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Fragility Returns To Kyrgyzstan As Mob Violence Targets South Asian Students

A Bishkek police official tries to calm protesters near a dorm for foreign students in the Kyrgyz capital on the night of May 17-18.
A Bishkek police official tries to calm protesters near a dorm for foreign students in the Kyrgyz capital on the night of May 17-18.

As a swelling crowd moved around him, blocking an important road and refusing to disperse, Bishkek police chief Azamat Toktonaliev looked completely bewildered.

"He doesn't know what to do. The people are not listening," said a reporter from the private website Kaktus Media in footage filmed on the night of May 17.

Toktonaliev's visible alarm captured the extent to which authorities in Kyrgyzstan were caught off guard by shocking and apparently spontaneous unrest targeting South Asian students and migrants.

Parts of the capital dissolved into chaos that night after footage of a brawl between foreigners and local Kyrgyz from earlier in the week circulated widely online.

While the crowd that blocked the road -- peaking at more than 1,000 people -- did not disperse until dawn on May 18, multiple dormitories housing students from South Asia were attacked by groups of Kyrgyz, resulting in at least 29 injuries and reportedly leaving several foreigners hospitalized.

These disturbances were the worst seen in Bishkek since the postelection meltdown of 2020 that brought current populist leader Sadyr Japarov to the presidency and marked the third time that power has changed hands in Kyrgyzstan amid unrest.

And although news of the dormitory attacks prompted high-level statements of concern from India and in Pakistan -- where a small protest was held outside the Kyrgyz Embassy in Islamabad and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif saw fit to comment -- some critics say it may be the domestic image of an increasingly authoritarian regime that has taken the worst hit.

"The ruling group came to power on a wave of nationalist and socialist feelings," lawyer Nurbek Toktakhunov told RFE/RL.

"So when it is some liberal trying to hold a peaceful rally for rights and freedom, they can get all brutal and say, ‘No more rallies! Time for stability!' But when there is a burst of nationalism and violence, they are suddenly helpless."

Mob's Demands 'To Some Extent Correct'

Police chief Toktonaliev was at the center of the vain effort to disperse the angry protesters, who had gathered close to the site of the conflict at a dormitory between foreigner students and Kyrgyz in the early hours of May 13.

Another piece of footage showed the official looking distinctly uncomfortable as he tried to address the crowd over whistles and heckles, while leaning on the authority of Rinat Usupbaev, a bodybuilder with more than 250,000 followers on Instagram, who was standing next to him.

Riot police in Bishkek early on May 18
Riot police in Bishkek early on May 18

"I am personally hearing you out," entrepreneur Usupbaev reassured the crowd, eventually taking the loudspeaker from Toktonaliev and turning the jeers to cheers. "Do you trust me?"

In addition to calls for the foreigners who clashed with the Kyrgyz on May 13 to face justice, members of the crowd demanded an end to labor migration from South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In recent years, such countries have sent thousands of students and guest workers to Kyrgyzstan -- a country that hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz leave every year in search of employment.

Speaking on the morning after a night that one Pakistani student described as a "living hell" in an interview, Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security Chairman Kamchybek Tashiev said the crowd's demands were "to some extent correct."

Tashiev made no mention of the violent attacks on foreign students at the dorms, which correspondents from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service visited on May 18 to find smashed windows, doors kicked through, and rooms in disarray.

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Footage from the night before had shown Asian students cowering in their rooms as men punched, kicked, and cursed at them in turn.

Instead Tashiev -- Japarov's populist ally -- was focused on the fact that some members of the crowd had been carrying weapons or had "raised various provocative questions against state power and the state system" in messenger chats before the protest.

"We have identified them and will hold them accountable," Tashiev said in a video address that he also used to draw attention to the government's toughening stance on illegal migration.

Kamchybek Tashiev (file photo)
Kamchybek Tashiev (file photo)

As of the morning of May 19, no Kyrgyz official had apologized to students targeted in the attacks, nearly 200 of whom have already arrived back in Pakistan on specially arranged flights.

While Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry said it has opened a criminal case into the mass unrest, there are still plenty of questions about why it took police so long to respond to the clear threat posed to the city's migrant population.

'How Much Will They Give For Actual Pogroms?'

What about the spark for the conflict that took place on the night of May 12-13?

On the evening that protesters massed in Bishkek, all they had seen was a video that seemed to have surfaced that day showing a prone Kyrgyz man getting pummeled by non-Kyrgyz attackers in the front yard of a hostel.

At around midnight, police released news that three -- later four -- foreign citizens had been detained on hooliganism charges in connection with the violence.

The Interior Ministry even published a video showing the men -- Egyptians, not South Asians -- apologizing to the Kyrgyz people and promising to accept full responsibility for their part in the violence.

Pakistani Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi meets students in Islamabad after they arrived from Bishkek on May 19.
Pakistani Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi meets students in Islamabad after they arrived from Bishkek on May 19.

Yet as police acknowledged the following day in a full chronology of events building up to the unrest, these Egyptian men were actually defending a hostel that locals had raided, stealing cash and an iPhone, according to complaints filed by residents of the hostel.

To date, police say they have arrested two of the alleged thieves that infiltrated the hostel that night and identified two others.

It remains unclear if the predominantly young, male crowd that took to the streets would have felt any differently if they had known that context.

Kyrgyzstan has experienced bouts of ethnic violence in the past, most notably lethal clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks that claimed hundreds of lives in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

But law enforcement's investigation of this latest unrest will be under some scrutiny, not least due to perception that Kyrgyzstan's security state has been enthusiastically jailing critics for even the slightest hint of dissent.

In social media discussions about the heinous attacks on foreign students, one name mentioned several times was Oljobai Shakir, a publicist sentenced on May 14 to five years in prison on the charge of making online calls for mass unrest.

Shakir's arrest came just days after he criticized the government's decision to hand four spa centers near lake Issyk-Kul to the Uzbek government and challenged Japarov and Tashiev to participate in public debates with him.

"They gave Oljobai Shakir five years for so-called calls [for unrest]," wrote journalist Mahinur Niyazov on X, formerly Twitter. "How many [years] will they give these people for actual pogroms, I wonder?"

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.

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