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Kyrgyzstan faces tricky political future

Kyrgyzstan's fragile leadership has survived the aftermath of revolution, a wave of ethnic clashes and a refugee crisis. Now it has held a successful referendum on a new constitution that waters down presidential powers in favor of a European-style parliamentary system.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2010 08:53 IST

Kyrgyzstan's fragile leadership has survived the aftermath of revolution, a wave of ethnic clashes and a refugee crisis.

Now it has held a successful referendum on a new constitution that waters down presidential powers in favor of a European-style parliamentary system.

That is raising tentative hopes that the resilience of President Roza Otunbayeva's interim government, along with the international praise it won Monday for organizing a free and fair vote, puts Kyrgyzstan in a good position to evolve into Central Asia's first true democracy. More than 90 per cent of voters in the weekend referendum backed the interim government's new constitution. But there are danger signs ahead.

The strategically positioned nation is in the hands of a fractious coalition of volatile personalities who look set to pitch battle against one another in parliamentary elections in October. With Otunbayeva calling for prospective candidates in her provisional Cabinet to resign, saying that is the only way to ensure a fair playing field in the parliamentary vote, the government may be showing cracks that could rapidly lead to outright collapse. Both Russia and the United States have military bases in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished and mainly Muslim nation on China's western border, and political developments in the country will be under close international scrutiny.

By October, "adversaries will appear from two sides, among the politicians currently making up the interim government opposition ... and second, a new opposition movement will materialize," political analyst Marat Kazakpayev said.

Several of Otunbayeva's top deputies ,including the acting finance minister and the influential minister for constitutional affairs ,lead their own political parties that will likely participate in October's vote.

The formation of the interim government was only truly possible in the first place because of the rare outbreak of cooperation that led to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's ouster in mass protests in the capital, Bishkek, in April.

The prospect of yet another government disintegrating is particularly troubling in light of the urgent crisis of the 400,000 people displaced by a wave of violence in the south between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities that is believed to have claimed 2,000 lives.

Some 75,000 refugees that fled to Uzbekistan have returned to Kyrgyzstan in recent days, enabling the authorities to claim a victory in their efforts to restore peace and order to the region, but international organizations warn that the problem of the displaced remains acute.

"Many have returned to a situation of secondary displacement in that they haven't been able to return to their homes, because their homes have been so badly destroyed, damaged or looted that they have nothing," UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said. The United Nations has appealed for $71 million in aid, some of which will go to rebuilding homes and livelihoods. "What people are saying is that they want tents so that they can live in their damaged houses while they rebuild them and return to their communities," Rummery said.

An estimated 1,800 houses were destroyed by arson attacks in the main southern city of Osh alone.

However, there is little sign on the ground so far that the Kyrgyz government has taken an active role in assisting the reconstruction effort.

The speed with which ethnic violence spread through Osh and Jalal-Abad, another southern city, earlier this month has also raised doubts about the loyalty of the armed forces and police. Bishkek-based political analyst Alexander Knyazev said the referendum may have finally tilted the support of the military in favor of the interim government, but that Otunbayeva will still need a leadership reshuffle to root out Bakiyev loyalists. "She will need to do this delicately enough so as not to spark serious resistance, not to spark a backlash, but decisively enough to make it work," said Knyazev, who heads the Kyrgyz branch of the Institute of CIS States, a Russian think tank. "This crucial and very sensitive job still lies ahead."

The Sunday constitutional referendum was the Otunbayeva government's plea for legitimization among the international community and the Kyrgyz population.

With international observers praising the organization of the poll, part of that feat has apparently been achieved. But government opponents are nonetheless seeking to sow doubts about the fairness of the referendum.

"The size of the support for the provisional government is due to the fact that they blackmailed people through the media and warned of instability if they didn't vote," said Omurbek Suvanaliyev, leader of the opposition Ata-Jurt party. "People don't know what they voted for."

Otunbayeva, a former diplomat who served as Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and Britain, has shown rare moderation by announcing plans to step aside as caretaker leader once presidential elections are held in late 2011.

In addition to her current allies, however, there is any number of former Bakiyev associates and figures with potential appeal among the armed forces waiting in the wings.

The public rage that unseated Bakiyev was in part fueled by his increasingly authoritarian style.

But the appeal of a charismatic, strong-arm personality campaigning on a law and order ticket will grow stronger as perceptions of public disorder continue to fester. The Kyrgyz people may look toward somebody who can rise above the ethnic, geographical and clan loyalties that have long plagued the nation. And that could very well lead Kyrgyzstan's tortuous trek to democracy back to square one.