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Solomon's City - Efforts to ease Kyrgyzstan's regional and ethnic divides have long faced their greatest challenge in Osh. Six years ago, those efforts seemed to be working.

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by Hamid Toursunov

The violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that took more than 100 lives over the past week has been widely described as ethnic clashes, with gangs of young Kyrgyz men targeting members of the country's Uzbek minority. Uzbeks make up about 14 percent of the country's 5 million population and are concentrated largely in the south. Layered on top of that issue is a north-south divide in the country, although some commentators say neither of these explanations holds water. More than six years ago, TOL looked at the regional and ethnic tensions that supposedly have put southern Kyrgyzstan and its primary city, Osh, back into the spotlight. While local and national officials ignored the issues at their peril, the situation was far from critical. This article originally appeared on 5 November 2003.

OSH | Ethnic mixing is nothing new in Osh. Kyrgyz historians believe that the country's second-largest city is 3,000 years old. Certainly, it is the most ancient in the Ferghana Valley, the geographical basin crisscrossed by the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. And, like the Ferghana Valley, Osh has always been a meeting point for civilizations and nations.

The variety of peoples here has always been exotic, even if one does not believe the Osh residents who claim that the ancient Jews came here. Myth or no myth, though, the people of Osh are clearly proud to think that King Solomon and his army camped in the area. They call the mountain around which Osh nestles either Solomon's Mountain (the Kyrgyz name) or Solomon's Throne (the Uzbeks' choice).

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Osh, the "southern capital" of Kyrgyzstan, was home to more than 40 ethnic groups. Ethnically, it has become a less colorful place in the past 12 years. The end of the Soviet Union prompted groups deported by Stalin to leave Kyrgyzstan, while the decline in Kyrgyzstan's economy fed migration.

The 1999 census showed that four of the largest ethnic groups had shrunk dramatically. More than 300,000 ethnic Russians have gone, as too have 80,000 Germans, once deported here by Stalin from the Volga and now invited to take up German citizenship. Around 57,000 Ukrainians have left, and 20,000 ethnic Tartars have headed westward in a not-always-successful attempt to return to the regions from which they were expelled by Stalin.

What was a multiethnic city is now a largely bi-ethnic one, populated mostly by Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Figures can be misleading - Osh's mayor, Jantooro Satybaldiev, puts the population at 300,000 people; unofficial sources say it has 450,000 people - but they still tell a clear story. Ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks each now account for 44 percent of the total population. The remaining 12 percent are primarily Russians, Tajiks, Tartars, Kazakhs, and Koreans.

THE REGIONAL AND ETHNIC DIVIDE

Osh may be less diverse than it was, but it is still much more varied in background than the ranks of the Kyrgyz state machinery. Historically, representatives from the south of Kyrgyzstan rarely held senior posts in the upper echelons of Kyrgyz power. Only once in the past 30 years has a southerner headed the country, and northern politicians dominate the political hierarchy.

Many southerners feel slighted, and this grievance was seen by many observers as a major contributory factor to the political crisis that boiled over last year. The spark was a corruption charge against a former leading government official who had clashed with President Askar Akaev over privatization and negotiations with China about the country's border. But since the official, Azimbek Beknazarov, was a leading southern politician, it soon gained a regional dimension. The crisis escalated. Seven died, one after a hunger strike, and six after riot police shot into a crowd of Beknazarov supporters in southern Kyrgyzstan. The road from Bishkek to Osh was blocked. It seemed symbolic of a country that many saw as split in two.

Satybaldiev, Osh's mayor, admits there is a regional divide but downplays it. "There is a natural, geographical division between the North and the South since the whole country is divided into the northern and the southern parts by mountains," he says. "But as for political and social problems between the south and the north, those are highly exaggerated."

"It is destructive opposition leaders who make up such stories to attract common people in their political struggle," says B.I., a member of Osh's city administration, who did not want his name disclosed. "They have an uncontrolled lust for power, but they do not enjoy strong support from the common people - and that is why they did not have any significant candidates during the last elections in our city."

