Kyrgyz election exposes ethnic divide
  • Thu, 10/14/2010 - 12:00

Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Thursday, 14 October 2010 15:48 UK
By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia has held its most democratic election to date, but a strong showing by a Kyrgyz nationalist party has underlined the divide between different ethnic groups, which led to serious inter-communal fighting earlier in the year.

There is a saying, popular among Russian speakers, which more or less says: "What we've been fighting for has proved to be our undoing."

It could well apply here in Kyrgyzstan.

The electorate wanted democracy but now some are worried about the outcome of the parliamentary vote last Sunday.

The country received international praise for conducting what could easily be called the most democratic elections that have ever taken place in Central Asia.

In this part of the world, most countries are ruled by authoritarian leaders and elections are often a mere formality. The outcome is predictable. Those in power stay in power.

But this time around, no-one knew for sure which party would emerge as the winner.

Surprise result

For once, voters could choose from a huge range of political parties vying for seats in Kyrgyzstan's parliament.

But when the results were published, many were shocked.

They had not expected the Kyrgyz ethno-nationalist party, Ata Zhurt (Fatherland), to come top.

Its leadership is made up of politicians who served under the previous authoritarian president, Bakiyev, who was ousted in a popular uprising in April.

The parties that had helped to overthrow him had been expected to do well. The opinion polls said they would win.

But although they did win some seats in the parliament, they did not get enough support to form a government.

So what does the outcome of Central Asia's most democratic election really mean?

One thing stands out: the continuing importance of what happened in Kyrgyzstan in June, a week of inter-ethnic fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities living in the south of the country.

More than 400 people died. There were losses and brutal killings on both sides.

But the Uzbeks bore the brunt of the conflict. Most of the 2,000 houses destroyed during the violence belonged to ethnic Uzbeks.

In the months that followed, many of them were arrested for their alleged involvement in the events.

Uzbeks were beaten up and tortured while in detention.

'Out of control'

On my recent trip to Osh - the city at the epicentre of the June violence - a Russian lawyer showed me graphic evidence of what she claimed was police brutality.

I saw mobile phone photographs of her clients' severely bruised legs and backs. She said most of them were Uzbek.

The lawyer also talked about the dangers she faced when defending Uzbeks. She said that relatives of Kyrgyz people who had been killed in the June violence were out of control.

During the trials, they shouted abuse and threatened lawyers, witnesses and even the judges. But there was no official punishment or condemnation for their behaviour.

The violence opened a Pandora's box of nationalism, polarising the different ethnic groups.

Being a Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan became very important. Being an Uzbek, Russian or Uyghur became dangerous.

Kyrgyz people united around the idea of patriotism, blaming the international community for taking sides in the conflict.

Nationalist appeal

Many people were talking about losing the so-called "information war".

They held foreign media responsible for showing too much of the sufferings of Uzbeks and portraying the Kyrgyz as barbarians.

The Kyrgyz people needed a boost of confidence. And that is exactly what the Ata Zhurt party was ready to provide, with popular appeals to nationalist sentiment.

In an interview with a regional news website, one of Ata Zhurt's leaders infamously said that no other ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan could expect to be deemed equal to the Kyrgyz.

That spooked the Uzbeks, the Russians and other minorities. The Russian embassy in Bishkek issued a statement expressing concern about the nationalist rhetoric of certain parties.

But, while apparently criticising one party, Moscow showed its support to another.

During the parliamentary election race, Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev met the leader of the Ar-Namys party, headed by a former prime minister Felix Kulov.

The photograph of these two men shaking hands was widely used during the election campaign. It delivered the votes of most of the country's ethnic Russians to the party.


And despite some signs before the election that ethnic Uzbeks would not vote, many of them did.

And they, too, largely voted for Mr Kulov's Ar-Namys because one of the main figures in his party is an Uzbek.

Now the election is over. The choice has been made.

The five parties that have done best are haggling about the makeup of parliament.

Since none of them gained enough votes to govern alone, a coalition has to be formed.

So, there were many parties, there is a new parliamentary system and there was a free election.

But democracy, it seems, can be much more complicated than many people here imagined.

As they say: "The thing we've been fighting for has turned out to be our undoing."