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Kyrgyzstan: Candidates In Uzbek-Populated Osh Focus On Domestic Issues

For news, background, and analysis on Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005" --> /specials/kyrgyzelections/ .

Southern Kyrgyzstan has a significant Uzbek diaspora that makes up between 15 and 20 percent of the total population. Since more than 60 percent of voters live in the southern part of the country, this diaspora is an important factor in parliamentary elections scheduled for 27 February. In the southern Osh region, there are constituencies where all candidates running for parliament are ethnic Uzbeks. So are the majority of potential voters. Some candidates have appealed to nationalism during the campaign

Osh, Kyrgyzstan; 26 February 2005 -- On February 25, imams of mosques in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh devoted Friday prayers to elections. They said elections must be held peacefully and Muslims should avoid violence. Osh inhabitants know how delicate is the balance between two major ethnic groups -- Kyrgyz and Uzbek. Memories remain about the 1990 violent conflict between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and so the fear of possible bloodshed is strong.

Nowadays, Osh is peaceful. There is no great enmity between ordinary people. Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians all face similar problems.

But do people care about lawmakers' ethnic backgrounds?

A candidate who this young Kyrgyz man wants to vote for is ethnic Kyrgyz. But the man said he likes the candidate's program and that his ethnicity does not matter.

"Yes, I would vote for an Uzbek too," the man said. "There is no difference."

The young man said he is not a nationalist, as did a Russian woman who said ethnic background does not matter.

"I don't know his ethnicity," she said. "It doesn't matter."

Another woman had a different criterion to vote for a candidate.

"[The preferred candidate] understands women -- she said she is a woman and mother herself and she understands mothers and knows how women should be valued," the woman said in Uzbek. "Of course, men know it too, but a woman will be more compassionate about other women. That is why I think a female candidate is better."

Many say it is counterproductive and irresponsible to use nationalism to gain more votes.

Alisher Sobirov, a deputy in the former parliament who is running for parliament in the city of Osh, told RFE/RL that 70 percent of issues a deputy usually deals with are domestic problems like providing houses with hot water or gas and constructing roads in neighborhoods. He said that voters are concerned about simple daily needs as well as problems like prostitution and drug addiction, rather than nationalism.

However, Sobirov as an Uzbek, promises his potential voters help to increase a number of Uzbek-language schools in the region, provide them with Uzbek textbooks and so on.

Candidates from Uzbek-populated constituencies use the assistance of Uzbek singers, actors, or poets. Those who can afford it have pop singers from neighboring Uzbekistan holding concerts in Osh. Assistance of famous local people is also used widely.

"Yes, we participated [in concerts]. This is our job," said Turgunoy Holmatova, a singer and dancer. "We give people joy and happiness".

Holmatova said she took part in concerts because she liked the candidates' political platforms.

"[I liked] their attention to schools and willingness to solve a problem of textbook scarcity schoolchildren face nowadays," Holmatova said. "There are problems with electricity supply in many parts of the city. Candidates want to solve them. I liked that."

Davron Sabirov, who is running for parliament from another constituency in the city of Osh, is known as a moderate nationalist. He is president of the Uzbek Society and a founder of the first independent Uzbek-language newspaper "Mezon" in Osh.
Voters are willing to accept some promises because they believe a deputy with the same ethnic background would be more inclined to defend interests representative of his or her ethnic group.

Sabirov, who has been a parliament member since 1990 and is running for the fourth term, says he is not ultranationalist but is simply defending Uzbek rights.

"For example, in my political program I initiate giving an official status to the Uzbek language because Uzbeks make almost 1 million of total population [of 5 million in Kyrgyzstan]," Sabirov said. "Our language should be developed, we must be able to speak our language in those regions where we make majority. This is my voters' requirement. As I said, most of my voters are ethnic Uzbeks."

An Osh-based independent political analyst from Osh, Ganijon Kholmatov, told RFE/RL that some candidates play a nationalism card during election campaign because it remains one of the most effective way to get votes in many societies, not only in Kyrgyzstan.

Voters, Kholmatov said, are willing to accept some promises because they believe a deputy with the same ethnic background would be more inclined to defend interests representative of his or her ethnic group. But after elections, everything will go its own way, he said.

"Our people have a particular temper. They get involved in something [like elections] very actively. But as soon as it is over, everything becomes as it was before," Kholmatov said. "They become friendly, joke with each other. Life goes on. The reason is that [election campaign] looks like a show. There is little hope that elections will bring any change. [Candidates] have no concrete programs. Neither us [voters], nor deputies have a clear idea of what to do. If you listen to their promises, you may get an impression they are going to bring communism back."

Roza Otunbaeva, a co-leader of Ata-Jurt opposition party, visited Uzbek-dominated Osh recently and called on voters to elect Anvar Ortiqov, an ethnic Uzbek.

Obviously, in elections, victory is all that matters.