It was a significant move, coming just days before a critical presidential election in Kyrgyzstan.
Officials on October 26 reopened a checkpoint on the country's border with Uzbekistan, 18 months after it was closed amid a wave of antigovernment protests that ended with the ouster of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
The closed borders proved calamitous in June 2010, when ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan attempted to flee to Uzbekistan to escape the deadly violence that ravaged the south for days, leaving nearly 500 people dead.
Now, the reopened checkpoint -- located outside the city of Osh, the epicenter of last year's violence -- could be interpreted as serving dual purposes. On one hand, it could be a savvy campaign gesture by the front-runner, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, who secured the opening after a successful trip to Tashkent last month. On the other, it could be a safety valve, poised to offer Uzbeks a point of escape should violence in the city flare up once again.
Officials in the south in recent days have expressed concern about potential unrest. Marat Orozbaev, the head of internal affairs for the city administration in Osh, alleged this week that a number of presidential candidates were waging pressure campaigns in the south and might be willing to resort to violence.
"We have operative information that some of the presidential candidates, unsatisfied with the results of the elections, may destabilize the political situation in Osh," Orozbaev said. "They may carry out their plans as soon as the results of the vote are in."
The comment appears to refer to Atambaev, a relative moderate who appears to enjoy a healthy lead but is unlikely to secure the clear majority needed to take a first-round victory.
Instead, Atambaev -- who comes from the north and is closely associated with the outgoing President Roza Otunbaeva -- is likely to face off against a southern candidate in a second round. Many expect that candidate to be Kamchybek Tashiev, the divisive leader of the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt party.
Specter Of Extremism
Many observers worry a north-south faceoff in the second round could prove to be the spark that reignites regional division.
Police officials in Osh have boldly pronounced the "elimination" of all criminal-gang leaders in the run-up to the elections, but other officials have raised the specter of terrorists and religious extremists, suggesting that any fringe group may see the vote as an opportunity for violence.
Ordinary residents in the city -- particularly Uzbeks, who face continued police harassment and may feel keenly vulnerable -- say they have been approached by "athletic" men urging them to vote for Atambaev.
The use of well-built sportsmen for pressure campaigns is a common motif in Kyrgyzstan, where many criminal groups and politicians are linked to sports clubs that amount to personal enforcement teams.
Adylzhan Karimov, an Uzbek resident of Osh, says he has heard many accounts of such men entering Uzbek neighborhoods to urge local residents to cast a specific vote.
"I haven't seem them myself, but I've heard from others that these cars with tinted windows have been driving through the neighborhoods and calling on people very politely to vote for Atambaev," Karimov said. "They don't openly try to frighten anyone, but they state flatly that if we don't vote for him then no one can guarantee our safety."
Some officials in Bishkek see such claims as an attempt by southern authorities to cast doubt on Atambaev and other northern authorities.
But Kursan Asanov, the former police commandant in Osh who was since promoted by Atambaev to deputy interior minister, says only a few such incidents have been reported and that none appeared to target a certain community or be tied to Atambaev.
"We don't divide the people according to nationality, or according to clans or tribes," Asanov said. "We have sufficient forces to ensure law and order. At this time, there have been two incidents that prompted concern and a preliminary investigation has already been conducted. But for what candidate these people were agitating for, I can't tell."
A critical player in the elections is not a candidate but the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who is seen as an intimate associate of both Tashiev and another popular southern candidate, former Security Council Secretary Adakhan Madumarov.
Myrzakmatov, who was widely criticized for his failure to stem the June 2010 violence and the continued harassment of Uzbek residents, has repeatedly pronounced the city as stable and prepared for a free and fair vote when its 83 polling stations open on October 30.
At the same time, however, he has accused unnamed candidates of using their influence and resources to push through an orchestrated outcome -- and suggested that the appearance of a false election could cause a fresh outpouring of violence.
"Before the last June events, I warned about such a danger, and now I want to remind everyone. You're afraid of external enemies and terrorists, but it's our internal 'terrorists' you should be afraid of," Myrzakmatov said.
"The big danger comes from them," he added. "It is precisely they -- with the help of money, administrative resources, and threats -- who are carrying out their black work among the population. It's precisely they with their criminal actions who can provoke new unrest. The people can simply rise up, if there will be violations during the elections. In such a situation, we can end up with different conflicts, including interethnic ones."
The central government has paid particular attention to the south in recent days, with acting Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov meeting with local public safety officials. Bodies like the Human Rights Activists Council have called on Kyrgyz authorities to take appropriate security measures and, in particular, protect national minorities from pressure campaigns.
It is not clear, however, that strong-arm tactics are the main threat to the integrity of the vote in the south. Local rights activists have reported that election workers have had difficulty compiling accurate electoral rolls because many residents lack proper identification documents or have sought to avoid election workers in their neighborhoods.
reported by Ernist Nurmatov in Osh and Eleonora Beishenbek in Bishkek; written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague