UZBEKISTAN: THE IRON LEADER  With Islam Karimov determined to keep his country 
“stable at any price”, reform and democracy look as far away as ever.  By Inga 
Sikorskaya in Bishkek

KARIMOV’S WALKOVER FAILS TO SET MEDIA ON FIRE  As everyone knows who is going 
to win the Uzbek presidential ballot, it is not surprising that media 
campaigning has lacked drama and urgency.  By IWPR staff in Central Asia


has promised radical reforms to birthing hospitals, where bribes and poor 
service are the rule.  By Salimakhon Vahobzade and Lola Olimova in Dushanbe

Kyrgyzstan have been left in a legal twilight zone by contradictory legislation 
and political pressure.  By Tolkun Namatbaeva in Bishkek


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With Islam Karimov determined to keep his country “stable at any price”, reform 
and democracy look as far away as ever.

By Inga Sikorskaya in Bishkek

To the applause of the crowds, after finishing his election speech, he bows, 
clasping his right hand to his chest in traditional Uzbek manner, and smiling 

The gesture of humility is for just show. Islam Karimov presides over one of 
the harshest regimes in Central Asia, and after 18 years in power he is not 
about to abandon his post just yet. 

After serving two terms in office, he is embarking on a third even though the 
Uzbek constitution says presidents can only serve twice in succession. No 
official justification has been given, but the reasoning appears to be that 
when the constitution was changed in 2002 to give presidents seven rather than 
five years, what was then his second term should count as his first under a new 

Last month, the Central Election Commission registered Karimov as a candidate 
for the December 23 polls, nominated by the Liberal Democratic party, the 
latest in a clutch of parties he has favoured over the years. They also 
registered three other contenders nominated by other pro-government parties and 
civic groups.

No one was fooled by this pretence of competition. Most Uzbeks accept that 
Karimov will govern the country for the rest of his life. 

Ironically, Karimov rose to power in the era of “perestroika”. In 1989, at a 
time when reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was installing new 
leaderships in the constituent republics, Karimov was able to consolidate 
himself as Uzbekistan’s top man.

Formerly Communist Party chief in the southwestern region of Kashkadarya, he 
manoeuvred himself to prominence just as party bosses in Moscow were searching 
for a new compromise figure. 

Soviet Uzbekistan’s leaders were particularly closely monitored by Moscow 
because of the “cotton scandal” presided over by long-time leader Sharaf 
Rashidov a few years earlier, and because of the proximity of this mainly 
Muslim republic to Afghanistan, where Soviet troops were pulling out after 
years of occupation and war. 

Karimov’s background in Soviet economics – he led Uzbekistan’s Gosplan or State 
Planning Committee for several years – made him look like a safe pair of hands. 

By 1990, Karimov was president of the Soviet Uzbek republic, and the following 
year he was elected president of what was now an independent country.

Communism was ditched in favour of a new emphasis on Uzbek nation-building, and 
the local party branch was quickly transformed into the People’s Democratic 

At this crucial turning point, “Karimov had a great chance to become a national 
hero,” according to Tolib Yaqubov, leader of the Human Rights Society of 
Uzbekistan, who now lives in exile in France.

“The Uzbek opposition in the shape of the Birlik People’s Movement and the Erk 
Democratic Party met him and encouraged him to start democratic reforms and 
renounce authoritarian rule.

“But that is not what he wanted.” 

Karimov subsequently forced both Birlik and Erk underground and hounded their 
leaders out of the country.

Other observers, too, recall the initial months of independence as a time of 

“At the time, Karimov had big ambitions, he enjoyed the confidence of most of 
the population and he was not afraid of communicating with ordinary people,” 
said an observer in the northwestern region of Khorezm. 

“But that merely enabled to him to start relying on the use of force, and to 
manipulate the public.”

It may sound ironic, but many other commentators agree that the high degree of 
public trust the new national leader enjoyed helped untie his hands.

