Ethnic Minorities in Central Asia

Written by
Pauline Jones Luong
Published on
November 1, 1996

One of the requirements for entry into the modern state system is a legal system which recognizes and protects the equal rights of all citizens. Thus, as they strive for greater stature in international affairs, itis not surprising that the Central Asian States (hereafter CAS) have adopted a body of laws based on equal rights. They have even employed a number of talented and committed Western legal specialists to assist them with this endeavor. In theory, the existence of these laws should ease the fears of humanitarian groups and policy-makers concerned for human rights, particularly the rights of ethnic minorities. Yet in practice there is little to guarantee equal protection under the law in the CAS.

The reality of this gap between theory and practice is perhaps best illustrated by the plight of ethnic minorities in the CAS. For these groups in particular, it is informal rather than formal (or legalized)discrimination which is most prevalent. This situation presents human rights groups working in the CAS, as well as those concerned with the protection of human rights more generally, with a very difficult task, since by its very nature informal discrimination is more difficult to identify, confirm and address. Yet, it is by no means impossible to combat. The international community can play a crucial role by promoting greater economic opportunity for all Central Asians and by encouraging independent judiciaries that can transform written legal documents into living ones.

Although each of the five CAS - Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - was named under the Soviet regime for a single ethnic group, each country is comprised of multiple ethnic communities. Only in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - where Turkmen and Uzbeks, respectively, comprise over 70 percent of the population - is the titular nationality a clear majority of the population. In contrast, the Kazaks make up approximately 40 percent of the population in Kazakstan…