Ethnic groups: Kyrgyz 70.9 percent, Uzbek 14.3 percent, Russian 7.7 percent, Dungan 1.1 percent, other 5.9 percent (includes Uyghur, Tajik, Turk, Kazakh, Tatar, Ukrainian, Korean, German) (2009 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

According to the 1999 census, the following ethnic groups were present in Kyrgyzstan: 65 percent Kyrgyz, 14 percent Uzbek, 13 percent Russian, 1 percent Dungan (ethnic Chinese Muslim), 1 percent Tatar, 1 percent Uyghur, and 1 percent Ukrainian. Substantial numbers of Tajik refugees entered the country in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, about 15,000 Russians left the country annually. The Uzbek minority is concentrated around the southwestern city of Osh, and the Russian population is concentrated in Bishkek and adjacent Chu Province. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007]

In 1993 the population of Kyrgyzstan was estimated at 4.46 million, of whom 56.5 percent were ethnic Kyrgyz, 18.8 percent were Russians, 12.9 percent were Uzbeks, 2.1 percent were Ukrainians, and 1.0 percent were Germans. In the late 1980s the population was 52 percent Kyrgyz, 22 percent Russian, 13 percent Uzbek, 3 percent Ukrainian and 2 percent German. The rest of the population was composed of about eighty other nationalities. Of some potential political significance are the Uygurs. That group numbers only about 36,000 in Kyrgyzstan, but about 185,000 live in neighboring Kazakstan. The Uygurs are also the majority population in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China, whose population is about 15 million, located to the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. In November 1992, the Uygurs in Kyrgyzstan attempted to form a party calling for establishment of an independent Uygurstan that also would include the Chinese-controlled Uygur territory. The Ministry of Justice denied the group legal registration. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.

Ethnic Divisions and Mass Deportations in the Soviet Union

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Under Central Asia).

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

Ethnic Migrations and Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

Between 1989 and 1993, a significant number of non-Kyrgyz citizens left the republic, although no census was taken in the early 1990s to quantify the resulting balances among ethnic groups. A considerable portion of this exodus consisted of Germans repatriating to Germany, more than 8,000 of whom left in 1992 alone. According to reports, more than 30,000 Russians left the Bishkek area in the early 1990s, presumably for destinations outside Kyrgyzstan. In 1992 and 1993, refugees from the civil war in Tajikistan moved into southern Kyrgyzstan. In 1989 about 64,000 Kyrgyz were living in Tajikistan, and about 175,000 were living in Uzbekistan. Reliable estimates of how many of these people subsequently returned to Kyrgyzstan have not been available. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Fergana Valley, which eastern Kyrgyzstan shares with Central Asian neighbors Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is one of the most densely populated and agriculturally most heavily exploited regions in Central Asia. As such, it has been the point of bitter contention among the three adjoining states, both before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Members of the various ethnic groups who have inhabited the valley for centuries have managed to get along largely because they occupy slightly different economic niches.*

The sedentary Uzbeks and Tajiks traditionally have farmed lower-lying irrigated land while the nomadic Kyrgyz have herded in the mountains. However, the potential for ethnic conflict is ever present. Because the borders of the three countries zigzag without evident regard for the nationality of the people living in the valley, many residents harbor strong irredentist feelings, believing that they should more properly be citizens of a different country. Few Europeans live in the Fergana Valley, but about 552,000 Uzbeks, almost the entire population of that people in Kyrgyzstan, reside there in crowded proximity with about 1.2 million Kyrgyz.

Ethnic Violence in the Kyrgyz Republic in 1990

The most important single event leading to independence grew from an outburst of ethnic friction. In 1989 the Gorbachev liberalized policies ignited strife between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbek population in Osh Province. From the perspective of the Kyrgyz, the most acute nationality problem long had been posed by the Uzbeks living in and around the city of Osh, in the republic's southwest. Although Kyrgyzstan was only about 13 percent Uzbek according to the 1989 census, almost the entire Uzbek population was concentrated in Osh Province. Tensions very likely had existed between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks throughout the Soviet period, but Moscow was able to preserve the image of Soviet ethnic harmony until the reforms of Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. See Below. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In June and July 1990, in Ozgen, 55 kilometers from Osh in the Fergana Valley, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed for about a month after the Kyrgyzstan government tried to take land from an Uzbek state farm in a primarily Uzbek area within Kyrgyzstan and give it homeless Kyrgyz. At least 200 and maybe more than a thousand were killed. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

During some of the most intense fighting, local police and Soviet security forces were no where to be seen. Some people have argued that authorities did little to stop the ethnic violence and may have even inflamed it because the violence gave authorities an excuse to clamp down on opposition groups and religious groups.

In the general atmosphere of glasnost , an Uzbek-rights group called Adalat began airing old grievances in 1989, demanding that Moscow grant local Uzbek autonomy in Osh and consider its annexation by nearby Uzbekistan. The real issue behind Adalat's demand was land, which is in extremely short supply in the southernmost province of Osh. To protect their claims, some Osh Kyrgyz also had formed an opposing ethnic association, called Osh-aimagy (Osh-land). In early June 1990, the Kyrgyz-dominated Osh City Council announced plans to build a cotton processing plant on a parcel of land under the control of an Uzbek-dominated collective farm in Osh Province. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The confrontation that erupted over control of that land brought several days of bloody riots between crowds led by the respective associations, killing at least 320 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh. The precise cause and sequence of events in early June 1990 is disputed between Uzbek and Kyrgyz accounts. Scores of families were left homeless when their houses were burned out. The government finally stopped the rioting by imposing a military curfew. *

Ethnic Issues in Kyrgyzstan

Since independence, there has been great pressure to push the Russians and ethnic minorities aside and give special treatments to Kyrgyz. Former Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev told the Los Angeles Times, "Probably more than a decade will pass before we achieve a unified nation, where everyone has a feeling of belonging. Akayev vetoed a bill that would give only Kyrgyz the right to own land.

Discrimination against ethnic groups, especially ethnic Uzbeks, remains a problem. There have been periodic classes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border over water resources. Tensions also run high between Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks in the Fergana Valley, which is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Ethnic tensions have kept from exploding due to strong arm tactics and compromises made on the part of Akayev and other Kyrgyzstan leaders. There were worries that racial tensions might explode when Akayev was ousted as the majority tried to gain greater control.

During the Soviet era, Kyrgyzstan had one of the lowest rates of emigration in the Soviet Union but that changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, In recent years many Russians as well as Germans, Ukrainians and Jews have left. The exodus of Russians has resulted in the loss of skilled managers and professionals.

Ethnic Discrimination and Violence in Kyrgyzstan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Ethnic tensions between ethnic Uzbeks, who comprised nearly half the population in Osh Oblast, and ethnic Kyrgyz in the oblast as well as elsewhere in the South remained tense and problematic, characterized by discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in business and government as well as harassment and arbitrary arrests of ethnic Uzbeks by members of the security services. Ethnic-Uzbek citizens in Osh and Jalalabad reported discrimination in finding jobs, particularly with the government. There were multiple reports of seizure of ethnic-Uzbek businesses and property. Ethnic Uzbeks reported large public works and road construction projects interfered with neighborhoods and destroyed homes. Uzbeks reported that reconstruction efforts in Uzbek neighborhoods following the June 2010 violence lagged behind those in Kyrgyz neighborhoods. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kyrgyzstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

“On August 17, three unidentified men attacked Davran Nasiphanov, an ethnic-Uzbek correspondent for the Uzbek language radio program Yntimak in Osh. While the motivation for the attack was unclear, human rights activists in the South reported there were numerous attacks on ethnic Uzbeks, who were the most vulnerable population and the most susceptible to robbery and attack.*\

“In April 2013 President Atambayev signed into law an official ethnic plan with the overall goal of eliminating ethnic divisions. The plan seeks to create a new national identity through a shared language and elimination of official ethnic identification on government documents. As of year’s end, the government had not taken concrete steps towards implementing the plan. Some members of civil society were highly critical of the plan, asserting that it was a language plan and not an ethnic plan. *\

“In May the Ministry of Education initially failed to offer the national university admissions test in the Uzbek language on the basis of a September 2013 decree that the test only be available in the Russian and Kyrgyz languages. The test had been available to students in Russian, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek since 2002. After the May test, which many Uzbek-speaking students took in Kyrgyz, the Ministry of Education announced there would be a make-up test in June with versions available in Uzbek, as well as Russian and Kyrgyz. The ministry stated, however, that only students who did not take the test in May could qualify for the Uzbek-language make-up examination. Some students objected that this was not fair. Fifty students took the test in Uzbek during the year, down from an average of 2,000 in previous years. *\

Different Ethnic Groups in Kyrgyzstan

There are a number of Afghans living in Kyrgyzstan. There were around 2,000 of them living in Bishkek in the early 2000s. Many of them spoke Russian and had connections with the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. They lived in apartments rather than tents but still lived on the edge of poverty. In Bishkek, you could find Afghan doctors and professors selling tea and cigarettes on the street. Kyrgyzstan is reluctant to accept Afghan refugees and the government makes it difficult for them to enter the country.

There were about 50,000 Kazakhs in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s, compared to 8 million in Kazakhstan at that time. There were about 50,000 Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan, compared to 7.2 millions in Xinjiang China, in the 1990s. There were about 200,000 Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at that time. Many of the Uyghurs in Central Asia moved there during a period of Chinese persecution in he 19th century.

Kyrgyz are found in sizable numbers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, China, Afghanistan and other parts of theformer Soviet Union as well as Kyrgyzstan. In the 1990s there were about 180,000 Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan, 143,000 in Xinjiang, and 3,000 in Afghanistan and maybe a half million elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.