Even before his first election as president in December 1991, he began 
tightening the reins, issuing a decree banning demonstrations and introducing 
tough penalties for anyone who violated the ban.

He won that election with 86 per cent of the vote, if the official count is to 
be believed. He did face one real challenger for the first and last time, in 
the shape of Erk leader Muhammad Salih, who now lives in exile.

In February 1992 the new regime showed its teeth after the police opened fire 
on a demonstration by Erk supporters in the centre of Tashkent. This event 
marked the start of the truly repressive Karimov epoch.

“It has to be said that this man was initially a very hypocritical politician 
because he said one thing and did another,” said Yoqubov. 

“At the beginning of the Nineties, Karimov talked about democracy more than 
anyone else,” Yakubov added. “I was surprised that a man who talked about 
democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law later became so oppressive. 
Later I realised that it was in this man’s nature not to take any dissent”.

At the start of his political career, Karimov often showed his face in public. 
Wearing his familiar blue suit and red necktie – the favourite attire of a 
Soviet party functionary - his slogan was “stability at any cost”. 

Initially, the president said stability was necessary to provide a basis for 
democratic progress down the line. As other former Soviet states embarked on 
chaotic political transformations and economic reforms, and neighbouring 
Tajikistan plunged into civil war, Uzbekistan remained largely unchanged, with 
only limited private sector development and the retention – at least in theory 
– of the Soviet-style welfare state. 

Later on, the concept of stability was pursued as an end in itself, providing a 
justification for a campaign against dissent of any kind. 

After 18 years, Karimov’s administration has not changed its spots. There is 
the same blue suit and red tie, and the same calls for stability “at any cost”. 

The president still speaks a lot, but these days mainly on TV. He has started 
smiling more often and likes to use the word “aytaylik” - “let’s say” - which 
sounds folksy in Uzbek.

Karimov will be 70 at the end of January, but shows no signs of wanting to give 

“From his very first days in power, Karimov has been doing his best to hold 
on,” said an analyst in Andijan. “He has proved a great master of intrigue, 
managing to create a purposeful team around him and organising and 
concentrating its work.” 

His principal instruments for maintaining control are the interior ministry, 
which manages the ubiquitous uniformed police, and the National Security 
Service, SNB, the successor to the KGB, which has undercover agents throughout 
the system. 

“Karimov mainly depends on the SNB as his source of power,” said the analyst. 
“It is a state within the state.”

Meanwhile, Karimov has changed the constitution to ensure he can never be 
impeached and that he can only be relieved of his post in the case of serious 

The struggle against religious extremism has become his trump card, and kept 
foreign critics off-balance. Prior to Andijan, Karimov had aligned himself with 
the West in the “war on terror”, presenting his country as the last bastion 
against the emergence of Taleban-style militancy in Central Asia.

After the secular opposition, in the shape of Erk and Birlik, was squeezed out 
of existence, Karimov took on Islamic groups which offered the only other 
organised avenue for expressing dissent. 

Many thousands of real or alleged Islamists have been arrested over the years. 
Human rights groups say the torture of detainees and the fabrication of cases 
are routine. Yet despite such strong-arm tactics, radical Islam – currently in 
the form of the banned group Hizb-ut-Tahrir – remains a force to be reckoned 

Some maintain that Karimov deliberately exaggerated the threat of radical Islam 
in the early days.

“In the early Nineties, Karimov made up this myth of Islamic terrorism and this 
allowed him to suppress any dissent,” said an Uzbek political analyst. “This 
myth still helps him to cling to power.”

The president cited the spectre of Islamic extremism after his security forces 
opened fired on a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, 
causing what local and international human rights groups said were several 
hundred civilian casualties including women and children. Karimov said 
afterwards that less than 200 people died and most of them were armed 

He refused point-blank to countenance the United Nations’ request to allow an 
independent investigation, and rejected criticism from the United States and 
other states, forcing the closure of a US airbase in southern Uzbekistan and 
turning towards Moscow. 

At home, the government response was increased pressure on human rights group 
and foreign media. 

