Weeks after ethnic purge, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz alike flock to polls to OK Kyrgyzstan constitution

By Simon Shuster, AP
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Weeks after violence, Kyrgyzstan constitution OK’d

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Election officials in Kyrgyzstan say the Central Asian nation’s public has overwhelmingly backed a new constitution.

More than 90 percent voted “yes” in Sunday’s referendum, and a small fraction of votes remain to be counted.

Barely two weeks after ethnic purges left many minority Uzbek communities in smoldering ruin, about two-thirds of voters went to the polls Sunday, according to officials.

The vote went ahead even though many of the 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks forced to flee have not returned.

Roza Otunbayeva’s interim government came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April following deadly street protests.

Election officials said the final tally would be announced later Monday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Barely two weeks after ethnic purges left many minority Uzbek communities in smoldering ruin, about two-thirds of Kyrgyzstan’s voters went to the polls Sunday to peacefully and overwhelmingly approve a new constitution they hoped would bring stability to the Central Asian nation.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government had pressed on with the vote even though many of the 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks forced to flee have yet to return to their homes and neighborhoods. The result gave legitimacy to the provisional government backed by most Uzbeks, though some of those displaced by violence were unable to vote Sunday.

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 in April following deadly street protests.

Interim President Roza Otunbayeva said she now would be inaugurated as a caretaker president and form her government. Its members will form a lawmaking assembly which will pass the necessary legislation until parliamentary elections in October.

“It will not be an interim but a legal and legitimate government,” Otunbayeva said. “We are leaving the word interim behind.”

With over 70 percent of all precincts counted, the Central Election Commission said more than 90 percent of those who cast ballots voted for the new constitution and just about 8 percent voted against it. Some 2.7 million people were eligible to vote, and turnout was nearly 70 percent, it said.

Rampages by ethnic-majority Kyrgyz mobs in southern Kyrgyzstan this month killed as many as 2,000 people and forced 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks to temporarily flee. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had 25 observers monitoring the vote but none in Osh or Jalal-Abad — the cities were the violence was centered — because it still considered them too dangerous.

Activists and journalists in the south, however, saw no signs of election-day violence. Otunbayeva and other officials also said the vote took place without incident.

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.”

Khulkarpasha Sabirova, deputy head of the Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan, said Uzbeks actively supported the referendum.

“We hope that our vote will bring stability and will prevent a repetition of the terrible events that took place,” Sabirova told The Associated Press. “We hope that the new government will address the people’s needs and that it will give its support to all ethnic groups.”

The government changed voting rules on Friday so minority Uzbeks who had fled the violence but had no identity documents on them could still vote.

Authorities said they would hand out temporary IDs to ethnic Uzbeks who lost their papers in homes destroyed by arson. Under a government decree, voters without identification could cast a ballot if at least two election officials could confirm they lived in the area.

Associated Press journalists who visited several Uzbek villages in the south witnessed a robust turnout. Many families, however, were apparently too fearful to go back to their neighborhoods to receive the new papers.

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.”

Izatulla Rakhmatullayev, an Osh-based rights activist, said he and other members of the Uzbek community carried ballot boxes to camps and villages where displaced people are living with relatives to allow them to vote.

“I believe that the majority of Uzbeks have voted for the constitution because they hope that a legitimate government will establish law and order,” he said.

Rakhmatullayev said they couldn’t reach all the villages, and some people couldn’t vote because they lacked the necessary papers.

Central Election Commission chief Akylbek Sariev rejected critics who said the vote should have been postponed because of the violence that flared for several days beginning June 10.

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

The provisional authorities accuse 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.

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.

Otunbayeva said Sunday that her government will keep the country’s foreign policy unchanged, maintaining close ties with ex-Soviet neighbors in Central Asia, as well as Russia and China. “We will also continue our partnerships with the countries of the European Union and also with the United States,” she said.

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

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