UZBEKISTAN: Government and opposition concerned over Kyrgyz unrest
TASHKENT, 23 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Fearing the spread of ethnic discord in the region, the Uzbek government has voiced concern over political unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, where a large Uzbek minority lives.
At the same time, the country's fragmented opposition backed their counterparts in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, who have been protesting about flawed parliamentary polls since 27 February. But they were fearful that an official crackdown in Kyrgyzstan might give Tashkent an excuse to further tighten the screws on opposition parties, rights groups and NGOs at home.
"The people of Uzbekistan, which is a close neighbour of Kyrgyzstan, are concerned about the events happening in Kyrgyzstan, especially in its southern regions," an Uzbek foreign ministry statement issued in Kyrgyzstan said. The statement appealed to Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, and to those who want him removed from power, to resolve the political crisis in "a peaceful way, without any outside interference".
Osh and Jalal-Abad, where opposition groups have intensified their protests following run-off polls on 13 March, are in the volatile and ethnically tense Fergana Valley shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbek authorities are keeping a close eye on the densely populated Uzbek city of Andijan, just across the border from Osh and Jalal-Abad. Since last year, Andijan has been the scene of angry demonstrations by women traders upset about new laws that restrict their trade.
More than half a million ethnic Uzbeks live in southern Kyrgyzstan, a region that saw ethnic clashes in the early 1990s which left hundreds dead.
Exiled leaders of the two main Uzbek opposition parties, Erk (Freedom) and Birlik (Unity), have offered enthusiastic support to the opposition movement in Kyrgyzstan in media statements, but warned that it could lead to increased repression in Uzbekistan.
"After the Georgian and Ukrainian colour revolutions Uzbek opposition and international NGOs have been the target of a government clampdown. No matter what the outcome of events in Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek government will use it as an excuse to take even tougher measures against any dissent in the country," an independent local political analyst told IRIN, on condition of anonymity.
The heavily censored media in Uzbekistan kept silent on the events unfolding in southern Kyrgyzstan until the foreign office released a statement on Tuesday night.
Due to lack of information, even Uzbeks contacted by IRIN who are living near the border with Kyrgyzstan in the north of the Ferghana Valley on the Uzbek side had no idea that in the cities a few kilometres away the authorities were no longer in charge.
In order to prevent any spread of insurrection, Tashkent has tightened its borders with volatile southern Kyrgyzstan, although they remained open on Wednesday. "Uzbek border troops have strengthened [security] at the state borders," an Uzbek security service spokesman told IRIN. "All border crossing points with Kyrgyzstan are operating," he added.
Uzbek authorities closed down the Tashkent office of the Open Society Institute that promotes democratic change, in April 2004 and called a halt to the local activities of Internews, an international media capacity-building NGO, a few months later.
The Uzbek justice ministry is considering whether to curtail the US-funded International Republican Institute (IRI), which had been warned last year to refrain from supporting opposition groups in Uzbekistan.
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