Kyrgyz leader seeks to bridge regional divisions

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 05, 2012 7:54 AM
Kyrgyz leader seeks to bridge regional divisions

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan's new leader will seek to extend his government's reach in the turbulent Central Asian state on Monday after an election key to deciding who will run the country's most ethnically divided city.

Kyrgyzstan's impoverished south, home to the second-biggest city of Osh, is prone to ethnic violence and drug-related crime, a risk to stability in the only former Soviet state to host both U.S. and Russian military air bases.

Unrest in Osh is also of broader concern in a strategic region where Western powers compete with Russia and China for natural resources and military influence.

President Almazbek Atambayev, who took office in December, has sought to bridge the divide with southern regions, where people are traditionally wary of central government in Bishkek.

In an election to the Osh city council on Sunday, his southern opponents united behind the powerful incumbent mayor, whose party won 47 percent of votes. Short of a majority, they will now need to negotiate with Bishkek.

"The authorities have begun to have some success and might bring the south under control," said political analyst Toktogul Kakchikeyev. "The patience of Atambayev's administration has helped to reach a level of agreement and cooperation."

Atambayev assumed the Kyrgyz presidency in the first peaceful transfer of power since independence from the Soviet Union. His predecessor-but-one, southern-born Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was unseated by a revolution in April 2010.

Osh was the centre of ethnic clashes between its Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations in June 2010, when nearly 500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

The region's position on a key heroin trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan has confounded its problems.

Thousands of protesters rallied in Osh days before the vote in a show of strength designed to ward off attempts by Bishkek to exert more control over the south.

Adakhan Madumarov and Kamchybek Tashiyev, defeated in the last presidential election, have joined forces to unite the southern vote. Both supported the party of Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov in the election.

"Myrzakmatov's party won 47 percent," said Kakchikeyev. "But others won 53 percent, meaning he must be more circumspect and act with caution toward other parties."

In a sign of simmering tensions, fighting broke out overnight in another town where local polls were held on Sunday.

After polls closed in Karakol, a town at the eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul, about 80 people armed with sticks and stones broke into the city hall and smashed windows, police said.

Police said voters were angry at the apparent removal of names from the electoral roll and the presence of voters from other regions.

(Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Writing by Robin Paxton Editing by Maria Golovnina)