Kyrgyz leaders urged to halt 'illegitimate' referendum

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The Independent Online

Light aircraft flew over the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, yesterday to drop leaflets urging the public to vote.

After weeks of ethnic clashes in the troubled Central Asian republic, Kyrgyzstan will this weekend stage a referendum on constitutional reform, even as its embattled provisional government continues to face down violence in the south of the country.

Interim leaders see the plebiscite as essential to giving them a mandate to govern until parliamentary elections are held on 10 October. But critics fear that a referendum held in the wake of the bloodshed will lack legitimacy.

Voters will be asked to approve a transition from presidential to parliamentary rule, and not to succumb to those inciting violence. "They are the enemies of democratic reforms," said the leaflets signed by the interim deputy leader, Omurbek Tekebayev. "In fear of the approaching referendum, they are trying to disrupt it."

Mr Tekebayev is part of a divided interim government, headed by Roza Otunbayeva, which seized power in April after Ms Otunbayeva's predecessor, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was toppled in a wave of public fury at his corrupt, nepotistic, five-year rule.

The provisional leaders are trying to secure legitimacy via the ballot box despite an outbreak of violence in the south which has officially left 258 dead, with the toll still rising. Ms Otunbayeva says she believes it will hit 2,000.

Although an uneasy peace has been restored, the bloodletting has split the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities who live side by side in Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city of Osh, 300 kilometres from Bishkek on the south-western border with Uzbekistan.

There is more at stake than the viability of a volatile state that has toppled two presidents in five years: Kyrgyzstan houses an American airbase which supplies US-led forces in Afghanistan. The Obama administration is working to preserve its agreements with the interim government.

Turmoil erupted in Osh when Uzbek neighbourhoods came under attack on 10 June. Most victims appear to have been from Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Uzbek minority. Ethnic Kyrgyz people were also killed or left homeless during the clashes, which spread to the neighbouring city of Jalal-Abad. The government blames forces loyal to Mr Bakiyev, now living in Belarus with his family, for inciting the violence from afar, particularly his son Maxim, who abroad when Mr Bakiyev was deposed. Maxim Bakiyev has asked for asylum in the UK but Bishkek wants him extradited on corruption charges.

The bloodshed uprooted 400,000 people, up to 100,000 of them fleeing to Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz officials say most have since returned and have promised efforts to allow those still displaced to vote.

Returnees face a host of problems: homes have been destroyed and trust between Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities has evaporated, leaving inhabitants in fear of further violence which could keep people away from polling stations.

The ballot could unleash "destructive elements or forces wanting to destabilise the situation," said Mars Sariyev, an independent analyst based in Bishkek, who likened the government's insistence on holding the referendum to "a drowning man clutching at straws".

In the south, confidence in the interim government is at rock bottom: ethnic Uzbeks are asking why police and troops did not protect them, amid allegations – denied by officials – that they were complicit in attacks. Against this backdrop, some doubt if this is the right time to vote. "We are in the middle of our greatest national tragedy, the darkest pages of our history, and to pretend nothing has happened is not only morally wrong but also politically short-sighted," said Edil Baysalov, who resigned as Ms Otunbayeva's chief-of-staff earlier this month to set up a new political party. Calling for a postponement of the referendum, Mr Baisalov said the southern electorate would feel disenfranchised. "You are asking citizens in Osh and Jalal-Abad, both Kyrgyz and Uzbek, to live by a constitution adopted without them, and not only without them but at a time of great sorrow and strife," he said.

Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group think tank also has doubts about legitimacy of the ballot. "I don't see any way this referendum can achieve the aims the government has set for it," said its spokesman,.

"We are dealing with a very vulnerable and very nervous population of Uzbeks in the south, and they will be sensitive to any further sign that the government is no longer interested in having them as part of the community."

But the government insists the vote will go ahead because as Ms Otunbayeva said this week "otherwise the country will be bogged down in convulsions for a long time". For some, however, the push to stage a vote is a sign of desperation. "This is a moving bicycle for them. If they stop, they're going to fall off," added Mr Baisalov.