Ethnic Uzbeks voting in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election on Sunday backed a candidate with ties to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the leader most likely to protect them from renewed violence in the former Soviet republic.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, 55, is favourite to become the next president of the strategic Central Asian state of 5.5 million people.
Here in Kyrgyzstan, he is called 'Another Putin', said Bakhriniso Rakhmanova, a 58-year-old resident of Tashlyq, a village on the edge of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
Mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan lies along a major drug route out of Afghanistan and hosts a U.S. military air base that supports the war there. Russia also operates an air base in the country.
Osh was the epicentre of clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that killed nearly 500 people in June 2010, three months after the president had been deposed by a popular uprising.
Atambayev heads the government and we hope that he will not allow this tragedy to be repeated, ethnic Uzbek Akhmatzhon Kasymov, 62, said after voting. His house, big enough to accommodate three families, was burnt down in the riots.
Both sides suffered casualties during several days of violence, but ethnic Uzbeks comprise the majority of those prosecuted since. Many complain of daily harassment.
A young Kyrgyz started on me on the bus only yesterday, said Rakhmanova, a Tajik by ethnicity who has lived among the Uzbek community since childhood.
They said: 'Go back to your Tashkent'.
Atambayev has visited Putin several times, building close ties with his country's Soviet-era master before an election that will test reforms set in motion after the 2010 revolt to make parliament the main decision-making body in Kyrgyzstan.
He has hinted that the U.S. lease on its air base might not be renewed beyond 2014, a move that would please Moscow, and supports the idea of Kyrgyzstan joining a Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyzstan's government even named a peak in the Tien Shan mountains after Putin, who last month declared his intention to reclaim the Russian presidency in an election next March.
Bakhodyr, an ethnic Uzbek food technology specialist who works on construction sites, said he had voted for Atambayev because the prime minister had visited Russia and Uzbekistan.
But he said life would never be the same again. The Kyrgyz insult us daily, he said. You can't go out after six o'clock in the evening. You could be accosted or taken to the police.
Atambayev's main rivals for the presidency, Adakhan Madumarov and Kamchibek Tashiyev, are expected to perform well in the south. Though both can draw on the Kyrgyz nationalist vote in the south, both candidates strongly reject the 'nationalist' label.
How can you call me a nationalist? Tashiyev told a news conference before the election. My children study in Russia. My wife is Kazakh, and I live among Uzbeks and saved thousands of Uzbek lives, he said, referring to the June 2010 violence.
Nevertheless, they have the support of many Kyrgyz voters in Osh and the surrounding area. Kairat, a police lieutenant posted to keep order in the ethnic Kyrgyz village of Gulbakhor, said he believed Atambayev was highly unpopular locally.
Anarbai Saidiyev, a 50-year-old farmer, said he had voted for Madumarov, a former deputy prime minister. He was once a good parliamentarian and he will be an honest president, who will finally put the country in order, Saidiyev said.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Louise Ireland)