Dungans are Chinese Muslims. Most are descendants of Muslim Chinese from Gangsu and Shanxi who fled their homeland after a failed Muslim rebellion in 1878. Most speak Russian as their first language as well as the Central Asian language of the people they live among. Many are trilingual, speak a Dungan dialect of Chinese but can not write in Chinese. Although most dress in Central Asia clothes they still eat Chinese-style dishes with chopsticks, speak Chinese at home and live in Chinese-style courtyard home with Chinese-style heated beds call kangs. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

There were about 70,000 Dungans in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, with 30,000 in Kyrgyzstan and 25,000 in Kazakhstan, and small number in Uzbekistan and Russia. They live mostly on the Chu Valley of Kyrgyzstan and the Kurdai region of Kazakhstan with a few in Bishkek, Almaty and other cities in the region.

The first Dungans arrived after the fall of Kashgar and the final victory of the Xinjiang by the Manchu. They were welcomed with open arms and given land by the Russians as part of Great Game scheme to win the support of Chinese Muslims so they could gain an advantageous position to claim territory in Central Asia.


Uzbeks make up about 14.3 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan. They are the largest minority in Kyrgyzstan. There are more ofthem than Russians. Most of the Uzbeks that make their home in Kyrgyzstan live in southern Kyrgyzstan, mostly on the Fergana Valley, which is shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There has been some tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Riots involving clashes between the two groups left many people dead in 1990 and 2010. ). Different measures have been taken to calm the situation in the region.

Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan live in fairly concentrated communities mainly near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. There are considerably large numbers of them in ancient cities of Osh and Uzgen, where they make up 49 percent and 90 percent of the population, respectively.

The Fergana Valley in present-day Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was an important stop on the Silk Road. The towns here are filled with Uzbeks and Tajiks, who were similar except the spoke different languages. The sedentary Uzbeks and Tajiks traditionally have farmed lower-lying irrigated land and were traders and businessmen while the nomadic Kyrgyz have herded and hunted in the mountains.

Uzbeks are known for being more conservative, religious and have stronger bonds with Islam than Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz were less affected by the pan-Islamic, and pan-Turkic ideologies that became deep rooted in the Uzbeks.

The Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have traditionally not liked each other. In the early 19th century parts of Kyrgyzstan became part of the Uzbek Kokand Khanate. The Kyrgyz bristled under the Uzbek rulers and Kyrgyz guerrillas periodically attacked Kokand positions from bases in the Tien Shan. The Kyrgyz were defeated by the Uzbeks in 1845, 1857, 1858 and 1873. Conflicts between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were one of the main reasons the Kyrgyz decided to ally themselves with the Russians in the 19th century.

Kyrgyz in China

There are almost 190,000 Kyrgyz living in China. The Kyrgyz (Kirgiz) there mainly live in the southwestern of Xinjiang especially in Kezhilesu Kyrgyz autonomous state. They also live in Yili, Tachen, Akesu and Kashi in Xinjiang. and Fuyu in Heilongjiang province. The Kyrgyz are regarded as the main ethnic group of the Pamirs, a mountain range in Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China known for its 7,500-meter-high peaks and snowy plateaus. Kyrgyz are found in all of the Pamir countries.

Kyrgyz have a long history and have been known in China by many names. In the Han dynasty they were called "Gekun"or "Jiankun". Later they were called "Qigu"in the Jin dynasty; "Jiankun", "Jikasi"or "Qiliqisi"in the Tang and Song dynasty; and "Jirjisi" or "Qirjisi" in the Yuan and Ming periods. All these names were based on "Kyrgyz", which has had different Chinese translation at different times. Kyrgyz people call themselves "Kyrgyz", which means "40 tribes", "40 girls" or "people on the prairie". In the Qing dynasty, they were called "Bulute", which means "Mountain residence". [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

Kyrgyz people have traditionally made their living by raising and breeding horses, sheep and other stock animals. A few engage in agriculture. Herdsmen have traditionally lived in tent-like yurts. In the winter, they live in adobe bungalows. Their staple foods are meat, dairy products, rice and flour. Their traditional festivals include the "Nuolaozhi Festival", Gurbang Festival” and the “Rouzhi Festival.” During these festivals, events such as catching sheep, horse racing and wrestling are held. The Kyrgyz are regarded as excellent singers, dancers and storytellers.Their heroic epic Manasi (Manas) is 200,000 lines long. It is not only a literary treasure, but also a encyclopedia to study the history and culture of the Kyrgyz. The painting, embroidery and sculpture of the Kyrgyz also has a distinct character.~

Kyrgyz population in China: 0.0140 percent of the total population; 186,708 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 160,875 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 141,549 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

About 80 per cent of the Kyrgyz in Chinalive in the Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture in the southwestern part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The rest live in the neighboring Wushi (Uqturpan), Aksu, Shache (Yarkant), Yingisar, Taxkorgan and Pishan (Guma), and in Tekes, Zhaosu (Monggolkure), Emin (Dorbiljin), Bole (Bortala), Jinghe (Jing) and Gonliu in northern Xinjiang. Several hundred Kirgiz whose forefathers emigrated to Northeast China more than 200 years ago now live in Wujiazi Village in Fuyu County, Heilongjiang Province.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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