Just weeks after Kyrgyzstan's worst violence in the post-Soviet era, voters turned out in larger-than-expected numbers on June 27 to cast ballots in a constitutional referendum. Many voters said they yearned for a return of stability to Kyrgyzstan.
Amid a general atmosphere of skepticism in the southern city of Osh, scene of worst interethnic fighting June 10-14, many ethnic Uzbeks defied expectations that they would stay away from the polls. Uzbeks appear to have suffered disproportionately during the violent clashes, in which hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
Roza Otunbayeva, the leader of the provisional government, visited Osh to cast her referendum ballot. "Quite a lot of people are saying that our country is on the brink of collapse," she said. "However, we, the citizens of the republic, will show the whole of the international community today that Kyrgyzstan is unified and will definitely bounce back."
Voters were asked to approve a new constitution that would transform Kyrgyzstan from a presidential into a parliamentary republic. A 'yes' vote would mean that parliamentary elections would be held in October, and Otunbayeva would remain as provisional president until the end of 2011. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
An hour after polls closed, the Central Election Commission announced that 62 percent of voters had participated.
In Osh and Bishkek, voters told EurasiaNet.org that they turned out because they were desperate to see a return of stability. "We don't have any other way out. We have to vote for peace and stability," a man living in Osh's mainly Uzbek-populated Privokzalnaya mahalla (neighborhood) who gave only his first name, Babur, said. "If the constitution isn't adopted, the new government won't settle down."
Many ethnic Uzbeks in Osh echoed Babur's words, going to the polls despite the fact that many harbor deep feelings of enmity for the provisional government, which proved unable or unwilling to prevent attacks on mainly Uzbek neighborhoods during the southern Kyrgyzstan violence. [For background see EursaiaNet's archive].
Residents of the badly damaged Cheremushki neighborhood complained that Otunbayeva had not visited Uzbek mahallas on her two visits to Osh since the violence erupted. She has set up an agency to direct restoration of Osh, where some mahallas are almost totally destroyed, and has formed a commission of inquiry into the violence. In a meeting with human rights activists, she reportedly said she favored eliminating ethnic divisions in the city by encouraging people to live in mixed rather than mono-ethnic neighborhoods.
One 49-year-old ethnic Uzbek woman who declined to identify herself for fear of reprisals was scornful of Otunbayeva and her drive to adopt the constitution. "I don't want to vote," she told EurasiaNet.org. "It won't help us. Voting won't give the Uzbeks anything."
The woman, who had just returned from a refugee camp in Uzbekistan, said she was more concerned with safety than the referendum: "We're very afraid to live here. Who's going to help us? ... I can't sleep at night."
Other ethnic Uzbeks were unable to vote because they had lost their identity documents amid the violence. "I haven't got a passport," said Gulnoza Iminova, who is living in the corridors of a school with her three children, afraid to return to her home, which was looted.
An ethnic Kyrgyz woman leaving a polling station in the city center also had reservations about the provisional leaders. "I don't believe in this government. I don't believe they know what they're doing, and I'm not sure about this constitution," said Guldar Abdrakhmanova. But she had just cast her vote in favor, saying she hoped that the new constitution would stabilize Kyrgyzstan.
In the North, ethnic Kyrgyz and Russian voters also expressed hope that the referendum would foster stability. At School No. 8 in Bishkek, guarded by teenagers in voluntary militia patrols, Lyudmila Nikolaeva, 58, said she "had to" vote for the new constitution. "Otherwise, how can we live?" she said.
Across town, School No. 53 Principal Basylkan Nurmambetova said turnout was surprisingly good, but lamented that ethnic Uighurs did not seem to be taking part. She said many had fled during the violence in the South when someone painted "Uighurs, You are Next," on walls around the heavily Uighur Tokoldosh neighborhood.
Elmira Nogoibaeva, director of the Polis Asia think tank in Bishkek, said she was impressed by the turnout. "I observed four polling stations and should say I saw a large number of people coming to vote. When I was talking to people, I met people who haven't voted in the last two or three elections. Most of them were saying they came for stability."
Several international observers stationed in Northern provinces told EurasiaNet.org that irregularities were relatively minor.
Analysts welcomed the calm voting environment, but warned the country is not yet out of trouble. "This referendum is part of the stabilization process," said Emir Kulov, chair of the International and Comparative Politics department at the American University of Central Asia. He went on to caution that this referendum was just the beginning of the transition.
Now, even before final referendum results are announcemed, some Kyrgyz politicians are gearing up for the looming parliamentary vote. The provisional government official in charge of constitutional reform, Omurbek Tekebayev, announced on June 27 that he would resign within weeks in order to stand in the legislative elections in October.
Kulov applauded the move. "I think [Tekebayev's resignation] is fair enough, there should be equal and fair conditions made for everyone who will be running in the elections."
Yet Nogoibaeva of Polis Asia warned the campaign season ahead would be "war."
"With several new parties registering every week, you can already see a battle" between previously unheard-of movements, she told EurasiaNet.org. "It will be a war between competing parties, and you will see tensions in the electorate, because they will become an instrument in [politicians'] hands."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia. David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia news editor.