But when, in February 2003, the government in Bishkek decided to devolve some power to Osh, it was seen as an

attempt to alleviate dissatisfaction among the population. After all, the government is not known for listening too closely to the complaints of opposition politicians.

The decentralization gives Osh special status. Unlike other towns and cities, the mayor and the city council no longer answer to the regional governor, but directly to the national government. Economically, it now has greater independence, with more of the taxes collected in Osh staying in the city.

The reform also includes a plan to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in state structures. What's more, it brings a greater measure of democracy to the selection of the mayor. Previously, the president chose the mayor. He still nominates candidates for the post of mayor, but it is now the city council that elects the mayor.

This is a move welcomed by local analysts, who see it as a successful step toward decentralizing the branches of government. Some ethnic Uzbek leaders, though, claim that the state's minority participation policy is still imbalanced. They say that national minorities, particularly ethnic Uzbeks, are under-represented in state structures of the region, including the bureaucracy, law-enforcement agencies, the judiciary, and the security, tax, and customs services. (If the number of officials were to reflect the size of the 650,000-strong Uzbek population, nationally 13 percent of posts would be filled by Uzbeks and, in southern Kyrgyzstan, 30 percent.)

The status quo, though, is defended by the administration. Another official who preferred to be unnamed, K.T., contends that "in Osh province, in nearly all state structures, the deputy heads are Uzbeks."

He adds, "The Uzbek community has its own schools, newspapers, a theater, and there is even a Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh, where Uzbeks can study in their mother tongue. Moreover, the biggest Osh-based private TV station, Osh TV, broadcasts mainly in Uzbek."

For Mayor Satybaldiev, the decision to devolve power appears not to have had any ethnic dimension. He welcomes decentralization, hailing it as the right way to strengthen democratic reforms in Kyrgyzstan. But when he lists the "most vital issues" that need "to be addressed by everyone" in Osh, they include "internal migration, communications, the supply of drinking water, and construction of new schools since the city's population is growing fast," but not ethnic or minority issues.

OSH'S CHANGING POLITICS

The decentralization of power is welcomed by many ordinary people. Local elections held this October in Osh were "very unusual in the history of the city," said a local voter, Abdurakhmonov Talant. "There were 13 candidates in our district, the competition was very high. In other nine districts the number of the candidates was high, too, as far as I know. I believe this is the result of the political change of the city."

But the opposition did not survive the competition. Not a single opposition representative succeeded in the Osh elections, though this was not through vote fraud; there were irregularities reported, but they were minor.

The elections were not a debacle just for the opposition, but also for political parties. Only four members of two political parties, Janny Zaman (New Epoch) and Moya Strana (My Country), won seats in the city's assembly. They were, though, not nominated by their parties, but by colleagues. Osh politics is now more personalized, and parties that once had a high profile have lost some of their significance. In the seats they once held are now businessmen and people from the state sector.

The elections also left the city's minorities without a distinct voice. Only Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the two largest ethnic groups, made it into the Osh assembly. The change in the city's ethnic structure, begun by the collapse of the Soviet Union, now appears complete.

Uzbeks, though, still want the shift to translate into greater political representation. In mid-October, representatives of Osh's Uzbek community visited the mayor to ask him to support the notion that the chairperson of the city's parliament should be an ethnic Uzbek. Uzbeks, they said, need "to feel involved in the governance of the city."

Satybaldiev gave his support. With Satybaldiev's backing, an Uzbek, Tokhtasin Latypjanov, was duly elected to chair the city assembly. He was the third ethnic Uzbek to head the council.

It could prove an astute decision. This month, the newly elected city's parliament will choose a mayor. Satybaldiev has a strong chance of re-election: his image is good (or, certainly not bad) at every level, no doubt helped by his relative popularity among journalists, who find him easy to reach. And the more support Satybaldiev has locally, the more independent he can become from Bishkek.

Slowly, it seems, Uzbeks are gaining political clout - and with Uzbek support, Satybaldiev may increase the power of Osh and southern Kyrgyzstan.

Hamid Toursunov is a TOL correspondent in Kyrgyzstan.

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