OSH, Kyrgyzstan – Polls opened in violence-racked Kyrgyzstan for a referendum today to choose a new constitution that the interim government hopes will legitimize its power until new parliamentary elections in October.
The Central Asian nation was on a high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace after ethnic violence that killed hundreds.
Voting at Osh State University, in a city racked by clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz communities earlier this month, interim President Roza Otunbayeva said the vote was proof of her country’s strength.
“In this referendum, the people of Kyrgyzstan are proving that the country is united, standing on its feet and going forward,” Otunbayeva said after casting her ballot. “As a people, we want to heal the wounds we have sustained in recent times.”
By choosing to vote in Osh, the country’s second largest city, Otunbayeva seemingly attempted to convey a signal that her country has overcome the wave of instability in the south that has rocked her fragile government over recent months.
But questions remain about how successfully the referendum can be held just weeks after violence left hundreds dead and forced up to 400,000, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, to flee.
Checkpoints have been set up throughout the capital, Bishkek, and in Osh and Jalal-Abad, another city also racked by ethnic purges
The vote – supported by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia – is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody uprising in April.