Kyrgyz vote on new constitution to legitimize interim leaders; investigators dig up corpses

By Simon Shuster, AP
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kyrgyz leaders take risky bet on referendum

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan holds a referendum on a new constitution Sunday, a risky gamble amid deadly ethnic tensions but one the interim government hopes will legitimize its power until new elections in October.

The Central Asian nation was on a high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace. Checkpoints were set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in Osh and Jalal-Abad, two southern cities wracked by ethnic purges against minority Uzbeks earlier this month.

The vote — supported by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia — is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government. Still, questions remain about how successfully it can be held just weeks after violence left hundreds of Uzbeks dead and forced up to 400,000 to flee.

The proposed constitution — the seventh that the former Soviet republic has seen in its 19 years of independence — does little to address the causes of the violence that swept the south.

The document that has been touted by Kyrgyz officials as a transition from despotism to the region’s first parliamentary democracy looks strikingly similar to the constitution drawn up by former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a bloody revolution three months ago.

It makes mostly cosmetic changes to parliament, limits the role of any one party to around 55 percent of the seats, and gives lawmakers some flimsy new levers of control over the presidency.

But it does nothing to guarantee a greater role in politics for Uzbeks, who make up about 15 percent of the country’s 5.5 million people but have long complained of being left out of the halls of power.

For the leaders of the April revolution, and particularly for interim President Roza Otunbayeva, the vote is an effort to prolong and legitimize their rule.

Otunbayeva’s government proved incapable of quickly stopping the violence in the south and has done little to follow up on reports that security forces participated in the attacks on Uzbeks, who have been afraid to return to homes torched by mobs.

Her government has accused Bakiyev’s followers of instigating the violence to stop the referendum. Bakiyev, in exile, has denied any links to the purges, but his nephew has been charged with helping organize the deadly rioting. His son Maxim has also been arrested in Britain.

Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev.

But it is hard to imagine a worse atmosphere for this experiment in democratic reform.

Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, which stretches across Uzbekistan and parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is a mosaic of dozens of ethnic groups, divided by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s capricious re-drawing of the region’s borders.

Disputes over water and fertile soil in the valley have long fueled hostility among these groups, who have historically been restrained by one dictator or another. If the 2.4 million voters in Sunday’s referendum further weaken Otunbayeva’s government by voting ‘no,’ many fear another spasm of violence could erupt.

“All our elections turn into catastrophes,” said Zainidin Kurmanov, the speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament. “The referendum is not the solution to the problem, and it is possible that the political fight will get much worse afterward.”

Whatever the results of the vote, various parties in the provisional government will likely begin jockeying ahead of parliamentary elections this fall, creating further divisions.

Jan Nadolski, a top U.N. security adviser in Kyrgyzstan, said institutions like the World Bank cannot offer Kyrgyzstan support because no one can legally sign agreements.

“We are interested in establishing a legal government or president as soon as possible, a partner for discussions with the international community,” he said.

Attempts at unity have been made. Maj. Gen. Zamir Moldoshuyev addressed both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz at the central mosque in Osh on Friday, calling for national unity and urging people to vote. On Saturday, investigators began exhuming some bodies of those killed during rampages to identify them and help families seeking compensation.

Some voters, like Zamira Koichiyeva, who heads a travel agency in Bishkek, remain hopeful that a ‘yes’ vote will bring true change.

“People are tired of the totalitarian regime under the previous two presidents, who robbed practically the entire nation,” Koichiyeva said.

Both Bakiyev and his predecessor, Askar Akayev, who was overthrown during the Tulip Revolution of 2005, filled top government posts with relatives and clansmen, enriching themselves while feeding popular anger against the government.

But other voters believed that only a strong hand can control the feuding clans and ethnic divisions that permeate public life in Central Asia.

“There should be one person in charge,” said Turdybek Osmanaliev, a civil servant in Bishkek. “We in Kyrgyzstan have not grown to the level of countries with parliamentary systems.”

Kyrgyzstan has seen a national ballot roughly once a year for the past decade, and many have long given up on the democratic process.

Security guard Amir Abdurakhmanov said he will not vote.

“What’s the point,” he said with a shrug. “It seems like we lose either way.”

Associated Press writers Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow, Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek and Peter Leonard in Osh contributed to this report.

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