More unrest feared as Kyrgyz faces post-election uncertainty

By bne IntelliNews October 14, 2010

Clare Nuttall in Osh -

Three months after the deadly ethnic clashes in south Kyrgyzstan, life has started returning to normal. But with the southern-based nationalist Ata-Zhurt party receiving the greatest number of votes in the October 10 parliamentary elections, a recount of ballots needed and a tense period of coalition haggling likely ahead, there are fears of further outbreaks of violence.

The day after the vote, it was supporters of the Butun Kyrgyzstan party who took to the streets, with around 1,000 demonstrating in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second city, and a further 200 outside the Central Election Commission in Bishkek. Butun supporters, angry that their party had fallen just one-tenth of 1% short of the 5% barrier needed to take seats in the parliament, also blocked the main Bishkek-Osh road. But it is the horse-trading currently going on between the five largest parties, all of which have parliamentary seats, that will determine the post-election future.

For most people, the concern is to get a government in place that will allow the country to recover, and - in the south especially - to avoid a repeat of the violence. In Osh, the devastation from June's ethnic clashes is visible immediately after the military checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. For more than a kilometre, the houses on both sides of the road are charred ruins. This was one of the areas mainly populated by ethnic Uzbeks, whose homes were torched when street fights between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths on June 10 escalated into large-scale ethnic violence.

"We had a war," local residents say, pointing to the damage. Whole sections of the city's main market, the Jayma bazaar, have also been destroyed, while elsewhere the damage is more isolated - a single restaurant burned down or a beauty salon with its windows smashed and door boarded up in a street of otherwise untouched businesses.

Fighting raged in Osh and nearby towns including Jalal-Abad and Bazar-Kurgan for four days. In what many believe was an attempted uprising by supporters of the ousted former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, groups of young men were trucked into the city to join the events. According to local reports, crowds attacked Uzbek districts, and Uzbek shops and homes were looted. There are also reports of cars without licence plates driving into areas of Osh and Jalal-Abad and opening fire indiscriminately.

By the time the situation was brought under control, some 100,000 refugees had flooded across the border into Uzbekistan, and several hundred people had lost their lives. State National Security Service of Kyrgyzstan announced on October 5 that the number of deaths was 403, but unofficial estimates put the figure as high as 2,000.

Economic hit

By September, the situation was starting to return to normal. The schools have re-opened, albeit with armed guards stationed outside. Traders are also back at Jayma bazaar, where some have set up flower stalls under charred awnings, or heaped watermelons and pumpkins beside piles of rubble. But even in the sections untouched by the blaze, whole alleys lie abandoned.

The violence took a severe toll on the local economy, with the damage costing around $71m, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The region's two main money-making activities - agriculture and trading - have also been severely disrupted. The early harvest that takes place in June was disrupted, and those farmers that managed to gather their crops found them hard to sell with the bazaar destroyed and the international borders closed. "During the events, it was difficult to buy goods or take goods to markets. Much of the market infrastructure was destroyed, and people were afraid to leave their homes," Rasmus Egendal, Kyrgyzstan country director for the World Food Programme, tells bne. "Now the situation is slowly starting to move back to normality, but there is still a very strong undercurrent of insecurity."

Kyrgyzstan was already troubled with poverty and food insecurity affected around one-third of the population - some 1.4m people. This year, international aid agencies have stepped in to ensure food supplies during the winter months. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other international aid agencies are helping affected families to rebuild temporary shelters for the winter, when temperatures fall to -20°C. Part of the $1.1bn committed to Kyrgyzstan by international donors led by the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the donor conference on July 27 will be used to help the south recover.

But while the rebuilding has started, many people in Osh are worried about a recurrence of the violence. Many of Osh's Uzbek population are conspicuously absent. All but 15,000 of the refugees who fled across the border returned to Kyrgyzstan after receiving a cool welcome from Uzbek President Islam Karimov. However, while the breadwinners go out to work, their families stay home or have temporarily moved to rural areas.

Among the Kyrgyz population too, people are nervous. "I am afraid there will be more violence after the elections. I don't trust that the elections will be fair," says Altinai, a trader on her way to her cousin's wedding in Uzgen. Like most locals, she is travelling early in the day as she rarely ventures out after dark. "I think there could be another war," agrees Murat, who is on his way back to his family's summer pasture after selling their cows in the bazaar.

Reports by international observers say the electoral process was largely free and fair. "I have observed many elections in Central Asia over the years but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome," said Morten Hoglund, special coordinator of the short-term OSCE observer mission in Kyrgyzstan, at a post-election press conference. However, the day after the elections on October 11 several minor demonstrations were held in Bishkek and Osh by protesters claiming that the elections were flawed.

The government has also launched investigations into the June events, but these have been strongly criticised by international observers. A report from Human Rights Watch says that some government forces not only failed to protect the Uzbek community, but actually facilitated attacks on Uzbek neighbourhoods. It also points out that while some 3,500 criminal cases had been launched during the investigation as of end August, the majority of those arrested were ethnic Uzbeks. On October 13, the leaders of the five parties that won enough votes to enter the parliament agreed to a recount of ballots upon the request of Butun Kyrgyzstan,

Feelings continue to run high in Osh. "We don't like foreign journalists here," says Alibek, a small businessman. "They always take the Uzbek side." International donors and aid agencies have had to carefully balance the need to provide support to those affected by the violence, and to avoid alienating the rest of the population.

Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, an outspoken opponent of President Roza Otunbayeva's government, has been notorious for fanning the flames of ethnic conflict. In mid-August, he controversially declared that Osh was no longer under the control of the central government. On August 20, when 5,000 demonstrators gathered in the city after hearing rumours Myrzakmatov had been sacked, he denied the claims and the demonstration dispersed. Many hope he will continue to keep a low profile in the post-election period.

More unrest feared as Kyrgyz faces post-election uncertainty

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