As in Latvia, one cause of statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, beyond that, the details vary greatly. Post-Soviet borders were drawn relatively randomly in Central Asia, dividing previously coherent communities of ethnic Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyzs. This is particularly evident in the Ferghana Valley region, which spans all three countries. The southwestern parts of Kyrgyzstan have porous borders and a history of ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Traveling from eastern to western Kyrgyzstan, there were clear differences. The southwestern part of the country is more conservative, more religious, and Uzbek-speaking. A new friend told me that even schools teach in Uzbek, although students also take lessons in Kyrgyz and Russian. This heavy Uzbek influence is the basis for another cause of statelessness.
Upon independence in 1994, Kyrgyz citizenship law granted automatic citizenship for anyone living within the borders at the time. For everyone else without proof of residence, citizenship required a lengthy application process. In the post-Soviet climate, many ethnic minorities fled Russia to seek friendlier lands, but upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan and with obsolete Soviet passports they became stateless. The 1994 law also stated that only children of fathers with citizenship could be citizens at birth. Children with foreign or unknown fathers, even those with Kyrygz mothers, and children born to foreign parents on Kyrgyz soil were denied.
Many people chose not to pursue the citizenship process. It is unduly complicated, in line with the bureaucracy and excessive paperwork that characterized the Soviet Union. People pursuing citizenship cite shifting requirements, bribes, and absurd amounts of required documentation.
Uzbeks in particular face challenges in the border villages of the Ferghana Valley. One of my community partners, the incredible Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, estimates that as many as 30% of people in the border villages are without papers, and a lack of documentation increases vulnerability to statelessness. Undercover Uzbek agents, aided by Kyrgyz police, roam the region hunting for refugees to deport back to Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks have lived in Kyrgyzstan for decades and may be married to Kyrgyz citizens. They have little hope of being welcomed back to Uzbekistan if their quest for Kyrgyz citizenship fails. Some hold Uzbek passports, but many of these are expired, rendering them effectually stateless. To obtain a new Uzbek passport they would need to return and claim residence in Uzbekistan, despite having built a life in Kyrgyzstan; but if they are caught on Kyrgyz soil with expired documents, they may be deported anyway.
Despite its challenges, the Ferghana Valley is as beautiful as the rest of the country
Southwestern Kyrgyzstan is also blessed with the world’s largest natural walnut forests
Kyrgyzstan has made important steps in addressing statelessness. In 2007 they amended their citizenship law. Before, you had to renounce your old citizenship to pursue naturalization, rendering many people stateless in the occasionally-eternal interim. Now, you renounce at the conclusion of naturalization rather than the outset. People carrying Soviet passports can qualify for citizenship after five years’ residency, or one for ethnic Kyrgyz. Dual nationality is possible with some countries, although not with any of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors. Kyrgyzstan also naturalized 9,000 ethnic Kyrgyz who fled Tajikistan during its civil war in 2006, avoiding a new wave of stateless people.
Nonetheless, speaking with undocumented people in villages in the Ferghana Valley, it’s clear that the reality has changed little. Without the legal aid of organizations like Ferghana Valley Lawyers Without Borders, naturalization is extremely difficult thanks to an unchanging network of bribes, paperwork, and bureaucracy. One Uzbek woman, married to a Kyrgyz man with six children, told me she has been seeking citizenship for 10 years with no success. She has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 1996 (my entire lifetime). Another man showed me his expired Soviet passport, the only form of identification he has. He rarely leaves his village due to fears of being stopped by police. Since he has no Kyrgyz citizenship, he could not register his children at birth, and they are also stateless. They all live in extreme poverty in an agricultural community, unable to own their own land, receive government assistance, pensions, or move freely within the country.
Stateless children in a village in Osh province
In Kyrgyzstan, after years of work, the legal framework for effective citizenship laws exists. The challenge lies now in the execution.