Kyrgyzstan votes 'yes' amid death, fear
By Derek Henry Flood
OSH, Kyrgyzstan - Just two weeks after deadly ethnic violence swept through Osh
in a firestorm of rage that left Kyrgyzstan's second city devastated, people
quietly arrived at the polls on Sunday to express a vote of confidence in the
interim government of President Roza Otunbayeva.
The polls opened at 8am with a trickle of voters wishing to express their view
on the country's near-term future. Abdulda, an optimistic retired journalist
and an ethnic Kyrgyz, said he voted "yes" to a new constitution because the
destiny of the country was at stake and that "we want to build a real
democratic country [in Central Asia]. A 'yes' vote on the referendum will allow
us to deal with the rest of the world."
Asked about the specifics of the referendum's goals, Abdulda
hesitated about whether Kyrgyzstan was genuinely ready for the parliamentary
rule it would bring as a measure to stabilize a nation where clashes between
ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the past few months have taken more than 2,000
lives and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, according to the
country's interim authorities.
More than 90% of voters are reported to have voted "yes" in Sunday's
referendum. About 2.7 million people were eligible to vote, and turnout was
nearly 65%. The poll aimed to legitimize the government that came to power
after former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted during street protests in
April. The presidential system of government will be replaced by a
European-style model - the first in Central Asia. A new government would be
formed on July 10, Otunbayeva said.
Through blue-and-white ballots distributed across the country, Kyrgyz nationals
were asked to approve a new draft constitution that sought to devolve
presidential power and strengthen the parliament in Bishkek, give the go-ahead
for Otunbayeva to rule legitimately until the end of 2011, and thirdly, do away
with the constitutional court, seen by many as an inherently corrupt
institution that rubber-stamped the business interests of the families of past
presidents Askar Akayev and Bakiyev at the expense of a genuine rule of law.
The current crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan's lush Ferghana Valley between the
Kyrgyz majority and the comparatively prosperous Uzbek minority has
oversimplified the country's complex ethnic patchwork.
Some of the first voters observed near the city's wrecked central market at
Narimanova school number 7 were slight ethnic-Russian babushkas who
considered coming out to vote their national duty.
Milla, describing herself as being over 90 and a Kyrgyz patriot, told of her
service in the Great Patriotic War (what the Soviet leadership termed World War
II) while her late husband was at the front in 1941. "We [ethnic-Russians] were
born here. We are for Kyrgyzstan, not anyplace else. We want no more
When the elderly Russians were on their way, a bewildered voter walked in
claiming he did not understand the Kyrgyz questioning posed on the ballots.
Zahida Halybayeva, the polling place's chairwoman said, "Here we have Kyrgyz,
Uzbek, Russian and Tatar voters. It is an international affair."
International in the Soviet sense of the world, and the jumble of different
ethnic "nations" that jostle within the bounds of a defined nation-state.
Post-Soviet Central Asia is comprised of five "title nations"; states named
after their ruling ethno-linguistic majorities. During the initial uncertainty
of the post-independence era in the early 1990s, many ethnic-Russians and those
not belonging to any titular ethnicity migrated, or in some cases fled, to the
Russian Federation. This was when Moscow's writ no longer reached their
birthplace, which was not necessarily their "motherland", as a series of local
apparatchiks-cum-autocrats began to rule across the region by default and
assert their own brand of exclusive nationalism to consolidate power.
Due to the Stalinist-era gerrymandering of the Ferghana Valley and subsequent
decades of Soviet divide-and-conquer policy, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Kyrgyzstan join at a messy junction of meaningless borders with sovereign
satellite exclaves of one another's territory dotted throughout the area
forming the world's most complex political geography.
Spots of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan territory exist within the boundaries of
southern Kyrgyzstan, making the notion of ethnic cleansing the area near
impossible. Though graffitied, destroyed property may scream "Uzbeks out" in
crude Cyrillic, the well-organized mobs seem not to have understood that the
reality of Soviet-era geography was never realigned for a post-Soviet world.
Hence, one of the first actions of the interim government when the crisis broke
out was to make a plea for help from Kyrgyzstan's former overlords in the
Kremlin. Though the ship appeared to be sinking, Russian President Dimitry
Medvedev did not appear keen to throw Bishkek a military lifeline.
Russia has troops at Kant airbase outside of Bishkek, but their presence is
more for a balance of power against the Americans at Manas airbase than for any
obviously humanitarian purposes. If Moscow does become involved militarily
here, it is reluctant to do so unilaterally and would utilize the umbrella of
the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), and only then if it could
determine an interest for itself in doing so. Russia may indeed see the Kyrgyz
crisis as an opportunity to test the CTSO if it does eventually become
involved. The regional body comprises Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Turkey, the self-anointed leader of the Turkic-speaking world, was not eager to
become involved either. Ankara does not want to be seen as picking sides
between Uzbek and Kyrgyz people who are both equally Turkic in Turkey's view.
Unlike the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Turkey can
clearly back one side (Turkic Azeris) or in tensions between Turcomans and
Kurds in northern Iraq, the current Ferghana conflict provides Turkey no
clear-cut ethno-centric foreign policy objectives. Turkey has been deeply
involving itself in the Middle East, evidenced by the Free Gaza flotilla
episode and its involvement in mediating Iranian affairs, and Ankara seems to
have taken its eye off its pan-Turkism goals in Central Asia for the time
being. Relatively devoid of natural resources, under-populated and remote,
Kyrgyzstan is at the bottom of Turkey's priority list in terms of pan-Turkic
In comparison with the trickle of Kyrgyz and others, but noticeably no Uzbeks,
at the first poll site visited at Frunze school number 24, a scrum of nervous
Uzbeks seemed desperate to make their voices heard via the ballot.
