Ethnic Uzbeks in Osh fear losing their homes and land whether to vigilante posses or legal maneuvers.
by Temir Akmatov
13 January 2011
OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Early in November hundreds of Kyrgyz horsemen occupied some 70 hectares of land rented to ethnic Uzbeks on the outskirts of Osh.
This ethnically mixed main city of southern Kyrgyzstan has been in a state of high tension since violence in June left hundreds dead and thousands of houses burned, most of them owned by ethnic Uzbeks. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Uzbeks but Kyrgyz as well, fled southern Kyrgyzstan. Coming on the heels of an armed uprising that overthrew former President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April, the violence in June has exacerbated long-running disputes over land use and housing in the densely populated city and region of Osh.
The land invasion in November targeted agricultural lands rented by the authorities to local people, mostly Uzbeks, in the early 1990s. Nearly 900 families, most with homes in Osh, grew wheat, cotton, corn, and carrots on the lands, but most stopped working their plots without making any protests, even though authorities evicted the squatters after just a day. The authorities also erected temporary barriers on the roads to the land plots so that land squatters could not deliver building materials for constructing houses.
Ethnic Uzbeks officially make up 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.4 million, the large majority in the south of the country. Some observers estimate that as many as 300,000 people, including ethnic Kyrgyz, have fled the south for the more prosperous north or Russia since June.
The land occupation ended as swiftly as it began, with police removing the squatters on 8 November, but the tensions over land have not faded.
"I've been living in a one-room apartment in a family dormitory in Osh with my small daughter for a long time, and I don't have enough money to buy a plot of land or an apartment," said a 28-year-old woman, an ethnic Kyrgyz, who introduced herself as Gulya. "It's not fair when some people have nice houses and additional land for farming while lots of people like me don't have good apartments or private houses."
The authorities of Osh province established a working committee to address the issue and recommend a solution within one month. The central government also promised to look into the land dispute. On 22 November, interim President Roza Otunbaeva signed a decree to create a governmental commission headed by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kostyuk. The commission was given a month to examine the issue and develop suggestions to solve the matter. Neither body has released its findings. However, the newly appointed prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, said after a visit to Osh on 24 December that the government would take action on allocating plots of land by the end of January.
"My family has been farming here for more than 15 years, and now after this incident we're afraid to go back to our land plot," said Shavkat, a 55-year-old farmer from Osh. "In addition, we lost our crops."
The Osh province law enforcement bodies promised to prosecute those involved in the land seizures, the generally reliable online news portal 24.kg reported on 9 November. Police detained 36 people. All were later released, and no charges have been filed.
Since the June violence many ethnic Uzbeks have hesitated to seek help from the law enforcement and judicial bodies made up largely of ethnic Kyrgyz. In the weeks after the riots, human rights organizations accused the authorities of rounding up ethnic Uzbeks. Some Uzbeks remain in detention. Many of those who remain in the city have abandoned their businesses.
Persistent rumors in both the Kyrgyz- and Uzbek-speaking communities suggest that the twin forces of rising population and communal conflict are being exploited by political and economic forces. It would not be the first time in recent Kyrgyz history: quarrels over land and the ownership of companies also broke out after the Bakiev administration took power in 2005 and sent the previous leader, Askar Akaev, into exile.
According to the last census, conducted 10 years ago, the official population of Osh city is 250,000. However, city authorities say the real number has climbed to nearly 600,000 as internal migration continues unabated, although tens of thousands have left since the June riots.
Land for housing and farming is in high demand in Osh province, one of the most densely populated places not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in all of Central Asia's Ferghana Valley. Residential building land typically goes for $2,000 to $20,000, depending on the size and location of the plot. Those entitled to state land, such as sons who have married and are setting up their own families, can file a claim with local authorities. More than 35,000 people in Osh have claimed land plots, and, according to Taalaibek Zakirov, the deputy head of the Osh provincial administration, the number of claims sharply increased after the November land-seizure attempts. "Many people are trying to obtain land plots now. Even those who have left for Russia ask their friends to submit claims [on their behalf]," 24.kg quoted Zakirov as saying.
Kyrgyz media outlets have reported allegations that the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, promised to give local Kyrgyz Uzbek-owned houses and land, as well as their businesses.
24.kg cited unnamed sources as saying that rural Kyrgyz staged the November land grab when they did not receive land promised by the mayor.
Myrzakmatov denied the allegations and said they stemmed from his political opponents.
"Maybe even members of the interim government are involved. Today many [people] want to remove me from my post," 24.kg quoted Myrzakmatov as saying on 22 November.
MORE LAND FOR A GROWING CITY
On 22 November Myrzakmatov said the question of allocating land plots for private houses remained one of the city's most urgent problems. The mayor stressed that the city authorities intend to submit an urban master plan to the new parliament. The plan foresees a major enlargement of Osh city through annexing 14,000 hectares of land owned by the authorities of the nearby Kara-Suu district.
The first deputy governor of Osh province, Kushbak Tezekbaev, stated that the land seizure had been organized in advance and that national security officials knew of it but did not inform political authorities, AKIpress reported on 9 November.
Other unsubstantiated claims center around the urban plan under discussion by city authorities. Few details have been released, but the plan is said to include building apartment blocks in place of the traditional family compounds where many Uzbeks live. Uzbek neighborhoods take up large areas of the city, particularly in central districts and around the famous Suleiman Mountain.
Ethnic Uzbeks oppose such plans, saying they do not want to abandon their ancestral lands.
"Why should I leave my house? We've been living here for many generations," said Ravshan T., an ethnic Uzbek trader at the local market. "If they want to build their new multi-storied houses, why should they take our lands? There is lots of land around the city, let them use that land, where there are no houses. Why do they attack us and target our lands and houses?"
Tabyldy Akerov, a political scientist and ethnic Kyrgyz, believes political motives underlay the land seizure.
"It is advantageous for certain people to maintain permanent tension in the south. Law enforcement representatives told me that public officials and representatives from the city administration were among the land grabbers," 24.kg information agency quoted Akerov saying on 9 November.
Temir Akmatov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Bishkek