In this isolated country, some voters are convinced Karimov is their only 
chance for certainty and stability. The intensified propaganda in the state-run 
media encourages such sentiments.

“Our president has done a lot for stability in Uzbekistan,” said one young 
housewife from Khorezm. “Television shows explosions and terrorist acts all 
over the world. May Allah and the president save us from this. He is a great 

One journalist from Tashkent argued that in the run-up to the polls, Karimov 
had begun engaging with the outside world again. 

“For two years [since Andijan] Uzbekistan has faced international isolation,” 
he said. “But recently there have been signs of the economic contacts are 
growing with other states. That inspires hope. I think the current situation 
will make the president think about the realities inside the country, and about 
possible changes.”

Others dismiss this rosy prognosis as unrealistic. One Uzbek political emigre 
told IWPR that Karimov was fundamentally fearful of reforms as he believed any 
change would work against him.

“He’s unable to launch any reform,” said the émigré. “He’s already had 
opportunities to start economic reforms but he hasn’t done so because he’s 
worried that any reform will bring freedom, and if any section of the 
population acquires freedom, it could ruin him.”

Insiders speak of Karimov as a man with a strong personality who can take 
independent decisions based on his own judgement without consulting with his 

Life has taught him to trust no one, they say. 

Arkady Dubnov of the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostey, says one negative 
consequence of this character trait is that no one wants to tell the president 
the truth. 

“People are afraid to tell him anything unpleasant or to inform him about the 
problems facing the country in case they lose their jobs,” said Dubnov. “This 
is a tragic characteristic not only of the president but also currently of 

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR editor in Bishkek.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their 


As everyone knows who is going to win the Uzbek presidential ballot, it is not 
surprising that media campaigning has lacked drama and urgency.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

A programme called “Elections – the Mirror of Democracy” is shown on state 
television twice a week, in Russian and in Uzbek, telling viewers about the 
presidential polls taking place in Uzbekistan on December 23. 

But a mirror of democracy is just what Uzbekistan’s election race is not, 
according to most observers. They maintain the odds are stacked so heavily in 
favour of the incumbent Islam Karimov that there is not even a pretence at 
giving the other three candidates an equal chance.

Campaigning in the media kicked off in Uzbekistan on November 18, after the 
four candidates were formally registered. 

Aside from Karimov, they are Asliddin Rustamov, leader of the People’s 
Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, Diloram Tashmuhammedova, chair of the Adolat 
party, and Akmal Saidov, director of the National Institute for Human Rights.

Officially, the race is running well. The Central Election Commission, CEC, 
publishes regular updates, and recently noted that the polling stations had 
been supplied with election literature, posters and brochures outlining who the 
candidates and what they stood for. 

The statement said the contest was being covered by about 100 media outlets in 
the country. 

The various parties behind the candidates have received government funding to 
run media campaigns. According to CEC, six million US dollars has been 
earmarked for advertisements, posters and other publicity material, as well as 
TV and radio broadcasts. 

Each candidate was given ten minutes free airtime to deliver an address on 
state TV and radio, and a designated amount of column-space in the government 
newspapers Narodnoe Slovo and Pravda Vostoka.

Observers say that while there is some uniformity in the amount of airtime 
distributed among the candidates, the information is presented in such a form 
that voters are left in no doubt whom they should pick.

“Reporting on the candidates is absolutely similar except for the reports on 
the Karimov’s pre-election tours,” said one TV viewer from Tashkent. “These 
begin with a speech from Karimov which is usually interrupted by applause from 
the audience.”

Another viewer also complained of the monotony of reports on the other 
candidates. “I listened to their addresses on radio and TV, but none of them 
even said they wanted to win the election, let alone what reforms they would 
undertake if they did. 

“They all talked about how nice it was to live in independent Uzbekistan and 
what progress we have made within the last few years under Karimov. They 
promise that the Uzbek nation will have an even better life in future - but 
they don’t talk about what would happen under another president.” 