Dressed in a blue tracksuit, a sullen Uzbek man named Farhad, said, "We
[Uzbeks] want only peace" and viewed his "yes" vote as a possible stabilizing
factor that sets the stage for parliamentary elections in October.
Farhad said his community was voting an overwhelming "yes" out of the strong
desire for stability, their fear of more uncertainty in southern Kyrgyzstan,
and their wish for an end to the country's worst internecine violence in two
decades. The world may view this latest Ferghana tragedy as a brief spasm of
ethnic warfare that led to a temporary refugee outflow, but when one delves
deeper in Uzbek neighborhoods in Osh off the main roads, such as that of
Cheremushki, the destruction is near total and the human devastation is
Evident in a drive between polling stations across Osh, the message was clear
and the contrast stark. It appeared more to be Balkan-styled ethnic cleansing
than an evenly fought two-sided ethnic clash. Graffiti spray painted on
buildings and homes spelled out "[ethnic] Kyrgyz property. Do not touch"; "Osh
is for Kyrgyz people"; and most forebodingly, "Death to Uzbeks".
At a mosque that was the only structure that remained unscathed in an otherwise
entirely obliterated Uzbek area of Osh, the imam told of expert snipers
brandishing Draganov rifles and firing into the heads of civilians from a
nearby hillside, terrorizing thousands of residents as the mono-ethnic Uzbek
neighborhood of Djupos began to burn after Friday prayers on June 11.
The imam, who asked not to be named for his own safety, described a
blood-thirsty mob led by men in balaclavas who arrived in the neighborhood at
the outset with the intent to kill and maim.
Uzbek residents hastily threw up makeshift barricades throughout the district's
side streets to stem the tide of violence. Trucks, cars, tree trunks, slabs of
loose concrete and anything else that could be driven or dragged was erected
with some effect until the barricades were eventually burned or barged through.
As more chaos ensued, rumors spread that the neighborhood's victims were going
to be defended by Uzbek irregulars crossing the nearby border from President
Islam Karimov's tightly controlled Uzbekistan, a highly unlikely possibility
coming from such a police state.
In response, text messages were sent en masse from Beeline KG and Megacom,
Kyrgyzstan's paramount mobile telecom providers,seeking to dispel the invasion
rumors and telling users that the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier was functioning as
normal. It was far too late. Residents of Djupos painted "SOS" in giant white
letters on their streets in hopes that members of the international community
would see their distress signals on Alisher Navoi Ulitsa (street) should
they happen to have visited Google Earth during the height of the June 10-14
The last polling station visited in the city center at the Mikhail Lomonosov
school reported a modest turnout of 33% and had as many security men as voters
milling about at the end of the day. The electoral chairwoman maintained that
the real turnout was actually 54% due to the early voting allowed to local militsia
(police) and soldiers stationed in downtown Osh.
No two members of the security forces appeared have similar components to their
uniforms and all made their presence known, particularly to non-Kyrgyz voters.
At polling sites, a large discrepancy in the style of security was evident. At
some, soldiers lazed in the shade of trees and let voters, observers and
journalists move unimpeded, while at others militsia men practically
blocked the doorways.
The primary hope in Osh was that peace return to the country and for the south
to become stable again. Whether term limits should be imposed on the presidency
was an absurd question to the hundreds of people who, weeks ago, had their
homes razed and had untold members of their community hacked to death and
burned alive. "Yes" was viewed by those exiting the polls as a conduit to
survival. "No" would only be asking for more trouble. Several times when this
correspondent approached people about their political views, they shot back
with accusations of the mishandling of humanitarian aid and wondering where
they would sleep that night.
By Sunday's end, Kyrgyzstan's Central Electoral Commission initially announced
that more than 62% of registered voters had taken part throughout the country,
particularly in the northern provinces of Naryn, Chui, Talaf and Issyk-kul,
though turnout was 17% less in Osh province, where just over 45% turned out in
A definitive "yes" for the interim government will extend its lease on life,
but the referendum held during the country's worst post-Soviet troubles
certainly doesn't guarantee constancy. Many Uzbeks in Osh suggest they may
never again be able to live side-by-side with their former neighbors.
Aside from what appeared to be evidence of ethnic cleansing, it is unclear how
the economy of Osh, where Uzbeks played an integral part until just weeks ago,
will be able to properly function again.
Most voters questioned by this correspondent on leaving the polling stations
said categorically that they were voting to affirm the shaky Otunbayeva
administration as a means of bringing stability to the south, rather than
aligning to an esoteric democratization agenda proposed by political elites in
Bishkek, far away in the country's comparatively tranquil north.
As the referendum is certified as a resounding success despite the prior doubts
of both local and international non-governmental organizations as well as
Kyrgyz civil society organizations, the stage will be set for limiting
presidential authority, thereby empowering the traditionally weaker prime
minister and parliament.
While these may be positive steps for the only Turkic state with a
representative, though often fitful, democracy in the region, hundreds of
thousands of Uzbeks live in limbo, many thousands with their homes destroyed
and confidence in authority and their own personal security shattered.
As a crowd of emotional, elderly Uzbek voters gathered in the parking lot of
Frunze school number 24, a sobbing woman cried, "We want people from the
international community here," while a burly man in a white skull cap said, "We
are living in fear. Fear of kidnapping. We are afraid of having heart attacks."
As far as these destitute people were concerned, Bishkek, and much more
importantly the United Nations, could not be further away from this wretched
place. Southern Kyrgyzstan faces a long, difficult road.
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in
analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through
traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.