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Controversial Osh Mayor's Fate Hinges On Election

Embattled Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov (right) addresses his supporters during in a rally in central Osh (file photo).
Embattled Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov (right) addresses his supporters during in a rally in central Osh (file photo).
The controversial mayor of Osh faces an uncertain future on March 4 as residents vote for a new city council.

Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, whose critics accuse him of doing little to prevent the deadly ethnic clashes in Osh two years ago, will have to resign if his National Unity party fails to win a majority of the council's 45 seats.

The contest, the first since the Osh violence, includes a total of seven parties fielding nearly 700 candidates. The party which wins the most seats automatically fills the mayor's spot.

The government in Bishkek, which has long sought to remove Myrzakmatov, is mounting the strongest challenge.

Both President Almazbek Atambaev's Social Democrats and Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov's Respublika have been campaigning for months in the city to fight the mayor's well-entrenched political machine.

That machine was on display on March 1 when up to 15,000 of Myrzakmatov's supporters rallied.

Former Osh regional police chief Abdylda Kaparov told the crowd that the city stands firmly behind its mayor.

The mayor and his National Unity party are controversial because they are widely seen as Kyrgyz nationalists regarded with fear by the city's ethnic Uzbek community.

Divided City

The city remains divided today after being the epicenter of the 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan which killed more than 400 people, mostly Uzbeks.

How the mayor handled the crisis, and its aftermath, are at the heart of the tensions surrounding him.

His supporters credit him with saving the city. They include the Kyrgyz Communist Party, which announced in February it would not field candidates in the council election but would back the mayor's party instead.

But critics accuse Myrzakmatov of being slow to deploy police to quell the fighting when it began and of refusing to coordinate a response to the violence with Bishkek.

"During those turbulent events in April-May 2010, Melis Myrzakmatov didn't obey orders from Bishkek," says Askarbek Mambetaliev, a political analyst based in the Kyrgyz capital.

"He acted as he thought was correct. And later events showed that maybe Myrzakmatov's behavior was correct for that moment.

"At least he knows his people very well. Since then, authorities in Bishkek were not able to remove him from his post even though they may suspect that Myrzakmatov has some connections to previous regime."

Allegations Of Ties To Ex-President

During the crisis, the Bishkek government headed by Roza Otunbaeva accused the head of the previous regime, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, of instigating the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan as part of a comeback strategy.

Bakiev was toppled in a violent uprising in Bishkek in April 2010 and fled to his power base in southern Kyrgyzstan before seeking refuge abroad ahead of the Osh violence in June.

Myrzakmatov, a key figure in Bakiev's former ruling party, was elected as a parliamentarian in 2007 and assumed his mayoral post in 2009.

He has admitted meeting Bakiev when the toppled president fled to southern Kyrgyzstan but denies any role in instigating violence.

Following the Osh bloodshed, then-President Otunbaeva sought to force the mayor to step down.

But a demonstration by some 5,000 of his supporters, which raised the specter of new tensions between Bishkek and Bakiev loyalists, made the government call off the effort.

Rebuilding Plan

Since then, controversy over the mayor has only heightened with his approach to rebuilding the devastated city.

Myrzakmatov has strongly backed a rebuilding plan focusing on erecting new high-rise apartments in destroyed neighborhoods, most of them in traditionally Uzbek areas.

But observers say that three-quarters of the people moving into the new apartments are not displaced Uzbeks but displaced Kyrgyz instead.

Few opinion polls have been conducted in Osh ahead of the election contest, making the results hard to predict.

But a survey of 400 residents last week showed the mayor's party running behind his challengers.

In the survey, conducted by the Center for Peace Building and Development Research at Osh State University, 25 percent of respondents said they would vote for National Unity.

By contrast, 38 percent said they would vote for the Social Democrats and 15 percent for Respublika.

The Social Democrats and Respublika have said they will back each other in choosing a new mayor.

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