How Do You Help?

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by Joshua Foust on 11/6/2011 · 11 comments

When I was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan last month, I was overwhelmed by the depth of not just the despair, but the desperation that was evident with every single Uzbek I spoke to (save one). RFERL über-reporter Daisy Sindelair, who helped me wrap my head around some of the basic issues before I flew over, wrote of how anger and desperation were cresting:

The result, she says, is like slow starvation. With no jobs and no money, life has become a fight for survival for many in the mahalla, whose streets are lined with men, many of them former cooks in the city’s once-bustling Uzbek restaurant trade, now sitting idle. More than a year after the violence, city police — all but a handful of whom are Kyrgyz — still stage regular raids on the neighborhood, rounding up men on what neighbors and human rights groups both say are spurious charges and subjecting them to vicious beatings or shakedowns or both. (Umida’s father-in-law points to a visiting neighbor, a shy young man with a pronounced stutter, saying he was forced to pay $3,000 to secure his release after being arrested, and suffered a black eye and broken ribs in the process.) Human Rights Watch, in a report earlier this year, warned that the deeply corrupted delivery of justice “undermine[s] efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel[s] tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence.”

Today, the Michael Swirtz of the NY Times joined the fray:

“Persecution against Uzbeks has become systemic,” said Khusanbai Saliyev, a lawyer with the rights group Citizens Against Corruption in Osh, which has represented about 80 Uzbeks in cases of wrongful arrest and abuse. “To imprison someone for a long prison term, it is only sufficient to have his confession. And you know how they get those confessions: torture is the main instrument for solving a case. This is the main tool they use today.”

His reporting, too, is extensive and deserves to be read in full.

So all of this has me scratching my head: what do we do about this? There is incontrovertible, overwhelming evidence that the Kyrgyz government in Osh is systematically abusing the Uzbeks who live there, and there is a widespread sense that patience is at an all time low (one Uzbek man, an out of work taxi driver, told me darkly that he felt the IMU was maybe onto something, but I thought he was clearly just griping about his situation).

I noticed another problem, too, which wasn’t immediately clear: many of the IGOs, like the OSCE, UNHCR, and the UNDP, who are active in the region employ mainly Kyrgyz. There are simple reasons for this, like how the previous twenty years of displacing all other ethnicities in the local and national governments with Kyrgyz workers have left Kyrgyz as the largest and easiest-to-hire group of competent workers.

The problem, as one Uzbek business owner explained to me, is that this ethnic imbalance on the part of the international community can create challenges. “If I want to report a Kyrgyz harassing me, or trying to use raidership” — the process by which Kyrgyz demand a 51% share in ownership and revenues from Uzbek businesses — “I don’t know if I can report that to the Kyrgyz staff of an NGO. Where else can I go?”

Given the fairly angry debate over U.S. engagement in Uzbekistan, I’m curious what options we have for countering this sort of abuse. I interviewed a civil society leaders in Bishkek about the Uzbek plight in Osh, and she got tears in her eyes. “The leaders in Bishkek, they don’t have the political capital to deal with this problem,” she told me. They’re too busy trying to make the central government work to worry about a tiny minority most of them don’t like anyway.

So what do we do? The U.S. has a much closer relationship to the Kyrgyz government, which is accused of complicity in the torture of innocent Uzbeks. The International Community has a strong presence in Bishkek, and a less strong but still highly visible presence in Osh. They’re not hurting for access. But, despite 18 months of focus on “reconciliation” (which has taken some bizarre forms, like having elders who weren’t involved in the June Events gather for tea and demand people chill out), the situation in Osh is worse than ever. Uzbeks are harassed so much the men rarely leave their mahallahs for fear of imprisonment. Several business organizations in Osh complained to me last month that an overwhelming majority of reconstruction aid — something like 90%, though I’m working to confirm that number — has gone to Kyrgyz, who were at best a small minority of those who suffered from the violence and property destruction.

UNHCR has been effective at helping to bring people shelter and prevent starvation. But pivoting from that basic level of disaster relief has proven an enormous challenge for the international community, including the government run aid groups like DfID and USAID. I don’t have any answers here — I don’t know what else could be done differently to change the situation. It’s easy to say “we need justice,” or “apply leverage.” Everyone wants to do those thing. But what leverage does the international community have to actually do that? What shape does it take on the ground? How do you force a thuggish Mayor to stop persecuting an entire people-group?

This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of human rights advocacy in Central Asia. No matter the level of engagement, we do not have a consistent policy or method of operation that will alter the conditions of abuse. We can alleviate some of the manifestations of abuse for a while, and with any luck convince a democratic government like Kyrgyzstan’s to eventually take notice and respond to its citizens.

Beyond the simple fact of having access, I’m not sure what can be done. Pressuring autocratic governments works only so much; they’re not responsive to an electorate (the way, say, apartheid South Africa was) so there’s only so much pressure that will have a change. Having access and publishing abuses is a great start, since even in Central Asia exposure has led to a mild, temporary curtailment of abuses in some cases. But what, really, can we do? What’s the roadmap for improving conditions?

Very few people or groups have a solid answer, and even fewer have any successes to draw from. And this is where I scratch my head, and it’s where I get lost in the debate.

Pic: A burned out store front in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, taken by me on October 20, 2011.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AJK November 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm

All else besides, I am…well…a bit discomfitted by the IMU canard. That can come off a bit more weasel-word than you may have intended.

AJK November 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm

…and that came off a bit more grumpy than I intended. It’s really touching, and you have a lot of good points. I don’t want to come off like a punk at my old digs. So I hope I didn’t.

Chris November 6, 2011 at 11:36 pm


Informative post, but your point about the INGOs is accurate. I have Uzbek friends that work for both UNHCR and UNDP in Osh and they say that Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are evenly split throughout many of these organizations. Local program managers tend to be either Kyrgyz or Uzbek, with an international overseer. Local micro-credit organizations that have foreign donors are often staffed wholly by Uzbeks. One thing to watch out for though is the government’s attempt to bypass Jantoro Saptybaldiyev, who is in charge of the reconstruction effort, and who has consistently opposed the Osh GenPlan set out by Melis Myrzakmatov. This could be the result of pressure from the “thuggish mayor” who has his allies in Bishkek – a new ‘Osh restoration agency’ is to be set up within one of the ministries, working ‘in parallel’ with the Osh reconstruction agency Saptybaldiyev heads. Most likely it is to undermine the work of a man who is fairly well-respected both by Uzbek community leaders and by foreign donors for making the best of a job the central government barely supports him in.
Your description of Sindelar as an Uber-journalist is correct – I really enjoyed her anniversary reportage.



Joshua Foust November 7, 2011 at 8:11 am


I accept what you’re saying, but more than one Uzbek complained about the ethnic imbalance. That doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re wrong (I have no way of knowing for sure), but I do think that perception is important to bring forward and talk about. If they think there are no Uzbeks there – if the siege mentality is that bad – then that is important information as well.

Chris November 7, 2011 at 12:49 am

*isn’t accurate*, sorry.

Aslan November 7, 2011 at 5:06 am

The contrast between Osh and Jalalabad is startling. Both places experienced an anti-Uzbek pogrom last year and both have ongoing and systematic abused of Uzbeks by police and others in authority (even the gas meter readers have exhorted thousands of soms from Uzbeks) . However, the overall situation in Jalalabad is so much better because the Mayor of Jalalabad is not regularly inciting racial discord and attempting to ethnically cleanse the city of Uzbeks. Now that Kyrgyzstan has a democratically elected President, maybe he will set about removing the last staunch Bakiev-era thorn in Kyrgyzstan’s side.

Chris November 7, 2011 at 10:14 am


Believe me, that is the last thing he is going to do!

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick November 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm

My first thought is: why aren’t you willing to write this emotionally about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan?

My second thought is: why, again, such despair? “Have it your way. The world is ugly, And the people are sad.” (Wallace Stevens).

And? So you pick yourself up and keep plugging away at it. Fortunately, Russia is giving more Uzbeks citizenship and is available to go to, legally and illegally. It’s not good. But it’s something.

So what is to be done? Well, one is to get more people like Daisy to go back. The “international community” and the justice jet-set came through last summer and last fall — but then they ebbed away. Libya, Syria, these took them away. So you get them to keep coming back. The strongmen made a few threats and a few expulsions of journalists and they got the reporting cut way down. So people have to fight back.

The other problem I see is that the Obama Administration, perhaps because they had messed up so badly propping up Bakiyev and keeping the base going with apparently corrupt contracts and such, fell all over themselves to embrace Otunbayeva and to declare democracy where it isn’t really gelled. There’s a tendency I find even among some NGOs that should know better not to realize that if the north has better press freedom, the lack of Uzbek-language TV in the south is still a problem. So you have to keep hacking away at this tendency all over, in Washington and other capitals and at the UN, etc. that Kyrgyzstan is the poster boy for the region and therefore everyone has to go light on them.

And it really comes down to fighting little battles with USAID contractors and OSCE seminars and whatnot trying to get them to diversify and not only have Kyrgyz, and trying to get visibility for Uzbek advocates.

I, too, asked over and over again how you get the thuggish mayor of Osh to do things when I was pursuing just the simple task of reporting on what the Kiljunen commission was trying to do and asking why it didn’t get access, etc. etc. And all you can do on this is simply to keep asking every day for the UN and OSCE missions and commissions to function. They have money, they have people, they go there, if they are questioned and publicized more they do more.

South Africa wasn’t at all “responsible to an electorate” for years and years and years, when human rights activists like Arthur Helton would try to incrementally change things just by getting legal defense and trying to win a few cases of false charges of terrorism. They didn’t respond for ever — until they did, and then the years of groundwork paid off. The roadmap is going to only include more and more of that same kind of boring stuff that doesn’t seem to excite or impress you as vald — case work, trying to get OSCE police advisors to function, getting UN treaty bodies to function, getting NGOs to care more because they moved on, etc.

And — what Chris said. The thuggish mayor has is allies in Bishkek. You can work on Bishkek. You don’t even need to spend the $75 for the plane ticket.

Metin November 16, 2011 at 3:57 am

‘My first thought is: why aren’t you willing to write this emotionally about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan?’

I live in Uzbekistan, but wonder if any ethnic minority here is being persecuted.

My first thought here is why loud voices like Catherine A. Fitzpatrick are so indifferent for rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan and prefer to hear about ‘rights abuses in Uzbekistan’ instead.

K November 8, 2011 at 8:42 pm

What about an organization like Witness? If an NGO would take it upon themselves to instruct Uzbeks on how to discreetly record these abuses to create accountability, it might make a difference.

k2 November 14, 2011 at 10:28 pm

It’s Jantoro Satybaldiev, not Saptybaldiev.

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