Kyrgyzstan votes in key referendum that interim government hopes will legitimize its power

By Simon Shuster, AP
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kyrgyzstan holds vote only weeks after riots

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — The people of violence-wracked Kyrgyzstan voted Sunday on a new constitution just weeks after deadly ethnic purges — a vote that the interim government hopes will legitimize the power it seized in April.

The Central Asian nation was on high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace after rampages that killed hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks and forced thousands to flee earlier this month.

Voting in the southern city of Osh, where entire Uzbek neighborhoods were burned to the ground during attacks by ethnic Kyrgyz, interim President Roza Otunbayeva said the vote was proof of her country’s strength.

“In this referendum, the people of Kyrgyzstan are proving that the country is united, standing on its feet and going forward,” Otunbayeva said. “As a people, we want to heal the wounds we have sustained.”

Proponents of the new constitution say it strips wide-ranging executive powers from the head of state and gives more authority to parliament, setting an unusual democratic precedent for a region mostly ruled by authoritarian strongmen.

Over 56 percent of the nation’s 2.7 million eligible voters have cast ballots so far, the Central Election Commission reported late Sunday afternoon.

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, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted following deadly street protests. The provisional government, which faces deep internal divisions, needs the vote to legitimize its power ahead of parliamentary elections in October.

The interim government has accused Bakiyev’s followers of instigating the recent attacks to try to stop the referendum, a charge that Bakiyev, now living in Belarus, denies.

Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev, whose regime was seen as corrupt.

Bakytbek Omurkulov, an Osh-based rights activist, said Sunday’s vote was peaceful.

In several Uzbek neighborhoods of Osh, turnout was robust throughout the day. At one polling station in central Osh, both Uzbek and Kyrgyz voters were casting ballots.

“We have to support this referendum, because it should not just be the president that takes decisions,” said Nazir Mamataliyev, a 55-year-old barber and ethnic Uzbek, who voted for the new constitution. “Making choices for our country should be a collective process.”

But retired teacher Turdykhan Tadzhibayeva, 70, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was doubtful, saying Bakiyev should not have been overthrown.

“I don’t expect anything of this referendum,” Tadzhibayeva said. “In Kyrgyzstan, the people that draw up the law themselves break the law within the space of six months.”

Those who fled the recent attacks did face voting hurdles. Authorities said they would hand out temporary IDs to ethnic Uzbeks who lost their papers in homes destroyed by arson, but many families were too fearful to go back to their neighborhoods to receive the new papers.

Under a government decree Friday, voters without identification could cast a ballot if at least two election officials could confirm they lived in the area.

But in the border village of Suratash, only about 100 of some 4,000 Uzbek displaced people there cast their ballots by late afternoon.

Erkinai Umarova, who is living with dozens of friends and relatives in a cramped house in Suratash, said she lost all her documents when her home in Osh was destroyed by arson.

“Nobody has come to this place to promote the referendum, they didn’t invite us,” said Umarova, a 39-year-old Uzbek teacher. “It is as though we are not even citizens of Kyrgyzstan.”

Central Election Commission chief Akylbek Sariev insisted the vote was essential for stability, rejecting critics who said it was too early to hold the vote.

“We couldn’t delay that because the power of the state had to be established,” Sariev told The Associated Press. “The state of the nation was at stake.”

Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads a democracy rights group monitoring Sunday’s vote, said despite the tensions in Osh, different ethnic groups voted in mixed neighborhoods.

“Most people here don’t even understand what they are voting for, they don’t understand what the issue is,” Oshurakhunova said. “For them, taking part is simply an opportunity to stabilize the situation.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had 25 observers monitoring the vote but none in Osh or Jalal-Abad, cities it still considered too dangerous.

“We have seen so far that the turnout has been encouraging, and it shows that people apparently want to use their right to vote,” said Janez Lenarcic of the OSCE.

The vote will be deemed legitimate no matter what the turnout is but the interim government has not said what it would do if it loses.

Both the United States and Russia have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. Manas air base is a key transit center for U.S. and NATO troops flying in and out of Afghanistan.

Shuster reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Associated Press reporters Leila Saralayeva and Sasha Merkushev in Bishkek also contributed to this report.

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