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UN Official Warns of Extremism in Central Asia

The United Nations envoy to Kyrgyzstan is warning that extremist groups in Central Asia can use social and economic problems to spread their influence throughout the region.

The UN envoy to Kyrgyzstan, Miroslav Jenca, says the conflict in Kyrgyzstan was sparked because of tensions that exist in the country, and that reconciliation is needed between ethnic groups to avoid further conflict.

Jenca says there is a danger of extremism in the Fergana Valley and in a broader sense throughout Central Asia, given that it borders Afghanistan. He says there are a number of well-known extremist organizations in the area which can use current circumstances as fertile ground to realize their plans.

The Fergana Valley is an ethnically-diverse region of about nine million people that crosses Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It has also been the scene of several ethnic clashes dating to the last days of the Soviet Union. The official death toll in Kyrgyzstan's current unrest is approaching 200, but interim President Rosa Otunbayeva says the actual figure is likely much higher.

Alisher Khamidov, a Central Asian researcher with Johns Hopkins University is in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh and explains ethnic extremism as an ideology, whereby one ethnic group claims exclusive rights and ownership of resources in the entire country. Khamidov told there was previously an arrangement in Kyrgyzstan in which the Kyrgyz controlled government structures and Uzbeks controlled trade.

"Under the previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ethnic Kyrgyz began to lay claims on other sectors, and this added to the tension," Khamidov explained. "So two months ago, when the regime of former President Bakiyev fell because of the violent widespread protests, things like the security services and other forces that checked this tenuous balance in ethnic relations - they evaporated.

Khamidov says recent wholesale destruction of shops, businesses, and restaurants in southern Kyrgyzstan could allow ethnic and religious extremists as well as criminal groups to exploit the ensuing unemployment and lawlessness. He says tensions simmer throughout the Fergana Valley, where Stalin-era borders were drawn without regard for ethnic cohesion. Complicating the situation is unequal distribution of oil and water, which Khamidov says Central Asian leaders use to blackmail one another.

"For example, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, they have stopped the flow of water to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in an effort to gain better prices for gas," he said. "And Uzbekistan has imposed gas embargoes on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during cold winter months."

Also flowing through the Fergana Valley are illicit drugs from Afghanistan. Central Asia expert Nodir Ismailov said organized extremist groups use unemployed young men as drug runners. "This is all connected with terrorism," he stated. "And I think there are also other criminal groups, which are making a big benefit and trying to support some extremist group."

Alisher Khamidov says ethnic and Islamic extremists oppose one another. He says religious fundamentalists reject ethnic and nationalist sentiments, seeking instead to establish Islamic Sharia law for all peoples of Central Asia.

Ismailov says instability creates opportunities for Islamic extremists.

"They are trying to take over the minds of young people who are living in the Fergana Valley, because the Fergana Valley is a very multi-ethnic region and very close by [compact] territory," he said.

UN Envoy Miroslav Jenca says southern Kyrgyzstan needs social and economic development and also reconciliation of local ethnic minorities. Jenca says a lot will depend on how the government and international community will help the interim government get out of the current situation to help refugees and people who have lost a roof over their heads.

Khamidov says international assistance is of paramount importance, because Uzbekistan does not have enough resources to cope with as many as 100,000 refugees, who risk renewed slaughter if they try to return to homes in Kyrgyzstan that no longer exist.