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Qishloq Ovozi

A new Kyrgyz military post near the Tajik border -- one of many checkpoints encountered as the road winds back and forth over the border.

"We would vote for any party that promises to solve our problems along the border with Tajikistan," two women in the village of Kok Tash tell me. Standing on the side of the road, we can all see the Tajik border a few dozen meters away as we speak.

The two are friends of Raziya Osorova, the "rais," or head of Kok Tash. I had just asked Osorova about problems in Kok Tash and what she wanted the political parties running for seats in upcoming elections to know about -- and do -- for the people of her village.

The elderly bureaucrat was cautious about answering, but these two women who approached and inserted themselves into our conversation are not. And they are not the only people who view the upcoming parliamentary elections with an expectation that the new government will resolve what for them is the most important issue.

Kok Tash is one of several villages that have been part of violence between Kyrgyz and Tajik communities that straddle the winding border of the two countries. There have been cross-border shooting incidents at least a dozen times during the last few years and people have been killed and wounded. My Kyrgyz driver did not want to approach the Tajik exclave of Vorukh. "They throw rocks at your car," he tells me (though later I walked up to that border and took pictures and no one bothered me).

Vorukh is next to the Kyrgyz village of Ak Sai. The local rais here is Ergesh Niyazkulov and he also named border problems as the No. 1 issue he hopes the next Kyrgyz government can resolve. But he adds that the question of water distribution is an integral part of any border solution.

It's About The Land

The reasons for the border problem are not difficult to understand. Driving to Ak Sai we passed back and forth between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan a half dozen times. We drove right next to a small Tajik Army post; then, a few minutes later, drove past a small Kyrgyz Army post. It was often unclear which country we were in as we made our way between the sharply descending hills on either side of us.

There is no industry here except agriculture, so the question of who gets the arable land and access to water from the lone river that cuts through the area is of paramount importance to the people living here. It is also an issue that politicians in the Kyrgyz and Tajik capitals -- far from this place -- will have a difficult time resolving.

In Samarkandek, the third of the border villages I visited, the people also hoped for some solution to the border problem. Samarkandek is lucky, there is an artificial canal running through the village and agriculture here seems well-sustained. But speaking with the small crowd that gathered around me it was apparent there was anger that these border conflicts are repeated so often and frustration that politicians have been unable to end them.

In all three villages, voters were consumed by the border problem. Sometimes someone mentioned the water problem but when I asked about economic conditions and possible improvements in infrastructure, people didn't seem very interested.

The solution for now, as was easy to see, is to construct more fortifications and observation towers. Though there was work being done on paving the main road through this area (not the roads leading to Ak Sai or Samarkandek), the only other obviously new additions to the region were lookout towers and army posts along the frontier.

I've painted a grim picture but I'm following the campaign and it's necessary to understand what the electorate wants from the members of the next parliament.

'We Have Democracy'

There is good news. Despite the problems in the Kyrgyz villages along the Tajik border, campaigning is in full swing. Banners and posters from various political parties were visible in all of these places. In Ak Sai I was present at a rally for the Kyrgyzstan party where three party activists addressed a crowd of about 40 people (Ak Sai is a small village) in an open lot off the side of the road.

Ak Sai chief Niyazkulov told me that activists or candidates from any party were free to come to his village and speak with people or hold rallies. He said there had not been and would not be any interference in such activities.

Raziya Osorova
Raziya Osorova

It was the same thing Osorova told me in Kok Tash and, like Ak Sai, there was an abundance of campaign posters from the various political parties.

The same was true in Samarkandek and although I did not meet the rais there, the people I did speak with said all parties were welcome to come and meet with the villagers and some had already done so.

So even in these small places voters are watching the campaign and listening to what the parties are saying. On this day (September 21) I met with more than 100 people, obviously briefly, but they all said they were planning on voting. As was true with the voters I mentioned in the previous article, the people of Ak Sai, Kok Tash, and Samarkandek were eager to confirm they would cast ballots but reluctant to tell me which party they would support on election day. I liked Ak Sai chief Niyazkulov's answer when I asked him which party he intended to vote for. "We have democracy in Kyrgyzstan. My vote is my secret."

I'm headed back to Osh but along the way I'll be paying special attention to something I noticed coming down here -- the political battle on the hillsides of southern Kyrgyzstan. You can find out about that next.

