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For Kyrgyz leaders, referendum is risky

Some fear vote may bring unrest

Kyrgyzstan is on high security alert for today’s referendum. Thousands of police officers have been deployed. Kyrgyzstan is on high security alert for today’s referendum. Thousands of police officers have been deployed. (AFP/Getty Images)
By Simon Shuster
Associated Press / June 27, 2010

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan will hold a referendum on a new constitution today, a risky gamble amid deadly ethnic tensions but one the interim government hopes will legitimize its power until new elections in October.

The Central Asian nation was on a high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace. Checkpoints were set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in Osh and Jalal-Abad, two southern cities racked by ethnic purges against minority Uzbeks earlier this month.

The vote — supported by the United Nations, the United States, and Russia — is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government. Still, questions remain about how successfully it can be held just weeks after violence left hundreds of Uzbeks dead and forced up to 400,000 to flee.

The proposed constitution — the seventh that the former Soviet republic has seen in its 19 years of independence — does little to address the causes of the violence that swept the south.

The document that has been touted by Kyrgyz officials as a transition from despotism to the region’s first parliamentary democracy looks strikingly similar to the constitution drawn up by former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a bloody revolution three months ago.

It makes mostly cosmetic changes to parliament, limits the role of any one party to about 55 percent of the seats, and gives lawmakers flimsy new levers of control over the presidency.

But it does nothing to guarantee a greater role in politics for Uzbeks, who make up about 15 percent of the country’s 5.5 million people but have long complained of being left out of the halls of power.

For the leaders of the April revolution, and particularly for interim President Roza Otunbayeva, the vote is an effort to prolong and legitimize their rule.

Otunbayeva’s government proved incapable of quickly stopping the violence in the south and has done little to follow up on reports that security forces participated in the attacks on Uzbeks, who have been afraid to return to homes torched by mobs.

Her government has accused Bakiyev’s followers of instigating the violence to stop the referendum. Bakiyev, in exile, has denied any links to the purges, but his nephew has been charged with helping organize the deadly rioting. His son, Maxim, has also been arrested in Britain.

Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev. But it is hard to imagine a worse atmosphere for this experiment in democratic reform.

Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley is a mosaic of dozens of ethnic groups, divided by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s capricious re-drawing of the region’s borders.

Disputes over water and fertile soil in the valley have long fueled hostility among these groups, who have historically been restrained by one dictator or another. If the 2.4 million voters in today’s referendum further weaken Otunbayeva’s government by voting “no,’’ many fear another spasm of violence could erupt.

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