Election campaigning in Osh is frantic and furious, as one might expect in Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city. Banners and signs advertising the 14 political parties competing in the October 4 parliamentary elections are everywhere, and small trucks ply the main roads flying flags and blaring the anthems of individual parties.
But even during this campaign, the city cannot entirely free itself from the memory of ethnic violence that left hundreds of people dead and sections of the city destroyed five years ago.
There is a ghost here, and reminders of one of the worst moments in Kyrgyzstan's history -- and as I'm finding out, these are playing a significant role in how voters here view the upcoming elections.
Osh was the epicenter of the "June events," as nearly everyone here calls the bloodshed between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010.
The city has moved on; relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks appear to be slowly mending.
Since I'm here now to cover the elections, I'm interested in knowing how the people of Osh view the upcoming poll and whether they plan to participate. And I see there is a big difference in the way the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities of Osh look at these parliamentary elections.
For the record, I could not walk around all of Osh; it's a big city. But I have been wandering in and out of neighborhoods for several days and speaking with people I met. Their views represent the opinions of a relatively small number of people, not an entire community here.
Most of the campaigning in Osh -- the trucks I mentioned, handing out leaflets, manning campaign offices -- is being done by ethnic Kyrgyz. They are enthusiastic and when I speak to Kyrgyz people on the street or in taxis, by far the majority of them tell me they do plan to vote.
"It is true many of the candidates have been in our politics for many years," Aizhan, a Kyrgyz woman who looks to be in her 30s, says. But she adds, "There are some new, younger people among the candidates; they know our situation better. Most of their lives have been spent after the end of the Soviet Union -- they understand our situation better than the older politicians."
They have completed the process of biometric registration and most see no harm in using this system to ensure nobody votes more than once. Most know which party they intend to vote for, and some even tell me.
"It's a good system," Maksat, a taxi driver who looks to be barely old enough to vote, tells me. "In the past the head of the household, the father, voted for the entire family; the younger people didn't have a chance. Now our voice will be heard," he says, adding that he is voting for the Bir Bol party because "the government wastes a lot of money and Bir Bol will stop that."
Uzbeks Distrust Political Parties
In the Uzbek neighborhoods there is far less enthusiasm for the coming elections or for any particular political party. Many ethnic Uzbeks I met do not plan to vote. Some, who obviously do not intend to cast ballots, told me they did not register with the new biometric system because they were concerned about how the information would be used.
When I mentioned that ethnic groups have a quota for seats in parliament, and that there are ethnic Uzbeks on the party lists, the looks I received told the whole story -- but they explained it anyway. They have no confidence in the Uzbeks on the party lists, and they often proceeded to run down the names of those candidates and their parties. Few seemed to believe any party would speak for their interests.
"There have been Uzbeks in the government the last few years and we do not see any change for us," says Munnawar, a middle-aged woman.
Davron, a young man is his 20s, adds: "Even the Uzbek leaders in Osh who are trying to get us to vote are getting something from the government for their efforts; they just want our votes, they will forget about us after the election."
Again, I was only in a few Uzbek neighborhoods. There are hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, and I spoke to a few dozen.
Haunted By The Past
Now let's meet our ghost. He is alive, but he is not here physically. His presence is felt, though.
Melis Myrzakmatov was the mayor of Osh when the "June events" happened. Myrzakmatov was mayor when Kurmanbek Bakiev was president -- and was one of the very few officials who kept their positions after Bakiev was chased from power in April 2010.
That was in no small part due to local support, and that support included a group of several hundred "sportsmen" -- muscular (some of those guys were weasels; you and I could have fended off 10 of them) young men in tracksuits -- who acted as a protection force for Myrzakmatov.
Myrzakmatov was finally dismissed as Osh mayor in December 2013. He entered but lost the mayoral race in January 2014. In September of that same year, he was charged with abuse of office in connection with the construction of a bridge in Osh and fled the country. The Osh city court convicted Myrzakmatov on those charges on July 22, in absentia, and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
He is currently a candidate from the Ata-Meken party, and his picture is all around the city.
Myrzakmatov claimed when charges were filed against him that the case was politically motivated and designed to prevent him from running in the parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken has been able to keep Myrzakmatov on the party's list because the list of candidates was filed before the former Osh mayor's conviction.
The Ata-Meken campaign poster with ex-Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov (left) and Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev
Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev has defended Myrzakmatov, pointing out that current President Almazbek Atambaev once faced criminal charges, which in the end were determined to be without basis.
Some here in Osh -- and I am talking about the ethnic Kyrgyz -- see Myrzakmatov's inclusion on the Ata-Meken list as Tekebaev's attempt to woo support in southern Kyrgyzstan, where Tekebaev enjoys little backing.
If that's true, then judging by the comments of ethnic Kyrgyz people I have been talking to, the strategy has failed. Almost none of the Kyrgyz I spoke with said they supported Myrzakmatov or would support Ata-Meken on election day. The few who said they would pointed to the resurrection of the city under Myrzakmatov after the 2010 violence.
Many in the Uzbek community continue to hold Myrzakmatov at least partially responsible for the bloodshed, most of whose victims were Uzbeks. Not surprisingly, the Uzbeks I spoke with said they would never vote for him.
There is a festive atmosphere here in Osh connected with the upcoming elections, but I am leaving the city with a feeling the attention being given to the campaign is to some extent a welcome distraction.