A hostage crisis in the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan has been the cause for concern for surrounding countries and regional superpowers such as China and Russia. What are believed to be militants from either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan have possessed four villages in a mountainous corner of Kyrgyzstan near the border of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to the BBC on August 26. They are reported to have kidnapped four Japanese geologists and nine Kyrgyz soldiers on August 24. While it is unclear as to the exact identity of the militants and as to their demands, the crisis has highlighted an ongoing dilemma facing the three central Asian republics since the fall of the Soviet Union earlier this decade.
All three former Russian republics have a large majority Muslim population. Elections in the early 1990s brought to power secular administrations that had the backing of the Russian government and little connection to the people. In Tajikistan, for example, opposition forces staged a civil war from 1992-1997 over the government's failure to represent the country's 85 percent Muslim population. Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov, who came to power in contested elections held during the civil war, agreed to a UN brokered peace accord that called for a coalition government. But he has since dragged his feet and rebels are reportedly unwilling to disarm because of the continued lack of political representation.
In Uzbekistan, Russian and US interests pressured the interim leaders to implement a constitution that was an almost exact replica of the US constitution. According to a 1997 article entitled, "Deconstruction Constitutionalism: the case of Central Asia and Uzbekistan," by regional expert Rebecca Bichel, the constitution ignored the country's long Islamic tradition and, because of its foreign nature, has been the basis for a repressive regime rather than democracy. "As a result, human rights abuses are common and Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, functions as a virtual dictator, a dictator whose pillars of legitimacy include a constitutional fiction largely written by the West and validated accordingly by the world community," Bichel writes. Karimov has been the country's only president, prolonging his rule in 1995 by a referendum rather than an election. A bombing in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in February has been the basis for the most recent government crackdown on Islamic leaders. Several have been arrested and beaten by police. The son of a prominent Tashkent Imam, Farhad Usmanov, died from police beatings in June, according to the BBC on June 26. A June 29 BBC report cites human rights groups as saying the Uzbek government is using the bombing incident to carry out mass arrests and crack down on the Muslim opposition. But the crackdown is not new. According to the report, "authorities have always dealt harshly with independent Islamic leaders and their followers."
Reports concerning the latest crisis in Kyrgyzstan indicate that the militants are either of Uzbek or Tajik origin, but in fact it makes little difference since marginalized Islamic leaders in both countries have often banded together for common goals. The prominent Uzbek leader Juma Namangani escaped the government crackdown in Uzbekistan in the early 1990s and went to Tajikistan to help command the opposition in the civil war there. On August 16, the Uzbek government, in agreement with Kyrgyz authorities, ordered bombing raids on camps in Tajikistan where both governments say regional militants receive training to conduct activities in all three countries.
The hostage crisis in Kyrgyzstan ironically coincided with a summit meeting in that country between leaders from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan focusing on the threat of militancy within the five countries. Russia faces pressure from Muslims in the Caucus mountains while China is reportedly concerned about the spread of militancy to its Muslim province of Xinjiang. Russian authorities insist that all insurgencies are part of a worldwide plot financed by militants such as Osama Bin Laden, according to Malcolm Haslet writing for the BBC on August 25. But the problem of militancy is rarely so easily categorized and Russia is loath to admit that much of the unrest is caused by native Muslims who are dissatisfied with Russian rule or rule by Russian-backed secular governments, Haslet writes. And if there is foreign complicity in the various distinct groups, there is rarely one sponsor or one distinct ideology being touted. The Uzbek militant leader Namangani is said to receive foreign support from Iran.
The Muslim fighters in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, just across the border from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, who according to the BBC on August 26 reportedly number about 1,000 men, have not yet made known any demands. But it seems evident the fighters, whether they be from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan or both, are frustrated by ongoing government campaigns against popular Islamic sentiment. The mainly Russian accusations that the Kyrgyz fighters are part of an international terrorist conspiracy are baseless and only serve to divert attention from the real issue at stake, which is that Muslim interests are not being represented by governments in central Asia. While the targeting of innocent bystanders to make a point is a deplorable action from any angle, and most certainly from an Islamic angle, the actions of the militants in Kyrgyzstan seem the result of domestic frustration rather than cult lunacy or any international conspiracy.