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One Year On, Kyrgyz President's Greatest Achievement May Be Yet To Come

"I want to set an example in our part of the world that it is possible to say ‘goodbye' to power," says Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva.
"I want to set an example in our part of the world that it is possible to say ‘goodbye' to power," says Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva.
It was one year ago that a nationwide referendum overwhelmingly approved Roza Otunbaeva as president of Kyrgyzstan, making her the first woman leader of a post-Soviet country in Central Asia and setting the stage for the country to transform itself into a parliamentary republic.

Otunbaeva -- a former Kyrgyz foreign minister, diplomat, and longtime opposition figure -- is a very different leader compared to her predecessors in Kyrgyzstan and counterparts in other Central Asian countries, and one whose achievements have been constantly questioned during her short presidential reign.

Different Leader, Different Mold

Along with having some democratic credentials her neighboring rulers lack, she varies from her fellow Central Asian leaders in several ways.

Otunbaeva eschews the limelight -- her critics say she is not as visible or forceful as a president should be -- and seems to be free of the extravagance, corruption, and nepotism her predecessors in Kyrgyzstan and counterparts in the region are often accused of.

She flies on commercial airlines when traveling abroad to save state money (though the official presidential plane does not sit idle, as it is used occasionally by the prime minister and parliament speaker).

On top of her Kyrgyz and Russian, she speaks fluent English and, during a European trip earlier this year, spoke French to politicians in Paris and German to her Austrian counterpart in Vienna -- a linguistic feat none of the long-serving rulers in the other four Central Asian countries would be able to match.

Otunbaeva also does not have the typical upbringing of a leader from a former Soviet republic. Whereas such leaders often came from quite humble beginnings -- starting from the factory floor or agricultural concern and working their way through the ranks -- Otunbaeva was born into an elite Soviet Kyrgyz family. Her father was a member of the Supreme Court and she was raised in relatively comfortable circumstances.

Otunbaeva came to power on the heels of the April revolution of 2010. The popular uprising saw more than 80 protesters killed and more than 1,000 others injured in front of the government house in Bishkek, but successfully ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev from power.

On the eve of those tragic events, someone had to lead the country and speak to the outside world about what had happened and what to expect from the country's new leadership.

Otunbaeva was chosen for the job by the 14 members of a hastily formed interim government -- all of whom were active opposition politicians -- because of her experience as foreign minister and ambassador to Washington and London, among other places.

A victim of clashes between riot police and antigovernment protesters is carried away in Bishkek on April 7, 2010.

Otunbaeva's selection was also a recognition of her struggle against the previous regimes in Kyrgyzstan -- Bakiev, as well as his predecessor Askar Akaev, who was also overthrown in a revolution.

She left each of those governments to join the opposition and had been personally threatened numerous times. Many of her relatives were dismissed from their jobs as a consequence of her actions.

Akaev once called Otunbaeva the "main engine" of Kyrgyzstan's 2005 and 2010 revolutions. Did she achieve what she was fighting for? In 2005, obviously not, but in 2010 she was finally given a leader's role in a very difficult situation.

Challenges And Failures

The challenges for the new leaders in Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 were to maintain stability, establish credibility while showing a capacity to rule, maintain peace in a volatile situation, and prevent an economic collapse.

It was a nearly impossible list of tasks, as there was infighting among the various interim political leaders around Otunbaeva seeking to gain power or have their party members appointed to new positions vacated by Bakiev's cronies.

On top of that, Bakiev's clan was fighting openly and covertly against the new regime in the first weeks and months after the revolution, when nearly every day provocateurs were trying to shake the stability of the new government.

In June 2010, at the peak of internal struggle and conflicting ambitions within the interim government, deadly ethnic clashes broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan. Local Kyrgyz and Uzbeks started killing each other in the country's second-biggest city, Osh, and the violence spread quickly to nearby areas and the city of Jalal-Abad.

Five days of mayhem left more than 400 people dead and a few thousand injured, mainly Uzbeks. The unrest also did great damage to the country's already struggling economy.

Otunbaeva's government failed both to prevent the initial outbreak and to end the clashes quickly, something observers and investigators of the unrest have noted in their reports.