Viewers say programmes like “Mirror of Democracy” have not made much 

“How can we decide who to vote for based on these programmes?” asked one voter 
from the western city of Bukhara. “I’d like to watch a TV debate where several 
candidates speak – that’s how it’s done in other countries like the United 
States and France, and it’s interesting to watch. 

“Who is going to speak against Karimov here?”

Most local newspapers in Uzbekistan, meanwhile, provide only the bare minimum 
of information about the other candidates. “When they write about Karimov’s 
meetings with voters in the regions, they quote a lot from him and from the 
speeches made in his support,” complained Hamid, a civil society activist. 

“As for the meetings with voters held by other candidates, they simply report 
that these took place on one place or other. There’s no other information.”

Public information in Uzbekistan is entirely in the hands of the authorities. 
There are no independent media, the internet is filtered and censored, and 
pressures have become even greater during the election period.

A tour of central Tashkent reveals that visually, too, Karimov dominates the 

“There are photos, biographies and the main programmes of the four candidates 
posted in the windows of several large stores,” he noted. “But Karimov’s 
programme is twice as long as the others’,” he added. 

There were no banners or big posters at all, he added. Sources in other cities 
report the same minimal level of street advertising. In some regions, a few 
posters have been put up, reading: “Young generation, vote for a bright future 
for this country”, or “Elections serve the future of the country”.

A student from a university in northern Uzbekistan spotted a few small leaflets 
that were stuck on the walls of a café.

“I think no one will read them here,” he said. “There are no other election 
posters, although the city is usually full of all kinds of advertisements and 
billboards with pictures saying how good it is for people to live in 

Many local people believe more convincing media agitation on behalf of the 
other candidates would not have made much difference to the outcome of the 
elections in any case outcome of voting was predetermined, they maintain.

“The election campaign ended a month ago, when the voters’ signatures needed 
for the registration of the candidates were all collected,” one woman working 
in a Tashkent factory told IWPR. “Everyone in our plant was forced to sign up 
for Islam Karimov,” she added. “And on the day of election, they [officials] 
will visit each house and make us come to polling station to vote for him.” 

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their 



The health ministry has promised radical reforms to birthing hospitals, where 
bribes and poor service are the rule.

By Salimakhon Vahobzade and Lola Olimova in Dushanbe

When most western women go to hospital to give birth, they take it for granted 
that the doctors and nurses will take care of them. They might give them 
chocolates or flowers if they feel they have been especially well treated, but 
it goes no further than that.

But when the daughter of a Dushanbe schoolteacher recently gave birth in a 
rural hospital in Tajikistan, the medical staff not only demanded a cash bribe, 
but virtually held the woman hostage until her family paid up.

“When she was due to be discharged from hospital, three members of the medical 
personnel came up to my daughter smiling and saying, ‘Congratulations on having 
a son,’” the teacher, who did not want to be named, told IWPR. 

“Then they added, ‘You owe us money and until your husband pays us, we won’t 
let you go.’ At first, we thought it was just a joke. But they weren’t joking, 
so my son-in-law took 100 somoni [30 US dollars] out of his pocket and gave it 
to them. Relatives told us that we got off cheap.” 

The teacher’s story might sound like an aberration. But her account is far from 
unusual in Tajikistan. Sanovbar Ahmedova and Lilia Chernova, both residents of 
Dushanbe, told IPWR they had had almost identical experiences. 

The women said that when it came to getting discharged from maternity clinics 
in the city, the medical staff mentioned their low salaries and demanded 
remuneration for their work. 

“We had to pay everyone – both those who did have something to do with us and 
those who didn’t,” said Chernova. “They all lined up, the nurses and the 
auxiliaries. It was terrible!”

Officially, Tajikistan still provides free healthcare, but in practice, the 
system has been collapsing for years. The cash-strapped government is unable to 
pay much in the way of salaries to health workers, leaving it up to doctors and 
nurses to extract the money they want – or need – from patients.

