Knut Vollebaek: The underlying reasons for the June events have still not been eradicated
The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek visited Kyrgyzstan in mid-October. During his three day visit, he went to the South of the republic and met the authorities. At the end of his visit, Mr Vollebaek gave Fergana an exclusive interview, in which he said that the underlying reasons which lead to the disturbances and violence of June 2010 have still not been examined and that there are problems in delivering fair justice in criminal cases. However, he said that much has been done to reconstruct normal life, and the situation in the South of the country has become significantly better, with representatives of different groups communicating with each other more.
Fergana: You have just been to South Kyrgyzstan. Please evaluate the changes that have taken place there over the last two years.
Knut Vollebaek: I would say that fortunately the situation in the South is very different from when I came just after the tragic events of June 2010. I would say that you have more normality to life, you feel that people are getting back to their habits, you see people in the market, you see houses being reconstructed, children going to school. There is a return to normality.
But when you speak to people, there is still some fear, and a lack of trust that the changes are really real. You see that there is still a lack of representation [of ethnic minorities] in the services, for instance, among the police, there are very few Uzbeks.
My concern is that as the authorities have done a good job in rebuilding, the city, the villages, the mahallas, they have still not addressed the underlying causes which led to the disturbances and violence of 2010.
Unfortunately the tragic events in June 2010 were not the first events in Kyrgyzstan. They started in 1990 and many people have told me that they thought that one of the reasons for the events in 2010 was precisely because the 1990s events were not addressed in a proper way, so my fear is that we might make the same mistake again.
What do you mean by saying “make the same mistake again”? In the nearest future?
I’m not a prophet, so I can’t predict. I think people see improvements, there is still hope that things will go in the right direction. So I wouldn’t say that in this visit I saw any signs or any immediate dramatic changes, despite what’s been going on in Jalal-Abad, but that’s a different thing. But if people are alienated, not being able to participate in public administration, if they fear the police force - they don’t dare to go to the police, they do not feel that the police is there to protect them. This also shows us something.
You have the question of access to information, there is now a radio station with programmes in Uzbek, but there is no TV station, which is another sign of exclusion and alienation. You also have the question of education; we understand that some of the Uzbek schools transform into Kyrgyz schools from first grade, but it’s only ok if it’s because there is the will and desire of the parents. If this happens because the parents feel that if their children to not go to Kyrgyz schools, they will be further alienated from society and have no opportunity – then it is not good, this will widen the gaps in society.
Regarding justice, do you know that the majority of people convicted for the June events are Uzbeks, and the side acknowledged to suffer more is also Uzbek? Have you raised the issue of the court decisions when meeting the authorities?
The question of justice is something that I discuss with the authorities. My understanding is that the authorities, at least some of the representatives of government, also admit that it’s a problem. It’s a good beginning to admit that you see a problem, but it is not enough, something has to be done with it. And this is a very important element in confidence-building, but specific steps have to be taken and for everyone to know that the justice is system is fair, transparent, and efficient.
Can it be said today that the rights of the Uzbek minority in Osh and Jalal-Abad regions have been fully restored since June 2010?
As I said I feel that there is a certain normality to life. But there is a difference between normality and the rights of the people who live there. And the fundamental human rights imply much more than just a seemingly normal life. And the rights include many of the issues that I have already mentioned: proper representation, access to education, fair justice system, protection by law enforcement agencies and if we go through all these elements, of course we still have some work to do.
Is there a difference in access to rights between Uzbek and Kyrgyz people?
I am not certain if we should make this mainly ethnic issue. Every citizen in the country should have equal access to fundamental rights. What I try to tell governments in all countries, not only Kyrgyzstan, that all people that are citizens of the country should have access to equal rights, no matter what ethnicity they belong to. But what we often see is that minorities are more vulnerable than the majority in the countries. It is easier to exclude the minority, push the minority aside. That’s why I think it is important for governments to make the extra efforts to make sure that the minorities also have the same rights as the majority.
And I also always stress that this is not because the government should be so nice and kind. First of all it has to do with fundamental rights of all the citizens living there, secondly, it’s actually in the government’s own interests, because it has do with the cohesion, stability and prosperity of the country.
When meeting Kyrgyzstan’s government did you raise the issue of Mr Askarov’s arrest?
I didn’t do it this time. I’ve done it earlier, but my mandate is different from some of the other organisations and institutions. My mandate specifies that I am not entitled to and even not allowed to deal with individual cases. But as I said, I have raised the Askarov case at previous meetings, because I think it is more than just an individual case. It is a part of what I was talking about earlier - the importance of transparency and equality when it comes to the justice system.
What is your personal opinion: is there a chance that he will be released?
I will not specifically address the Askarov case. Others are more involved in that than I am.
Has the attitude of the authorities of Kyrgyzstan towards ethnic minorities become better or worse since Mr Atambayev and the new parliament were elected?
As I said, the developments after the June 2010 events show a clear improvement in the situation in many ways. I think the 2010 events were an awakening for the government and members of parliament, that the ethnic situation in Kyrgyzstan is something you have to address. I think we see a willingness to improve the situation through various activities that the government has undertaken. I think the Concept of national unity/Concept of ethnic development is an effort by the government to address the issue. It is important that the government continues to work on this line that they have started. Day before yesterday, I signed an agreement with the Minister of Education on cooperation on a pilot project multilingual education. I think that this is a concrete effort by the government to reach out to the minorities and include them in the education system.
But I think meeting people in the South, and the Uzbeks in particular, I think people have very high expectations. I think it’s important that the authorities understand that they are expected to follow up what they have started. This is a process – it’s not something that you have done now that the situation is ok. The society is dynamic, so you have to be actively engaged with the society and involve the minorities.
Don’t you think that the court decisions that are still being made and not in favour of Uzbeks evidence something entirely different?
I think the situation is complex. We are not in a one way street. There are a number of counter-actions and I appreciate that the government is faced with a number of challenges. That’s why I’m here, both to remind them of their commitments and support them in the good initiatives that they have taken and maybe come up with new ideas and measures they could take to move in the right direction.
At the beginning of the interview, you said that you feel “fear” when you talked to people. What did you mean?
June 2010 is not so long ago. Even if things change, there is this underlying fear or uncertainty that something similar can happen again. People are struggling with traumas. Memories are what happened, not only in the South – I met people in the North yesterday who told me the same. When they hear about people gathering in the market or in the street, they are afraid that it is happening again.
This fear can only be culled by a very strong and confident attitude by the authorities, which says: we will not allow this to happen again. I think it means for instance that the police really have to reach out to people and tell them that we are here to support and protect you. But, I repeat myself, it also means that the minorities can participate in the decision making, in the running of the society, so they feel that they can influence their own destiny.
What was the conclusion of your meeting with the authorities? What did they say to you? Will they follow your recommendations?
I always have a very good reception in Kyrgyzstan and I enjoyed the meeting both with the president, the prime minster and the speaker of parliament. I have a feeling that they listen carefully and I will continue to work with them to try to improve the situation.
Fergana international information agency. Translated by Sophia Matveeva