The president herself admitted as much during a public meeting in Osh in March.

"Last year we, the interim government, did try very hard, but were not able to stop the horror," she said. "Dear people! We were weak. Forgive us."

Otunbaeva meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on March 7.

Providing justice and safety to the victims and their relatives in the south became a glaring problem in the wake of the clashes. Although Uzbeks have been disproportionately tried for the crimes committed, Otunbaeva has vowed that critics should wait until all of the thousands of criminal cases are tried before passing judgment.

Melis Myrzakmatov, mayor of Osh, recently said in an interview with the popular Kyrgyz newspaper "De-Facto" that the violence in his city could be repeated if Otunbaeva and her government do not resign soon.

Otunbaeva attempted to remove the notorious mayor -- who many accuse, at the very least, of doing nothing to prevent the ethnic violence -- from his post in August 2010, but relented and allowed him to stay after his supporters rallied and she met with him in Bishkek.

When Myrzakmatov ceremonially returned to his office amid celebrations by supporters in front of his Osh office, Otunbaeva was called weak for not sacking him.

Looking at her political path, Otunbaeva was never the top leader of a political party in Kyrgyzstan. She co-chaired the opposition movement Ata-Jurt (which has nothing in common with the current Ata-Jurt party) at the end of 2004 after leaving her diplomatic life in London, and co-chaired the Asaba party in 2006. In 2007, Otunbaeva was elected to the Kyrgyz parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party.

Osh Mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov with Kyrgyz mufti Chubak-hajji at the commemoration in Osh on June 10.
This experience with various parties failed to provide Otunbaeva solid support from one political party behind her presidency. This lack of support allowed the fractious political environment to exist in the government and formed an obstacle to the establishment of a strong plan of how to unite the country.

Keeping It Together

Several times last year, experts and analysts predicted the impending collapse of Otunbaeva's government, but that did not happen.

Keeping the government together through the first several months after the revolution and then keeping the country together after the ethnic unrest are considered by many to be her two greatest achievements as president.

Besides continuing to lead through the tragic and difficult times, Otunbaeva organized and held a referendum last summer and historic parliamentary elections in October. Those elections were described by international organizations as the most free and democratic elections in Kyrgyzstan and in the entire region.

Along with their approval of Otunbaeva as president one year ago, the people of Kyrgyzstan approved changes to the constitution that provided them with a parliamentary form of government.

This democratic experiment created new challenges from outside the country, with Russian leaders attacking official Bishkek for this form of individualism.

The current Kyrgyz government consists of members from three different and even opposing political parties, but Otunbaeva has been working with them to try to resolve serious problems.

Otunbaeva made statements which were expected -- about taking responsibility for tragic events in the south on behalf of the interim government -- and also showed courage in inviting an international commission to the country to investigate the interethnic clashes.

Otunbaeva and parliament speaker Ahmatbek Keldibekov pray during a ceremony of remembrance in the city of Osh on June 10.

She has also pledged that the recommendations made by the commission will be implemented and said she opposes a recent parliament resolution giving commission head Kimmo Kiljunen persona non grata status in Kyrgyzstan because the deputies disagreed with the majority of the reports' findings.

Importantly, Otunbaeva in May openly accused some domestic newspapers of becoming ultranationalist in their views, particularly regarding the ethnic clashes and their aftermath.

Other observers think Otunbaeva's greatest achievement is still to come. She has said she will not run in the next presidential election scheduled to be held in the fall and will leave office voluntarily -- certainly a first since the Central Asian states gained independence.

Otunbaeva reiterated her promise during her visit to Vienna early this month.

"By November, we will have had a presidential election, and I must step away from my presidency," she said. "This time, I want to set an example in our part of the world that it is possible to say ‘goodbye' to power. You can step away from power. And it is very important thing to do in Central Asia."

But the upcoming presidential election is another big challenge for Otunbaeva. Several politicians in Kyrgyzstan are trying to play the regional south-north card and are entirely blaming Otunbaeva's government for the tragic events of last year.

So while she has only six months before a new president is sworn in, Central Asia's first female president still has a lot of challenges ahead.

Venera Djumataeva is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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