Sherkhon Salimov, director of the State Agency for Financial Control and 
Fighting Corruption, recently brought attention to a case involving Zebo 
Tosheva, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from the City Medical Centre’s 
maternity department.

A member of his agency caught Tosheva demanding 300 US dollars from a patient 
in order to carry out an operation that should have been available for free.

After the woman told her husband, he went to the anti-corruption agency and 
protested. Tosheva was subsequently caught red-handed by agency staff while 
soliciting another bribe. 

Sheer poverty fuels the culture of corruption in Tajikistan’s health service. 
The country is among the poorest states in the former Soviet Union, and average 
salaries are only about 45 dollars a month.

This is reflected in poor health care. Tajikistan has high levels of maternal 
mortality, and the worst rate of infant mortality in Central Asia.

On average, 44 mothers die in childbirth or immediately afterwards for every 
100,000 live births, while 16 of every thousand children die within the first 
ten months of life, a figure that rises to 21 in 1,000 within the first five 

Most deaths occur in rural areas and in health care institutions that lack 
blood products, anesthetics and other basic medical items. Because of the lack 
of funding, women attending the majority of maternity hospitals have to bring 
everything they need themselves, including bed sheets and nappies. They also 
have to pay for such basic items as cotton wool, syringes and bandages. 

To address the virtual collapse of free healthcare, the government is phasing 
in a system of fixed payments for the state health service. However, at this 
point mother-and-child care remain free. 

In response to increased complaints about the poor conditions in maternity 
hospitals, and the stated aim of cutting maternal and infant mortality rates, 
the health ministry has drawn up new regulations for these institutions.

The head of the ministry’s department for mother-and-child care and 
reproductive health, Shamsiddin Kurbanov, announced last year that the 
regulations would provide for separate rooms for each mother-to-be, fully 
provided with changing tables, nappies, blankets, baby wear and other items.

The new services are to be provided first in a pilot project in the town of 
Shahrinau, 20 kilometres from the capital. The project will be funded by 
international donors, but ultimately the aim is to get families to pay for 
these services to make the service self-financing.

While the reforms sound excellent on paper, few believe they will ever be put 
into practice on a wide scale. For now, such conditions are a distant dream for 
the majority of pregnant women in Tajikistan, many of whom never make it to a 
hospital at all. 

The head gynaecologist at the ministry of health, Gulbahor Ashurova, said a 
high percentage of women still deliver babies at home, especially in rural 
areas where 70 per cent of the population still lives. This is another major 
reason for the country’s high mortality rate, she said.

Far from decreasing, the death rate among Tajikistan’s mothers is currently 
stable or rising. This year, an increase in the mortality rate of birthing 
mothers was recorded in Khatlon region in the south of the country, for 
example. There were ten deaths per 100,000 women in this region in 2006, and 11 
per 100,000 within the first ten months of 2007. 

Dr Barno Mirzoeva, head doctor for children’s health and obstetrics for the 
Rudaki district, 17 kilometers from Dushanbe, told IWPR a typical case involved 
a young woman who died at a local midwife’s house after the midwife failed to 
stop her bleeding. 

“It is sad, but in the first ten months of 2007 we had three deaths of women in 
childbirth,” the doctor said. “The third died on our table because she arrived 
too late. The police held her car up at a checkpoint for one and a half hours, 
and as a result, we were unable to save her or the child.”

Like most experts, Dr Mirzoeva blames the crisis in maternity care on the lack 
of qualified personnel, low salaries among doctors and nurses and the generally 
defective finances of most health care institutions.

“Junior staff in hospital receive only 55 somoni [15 dollars] per month. Tell 
me what you can buy for that money today, when a sack of flour costs 107-110 
somoni, a kilo of meat 15 somoni, and a kilo of [cooking] oil nine somoni?” she 

Staff were also overloaded, she said, noting that hospital personnel often have 
to assist in the birth of ten children in a day. 

Ashurova says the low salaries have led to an exodus of qualified doctors, 
particularly obstetricians and gynecologists who head for Russia and 

Hospital managers say the medical graduates they get for maternity care are not 
up to scratch.

