Uzbek-Turkmen Talks Disappoint Both Ethnic Minorities
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||21 October 2010|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Uzbek-Turkmen Talks Disappoint Both Ethnic Minorities, 21 October 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4cc6731a1e.html [accessed 20 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
A visit by Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov to neighbouring Turkmenistan failed to address the problems of the Uzbek minority living there.
Relations between the two states have been difficult in the past, so Karimov's October 19-20 trip was an important one, producing two new agreements and touching on economic and security cooperation.
"Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are united in their aspiration to be closer to one another," Karimov said at the concluding press conference in Ashgabat.
During his visit, a Turkmen-Uzbek "festival of friendship" was held in Dashoguz, a northern region of Turkmenistan that adjoins Uzbekistan.
Dashoguz and the neighbouring Lebap region are home to a significant population of ethnic Uzbeks. Najot, a human rights group in Uzbekistan, estimates that Uzbeks account for 9.2 per cent of Turkmenistan's total population of five million. Meanwhile, over 150,000 ethnic Turkmen live in border regions of Uzbekistan including Khorezm, Surkhandarya and Karakalpakstan.
The late president Saparmurat Niazov of Turkmenistan regarded the Uzbek community with some suspicion, especially after a failed assassination attempt in 2002, in which he accused Tashkent of complicity. He subsequently removed ethnic Uzbeks from senior positions.
In 2006, all Uzbek-language schools were closed, as was the only newspaper published in the language, 'Dustlik Bayroghi'.
In 2008, many ordinary Uzbeks living in border areas were deported, families were divided, some were refused passports, and other forms of discrimination were applied.
At least 1,000 Uzbeks still only have temporary residence just in the Dashoguz region. For those who are originally from Uzbekistan, the risk of being sent back is ever-present even though they cannot legally be deported if they have family in Turkmenistan.
"If you don't pay for a visa, you can be deported," a local commentator said.
Uzbeks are unhappy at the authorities' policy of "Turkmenisation" which requires their children to learn Turkmen rather than Uzbek at school and even to wear what to them is an alien nation costume. , no chance to preserve their language and culture, enforcement of Turkmen clothing at schools for everyone regardless of ethnic background..
Ethnic Turkmen residents of Uzbekistan do not suffer the same kind of wide-ranging discrimination, and have cultural centres and schools where the language is promoted.
When President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power in 2007, relations began to thaw at a diplomatic level, at least.
Karimov visited Ashgabat the same year, and Berdymuhammedov returned the compliment in 2008. Both leaders promised to improve ties, so when Karimov arrived in Ashgabat this week, people living on either side of the border were hopeful that this would translate into improvements for them, too.
Apart from discrimination against Uzbeks living in Turkmenistan, one of the major complaints for communities along the border is that restrictions are so tight. Uzbeks and Turkmen living on one side can visit relatives on the other only once a month, for three days at a time.
According a female resident of Turkmenistan's Niyazov district, this is actually worse than the way things were before the diplomatic thaw.
"Prior to the last Turkmen-Uzbek talks, we could cross over for seven days a time and unlimited number of times within the space of a month," she said.
Ethnic Turkmen in Uzbekistan's Khorezm region also want to see border crossing procedures relaxed.
"We are keen to maintain our fading connections with our co-ethnics living in their native land," he said, adding that the limited visits allowed made this difficult.
Other interviewees said the fees charged every time they crossed the border were too high.
"We have to pay seven [US] dollars for a three-day say in Turkmenistan," said Alty, an ethnic Turkmen resident of the Koshkupir district of Khorezm region. "That's a lot of money to us."
A resident of Shavot, also in Khorezm region, said the proclamations of eternal friendship he heard from the Uzbek and Turkmen presidents were not enough – concrete actions were needed.
Kahramov Aliev, a political analyst from Tashkent, said that the question of minorities did not figure large in the broader diplomatic picture. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were focusing on finding common ground when it came to regional water, energy and pipeline issues.
"The Uzbeks in Turkmenistan will just have to learn how to survive in this environment," he said.
This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.