to combat extremism in the country.
“Extremism is the battle for the hearts of young people,” Saliev said. “But the way that the government is dealing with the problem is making things worse.”
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fighting terrorism has long been a nominal priority for Central Asian states, many of which were showered with U.S. money and aid as a result. But for Kyrgyzstan, the growing terrorist threat could indeed represent a true security risk.
On Aug. 30, 2016, a suicide attacker drove and detonated a car bomb inside the Chinese Embassy compound in Bishkek, the capital. The GKNB attributed the attack to an ethnic Uighur and said it was organized by an al Qaeda affiliate now known as Tahrir al-Sham. But officials said Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan and field commander in Syria known as Abu Salah al-Uzbeki, had helped orchestrate the attack. Mukhtarov is also believed to have been recruiting fighters from Central Asia to go to Syria since 2013.
Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan have also been implicated in a pair of high-profile terrorist attacks in countries with which Bishkek enjoys close relations. The attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport last year and the St. Petersburg metro bombing in April have weighed heavy on authorities in Bishkek, particularly the added attention from Moscow.
Russian security forces blame the metro bombing on a group of ethnic Uzbeks born in southern Kyrgyzstan who worked in Russia as labor migrants, though there are abundant concerns that Russian security forces tortured a pair of Kyrgyz brothers and beat confessions out of them.
Keeping Russia happy is important. In addition to being the country’s chief economic patron, Russia is also the destination for hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers who toil in low-wage jobs hoping to send money back home to their families. Kyrgyzstan is one of the countries most reliant on remittances in the world, with money sent back home equating to roughly one-third of the country’s GDP in 2015.
This puts the Kyrgyz government in a difficult position as it tries to combat extremism. Caught between Russian demands for stepped-up measures and walking a tightrope with how to handle its ethnic Uzbek community, the government’s efforts could ultimately be hamstrung by corruption at the ground level, Ikbalzhan Mirsaiytov, a senior analyst at the nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground in Osh, told FP.
“It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to target [ethnic Uzbeks] because they know they can exploit them,” Mirsaiytov said. “Counterterrorism is another opportunity for this to happen.”
Reid Standish reported from Kyrgyzstan on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).
Photo credit: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan