OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader is expected to fly to Osh, epicentre of ethnic bloodshed, to vote on Sunday in a referendum likely to pave the way for the creation of Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy.
At least 275 people were killed this month — and possibly hundreds more — in violence between the two main ethnic groups in southern Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases and shares a border with China.
Sunday’s referendum calls on voters to support changes to the constitution that would devolve power from the president to a prime minister, paving the way for parliamentary elections in October and diplomatic recognition for the interim government.
The United States and Russia say they would support a strong government to prevent the turmoil spreading throughout Central Asia, a strategic region bordering Afghanistan that — with the exception of Kyrgyzstan — is run by presidential strongmen.
Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the interim government that swept to power after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a revolt in April, has rejected calls to postpone the referendum after the violence, saying this would threaten more instability.
“Roza Otunbayeva is expected to vote here. It’s a big day,” a spokesman for the office of the mayor of Osh said on Saturday.
Administering the vote to a divided and frightened population in the south, separated from the capital Bishkek by a range of snow-capped mountains, will be a major challenge.
The clashes have deepened divisions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who have a roughly equal share of the population in the south. Many ethnic Uzbeks say they were targeted in the violence and are loath to support what they see as a Kyrgyz initiative.
Others are still barricaded inside their neighbourhoods in Osh, afraid to venture out. Otunbayeva said in an interview on Friday that security forces would deliver ballot boxes directly to the homes of ethnic Uzbeks.
Voters will be asked one simple question: do they approve a new constitution? Under the new charter, Otunbayeva — the only woman ever to lead a Central Asian republic — would remain interim president until the end of 2011, before stepping aside.
Parliamentary elections would be held every five years and the president limited to a single six-year term in office.
Frequent television advertisements remind residents in the capital Bishkek of the June 27 polling day. Voters can also find the draft constitution on the interim government’s website.
In Osh, parts of which are in ruins, the interim government has lifted a curfew that had been in place since the violence began on June 10. Tens of thousands of residents who fled the clashes have returned to their burnt-out homes.
Otunbayeva is expected to vote in Osh because she is originally from the region, government sources told Reuters. The interim leader remains little known in the city and her control of the volatile south is tenuous.
Writing by Robin Paxton; editing by Andrew Roche