“There are lots of students who have internships in our hospitals but after 
graduation only two or three of them come to the maternity clinics,” she said. 
“The majority leave for other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent 
States, and usually low pay is the reason.” 

Experts say attempts to systematise maternity provision will be ineffective 
without implementing comprehensive reform of the health sector in general. 

“It is gratifying that Tajikistan is trying to follow World Health Organisation 
recommendations when it comes to effective obstetric techniques, but making 
them a reality will take substantial resources,” warned Sobirjon Kurbanov, a 
representative of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF. 

Those resources are in short supply. Health does not appear to be number one 
priority for the authorities, judging by the percentage of money assigned to 
this area – under 4.5 per cent of a modest total budget for 2008.

Jumaboy Sanginov, who sits on parliament’s committee for social, family, health 
and environment issues, says it is time to wake up. 

“As long as there is no real support from government, and there aren’t the 
right resources, goals will not be achieved and the impetus for reform will 
subside,” he said. 

Salimakhon Vahobzade is a correspondent for Narodnaya Gazeta and Lola Olimova 
is IWPR’s Tajikistan editor.


Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan have been left in a legal twilight zone by 
contradictory legislation and political pressure.

By Tolkun Namatbaeva in Bishkek

To the outside world, it might seem curious that a country as poor as 
Kyrgyzstan should have become a magnet for refugees and asylum-seekers.

But since May 2005, when the Uzbek authorities put down a revolt in the eastern 
Andijan region with much bloodshed, Kyrgyzstan has faced the dilemma of what to 
do with hundreds of refugees from its neighbour.

Although some of the refugees are registered as such - and over 400 left 
Kyrgyzstan for third countries in 2005 - many are still believed to be living 
in the shadows in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has a substantial ethnic Uzbek 
population and the newcomers can blend in.

Kyrgyzstan is a signatory to international conventions on refugees, but its 
handling of the Andijan refugee issue proved a severe test of its commitments 
in practice because of the political sensitivities involved.

So far, it is hard to say whether Kyrgyzstan has passed the test. While some 
protections have been afforded to the Uzbek refugees, political considerations 
have gained the upper hand over human rights in some instances, and the 
situation is not helped by a lack of clarity on applicable legislation.


The first dilemma faced by the Kyrgyz authorities after Andijan was precisely 
which international agreements should apply to the incomers.

On the one hand, there are several universal conventions that Kyrgyzstan has 
signed, starting with the 1951 convention on the status of refugees, the 1954 
convention on stateless persons and – if the Kyrgyz authorities are considering 
sending people back to Uzbekistan - the 1984 convention against torture. 

In addition, Kyrgyzstan is bound by the 1993 Minsk agreements of the 
Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, which commits it to guarantee the 
rights of CIS nationals and stateless persons in line with international 
conventions, and in particular not to send an individual to a country where he 
or she might be tortured. 

At the same time, however, CIS members are bound to deliver up individuals 
whose extradition is sought by a fellow-member, under the terms of a 1995 
agreement. Uzbekistan has invoked this on a number of occasions, and at least 
five people have been sent back whom Tashkent accuses of committing criminal 
offences at the time of the Andijan protests. 

Vitaly Ponomarev, from the Moscow-based Memorial Fund human rights centre, says 
one of the problems with these extraditions is the lack of transparency. 

“No lawyer defending the refugees’ rights ever saw the records of a decision to 
extradite, so it’s been impossible to appeal against, criticise or contest such 
decisions,” he told IWPR. 

Within Uzbekistan, one of the main provisions that dissidents are charged with 
is Article 159 of the criminal code – “violating the constitutional order”, 
which appears to encompass many kinds of opposition activity as well as 
actually planning a coup, and which can carry a prison term of up to 20 years. 

Ponomarev noted that that many of the refugees in Kyrgyzstan are listed as 
wanted by Tashkent on this worrying article. 

