KYRGYZSTAN: First Woman President Makes a Mark

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Global Issues
Central Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

When Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva was selected to be President of Kyrgyzstan, she became the first woman head of state in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian region.

And she also took on a mission. Her mission is to pave the way for parliamentary democracy in a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union.

Her first task was to stabilise the situation arising out of the ethnic clashes in the southern city of Osh, which is her hometown. Her next job will be to conduct free and fair parliamentary elections, and then clear the way for her people to elect a new president.

'Electing a woman as the head of state shows our thinking is changing and that our nation is ready for real democracy,' poet and journalist Olzhobay Shakir told IPS.

On Apr. 7 this year Roza Otunbayeva was selected to head a Russian- supported Kyrgyz interim government, following widespread rioting in capital Bishkek and the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

'She was a compromise candidate, the only one with a clean image,' political scientist Alexander Knyazev told IPS. Political analyst Turat Akimov agrees. 'All the men were seen as being corrupt and dictatorial. They were forced to choose the only woman among them.'

Hope for a peaceful transition to democracy might seem misplaced given that Otunbayeva first tasted political power on a wave of political unrest. In 2005, she had been one of the key leaders of the 'Tulip Revolution' which led to the overthrow of former president Askar Akayev.

Otunbayeva says she learnt a great deal about calming violence when she went as part of a UN peace mission to Georgia. From 2002 to 2004, she had been involved in bringing harmony between hostile groups following the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

In a struggle that had then extended for a decade, casualties had been high and tensions extreme.

'We organised meetings of women from both ethnic groups who had lost their sons in the fighting. These were difficult negotiations, but in the name of peace and life they agreed to sit and talk to each other,' says Otunbayeva.

'We also arranged talks between former soldiers who had fought against each other. As a result, people gained the courage to go ahead and carry on a dialogue. I have seen conflict from up close,' she told the local newspaper Lemon.

Five years later, as president, she had to deal with ethnic clashes in her own backyard. In May-June this year the southern towns of Osh and Jalal-Abad were rocked by violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

Otunbayeva was forced to declare a state of emergency on Jun. 12 in an attempt to control the situation. The clashes killed up to 2,000 people, and rendered some 400,000 homeless.

She had sought help from Russia, but even after calling the Kremlin leaders five times, no assistance was forthcoming. Russia only sent a few troops to guard its own military installations.

But she managed to stabilise the situation and held a national referendum Jun. 27. Given the unsettled conditions, the voter turnout was an impressive 65 percent. The electorate almost unanimously supported the new draft Constitution, and confirmed Roza Otunbayeva as interim president.

She is not eligible to run for president now, and her term will end Dec. 31 next year.

'The right decision will be for her to create conditions for peaceful polling,' political analyst Bermet Bukasheva told IPS. 'A leader should not use administrative powers to remain in office. She should oversee the transition to democracy as a neutral figure.'

To achieve this, Otunbayeva would have to ensure that the two ethnic groups live peaceably. She will also have to provide the homeless with shelter through the long winter.

She had promised in her inaugural speech Jul. 4 that she would 'cooperate constructively with all political forces, and support pluralism, freedom of speech and human rights.' She has reiterated this aim many times since. But it might be a difficult promise to keep in a country where thousands of families have lost their homes and loved ones.

There seems to be too little time before the parliamentary elections Oct. 10. Besides, some of the political leaders are Otunbayeva's associates, and it is hard to imagine her as an unbiased facilitator.

'If she can hold free and fair elections, she will elevate herself to the level of statesman,' Bukasheva said.

Otunbayeva is a consummate diplomat. She honed her skills when she headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs three times, and also as ambassador to the U.S. and to the UK, as well as being chairperson of the former Soviet commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).