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Calm turnout as voters in Kyrgyzstan OK constitution

Result may foster stability in nation beset by violence

Uzbek women voted in the yard of their burned house in Kyrgyzstan. Thousands fled ethnic violence in recent weeks. Uzbek women voted in the yard of their burned house in Kyrgyzstan. Thousands fled ethnic violence in recent weeks. (Victor Drachev/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Peter Leonard
Associated Press / June 28, 2010

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OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Barely two weeks after ethnic purges left many minority Uzbek communities in smoldering ruin, about two-thirds of Kyrgyzstan’s voters went to the polls yesterday to peacefully and overwhelmingly approve a new constitution they hoped would bring stability to the Central Asian nation.

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government had pressed on with the vote even though many of the 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks forced to flee have yet to return to their homes and neighborhoods. The result gave legitimacy to the provisional government backed by most Uzbeks, though some of those displaced by violence were unable to vote.

The vote — supported by the United Nations, the United States, and Russia — is considered an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government, which came to power after the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted in April after deadly protests.

The interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, said she now would be inaugurated as a caretaker president and form her government. Its members will form a lawmaking assembly until parliamentary elections in October.

“It will not be an interim but a legal and legitimate government,’’ Otunbayeva said.

With more than 70 percent of precincts counted, the Central Election Commission said more than 90 percent of those who cast ballots voted for the constitution and about 8 percent voted against it. Some 2.7 million people were eligible to vote, and turnout was nearly 70 percent, it said.

Rampages by ethnic-majority Kyrgyz mobs in southern Kyrgyzstan killed as many as 2,000 people this month and forced 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks to flee. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had 25 observers monitoring the vote but none in Osh or Jalal-Abad — the cities where the violence was centered — because it still considered them too dangerous.

Activists and journalists in the south, however, saw no signs of election-day violence. Otunbayeva and other officials also said the vote took place without incident.

Dinara Oshurakhunova, who heads a democracy rights group monitoring yesterday’s vote, said that despite the tensions in Osh, different ethnic groups voted in mixed neighborhoods.

“Most people here don’t even understand what they are voting for, they don’t understand what the issue is,’’ Oshurakhunova said. “For them, taking part is simply an opportunity to stabilize the situation.’’

Khulkarpasha Sabirova, deputy head of the Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan, said Uzbeks actively supported the referendum.

“We hope that our vote will bring stability and will prevent a repetition of the terrible events that took place,’’ Sabirova told the Associated Press. “We hope that the new government will address the people’s needs and that it will give its support to all ethnic groups.’’

The government changed voting rules on Friday so minority Uzbeks who had fled the violence but had no identity documents on them could still vote. Authorities said they would hand out temporary IDs to ethnic Uzbeks who lost their papers in homes destroyed by arson. Under a government decree, voters without identification could vote if at least two election officials could confirm they lived in the area.

Associated Press journalists who visited several Uzbek villages in the south witnessed a robust turnout. Many families, however, were apparently too fearful to go back to their neighborhoods to receive new papers. In the border village of Suratash, only about 100 of some 4,000 Uzbek displaced people there cast their ballots by late afternoon.

Erkinai Umarova, who is living with dozens of friends and relatives in a cramped house in Suratash, said she lost all her documents when her home in Osh was destroyed by arson.

“Nobody has come to this place to promote the referendum. They didn’t invite us,’’ said Umarova, a 39-year-old Uzbek teacher. “It is as though we are not even citizens of Kyrgyzstan.’’

Central Election Commission chief Akylbek Sariev rejected critics who said the vote should have been postponed because of the violence that flared for several days beginning June 10.

“We couldn’t delay that because the power of the state had to be established,’’ Sariev said. “The state of the nation was at stake.’’

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