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Elections and Ethnicity in the South of Kyrgyzstan

During Kyrgyzstan's post-election period, most attention has focussed on the demonstrations staged by supporters of two opposition leaders, Daniyar Usunov and Felix Kulov. Meanwhile, a potentially more explosive situation in southern Kyrgyzstan has gone virtually unnoticed by the international community, even though it raises the spectre of interethnic conflict among Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Ethnic tensions have been on the rise in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad for several months. The increased outflow of ethnic Russians following last summer's Batken hostage crisis has had a destabilising impact on interethnic relations. Uzbeks have suddenly emerged as the second largest ethnic group in the country after the titular majority, a fact that has unsettled many Kyrgyz. The ethnic balance also has been influenced by the formation of a new Batken oblast, an act that has diluted the ethnic Kyrgyz majority in Osh oblast, where the bulk of the Uzbek population lives in and around the regional capital of Osh.

According to one western observer, demographics was a major factor in prompting gerrymandering in the Osh region in an effort to ensure Kyrgyz candidates dominated recent parliamentary elections.

Government policy of appointing Kyrgyz administrators in Uzbek areas over recent years has helped increase the sense amongst Uzbeks that they are being excluded from the political process. Meanwhile, ongoing tension between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has also heightened anxiety. Combined with rumours of an impending visa regime for travel to Uzbekistan, these political factors served to focus the attention of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan on the alarming question of where they belonged: the perception which many had was that they were welcome in neither state.

Tensions increased sharply following a protest by Uzbeks that occurred before the first round of voting on February 20. The cause was a ruling on February 11 that barred the incumbent, Davron Sobirov, an Uzbek, from running for reelection in a majority Uzbek election district # 34. Authorities based their ruling on a broadcast on local Uzbek television that depicted a historical scene of a traveller in the forest being attacked by bandits. The broadcast ended with an appeal to voters to cast their ballots for the candidate capable of protecting the people from thievery. The local election committee accused Sobirov of inciting interethnic hostility, alleging that the broadcast depicted an Uzbek being attacked by Kyrgyz.

Sobirov flew immediately to Bishkek to appeal the decision, arguing that the local election committee had violated procedure by not allowing him to testify before it announced its verdict. His appeal was upheld, and his candidacy reinstated on February 12.

But that was by no means the end of the issue. With only a few days left before the first round poll on February 20, three of Sobirov's four opponents took him to court. They repeated the accusations over the political broadcast, and added that his campaign slogan of "You YOURSELF are right, You YOURSELF are the people, You YOURSELF are the scales - My people!" was nationalistic: by highlighting the word 'yourself' ('Uz'). His opponents argued that Sobirov was referring to the word "Uzbek." Amidst chaotic scenes and angry exchanges in the courtroom, Sobirov was found guilty, and his candidacy thrown out a second time.

The ruling caused his supporters to take to the streets in protest. A march proceeded through Osh's city centre, ending at the mayor's office, where the crowd demanded Sobirov's reinstatement. Police were ordered to disperse the demonstrators, but were unsuccessful: "Isn't this meant to be a democracy?" one old woman shouted angrily at the police, who beat a hasty retreat.

With tensions rising and only three days left before the election, Sobirov again appealed the decision in Bishkek. Again, the decision by the Osh court was overturned, and, after returning home to a hero's welcome, Sobirov took first place, garnering 38 percent of the vote.

As no candidate had managed to capture 50 percent of the vote, the election campaign moved into a second stage of a run-off between the two leading candidates: Sobirov, and Ashirbek Bakaev, an ethnic Kyrgyz army general. The head-to-head contest between the two quickly came to be viewed as a Kyrgyz verses Uzbek affair. Annonymous leaflets were printed and distributed vilifiying the candidates, with one accusing Sobirov of having provoked interethnic violence in 1990 that left 170 people dead. Kyrgyz voters commonly expressed the fear that Sobirov wanted to engineer the transfer of Osh from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, and rumours flew that his expensive election campaign was receiving funding from Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. In the end, however, the electorate, largely split along ethnic lines, gave Sobirov 62 percent of the vote and a parliamentary mandate.

Although the final result in Sobirov's election race could be described as fair, the campaign's gyrations raised Kyrgyz-Uzbek tensions in Osh to levels not seen since the 1990 clashes between the two communities. The campaign raised fundamental questions about the viability of transferring western models of parliamentary democracy to the Ferghana Valley. Indeed, some people locally have advocated a system that guarantees representation in parliament based on size of ethnic population.

At the very least, the fact that ethnic issues played such a prominent role not only in Sobirov's contest, but in others throughout the region, demonstrates the enormous obstacles which need to be overcome in order to create a civil society for all ethnicities under President Askar Akaev's slogan of 'Kyrgyzstan is our common home.'

Elections and Ethnicity in the South of Kyrgyzstan

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