The Uzbek minority of Kyrgyzstan has been a passive witness of the recent change of government of the country. This attitude is hardly surprising. The regime change was started by violent protests in the streets of the capital, Bishkek last October. This was the third of such upheaval in 15 years. During the previous “revolutionary” events in 2010, the Uzbek community, representing some 15 % of the population, became the target of extended ethnic violence which claimed up to 500 civilian victims. After that, no real national reconciliation took place. This background explains the current estrangement of the community from Kyrgystan’s political life, also reflected in the low turn-over in the early presidential elections held on 10th January. Indeed, the elections confirmed the transition of power in the hands of Sadyr Zhaparov, a twice convicted former deputy which was released from prison by the mobster in October. Most notably, the new national leader is a nationalist accused of being personally involved in the interethnic pogroms of 2010.
At the difference of the situation of 2010, the new Kyrgyz disturbances saw the kin-state of the larger national minority, Uzbekistan, much more engaged with the situation of its regional diaspora as a part of a regional policy of cooperation promoted by the new Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirzoyeyev since 2017.
The position of Uzbek Communities in Central Asia
The of ethnic Uzbeks outside of the Republic of Uzbekistan illustrates how minority communities represent one of the key issues affecting the future of cooperation in Central Asia. Uzbeks constitute the largest national minority in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the second largest in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
In addition, they live in compact groups located in strategic border areas, along the main communication axis which made them key players in cross-border exchanges and natural elements of connectivity in the region.
Uzbek Population in the Neighbouring Republics
ⁱ Results of the last Soviet census available here.
a “2020 zhyl basyna Kazakstan respublika khalkynyk zhekelegen ethnostary boyinsha sany” (Population of the Republic of Kazakhstan by individual ethnic groups in 2020)
c Natsional'nyy sostav, vladeniye yazykami i grazhdanstvo naseleniya Respubliki Tadzhikistan Tom III, 2010 (via Waybackmachine, retrieved 2020.08.01).
d Results of the 2012 Census.
e According to one current estimation Afghanistan’s population is 38,987,836 of whom Uzbek are 9%.
Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan forms a common cultural area with neighbouring areas of Uzbekistan dwelling in the southern Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad regions of the Fergana Valley (view the map). With the fall of the USSR, all minorities lost a number of education and administrative facilities which were endowed by the Soviet system. Moreover, the disappearance of the federal level turned administrative lines into international borders leaving communities severed apart. Confronted with the new hurdles, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks compensated with economic activism. They became the brokers of the larger Central Asian market – Kara Suu trade town, close to Osh, serving as a major economic generator and an important element of connection with the outside world for Kyrgyzstan. However, the resulting economic disparities and relative prosperity in relations to the surrounding population have been among the reasons for the tension with representatives of the majority. Already in the wake of Soviet collapse, Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks first became target of violent clashes provoked by Kyrgyz nationalists in 1990. Also created envy among co-nationals. Twenty years of ethnic stratification of labour fueled further envy resulting in more deadly attacks causing hundreds of victims and pushed Uzbeks into a condition of deep alienation and disenfranchisement. In particular, in these conditions, a number of Kyrgystani Uzbeks radicalized adhering to extremist Islamism thus becoming target of recruitment for insurgencies abroad. In addition, the underground conditions put Islamist network in proximity to the criminal syndicates that have been thriving exploiting different conflict situations across the region and the anarchy in Afghanistan. Criminal networks also adapted to the regime of strict border closure to manage crossing operations also exploiting the transborder condition of these communities.
Evolving Perspectives of Uzbekistan as a “Kin-State”
The vulnerability of outside Uzbek communities has been exacerbated by the political line followed in their relations by the Uzbek state. The latter stands as a so called “kin-state”, i.e. a state having co-ethnic connection with communities living beyond its borders under the jurisdiction of the neighboring “home-states”. As per established practices in international relations, kin-state interest in the fate of diasporas’ abroad should not equate to interference into the neighbours’ internal affairs. Indeed international law foresees that a home-state, especially in cases when is not able to fully assure the rights of minorities, may agree with kin-states policies aimed at removing obstacles to the minorities’ wellbeing. In these conditions, a kin-state can assist neighbours in assuring the co-ethnics’ basic rights and creating an environment conducive to better internal and inter-state relations in full respect of the sovereignty principle.
Despite this, for more than twenty years, Tashkent largely ignored the fates of these communities.
