Kyrgyzstan Vote Won't Settle Ethnic Strife

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After her supporters ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev this spring, Kyrgyzstan's interim President Roza Otunbayeva promised to hold a referendum on reforms to the constitution. The reforms are supposed to clear the way for parliamentary and presidential elections. But the country has been thrown into turmoil as a result of ethnic clashes and the questions are whether violence will intrude, how the country handles voting for so many refugees displaced from their homes and whether the vote can be considered remotely legitimate. Guest host Audie Cornish discusses the situation with NPR Moscow Correspondent David Greene.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Audie Cornish.

The troubled nation of Kyrgyzstan is holding is holding a constitutional referendum today. Just two weeks ago, bringing people out to the polls seemed unimaginable, as the southern part of the country was torn apart by ethnic violence that killed hundreds and maybe several thousand people.

But the fragile interim government in this central Asian nation was determined to get voters to adopt a new constitution. The government sees this as its best hope to gain the legitimacy it desperately needs to help the country recover.

NPR's David Greene has been following the events in Kyrgyzstan and joins us from the city of Osh. Good morning, David.

DAVID GREENE: Good morning, Audie.

CORNISH: So the important question is: Are people actually voting?

GREENE: People are voting. The numbers that we're getting so far from the Kyrgyz government, as of about mid-afternoon Kyrgyz time, 34 percent of eligible voters had come out around the country to vote on this new constitution, which, you know, for a vote on a new constitution - not a major presidential election - you know, it's pretty impressive.

A lot of those people seem to be up in the north, near the capital, Bishkek, and in some of the places that did not see the violence several weeks ago.

Im actually at a polling station in the city of Osh, which is in the southern, more troubled part of the country. And the reports we're getting is that turnout has been much lower, and that doesnt surprise me. Im in area of Osh called the Cheryomushki District. It's a neighborhood of mainly ethnic Uzbeks and it was literally torn apart, burned down a couple weeks ago.

And people have been trickling in. I mean, theyve had sort of a study flow here voting. But you talk to people, they're still afraid, you know. I talked to an Uzbek woman who lives here and said she's still afraid to be out and about. And she, you know, had - her entire block of houses burned down just a few weeks ago, and she really has found her way back from that.

And I talked to some Kyrgyz residents who said they're in such a bastion of, you know, Uzbeks here that they're afraid to be out, being taken hostage. They drove a van to the polls with bodyguards to vote. So it's still very tense but people are coming out and they're voting.

CORNISH: David, whats actually on the ballot and why is it so important to the new government to do this now, especially with so many people still homeless?

GREENE: It's really one simple question: Do you support this new constitution? And this constitution, Audie, would actually make Kyrgyzstan the first parliamentary democracy in all of central Asia.

So there's been a lot of trouble with corruption, a lack of confidence in the government. And so this new interim government that came to power in a bloody uprising a couple of months ago is trying to get legitimacy and trying to create a new kind of government that they hope will be more transparent and have more trust from people.

But, as you said, a lot of people are homeless. And groups like Human Rights Watch question whether this government ever should have gone ahead with this election, with the threat of new violence and with a lot of, you know, thousands of ethnic Uzbek - minority Uzbeks who had fled the violence a couple weeks ago and might remain refugees. We're hearing many of them are coming back.

But there'll be a real question of legitimacy if it turns out that so many of this minority in this country - this Uzbek minority - didnt end up voting today. We should say, though, that election officials are doing everything they can to make this election work.

I was in a hospital earlier and they were literally bringing ballots to the bedsides of people who had gunshot wounds from the violence a few weeks ago. So it's pretty dramatic. It's pretty moving to hear people like that say: I dropped that ballot in beside by bed because, you know, Im voting for peace.

CORNISH: And, David, we just have a few seconds left. But can you tell us a little bit about why both Russia and the U.S. are watching this referendum so closely?

GREENE: Absolutely. They both have military bases here. I mean, that's a real simple question for it. The U.S. has base near the capital, Bishkek. They use it to help fight the war in Afghanistan. The Russians have tried to get rid of that U.S. base, so it's been a real tug of war between those two countries for a long time.

They're getting along right now. President Dmitry Medvedev from Russia, President Obama spoke together in Washington, and said they're really a united force right now in trying to help this country.

But once this government is legitimate and once the U.S. and Russia have a new government here to deal with, I think you might see that jockeying for power and jockeying for influence potentially come back again.

CORNISH: NPR's David Greene in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Thanks, David.

GREENE: Thank you, Audie.

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