A hillside campaign ad for the Respublika Ata Jurt party on the road to Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Batken is Kyrgyzstan's southernmost province. It is also the poorest. Batken Province has a population, officially, of more than 400,000. Per capita, a higher proportion of people from Batken Province have left the country looking for work abroad than any of the country's other six provinces.

"There are three main problems in Batken," former provincial Governor Sultan Aijigitov tells me: "Roads, borders, and water." We're sitting in an empty conference room along one of the "main" roads in the city of Batken. There's no one else there, the lights are off, and there is no evidence anyone has been using the room lately.

Ajigitov is a candidate from the Ata-Meken party, one of 14 parties participating in October 4 parliamentary elections. He sums up the problems of the region as well as any of the people I've been able to speak to so far.

Roads are an important issue for the people here because of the Tajik and Uzbek exclaves in Batken Province. Roads built through these exclaves during the days when Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were fraternal Soviet republics have become a source of great friction since the three became independent. Ajigitov says in areas where Kyrgyzstan has built detours around these exclaves tensions have decreased. He adds locals, voluntarily and at their own expense, were responsible for seeing some of these roads completed.

Large sections of the borders in this area where the three countries come together are still not demarcated and in some places where the borders are officially demarcated it is not readily apparent where the dividing line actually is.

As for water, I've traveled the road to Batken a half dozen times, at least, over the years and it is obvious the land is parched, despite the fact the Pamir Mountains (the Alay Range) loom not far from the city of Batken. Water use has been another source of problems between the Kyrgyz and Tajik populations but I'm going to the border soon so I won't get into that yet.

Water Shortages

The scarcity of water, Ajigitov says, is also one of the causes of the exodus of working-age people from Batken. He says with proper supplies of water the land here could sustain agriculture and "people would return, maybe people would even migrate here."

Speaking with people while walking around the city of Batken (population approximately 26,000), dropping into stores, and sitting at the chaihana (teahouse) it is apparent that Ajigitov is absolutely correct about what voters here consider to be important. Everyone I spoke to named one or more of these three issues as priorities for Kyrgyzstan's government to address, though many added the need for better support for the ailing economy in Batken was important.

I walk into a store on a dusty patch on the edge of town. As I grab a bottle of Coca-Cola from the refrigerator, the woman working there flashes a look that says, "of course." Since my appearance has got her attention I explain why I am here and ask if she plans to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. "Yes," she says, but when I ask if she has chosen a party to vote for she tells me "not yet." Interestingly, of the more than 30 people I've asked so far, that was the most common answer.

When I was doing sociological work in Central Asia in 1992-1993 I learned quickly that people often told me what they thought I wanted to hear. So I'm not surprised when I drop by the Batken Youth Club, an initiative group that currently is focusing on trying to get local voters to go the polls on election day, and they tell me they estimate only 35 to 40 percent of the Batken city population will actually cast ballots.

The leader of the organization is Murat Altynbek and, like the other three youth club members present, Altynbek appears to be in his mid-30s. He explains that the new biometric registration system to be used to identify voters by their fingerprints has been met with apprehension by many here in Batken and they have been unwilling to undergo the process.

Altynbek and his club have been conducting meetings and going out to speak with the public "almost every day" for the last many weeks as they try to raise enthusiasm for elections -- not only the October parliamentary elections but local elections coming up next year.

There is one issue about the parliamentary elections that seems to particularly bother Altynbek and his fellow club member Janybek. "There is not one candidate from Batken district in the top 10" on any of the 14 parties' lists of candidates. They point out, and repeat more than once, that the Leylek district of Batken Province does have such a candidate, which does seem strange since Batken city is the provincial capital.

They then raise one of the allegations that are haunting this election -- that only people with money are candidates. There have been reports about this in Kyrgyz media and a group calling itself Taza Oppozitsiyalyk Kyymyl (the Clean Opposition Movement) demonstrated outside the office of Kyrgyzstan's president in August making exactly that charge.

When asked which of the parties seem to be most active in Batken, Murat names Ata-Meken, Respublika-Ata-Jurt, Bir Bol, and the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK).

The good news from my conversations with all these people is that there appears to be no interference whatsoever in the ability of parties or candidates to campaign here, which is a huge difference compared to Kyrgyzstan's elections in 1990s and in the last decade, and something opposition parties in other Central Asian countries, those where they are allowed to exist, cannot say.

Next stop; two Kyrgyz villages along the border with Tajikistan.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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