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Qishloq Ovozi

Campaign billboards for the Ata-Meken party feature a former Osh mayor, now convicted criminal, Melis Myrzakmatov, as a candidate.

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.

Convincing Strategy?

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
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.

A rally for the Respublika Ata-Jurt party attracted reasonably large crowds in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad.

“There are political rallies every day here in Jalal-Abad, sometimes a party will hold a meeting in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then one more in the evening,” Ruslan tells me.

Ruslan is the correspondent in Jalal-Abad for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk. He is a native of the city and he has been providing Azattyk's election campaign coverage from this area.

My expectations after leaving Osh were for a more subdued campaign in Jalal-Abad. Along the road from Osh south to Batken there were an abundance of political party advertisements in every inhabited area and, as I mentioned in a previous article, even the hillsides were fair game for party promotion spots. But heading north from Osh to Jalal-Abad there were fewer party banners and signs along the road and the hillsides were left untouched.

Passing under the arch at the entrance to Jalal-Abad, the campaign returns in full force. Hanging on every post along both sides of the road into town are the red posters of the Ata-Meken party. Once in the city the flags, banners, and billboard advertisements of other parties adorn the walls of buildings and hang on cables over the city streets.

The best place I can think of to meet Ruslan is in the central square across from the provincial administration building. The Jalal-Abad administration building and the square hold special places in the history of Kyrgyzstan's revolutions. Jalal-Abad was one of the first flash points in events that led to the 2005 revolution. There were protests on the square across from the administration that sometimes turned violent. Demonstrators stormed, and eventually seized the administration building, an event that encouraged protesters around the country and led to then-President Askar Akaev’s ouster.

His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, made what would be his last stand in Kyrgyzstan, speaking to a crowd from a platform set up on the central square in April 2010. Having been chased from the capital, Bakiev tried to rally the people in his native region to help him regain the presidency. He fled the country barely 48 hours later.

'They Get Things Done'

An easy place for me to meet my colleague, and a good place for supporters of the Respublika Ata-Jurt party to assemble ahead of a rally, as I see when I arrive. I’m here to cover election campaigning, so we follow them.

Respublika Ata-Jurt is holding a rally in the hippodrome on the edge of Jalal-Abad this afternoon. A respectable crowd of what looks to be a few thousand people sit in grandstands and the show begins -- and it is a show.

Two horsemen, one dressed as a medieval warrior, the other as a medieval bai, or lord, ride in ahead of three Kyrgyz women, also on horseback and also wearing traditional Kyrgyz attire of hundreds of years ago. Then come the young horsemen wearing white shirts with red scarves on their heads and spears in their hands. It is meant, and it succeeds in evoking the memory of Manas, the Kyrgyz people's legendary mythical warrior.

The crowd seems pleased and since the people's attention is now drawn to the stage, where the horse riders have stopped, the party activists start their speeches.

We amble along the front row of the crowd and come to an older man dressed in a suit and wearing a “kalpak,” the traditional Kyrgyz hat, who is clearly someone of importance. I tell him hello and quickly explain who I am and why I am here, then ask, "Can I assume you are a party supporter?"

"I am a communist" he replies and starts laughing. "Do you know what a communist is?" he asks me.

"I absolutely know what a communist is," I reply, smiling, and he starts laughing again.

He is a party supporter and when I ask him why Respublika Ata-Jurt he answers firmly, "Because they can get things done."

"What things can they do?" I ask.

"They know how to help people, they know what people want, they are active," he says.

I cannot pin him down on specifics and, since the show is on, I cannot really take up too much of his time, so we depart.

Vibrant Political Activity

There is one other place I have to go because there is something I want to know.

Jalal-Abad was another area badly affected by the interethnic violence in June 2010 that I mentioned in a previous article from Osh. The Uzbeks I met in Osh seemed disinterested in the upcoming parliamentary elections and I am curious how the Uzbeks in Jalal-Abad feel about the poll.

So we go to Suzak, a district of Jalal-Abad where Uzbeks live. In turns out the situation in Suzak is very different than in Osh. Just like the rest of Jalal-Abad, there are party posters, flags, and billboards everywhere, some written in Uzbek, which I do not remember seeing until now.

The responses are the opposite of Osh also. I stop an elderly Uzbek man pushing a bicycle along the roadside. "Are you planning on voting?" I ask. "Of course," he replies. When I ask if he has already chosen which party he will vote for he replies yes and adds, "I can't tell you, it’s a secret."

The same thing I heard from Kyrgyz people in the villages by the Tajik border.

One after another, people selling wares from tables along the sidewalk, shopkeepers, pedestrians, and just people hanging around by trees or cars, all the Uzbeks I speak with say they will go the polls on election day. Almost all of them have already chosen which party they will vote for, and while some repeat the "it’s a secret" line, others tell me the party's name immediately.

One woman said she was voting "for the president’s party." Technically, President Almazbek Atambaev is not a member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) as he was obligated to leave the party when he became president. But many still look at the SDPK as Atambaev’s party.

Not a great reason for choosing a political party, but then again three young Kyrgyz women told me in Osh they were voting for Respublika Ata-Meken because party co-leader Omurbek Babanov is "cute."

Two young Uzbek men standing by a car tell me they will vote for Ata-Meken and they can show me why. On an Ata-Meken sign along the street is a map of Suzak, as it could be, with new apartment buildings and shops.

Ata-Meken is not only promising the Uzbeks of the Suzak district major renovations, the party is promising to make Suzak a separate town, not simply a district of Jalal-Abad.

It is shame I have to leave Jalal-Abad so soon because it appears the city’s reputation for vibrant political activity is on display again.

Jalal-Abad was, arguably, the place where the 2005 revolution started. My next stop is the place where, less arguably, the revolution of 2010 started, Talas.

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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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