Under late President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan followed an official state-building line privileging internal security and consolidation of its territorial statehood. The threat of Islamist insurgency looming over Centra Asia added to this line forming a sense of “sieged fortress”. Repressed at home, a number of religious and political opponents found shelter among the Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan exploiting the latter state’s difficulties in controlling peripherical areas. Against this outlook, Tashkent came to perceive this part of the diaspora as a source of potential threats so that the only policy towards them was to minimize contacts.
To a large extent, this policy of disregard received praise within and outside the region as it was interpreted as self-restrain and respect of the neighbours’ sovereignty. However, as the misfortune of Kyrgystani Uzbeks illustrated, it seems safe to claim that Tashkent’s official neglect also created problems for regional stability. It can be stated that Tashkent’s closure put the community behind a sort of iron curtain and that the resulting political isolation contributed to the exacerbation of the members’ apprehension and dispossession and thus making further them receptors of extremist ideas.
With Karimov’s death and Sharvkhat Mirziyoyev’s advent at the head of the state, Tashkent’s outlook radically changed. First of all, the new course impressed a net improvement in regional relations introducing an open border policy which brought relief to the lives of millions of citizens, especially in the Fergana area. As a part of this new strategy for regional cooperation, Tashkent dropped the taboo on the fate of co-ethnics across the region and integrated them in its foreign policy by defining a diaspora policy.
Moving towards this direction, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to address the issue of compatriots abroad. Among the resources assigned to work on this there have been institutional arrangements such as the creation of an office dealing with the diasporas at the sub-ministerial level, the Committee on Interethnic Relations and Friendship Cooperation with Foreign Countries under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan. One of this organ’s assignments is the “support of compatriots and the implementation of close cooperation with the Uzbek diasporas abroad”.
National Minorities and the Perspectives of Regional Relations
It can be assumed that Uzbekistan’s new official posture towards the diaspora has contributed in sheltering the Uzbek community from new provocations during the latest turmoil of the most instable republic. As soon as the situation stabilized in Bishkek, Tashkent arranged in Fergana a Council meeting of Plenipotentiaries of the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan where issues of cross-border crossing and trade and economic cooperation were discussed. At the meeting, it was also decided to create a Kyrgyz-Uzbek investment fund worth 50 million USD dollars to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation.
It is maybe too soon to judge, but latest events suggest that there are positive prospects to work towards accommodation of national minorities issues in the region. As the largest State of the region, Tashkent bear the burden of the initiative to promote an organic dialogue with neighbouring home-countries (first of all Kyrgyzstan). The sides should make their interests and expectations explicit in order to agree on what is reciprocally acceptable and what is not, and prevent and manage conflict. Appropriate measures can be agreed in consultation with the direct beneficiaries (which in particular should have a say in the definition of the border-crossing regime) to support minorities’ culture and the identity.
In addition, the principle of reciprocity demands that, in order to efficiently inter-act and support its kin abroad, Tashkent should first provide a solid framework for its national minorities’ development and prosperity, making them feel as full-fledge members of the home society. Uzbekistan is home to sizable Tajik, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Karakalpak minorities. They preserved schools and other facilities but still there is room for working out a national identity concept, which is more inclusive of different cultural religious and ethnic affiliations. This should become a core tenet of state ideology and be systematically promoted by public institutions across different level of the society. Such an example would prompt neighbours to pursue the same policies with their Uzbek communities.
Within the comprehensive set of kin policies required, education is a crucial sphere. Well-thought reciprocal educational and cultural support is particularly important in the Central Asian context. In the last years, Tashkent promoted agreements for the reciprocal support of schools on mutual basis with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (in Osh city). Education is important also in terms of building up a common regional narrative stressing the shared historic heritage of all Central Asians. A common narrative can assist in the recovery of regional tourism after the pandemics. Apart from an economic asset, tourism is an important factor in building trans-border connections where national minorities have a role to play. Indeed, from a touristic perspective, ethnic diversity is generally seen as boosting a country’s attractiveness.
Also, Uzbekistan is working towards policies of prevention of radicalization investing in building up national religious institutions (as new Centre for Islamic Civilization) and it can be expected that neighbours will welcome sharing knowledge and practices. This is true notably for Kyrgyzstan, which is in dire need of designing and implement a long-term and comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism. If properly addressed, exactly the Uzbek communities of Kyrgyzstan can become the vehicles for sharing these practices.
