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World

Kyrgyzstan to vote in controversial referendum

Despite simmering tensions due to recent ethnic violence, voters in Kyrgyzstan are being asked to go to the polls this Sunday in a referendum over a new constitution.

An ethnic Uzbek man and child crossing into Kyrgyzstan

Ethnic Uzbeks, who fled the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan, are slowly returning

Although thousands of people were affected by bloody clashes two weeks ago between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country, Kyrgyzstan's interim government has insisted that a referendum on a new constitution take place.

A first stage of voting was held on Friday for nearly 2,000 Kyrgyz soldiers in Osh, the country's second-largest city, and epicenter of the bloodshed.

"The boys are voting (on Friday) so they can be on high alert on election day," said Abdykalyk Boltabayev, a local election official.

Shift in power at stake

Kyrgyzstan's interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva

Kyrgyzstan's interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva hopes the referendum will bring stability

Among the proposals in the constitution are a shift in power from the president to the parliament, and a decree to allow Roza Otunbayeva to stay on in her role as interim president until the end of 2011. At that point, presidential elections would be held, but Otunbayeva would be excluded from the candidacy.

Kyrgyzstan's Deputy Prime Minister Almasbek Atambayev has said it's important that the vote take place as planned, and has even suggested that the recent clashes in the south were designed to torpedo the referendum.

"If the referendum fails, it will give certain forces an opportunity to foment more chaos and keep the country unstable," Atambayev said.

Observers say Otunbayeva needs the vote to give legitimacy to her government, which has never formally been voted in, and to pave the way for formal diplomatic recognition.

A checkpoint guarded by Kyrgyz soldiers

Kyrgyz soldiers check passing cars and search passengers for weapons on the Uzbek border side of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh

The government is reportedly doing everything it can to ensure that people in the southern part of the country will be able to participate on Sunday. Since many Uzbeks there are still wary of going out on the street, the government is taking the vote to the people in the form of mobile ballot boxes. Atambayev said the government was also talking to neighboring Uzbekistan to get tens of thousands of refugees to return to Kyrgyzstan to vote.

Data released on Friday by the United Nations indicated that most of those who fled Kyrgyzstan two weeks ago have started to return. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that there are some 15,000 refugees still in Uzbekistan, but said the figures were provisional.

"It doesn't mean at all that the emergency is over," said OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.

A man examines a burnt car in Osh

A man examines a burnt car in Osh following the riots that erupted on June 10

Clashes erupted in the volatile regions of southern Kyrgyzstan on June 10, where ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks make up a roughly equal share of the population. Both sides say they were attacked by the other. The government did not intervene, although ethnic Uzbeks say government troops sided with Kyrgyz attackers who rampaged through Uzbek neighborhoods and torched Uzbek homes. The government estimates that as many as 2,000 people were killed.

The south was the stronghold of the country's ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was forced into exile following a bloody uprising in April. On Friday, Kyrgyz authorities said they had arrested Bakiyev's nephew, whom they accuse of organizing the recent ethnic violence. They claim that 27-year-old Sandjar Bakiyev hired Taliban and other Islamist militants to stir up the unrest.

A poor but strategic country

The United States and Russia both operate military bases in Kyrgyzstan, and are anxious to prevent the turmoil from spreading to other countries in Central Asia: a region which is not only rich in oil and gas, but also lies along a drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan.

"We hope the electoral process will form a fully-fledged government capable of resolving the problems facing the state," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to Washington. "We are all concerned that, in these conditions, radicals could come to power, and then we will have to resolve the same sort of problems that we are tackling in other regions, such as Afghanistan."

At the height of the violence earlier this month, however, Russian declined a request to send peacekeeping troops to Kyrgyzstan.

Critics call vote a "farce"

However, the chorus of voices in the country saying that it's impossible to hold a referendum under such conditions is growing louder. Last week, Major General Omurbek Suvanaliyev, the police chief of Osh, resigned out of protest, saying he would not be part of a vote which he considers to be "an immoral farce."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says it's important to stop the turmoil from spreading

It is also still unclear whether the international community will accept the results of Sunday's vote, which will unfold largely in the absence of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The OSCE canceled plans to send up to 300 observers to Kyrgyzstan, due to the current security situation. Galina Skripkina, a member of the Kyrgyz Election Commission, told Deutsche Welle that there were only 36 OSCE monitors in the country.

"The OSCE canceled their participation, and no concrete reason was given," she said. "They only said it was impossible to guarantee the safety of the observers."

The lack of observers aside, Skripkina said that a more pressing problem is the lack of regulations regarding the referendum, including what minimum level of participation was necessary for the results to be binding.

According to the country's current laws, a minimum of 50 percent voter participation is required. But in the days leading up to the vote, the government said it wasn't expecting such a high turn-out. It suggested lowering the participation level to 30 or even 20 percent.

Author: Alexander Tokmakov (dc)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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