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Kyrgyzstan holds vote only weeks after riots

Associated Press - June 27, 2010

Peter Leonard and Simon Shuster, Osh, Kyrgyzstan The people of violence-wracked Kyrgyzstan voted Sunday on a new constitution just weeks after deadly ethnic purges a vote that the interim government hopes will legitimize the power it seized in April.

The Central Asian nation was on high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace after rampages that killed hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks.

Voting in the southern city of Osh, where entire Uzbek neighborhoods were burned to the ground earlier this month during attacks by ethnic Kyrgyz, interim President Roza Otunbayeva said the vote was proof of her country's strength.

"In this referendum, the people of Kyrgyzstan are proving that the country is united, standing on its feet and going forward," Otunbayeva said. "As a people, we want to heal the wounds we have sustained in recent times."

Seven hours after polls opened, over 41 percent of the nation's 2.7 million eligible voters had cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission reported.

The vote supported by the UN, the US and Russia is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown following deadly street protests. The provisional government, which faces deep internal divisions, needs the vote to legitimize its power ahead of parliamentary elections in October.

But questions remain about how successfully the referendum can be held just weeks after violence left hundreds dead and forced up to 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks to flee. The interim government has accused Bakiyev's followers of instigating those attacks to try to stop the referendum, a charge that Bakiyev, now living in Belarus, denies.

Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south backed Bakiyev, whose regime was seen as corrupt.

Bakytbek Omurkulov, an Osh-based rights activist, said Sunday's vote was going on peacefully.

In at least two Uzbek neighborhoods of Osh, the turnout was robust Sunday morning. At another polling station in central Osh, both Uzbek and Kyrgyz voters were casting ballots.

"We have to support this referendum, because it should not just be the president that takes decisions," said Nazir Mamataliyev, a 55-year-old barber and ethnic Uzbek, who voted for the new constitution. "Making choices for our country should be a collective process."

Retired schoolteacher Turdykhan Tadzhibayeva, 70, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was doubtful, saying Bakiyev should not have been overthrown.

"I don't expect anything of this referendum," Tadzhibayeva said. "In Kyrgyzstan, the people that draw up the law themselves break the law within the space of six months."

Those who fled the recent attacks did face voting hurdles. Just before the vote, authorities began handing out temporary IDs to ethnic Uzbeks who lost their papers in homes destroyed by arson, but many families were too fearful to go back to their neighborhoods to receive the new papers.

In the village of Suratash on border with Uzbekistan, only about 100 of some 4,000 Uzbek refugees there cast their ballots.

Central Election Commission chief Akylbek Sariev insisted the vote was essential for stability, rejecting critics who said it was too early to hold the vote.

"We couldn't delay that because the power of the state had to be established," Sariev told The Associated Press. "The state of the nation was at stake."

Yet the document touted by officials as a transition from despotism to Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy looks strikingly similar to the constitution drawn up by Bakiyev, who came to power in a 2005 revolt. It does nothing to guarantee a greater role in politics for Uzbeks, who make up 15 percent of the country's 5.5 million people but have long complained of being left out of the halls of power.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had 25 observers monitoring the vote but none in Osh or Jalal-Abad, cities it still considered too dangerous.

"You cannot expect that everything is perfect, so there are inconsistencies and shortcomings," said Janez Lenarcic of the OSCE. "The higher the turnout will be, the higher the legitimacy of the vote."

The government has scrapped a minimum turnout threshold, meaning the vote will be deemed legitimate no matter what the turnout is. The interim government has also not said what it would do if it loses the vote.

Both the United States and Russia have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. The US Manas air base is a key transit center for US and NATO troops flying in and out of Afghanistan.

[Shuster reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Associated Press reporters Leila Saralayeva and Sasha Merkushev in Bishkek also contributed to this report.]

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