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Qishloq Ovozi

Bringing the horses down from summer pastures

Passing through the town of Tash Kumyr and heading up into the mountains that divide southern and northern Kyrgyzstan, evidence of the election campaign fades. It seems logical: The 14 political parties seeking votes for the October 4 parliamentary elections can compete against each other, but they have no chance of distracting attention from the magnificent scenery on either side of the road.

In any case, there are not many people living up here, and the first people we do meet have little interest in elections -- they have many more pressing concerns. They are shepherds from the "jailoo" (nomadic camps). At this time of year, these horsemen are bringing their flocks down from the mountains ahead of winter.

The herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses are the cause of most of the brief traffic jams along the mountain road, and their presence is so common that drivers just stop and sit back. No one ever honks their horn or gets angry. We get stuck in several of these jams and wait as the herds pass through the stopped vehicles and finally clear the road.

"Jailoodan?" my driver calls out to one of the shepherds to find out if he is from the jailoo, and the shepherd nods.

Are you planning to vote in elections, I call out, and the shepherd gives me a puzzled look, then says, "I never vote. I'm busy."

That's understandable, since these shepherds have likely been in the pastures high up in the mountains for several months as they always are in summer. And perhaps that is also why none of the political parties seems interested in advertising themselves in this largely uninhabited area. There are no billboards along the roadside at all, and it is not until we approach the town of Toktogul on the north side of the immense Toktogul Reservoir that the campaign trail reappears.

On the hillside just outside of Toktogul, an arrangement of stones high up on hillside spells out Ar-Namys (Dignity). It is the first place I've seen the stone arrangements since the road south of Osh, and also one of the rare promotions for the Ar-Namys party. Ar-Namys campaign posters appear as we drive by Toktogul.

Feliks Kulov is the leader of Ar-Namys and a veteran politician in Kyrgyzstan. Kulov was in the Interior Ministry when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic, and after independence he served as interior minister, vice president, national security minister, mayor of Bishkek, and prime minister. It was this last position that might be doing harm to the Ar-Namys party in these elections.

On the road through the mountains
On the road through the mountains

Kulov was prime minister as part of the "tandem" with now-exiled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Both were seen as potential presidents after the 2005 revolution that chased longtime President Askar Akaev from office and the tandem -- one as president, the other as prime minister -- was the compromise the two worked out.

Kulov was prime minister for only some 18 months, but people I've spoken with in Kyrgyzstan have mentioned Kulov's past ties to the now unpopular Bakiev as the reason they would not vote for Ar-Namys.

Kulov is from Talas Province and it seems he is putting most of Ar-Namys's campaigning efforts into his home region. There are Ar-Namys posters and billboards on the sides of roads and houses as we descend from the mountains heading toward the city of Talas.

As we get closer to Talas, the advertisements of other parties start to appear, but I notice there are fewer of these than in the south. We pass a rally for the Kyrgyzstan party in a park off the road, where a few hundred people look to be in attendance.

The population of the city of Talas is officially about 33,000. I have no idea where they all are as we drive into the nearly empty center of town on a Saturday afternoon.

We do manage to find some groups of people to speak with about the elections. Although most say they will vote, there is a sense of cynicism here that I did not detect in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Higher up into the mountains
Higher up into the mountains

I walk up a group of five young men who are busy inspecting the engines of two cars, which I hope -- and presume -- belong to them.

"Are you planning on voting?" I ask.

They all say they are and that they are voting for Ar-Namys.

"What do you expect the new parliament will do? Will they make changes for the better?" I ask.

"Probably not," one says.

"What do you want them to do?" I ask.

"We need them to pay more attention to the economy of our province," another says. "For example, look at the condition of the roads here," and waves his hand vaguely at the dilapidated road.

He is correct. A lot of the roads in Talas could use some repaving.

I ask for directions to the administration building, the flashpoint for the 2010 revolution.

On the way there, I see a young couple out for a walk with their small children. I say hello and ask, "Are you planning to vote?"

They are, but they won't tell me for which party, although I could make a good guess, after they tell me about their expectations for the new government.

"There are more young people running as candidates this time. Look at the SDPK," the young mother tells me, in a reference to the Social Democratic Party.

Her husband follows, saying, "The new government won't have so many old politicians. They [old politicians] don't have any new ideas. That's why we have such problems. We need people in government who have fresh ideas."

We arrive at the Talas administration building. On April 6, 2010, a group of demonstrators stormed this building and occupied it. Throughout the day, the occupiers and police clashed as police tried to eject the protesters from the building. When the sun rose on April 7, the demonstrators were still occupying the building, and just a few hours later protests broke out in Bishkek that chased Bakiev from power before the sun set.

When we arrive at the building, there is no one in sight.

Talas is a sharp contrast to the bustling political campaigning in Kyrgyzstan's southern provinces. There is a possible reason for this: Less than 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population lives in Talas Province, so political parties might well be focusing more effort on other, more populous regions.

Our next stop will be Naryn Province, where the population is only a bit larger than in Talas.

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.

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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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