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As Kyrgyzstan Prepares For Referendum, Government Faces Predictions Of Collapse

Protesters carry a young man who was injured when ethnic Kyrgyz clashed with police in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad on May 19.
Protesters carry a young man who was injured when ethnic Kyrgyz clashed with police in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad on May 19.
BISHKEK -- In a central hospital here in the capital, 20-year-old Ibragim Nurgazy lies on an ancient cot with dirty sheets, barely able to keep his eyes open. His mother Gulnara sits patiently by his side.

A resident of Osh in the south of the country, she says her son was caught up in the violence there this month when he ventured into the street to help a soldier who'd just been shot. As he approached, Nurgazy was shot four times. Two others near him were killed. Asked why her son was targeted, she shrugs. "We don't know who started the violence, or why."

Twenty-year-old Ibragim Nurgazy at a Bishkek hospital on June 23
There's deep uncertainty about how and why hundreds of people -- or thousands, by some estimates -- were killed in ethnic violence this week, and it's prompting a wave of rumors, international conspiracy theories, and growing animosity. There's heated talk about Tajik mercenaries, Russian special forces, drugs traffickers, and local elites helping orchestrate the violence.

The clashes have seriously shaken the interim government that took power after popular protests in April. The country's new leaders are pinning their hopes on a June 27 referendum to legitimize their rule. But amid speculation over the government's imminent collapse, it's far from clear what will happen in this strategically important country.

Like many ethnic Kyrgyz in the capital of this impoverished country, Djildiz Djildosheva is angry about what she says is the Western media's portrayal of the violence as a killing spree by Kyrgyz against minority Uzbeks. Djildosheva, who's vice president of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Friendship Society, repeats the common opinion here that ethnic Uzbeks -- who own many businesses and hold significant influence in the south -- were incited to violence by unknown professional mercenaries.

"Local Uzbeks say they were armed in advance and told to take to the streets when a signal was given," Djildosheva says. "They were led to a university dormitory, where many Kyrgyz girls were brutally raped and killed."

'Destructive Forces'

There's been no evidence of mass rapes, or that Uzbeks set off the violence. Many Kyrgyz in Osh say the killing spree was sparked by a fight between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in a local casino. But people in the capital say Kyrgyz began killing Uzbeks in revenge only after they attempted to seize power in the south.

The Osh casino where many ethnic Kyrgyz claim the killing spree was sparked
But not everyone's sure. Southern Kyrgyzstan's largest city, Osh, is the stronghold of Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was ousted as president in early April. Amid Bakiev's resignation and departure from the country, the government says, his son Maksim planned the violence to destabilize the country. They say long-simmering ethnic tensions needed only a small spark to explode in an orgy of violence later joined by organized criminal groups and local police forces.

The government lost control of the south for several days. But despite an ongoing state of emergency in two regions, interim leader Roza Otunbaeva promises to go ahead with a national referendum on June 27. It will ask people to vote over support for the current leadership along with changes to the constitution that would weaken the president's power and move Kyrgyzstan toward a parliamentary political system.

Finance Minister Temir Sariev says those who organized this month's violence aimed to disrupt the referendum, and that it's crucial that they don't succeed.

"Canceling the referendum would mean success for those destructive forces. That's why the majority of the population demands the referendum proceed as planned, whatever the difficulties and moral issues involved," Sariev says. "The fate of the state and the people is at stake."

Finance Minister Temir Sariev
But many question the decision to hold the referendum so soon after this month's traumatic events. Political analyst Mars Sariev says the violence dealt a body blow to the government, which is holding the referendum as a last-ditch attempt to legitimize its power.

"The referendum is an attempt to save face and hold on to power because its ratings are falling very fast," he says.

The New Opposition

Whatever the referendum's result, Mars Sariev believes the government won't last until parliamentary elections to be announced after the referendum.

