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Kyrgyz Voters Break with Clan Allegiances

Kyrgyz voters are showing signs of political maturity by voting for candidates from clans and ethnic groups other than their own.
By Natalia Ablova

Police in Bishkek arrested around 60 demonstrators on May 12 during on-going protests demanding the release of opposition leader Felix Kulov. The demonstrations have been a daily occurrence in Bishkek for the last 60 days. Kulov was arrested after his defeat in a recent parliamentary ballot marred by voter intimidation and electoral fraud.

But despite the government's handling of the elections and its escalating crackdown on the opposition, I still have reason to be optimistic about the future.

The protest campaign began when voters in the Kara Buura constituency in northern Talas region, where Kulov was standing, demonstrated over his electoral defeat. Special police forces dispersed protesters, many of whom were seriously injured.

The protesters had accused the chairman of the local election committee Rasul Aimambetov of falsifying the results of the poll. The charge appeared to have some truth, as Aimambetov subsequently committed suicide leaving a note asking fellow citizens to pardon him

Kulov was arrested when public discontent over the conduct of the ballot was at its height.

But why were people supporting a former government minister-turned- opposition candidate? Because to them the man personified change.

Kulov held various key government posts between 1991-1999, including deputy-president and minister of national security. After leaving his last official post as mayor of Bishkek, he set up a moderate opposition party, Ar Namys.

Kulov's detention increased his popularity in the Kara Buura area. This came as a surprise to many, not least the government, as he had no real following in the area. Kyrgyz voters have traditionally voted for other members of their clan or ethnic group. Kulov had no such ties in Kara Buura. He only decided to stand there because he felt the regime was more likely to put obstacles in his way if he chose to contest a constituency in Bishkek.

Voters also broke with traditional voting habits in a predominantly ethnic Russian constituency of Bishkek. Residents there voted for a Kyrgyz candidate, Daniyar Usenov, who was subsequently arrested. He was later released after the intervention of the president apparently concerned the detention would damage his reputation.

As in Kara Buura, voters protested. Police responded violently. In one case, officers dispersed hunger strikers and destroyed a tent they'd erected outsides government buildings.

In both Biskek and Kara Buura, many protesters were fined. This was frequently done with procedural violations - the right to due process is still regarded by prosecutors and judges as an unnecessary luxury.

Kulov and Usenov not only broke the tradition of voting along ethnic and clan lines, they also helped to mobilise widespread public disillusionment with the authorities.

Recent demonstrations in support of both men were not organised by political groups. They were the work of ordinary people. The opposition and NGOs joined the protests later.

Before the elections, NGOs did not enjoy much public support. Few took note of their concerns that the elections may be open to fraud. And NGOs were not always prepared to back small groups protesting over government abuses. Post-election developments, however, united the two groups.

The authorities seem to have been caught out by the Kara Buura and Bishkek event. Their use of violence clearly showed they believed that by simply removing Kulov and Usenov, they would resolve the crisis.

What they did not realise was that the two men merely represented a deep-seated desire for change. Now the authorities have to seriously deal with what has become known as the “Kara-Buura phenomenon”. It should not be overestimated or underestimated. It should be understood.

Natalia Ablova is the director of Kyrgyz Bureau for Human rights and Rule of Law

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