Uzbeks to boycott Kyrgyz vote

Hiding from the burning sun in the courtyard of a local mosque, Uzbek elders in the Kyrgyz capital said people are too scared for their lives to vote in a referendum on Kyrgyzstan’s future on Sunday.

“This is madness. The country is in a state of chaos and they are talking about some referendum,” said Zakirjan Sultanov, a businessman, as he discussed the events with his neighbours on a carpet outside the mosque.

“I will not vote. No one will from around here. The authorities are doing nothing to protect us.” The wave of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan this month has raised doubt about the interim government’s ability to organise the vote on constitutional changes, seen as an important step towards securing its rule and gaining support for reform plans.

Major violence on Election Day, coupled with a low turnout, would undermine its efforts, particularly in the turbulent south where up to 2,000 people have been killed in ethnic clashes.

In the main Uzbek district of Bishkek, a Soviet-built city mainly home to ethnic Kyrgyz, locals said they had no trust in the government because of its failure to prevent the violence.

“There is no stability. People are being killed, houses set on fire. You can’t hold a referendum when there is war,” said 83-year-old Kamiljan Jurabayev, a former military officer.

Uzbeks have been particularly upset because, they say, most violence was directed against their communities in the south since the trouble started on June 10. Uzbek witnesses have told Reuters that government troops did little to protect them as armed mobs pillaged their houses.

The government says both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz have suffered in the conflict but has vowed to protect ethnic Uzbeks.

“Uzbeks will feel safe. They will vote in this referendum,” said Almazbek Atambayev, the first deputy head of the interim government, when asked about Uzbek concerns.

Sipping tea in the garden of his wooden house, Jurabayev said he sheltered many refugees from the south last week before putting them up at the mosque. He said Kyrgyz neighbours helped the refugees, adding there was no animosity on a personal level.

“There is tension in the air of course. Many people are confused,” said Jurabayev, an Uzbek originally from the south. Bishkek has been quiet and no violence has been reported in the city of 800,000, which is separated from the turbulent south by a range of ragged, snowcapped mountains. But any further unrest would be of concern to the United States and Russia, who have military air bases near Bishkek. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe says it will not send short-term observers for safety reasons.

Ethnic Kyrgyz living in the same Bishkek neighbourhood said they were shocked at the violence but supported the referendum.

“The Uzbeks should not be afraid. We will always be together,” said Lira Sadyraliyeva, a student. “We need this referendum, it will help stop the unrest.”

Interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva has rejected calls for the referendum on constitutional reform to be postponed. She says she is confident it will go well. Yet, with almost 400,000 people crammed into squalid camps after fleeing the violence, it is unclear how the government would administer the vote in the flammable, ethnically divided south.

“I spoke to my family (in the south). They say there is no food, no water,” said Adyl, an Uzbek construction worker in Bishkek. “This referendum is the last thing on their minds. They are just surviving.”


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