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From bias to cooperation – a personal transformation in Kyrgyzstan

For some in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic tensions are an everyday part of life. Ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks – the second largest group – live side by side, and can come into conflict over resources, representation and employment. Our ‘Youth Ambassadors’ project in Osh seeks to bridge the divide by bringing young people together to discuss mutual security challenges and come up with solutions. This story tells the experience of Muhambetalli, one of the youth ambassadors involved in the project.

Muhambetalli is a 20-year-old man from Chon-Karakol, a small village made up of ethnic Kyrgyz in the mountainous Alay district in the south of Kyrgyzstan. He is the eldest son in his family, helping to take care of his four younger siblings and had worked as an inspector at the Osh Municipal Enterprise of Water Supply. Growing up, Muhambetalli had little exposure to other ethnic groups. He and his friends thought of themselves as true Kyrgyz patriots and tried to promote Kyrgyz values over those of other ethnic groups. Sometimes, he confessed, this would take a violent turn. “I have always thought that people of Kyrgyzstan have to respect Kyrgyz values and traditions,” he said when we spoke with him earlier this year. “This respect should be demonstrated in their everyday life by speaking Kyrgyz and practising our traditions.”

But Muhambetalli says he has changed his mind over time. Part of the reason is that he became one of sixty Youth Ambassadors in July last year to participate in a project tackling ethnic intolerance in Kyrgyzstan run by Saferworld and local partners – Foundation for Tolerance International and Liberal Youth Alliance. He initially heard about the programme from his fellow students at university who were also participating in trainings organised by Saferworld. He says the trainings have given him the confidence to demonstrate leadership among his peers and challenge long-held beliefs and prejudices, including his own. He and other participants are better able to identify and resolve problems, and even address some of the underlying causes of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan – namely the opacity, distance and lack of diversity in decision making when it comes to community security.

Muhambetalli admits that at the beginning he found it difficult to absorb new information and challenge the norms that he had grown up with. He said that before joining the initiative, he had not had very much contact with Uzbeks, and as a result knew almost nothing about them. His knowledge was mostly based on rumours – including that Uzbek leaders were responsible for stoking the violence of 2010 in Osh and Jalal-Abad which lasted four days and left more than 400 dead and thousands displaced. Muhambetalli was glad he had the opportunity to challenge his beliefs: “I am happy that I could meet with Uzbeks for this training – it gave me the opportunity to learn more about them.”

Ethnic bias and conflict are not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan. Following the violence in 2010, there has been a rise in ethnic nationalism in the country, especially among young people. This is exacerbated by feelings of exclusion – from the political process, the economy and public services.

The project gave young people the opportunity to learn about each other. Muhambetalli says that he has now befriended Nematillo, an ethnic Uzbek, who helps him with his current work as an intern at the Foundation for Tolerance International – a Saferworld partner. “Now we are working together,” he said. “I can easily say that he is my friend.”

Muhambetalli also tries to influence the behaviour of his friends and younger brothers. “My younger brothers and friends are exactly like the me of last year. They do not want to accept others’ values and they do not welcome the way I have changed.” However, Muhambetalli keeps trying to change their minds. “At least they stopped fighting with non-Kyrgyz people. They try to talk to each other.”

Muhambetalli is the only Youth Ambassador who admitted that he used to be a “pseudo-patriot,” although there are likely others who used to hold similar views.  He says that the project has changed his views and claims that he will do his best to develop his skills, including Russian and English, so he can better meet his aspirations to continue his education abroad before returning home to work for the government as a better-informed and even-handed decision maker.

“If you compared the ‘me’ of last year to the person sitting here in front of you – these are two very different people,” he said. “The first one was confident that he knew more than others and didn’t accept any new ideas. The second one tries to learn more, tries to influence others’ lives in a positive way.”

Saferworld’s “Youth Ambassadors” project in Central Asia covers 24 communities in the south of Kyrgyzstan. The primary goal of the project is to promote youth leadership and inter-ethnic collaboration on community security in Southern Kyrgyzstan. The project supports youth to move away from heated ethnic discourse by helping to develop ethnically diverse grass-roots activists into leaders, and supporting constructive cooperation between them, their communities and security providers. The main focus of this cooperation is on mutual security challenges and promoting inclusive policies and practices.

Find out more about our work in Central Asia.

Zamira Isakova is Project Coordinator for Saferworld’s Central Asia Programme.       

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Following the violence in 2010, there has been a rise in ethnic nationalism in the country, especially among young people. This is exacerbated by feelings of exclusion – from the political process, the economy and public services.