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Kyrgyz Leaders Press Ahead With Referendum

It might seem foolhardy to go ahead with a vote so soon after ethnic bloodshed, but government sees referendum as essential step towards legitimacy.
By Pavel Dyatlenko, Isomidin Ahmedjanov

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government insists that a June 27 referendum must go ahead as planned, even though the bloodshed and population displacement in the south of the country place huge obstacles in the way of conducting a vote.

Although some analysts warn of the risks of holding a referendum in such an unstable environment, others say the ballot, in which voters will be asked approve a new, more democratic constitution and confirm current interim government head Roza Otunbaeva as president until an election can be held next year, is crucial to giving Kyrgyzstan’s leadership the legitimacy it needs to take tough decisions and assert control.

In a June 17 statement, the interim government confirmed that the referendum would go ahead on the set date, and also announced that a parliamentary election originally slated for October would be brought forward to the earliest date allowed by the constitution. No specific date has been set for the vote. (See Kyrgyz Constitution is Central Asia’s Finest for more on the constitution that voters will be asked to back.)The statement said stability in Kyrgyzstan would only be achievable once key political challenges had been dealt with – adopting the constitution, approving a president for a transitional period and electing a new parliament.

To clear the way for the imminent vote, Otunbaeva issued a decree lifting the restrictions that normally prevent referendums being held during crises and emergencies. The rule that a 50 per cent turnout is needed to make the referendum valid has also been shelved.

That means the vote can go ahead in Osh and Jalalabad regions, which are still under a state of emergency following ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks which began on June 10-11 and escalated over the days that followed.

As of June 22, the Kyrgyz health ministry said 251 people died and 2,200 required medical treatment as a result of the violence, although some media outlets are citing much higher figures. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says at least 400,000 people were displaced

Many areas of Osh, the largest town in the south, lie in ruins, and Jalalabad too has suffered serious damage. The exodus of displaced people to relative safety in the countryside or to refugee camps in nearby Uzbekistan means a significant proportion of the electorate is no longer there.

The security, logistical and demographic challenges of holding a referendum under such conditions have led a number of politicians and analysts to question the wisdom of going ahead with it. The absolute priority, they say, is restoring law and order and starting to rebuild in the south.

Bishkek-based political analyst Nur Omarov believes it makes no sense to press ahead with a vote as long as unrest continues.

“It can hardly be said that the referendum will result in an honest and voluntary expression of [popular] will,” Omarov said in an interview to the online news agency “The conflict in the south needs to be settled, and everything possible must be done to prevent it spilling over to the north, and into neighbouring countries… Our state is on the brink of a humanitarian, political, economic and cultural catastrophe.”

He said the referendum could easily be held a couple of months later than planned.

In an open letter carried by media in Kyrgyzstan, a number of leading figures argued that Muslim tradition frowned on holding any kind of public exercise until a 40-day mourning period was over.

However, the interim government does not believe it has a choice. As government member Azimbek Beknazarov said at a June 18 press conference, “The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must take part in the referendum so as to create a legitimate authority as quickly as possible.“

Kyrgyzstan’s current leaders came to power following popular unrest on April 6-7 which swept Kurmanbek Bakiev from presidential office, but they have faced continual outbreaks of unrest since then, the latest on a scale hardly imaginable.

Given this weakening of the state over recent weeks, a strategy of shoring up authority by electing and strengthening political institutions makes a lot of sense. Many analysts agree that the referendum and the election that follows could help create the legitimacy of governance needed to facilitate a return to stability. Furthermore, the two ballots offer people a chance to play a real part in shaping the way their country is run, rather than allowing their rulers to decide for them, as happened in the past.

In addition, the authorities clearly feel that postponing or canceling either referendum or election would be a kind of surrender to those political forces that still support the ousted Bakiev, and whom they accuse of fomenting the ethnic unrest. While the present government stands accused of failing to cope with the ethnic violence, it is not seen as a perpetrator.

Political analyst Elmira Nogoibaeva agrees that despite the difficult environment, the government has taken the right decision. It needs to win recognition and support from the international community as well as legitimacy at home.

“Another point of no less importance is that people in the south need to feel the authorities have a presence there,” she added.

Nogoibaeva accepts that arranging the referendum is going to be a logistical nightmare.

The most obvious question mark is whether the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence will be able to vote, and if so, how that can be practically arranged.

Then there is the security challenge. A major police presence will be required to protect both voters and polling station. Critics of the decision to hold the referendum now rather than later say it could trigger renewed violence, and there are fears that Bakiev supporters or other disgruntled elements could try to disrupt the vote and thereby undermine the government’s authority further.

Finally, there is the funding question – whether the government can afford the outlay involved in running a referendum followed by a parliamentary election. In the south, many public buildings such as schools which are used as polling stations and election management offices have been damaged.

In Osh, people of voting age were unenthusiastic about the referendum.

“People have died here. What’s this referendum for?” asked Sergei, an unemployed Osh resident. “What do we need this government for if it can’t offer us a future life or jobs?”

Sharobiddin, a businessman in the city, said security had to be number one priority.

“People have to feel they are safe. Only then will it be possible to talk about having a referendum,” he said. “Many people have relatives who were killed or are missing.”

A local journalist said the referendum merely represented a bid for power by Kyrgyzstan’s interim leadership, which was more concerned with its own affairs than with the situation on the ground.

“When the political elite is engaged in infighting for power, events like these [clashes] are inevitable,” he said.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank in Bishkek. Isomidin Ahmedjanov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Osh.

 This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. 

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.


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