The fact that neither Kyrgyz nor Russian law acknowledges such a crime should 
be an instant obstacle to extradition, as the Minsk agreement requires there to 
be a legal equivalent. But instead of prosecutors in those countries blocking 
deportation, there are cases where they have fudged the charges in order to 
keep Tashkent – an important regional player – happy. 

Ponomarev recalls the high-profile instance from August 2006 when the Kyrgyz 
authorities sent back five Uzbek refugees, the prosecutor general’s office in 
Bishkek gave an assurance that they would be tried only on criminal charges, 
not for political or religious offences. 

Although this appeared to amount to a condition for extradition, Ponomarev 
noted that “it became clear within a matter of days that besides other charges, 
they were being charged under Article 159. That means Kyrgyzstan effectively 
sanctioned prosecution of these people… on charges of a political nature.”

To complicate matters, Ponomarev says the Uzbek authorities have engaged in 
“manipulating information” about the cases involved, changing the specific 
offences people were accused of along the way. 


Many of the Uzbek citizens in Kyrgyzstan are believed to lack refugee status, 
granted either by the government or by the office of the United Nations High 
Commissioner for Refugees.

Mirlan Nurmatov, from the prosecutor general’s office, explains that the 
Bishkek tries to apply CIS agreements on the rights of refugees, but in the 
case of the people who fled the Andijan violence, many have not obtained 
official status so these rules do not apply, and they can be extradited back to 

According to political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, “These people are not 
refugees and are not protected by international documents on the protection of 
refugees,” he said.

Sanjar Tajimatov, an Osh-based expert on the Fergana valley, argues that the 
status of these Uzbek nationals needs to be clarified. 

“Because they lack refugee status, they are not secure,” he said. “Proximity to 
Uzbekistan makes them feel somewhat uncomfortable in the south [of Kyrgyzstan], 
even though they have a lot of relatives there.”


One of the things that makes such people worried is the level of cooperation 
between Kyrgyzstan’s security services and those of Uzbekistan in tracking down 
wanted persons among the refugees. 

There have been several cases where individuals have disappeared from the 
Kyrgyz south only to turn up in custody in Uzbekistan. According to Ponomarev, 
these people were simply abducted – and like many other observers he suspects 
agents sent in by the Uzbek National Security Service, SNB, were quietly helped 
by their Kyrgyz colleagues.

This is where the political sensitivities come in. The Uzbek leader Islam 
Karimov looked on with horror at the March 2005 “tulip revolution” which saw 
his Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akaev ousted, and he may have seen events in 
Andijan a month and a half later as a direct spill-over of the mood of protest. 

So when the refugees fled from across the border from Andijan, Kurmanbek Bakiev 
– then still only acting president of Kyrgyzstan - had to tread a careful line 
between his government’s international human rights obligations and Tashkent’s 
concern about the state of his country, and specifically its demand that he 
should not shelter people it regarded as ringleaders of the Andijan revolt.

It is believed that in order to placate Karimov, the Bakiev administration 
quietly gave its assent for SNB officers to enter southern Kyrgyzstan to snatch 

“Kyrgyzstan shares a border with Uzbekistan, and their [Uzbek] secret services 
operate freely in the south of Kyrgyzstan,” said Tajimatov,

Although this is a widely-held view, Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former Kyrgyz 
foreign minister, insists there is no firm evidence to show the SNB has a free 
hand in southern Kyrgyzstan. 

According to Tajimatov, Kyrgystan is likely to remain constrained in fulfilling 
its international obligations on refugees because of more pressing factors such 
as its need to show its immediate neighbours it is cooperative on security 

As governments and human rights groups argue about which of the various 
conventions take precedence, hundreds of Uzbek refugees remain trapped in a 
legal limbo. Terrified of returning to their own country, they have yet to find 
security in Kyrgyzstan. 

According to Tajimatov, a solution may be a long way off because as far as the 
governments involved are concerned, “the interests of the state take 
precedence, not international conventions”.

Tolkun Namatbaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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