Kyrgyzstan: referendum in a time of upheaval

Judith Beyer observes the run-up to Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional referendum from the vantage point of the countryside, away from the centres of violence. A Kyrgyz majority will ensure that Otunbaeva gets the result she wants, Beyer predicts. But this bodes badly for the future
Judith Beyer
26 June 2010

When the violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan on June 11, I was staying in a mountain village in Talas province. Separated by a 3.300m mountain pass and located a two-hour car drive away from the main road which connects the northern capital of Bishkek with the southern city of Osh, people in Talas felt far away from the events. Villagers’ observations about what was going on “down there” were voiced in concerned yet distanced terms. Their source of information was mainly news coverage on Russian TV, reports from taxi drivers commuting between Bishkek and Talas, as well as rumours and speculations. As they live in a monoethnic community, they had not experienced tensions of this kind in their own village and had little or no contact to people in Osh, Jalalabat, Bazar-Korgon or any of the more rural areas in the southern provinces where violence struck so severely. All of the people I talked to – some of whom I have known for five years – were sure that the former President Bakiev and his son as well as their followers whom people call Bakievchiler were responsible for the clashes. People suggested that those orchestrating the violence had a particular aim in mind: to disrupt the ongoing process of the constitutional referendum, scheduled to take place on June 27.

Kyrgyzstan map

Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia is a landlocked, mountainous country of 198 500 km2 bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

I had come to this village to learn about people’s perception of the referendum. Members of the local administration continued with their preparations, while at the same time claiming that there was “no law” in their country and that trust in state officials had never been so low as in recent times. Also on June 11, I participated in a meeting organized by journalists from one of the large Kyrgyz-language newspapers who had brought copies of the new constitution with them. They invited people to discuss the new document, and a young woman summarized the content of the new constitution to her audience of teachers, representatives of village quarters, and members of the local administration as follows:

"The President as the leader of the country will take care of the union of people and state. The President will be elected by the people of the Kyrgyz Republic for six years and cannot be elected for another term. In case of political turmoil, he will be responsible to lead the country. Unfortunately, as you know, when we had this chaos within the country, both of our Presidents fled. According to the reformed version of the constitution, the President has to communicate with people even during turmoil. Any person who wants to become President has to guarantee that he will be together with the people no matter what the situation".

Clearly, much of this is not found in the text. But people were listening to her words instead of reading themselves, nodding from time to time. The woman also announced that the judiciary would be independent, that judges would be elected by a special election board and not by the President, that the responsibilities of the Prime Minister would be extended, and that local self-governance would become more transparent. She ended her presentation with the following words:

"I would like to invite each of you as citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic to take part in the national referendum that will be held on June 27. Let’s do this for the sake of our own future. Before we used to be a presidential state. Now let’s try to switch to a parliamentary system of state governance. Perhaps this new parliamentary system will fit to our mentality and the world views of Kyrgyz people better. Let us all take part in the referendum with positive hope". 

After the event was over, people attempted to return their copy of the constitution to the woman, who in response tried to convince them that they should take the print-out home. After the journalists had left the village, heading to the next one, workers of the local self-governance office continued to prepare an inventory of the names of village inhabitants. They were checking who was currently living in the village and who in other parts of the country, who had registered somewhere else in the meantime and who appeared twice on the list. I asked how come that they put so much effort into the preparation of this event even though their trust in the state was so low. Also, I wondered out loud whether these administrative details still mattered when people were killing each other in other parts of the country at the same time. One of the workers, who was about to travel to the regional town Talas to prolong several passports of villagers so that they could also take part in the referendum, explained his position in the following way:

"Kyrgyzstan is on the edge of extinction. We are having this chaos because of the absence of a constitution and there is no law at the moment. Our hope is that the situation stabilizes after the constitution will be adopted".

In the afternoon of June 12, I left the mountain village, heading to a place at the other end of the province, which is the home of Kyrgyzstani citizens of various ethnic backgrounds. Here, the situation in the South – although geographically even further away – seemed to affect people much more directly. That evening, rumours in that village already spoke of 75.000 Uzbek refugees who had crossed the border to Uzbekistan, and telephone calls with friends brought bad news from Osh where ethnic Uzbek friends were hiding from violent gangs. Still, the people in this multiethnic village perceived no immediate danger. “In 1990, when it was bad down there, nothing was going on here either,” an Uzbek man said. “We all know each other and with the Kurdish and Turkish population there are absolutely no problems.” But he also said that “if there had been more Uzbeks living here, it might have become an issue.” In the last years, many Uzbek, Turkish, and Kurdish families from Kyrgyzstan have out-migrated to Zhambul, a city located across the nearby Kazakh border, while Russian Kyrgyz have been leaving for different places in Russia. “I was born here and I will stay. There is no other place for me to go.” For him and his family, like for so many others in this country, the future is particularly uncertain at this point. However, in contrast to other citizens who have “Kyrgyz” written in their passport, non-ethnic Kyrgyz experience the growing ethno-nationalism through the politics of exclusion. Along with discrimination in the work sphere and in encounters with officials, “national” activities are often carried out in the name of the ethnic Kyrgyz only. A recent example was the mourning ceremony held for the eighty-five citizens who died in the April events. In an entirely Kyrgyz-language ceremony, which was not translated into other languages for television, the dead were referred to as “Kyrgyz heroes” who have died for “Kyrgyz people”. Mourning became even more ethnicised when several days later signs appeared on the fence of the “White House”, proclaiming grief in the name of other ethnic groups, leading Nina Bagdasarova to ask whether she could not mourn the death of these people simply as a citizen (read her article ‘Revolving power: a diary of another Kyrgyz revolution).

In this second village, where I spent several days until my departure to Bishkek, preparations for the upcoming constitutional referendum were under way as well. Ballot posts had been established and particularly active teachers of the village school had been given the task of ensuring that people would come to “support” the constitution. Here, just as in the first village where only ethnic Kyrgyz lived, hope was voiced that once the document was accepted, the situation in the south would calm down and the government would be legitimized; but there was also another dimension which had been lacking in the first village. A middle-aged ethnic Kyrgyz man, who stated that he would go to the referendum on June 27 to support the constitution and the government, continued explaining that he would take his Turkish neighbours with him as well, “even if they do not want to come along.” Asked why they might not want to vote, he said that Turkish people were uneducated, and that they did not care about politics. But he added that their understanding of the importance of the referendum had improved after an incident which occurred in a nearby town. There, a group of ethnic Kyrgyz men had approached Turkish villagers, blaming them for not supporting the Kyrgyz victims of the April violence and threatened to beat them up should they not show support in the future. “After having heard about the incident,” the man explained, “they understood that they also need to participate.”

Having followed constitutional reforms in Kyrgyzstan since 2003, I have come to understand that “the constitution” is a powerful tool for political struggles in the hands of the elite. But constitution-making is also a state-wide process of symbolization; a way in which average Kyrgyz citizens can engage in actively constructing a better future. The recent events, however, have led me to realize that we need to pay closer attention to the role of ethnic minorities in these processes.

Constitutional politics

Since Kyrgyzstan became an independent country, the constitution has changed several times. In 1994, 1996, 1998, 2003, and 2007 major changes were implemented through referenda. For a long time, international and local legal experts have warned that should the constitution continue to be constantly altered, it would become devoid of meaning. My impression is that this is not the case. I argue that it is precisely through constitutional politics that state-making in Kyrgyzstan takes place. Through their participation, citizens engage in a process of symbolization where the constitution is the means to another end, namely to envision a better, more stable and peaceful future. As in previous referenda, there is an explicitly voiced perception among large parts of the population that only when a new constitution will be adopted, there will be peace and stability the country. Some villagers in Talas even went as far as to claim that “life will start” only when the new constitution is in power. The fact that de iure the country is not without “law” at this moment, does not seem to provide them with any sense of legal security. The old constitution might still be in force, but it is “Bakiev’s constitution,” they say, and only exists “on paper.”  It is precisely this situation of perceived lawlessness which has fuelled the situation in the South in their eyes. In a recent statement, Roza Otunbaeva has echoed these views of the population [see her address to the people]. The old constitution is thus identified with the former President. In the years 2005 to 2007, some of my informants made similar statements about “Akaev’s constitution”. This tendency seems to continue: even though the new constitution will establish a parliamentary system of democracy, the journalist woman in the first village emphasized the continuous importance of the President who will be with his /her people in times of crisis. When on June 27 people vote for the constitution, they will essentially connect this document to the contemporary leader of the country – Roza Otunbaeva. This will be even more so the case since voters will be asked to vote not only on the constitution, but also to endorse Roza Otunbayeva as President, and approve of the abolishment of the constitutional court. Thus, three different issues will be bundled together in one single “yes-no”-vote, leaving little room for disagreeing with some, but not all of the questions posed. This coupling has led local NGO-representatives to severely criticize the interim government. While it is generally acknowledged in legal theory that constitution-making is a political act, it is also suggested that  the legal and the political are better kept apart. In Kyrgyzstan, this division has been ignored, as throughout the years, constitutions have been linked to the respective presidents.

Most international observers back the interim government at the moment, arguing that in order to stabilize the current situation the referendum should take place as scheduled. Measures are being taken to enable this: since around 400.000 citizens are internally displaced at the moment, the interim government recently eased the ballot procedures by allowing citizens to vote at any ballot station, no matter their residence registration. But not only are citizens dispersed all over the country; many are without documents and cannot identify themselves or might be afraid to do so since a person’s ethnicity is mentioned in the passport. In addition, rumors are circulating about destructive forces planning a coup on Sunday, fueled by a statement by acting deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Tekebaev. Many people may simply be too scared to cast their votes. This, however, will not be the case in the Northern provinces. Most of my informants support the upcoming event and intend to participate in it for the sake of a better future. As the statement of the man from the second village indicated, non-ethnic Kyrgyz citizens might have a very different understanding of the law and the state which has so far done little to protect their rights and ensure representation in political life. The new constitution may fit “the mentality” and “world-view” of the Kyrgyz, as the journalist woman put it. But does it also fit to the “mentality” and “world-view” of non-ethnic Kyrgyz citizens? Even now, we have little knowledge about how the constitution is perceived by these groups. Most of the written commentaries send to Kyrgyz and Russian-language newspapers and online-portals after the draft version has been made public, for example, have come from individual ethnic Kyrgyz. Only rarely did others voice their opinion, and if they did, then as a group; for example when writing as “citizens of the Pervomaiskii Raion” in Bishkek. We thus need to pay closer attention to who is participating in these state-wide processes of symbolization. Non-ethnic Kyrgyz might be less inclined to participate for reasons which need to be explored.

The outcome of the referendum is clear: a new constitution will be adopted. Since there is only one box to tick, Otunbaeva will also be approved and the constitutional court abolished. But this political change will mostly come from ethnic Kyrgyz living in the northern part of the country. This, unfortunately, sets again all the wrong signals for the future.


Addendum: On June 26, akipress.kg  published the exact wording of the ballot form. According to that source, citizens will only be  asked to vote on the constitution.



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