Kyrgyzstan Clashes Threaten to Undermine Referendum as Uzbeks Shun Voting

Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government may fail to get the legitimacy it seeks from a June 27 referendum as analysts say recent violence will prevent many voters from casting their ballots.

The interim administration is asking voters to approve a new constitution that would replace presidential rule with parliamentary government after the overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April.

Many ethnic Uzbek voters in southern Kyrgyzstan won’t participate in the referendum after they were targeted by ethnic violence that killed at least 251 people and displaced 400,000 this month, said Nur Omarov, who heads the Association of Political Analysts of Kyrgyzstan. Uzbeks make up about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.3 million people.

“How can a referendum held without their participation be legitimate for the Uzbek population?” Omarov said in Bishkek, the capital. “These people will hardly go happily to the polls to take part in the referendum. They will consider this ruling power illegitimate and the referendum illegitimate.”

Government leaders say the referendum is necessary to bring stability back to the Central Asian nation. A “yes” vote would pave the way for Oct. 10 parliamentary elections and leave interim leader Roza Otunbayeva in place as caretaker president until 2011.

The bloodshed has forced the government to alter plans for the referendum, Lydia Imanalieva, Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said at a June 23 briefing in Vienna.

Camp Voting

Uzbek representatives will be added to the electoral commission, and election officials plan to offer refugees who fled to Uzbekistan the chance to vote from the border camps where they are staying, she said.

The referendum will be legitimate if 30 percent of eligible voters go to the polls, Imanalieva said. The provisional government suspended a law that would have required 50 percent participation.

“We should not forget the positive experience under Soviet rule,” when every ethnic group received some form of representation, Imanalieva said. She described the violence as uncharacteristic “ethnic craziness” while there have been long-standing disputes over land and water between Uzbek and Kyrgyz residents.

The OSCE plans to send 100 volunteers to Kyrgyzstan to monitor the election.

The U.S. and Russia agree that holding the referendum is a sovereign decision for Kyrgyzstan, while encouraging the government to conduct the vote according to international standards, the State Department said in a June 20 statement.

Air Bases

Both countries maintain air bases in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. relies on the Manas base outside Bishkek to support military operations in Afghanistan.

Almazbek Atambayev, deputy leader of the interim government, said June 22 that those who instigated the violence were “playing the ethnic card” to cause chaos. Atambayev said last week that the violence was orchestrated by people close to Bakiyev.

“Their main aim is to disrupt the national referendum and the adoption of a new constitution,” he said. “But we must lay the foundations of a strong, democratic state.”

Kyrgyzstan has seen two presidents overthrown in the space of five years amid public anger about corruption and nepotism.

The country was ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 corruption perceptions index. Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, was head of the Central Agency for Development of Investment and Innovation, which oversaw Russian aid funds.

‘Morally Wrong’

The violence broke out June 10 in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, and has left authorities struggling to restore order in the southern part of the country.

Otunbayeva has said the final death toll may rise to 2,000 once all the victims are counted. About 25 percent of the 400,000 people displaced by the violence have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with offices in New York and Geneva.

The government’s determination to push ahead with a vote is unwise, said Edil Baysalov, Otunbayeva’s former chief of staff, who founded the Aykol El party after resigning June 7. Holding the vote now will disenfranchise voters in the south who already feel excluded from the political process, he said.

Osh and nearby Jalal-Abad “are in ruins,” Baysalov said. “To speak as if we just have to go on as if nothing has happened is just morally wrong.”

Removing Barriers

Confidence in the provisional government has been dented by its inability to stem the bloodshed.

Security forces moved to restore order in the south this week, removing barricades Uzbeks had erected between their communities and Kyrgyz areas, and carrying out a security sweep in the mainly Uzbek village of Nariman.

This has further undermined confidence before the referendum, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non- governmental organization that seeks to prevent conflict.

“I don’t see any way this referendum can achieve the aims the government has set for it, which is to increase its legitimacy,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joanna Lillis in Bishkek, through the London newsroom at +44- joannalillis123@gmail.com.

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