At the same time, the switch from a line of isolation and securitization to one of diaspora networking and coordination should necessarily consider the concerns of all the home countries. Sensitive situations such as the Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks’ require a consistent approach at the multilateral level and through the international organizations. Apart from the OSCE (the main institution dealing with national minorities), a new platform could be created within the Eurasian Economic Union. Following Uzbekistan’s recent adhesion as an observer country, this organization could assist in creating schemes of cooperation on national minorities foreseeing the participation of Russia, in its turn home of large diasporas of all Central Asian countries.
The Uzbek community’s future position in Kyrgyzstan and the line that the Uzbek state will follow to their regards will represent an important test to assess the perspective of regional cooperation in Centra Asia. The position of national minorities in the different states is indeed strategically important for the region’s future stability. Regional relations would benefit if the states could negotiate among them clearly articulated and mutually acceptable strategies of support of their kin communities across the neighbors’ borders.
By adopting a diaspora policy, Uzbekistan set the premises to start a new era in this crucial field. Being the Central Asia’s key state in terms of geopolitics and importance, Uzbekistan will define the tone of minorities’ treatment in the whole region. Showing the way, Tashkent will be in a position to call for the same treatment of its co-nationals and this will allow them to deploy their connectivity potential. This will be especially important to advice the new Kyrgyz authorities to address the situation of their ethnic Uzbek citizens in order to reinforce their integration in their home country. Here, improved access to education and participation to national institutions are important antidotes against radicalization. Such policies will contribute to turn the numerous Central Asian minorities from potential hotspots of instability into bridges of connectivity for common prosperity.
 Berdiqulov A. (2018), “Minority Communities in Contemporary Tajikistan. An Overview”, ECMI Working Paper, n. 108, December.
 Kazakhstani Uzbeks present a similar compact residence in areas adjacent to Uzbekistan, e.g. in neighbouring Sairam district they are up to 67% of the population Savin I. S. 2009, “Uzbeki Kazakhstana”, Narody Kazakhstana: Atlas-entsiklopediya, Moscow, 2009.
 At least other 2-2,6 million Uzbek labor migrants live mostly in Russia. Paramonov 2020, “The Russian Foreign Policy toward Central Asia in Economic, Security and Social Spheres: a View from Uzbekistan”, Post-soviet studies, 3 (2).
 By the mid-2000s, Kara-Suu bazaar was worth about two million U.S. dollars a day. See Liu M. (2012), Under Solomon’s throne: Uzbek visions of renewal in Osh, Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press.
 As a result of grassroots radicalization young Kyrgystani Uzbeks became prominent in terrorist groups operating against Syrian government See: ICG (2015), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia”, Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°72.
 Khasanov U. (2013), Eurasia’s Cross-Border Threats, October 18.
 Brubaker R. (1996). Nationalism reframed: nationhood and the national question in the New Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
States’ perspectives in dealing with national minorities in international affairs are comprehensively analyzed in the so-called “Bozen Recommendations” issued by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. See: OSCE HCNM (2008), “The Bolzano/Bozen Recommendations on National Minorities in Inter-State Relations & Explanatory Note”, June, 29 p.
 Fumagalli M. (2007) “Ethnicity, state formation and foreign policy: Uzbekistan and ‘Uzbeks abroad’, Central Asian Survey, 26 (1), pp.
 In addition, demographic factors also contributed to this official approach since, at the difference of Kazakhstan and Russia, overpopulated Uzbekistan didn’t need to attract human resources from abroad.
 Farkhod Arziyev: «My rassmatrivayem nashikh sootechestvennikov za rubezhom kak odin iz drayverov nashego progressa», 29.06.2020.
 Decree of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan No.5046, 19.11.2017
 “Prezident Uzbekistana nazval osnovnyye napravleniya razvitiya sotrudnichestva stran Tsentral'noy Azii,” 10.11.2017. See also the Committee’s official site here.
 “Sostoyalas' dvustoronnyaya vstrecha i.o. Prem'yer-ministra Artema Novikova s Zamestitelem Prem'yer-ministra-ministrom investitsiy i vneshney torgovli Respubliki Uzbekistan Sardorom Umurzakovym”, 09.12. 2020.
 Vielmini F. (2019), Removing Tourism Barriers in Central Asia A strategy for regional Coordination, CPRO Policy Brief.
 Kukol S. (2020), “Islam v Uzbekistane: sovremennost' i perspektivy razvitiya”, Problemy Natsional'noy Strategii, № 1 (58), pp. 49-67.
 Zenn J., Kathleen Kuehnast (2014),”Preventing Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan”, Special Report 355, United States Institute of Peace.