He says Otunbaeva is moving fast because this month's violence has given new impetus to a nascent political opposition led by siloviki, or strongmen -- former military and security generals who held high positions under Bakiev. One of their leaders is Omurbek Suvanaliev, a former interior minister who heads the Ata-Jurt Party based in southern Kyrgyzstan. Another is a former military general named Miroslav Niyazov, head of the El Armany Party.

Speaking in his sprawling office in a new Bishkek business complex, Niyazov says Kyrgyzstan isn't ready for a parliamentary system. He criticizes the plan for a referendum as dangerous, saying the vote will be falsified.

"Mass falsifications are traditional for us here," Niyazov says. "But times have changed now, and such rigging can lead to a social explosion with unpredictable consequences."

Former Security Council Secretary Miroslav Niyazov
Niyazov refuses to speculate about who's responsible for this month's violence, saying the government is solely to blame for failing to guarantee the country's security. He says Kyrgyzstan's current leaders have "lost the moral right" to rule, and predicts they'll be ousted within five months.

"The government has completely discredited itself. Blood has been spilled, mass killings have taken place, thousands have been injured," Niyazov says. "Any person in power would have to take responsibility; otherwise expect to be swept from power. But these people don't want to take any responsibility."

Niyazov says he wants to help "bring order" to Kyrgyzstan. He says the country must decide its future "in consultation" with Russia, praising Moscow for its "great wisdom" in not intervening in this month's violence.

Analyst Sariev says that's no surprise. Although Russia initially supported Otunbaeva, he says her government has disillusioned Moscow, which is now backing the siloviki, along with Kyrgyzstan's other authoritarian neighbors who see the precedent of a referendum over a change of power as a threat to their own governments at home.

"As the interim government loses its authority, the power of the siloviki is growing, and that suits regional players such as Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, who want to see strong presidential power in Kyrgyzstan," he says. "As the state falls apart and destabilization continues, I think there could be a seizure of power."

Lingering Problems

Finance Minister Sariev denies talk of a government collapse and Russia's support for the siloviki, calling it "the dream of the government's opponents," including those who took part in organizing this month's violence. He admits the government faces crushing obstacles, including a mounting deficit, crumbling economy, and plunging tax revenues. The government will appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the World Bank and other international donors at a conference in Bishkek next month.

Despite the mounting criticism, most people passing by the Soviet-era fountains of Bishkek's central square on a typically hot day say they support the government and will vote in the referendum. Talaigul Muratalieva praises the interim leaders for ousting Bakiev, saying the referendum will be crucial for helping calm bubbling tensions between the country's ethnic groups.

"We need the referendum to stop war in this country, for people to live together peacefully," Muratalieva says.

Doctors tend to a man's gunshot wounds following the ethnic violence in Osh.
But as Kyrgyzstan prepares to vote on June 27, there are worries that failure to bring some measure of calm here will help destabilize other Central Asian countries, all of which have large populations of multiple ethnic groups. Most believe Russia refused to send peacekeepers to its southern neighbor partly for fear of being seen by Kyrgyz as protecting Uzbeks and being dragged into the kind of civil war that engulfed Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

As Uzbek refugees return to their burned-down houses and shops, analysts believe the long-term effects on the social fabric are only surfacing. The official death count stemming from the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan stands at just over 250; but the interim government has said as many as 2,000 died, and there are suggestions that at least 5,000 people and probably many more were killed.

Khadyr Malikov, director of the Center on Religion, Law and Politics, says as Uzbek and Kyrgyz families bury their dead, the desire for revenge is growing on both sides.

"The last time this kind of violence broke out [in 1990], it took at least five years to settle," Malikov says. "This time if the government doesn't take the right steps toward conflict resolution, it could turn into an ongoing clash."

Malikov says that can only happen with the help of Kyrgyz society. The first step, he says, is for the government to win support in the referendum. "It's really a vote for security and stability," he says. "If we can do that, Kyrgyzstan can still set an example for the rest of Central Asia."

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