Sunday 18 March 2018

Kyrgyzstan votes on new constitution amid ethnic tensions

SIMON SHUSTER in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is holding a referendum on a new constitution today, a risky gamble amid deadly ethnic tensions, but one the interim government hopes will legitimise their hold on 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 defence volunteers to keep the peace.

Checkpoints were set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in Osh and Jalalabad, two southern cities wracked by ethnic purges against minority Uzbeks earlier this month.

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. 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 also 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 around 55 per cent of the seats, and gives lawmakers some 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 per cent of the country's 5.5 million people but have long complained of being left out of the halls of power.

Uzbeks have mostly supported the interim government, while Kyrgyz in the south have backed Bakiyev.

If the 2.4 million voters in today's referendum further weaken interim president Roza Otunbayeva's government by voting 'no,' many fear another spasm of violence could erupt.

Whatever the results of the vote, various parties in the provisional government will begin jockeying ahead of parliamentary elections this autumn, creating further divisions.

Security guard Amir Abdurakhmanov said he would not vote. "What's the point," he said with a shrug. "It seems like we lose either way."

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News