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Otunbaeva Mulls Life As Kyrgyzstan's First Official Ex-President

Roza Otunbaeva attends the inauguration of Almazbek Atambaev as her successor as Kyrgyz president on December 1 in the country's first peaceful transition of power.
Roza Otunbaeva attends the inauguration of Almazbek Atambaev as her successor as Kyrgyz president on December 1 in the country's first peaceful transition of power.
She's been showered with roses, decorated with medals, and even proposed as a contender for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But Roza Otunbaeva may still be wondering what else she's due as the first Kyrgyz head of state to voluntarily step down at the designated end of her term.

Otunbaeva, who on December 1 formally relinquished her 20-month post as Kyrgyzstan's transitional leader, is stepping into a virtual legislative void. Her Central Asian nation, which has not witnessed a single peaceful transfer of power in its 20 years of independence, is currently scrambling to draft a new law governing the role and privileges of ex-presidents.

In the meantime, the 61-year-old outgoing leader has been left to speculate whether lawmakers will guarantee her a political role or even official use of a car once her term is complete.

"I've never driven a car in my life," Otunbaeva said at her final presidential press conference earlier this week. "Some lawmakers are saying no to the car. And that's OK. If they don't give me a car; I can just walk. Or I can ride a bike, just like the Danish prime minister."

Privilege, Protection

Kyrgyzstan's first postindependence constitution, adopted in 1993 under President Askar Akaev, offered broad protection to the republic's president and his entire family in the eventuality that he would willingly step down.

But Akaev was forcibly ousted from power during the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Five years later, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was overthrown as well. Both have retreated from Kyrgyzstan, deprived of any state-funded retirement packages as former heads of state.

Otunbaeva, who agreed to a shortened, single term when stepping into the presidency after Bakiev's ouster, is the first head of state to meet the constitutional requirements for ex-presidential status: she completed the term created for her, and has vacated it willingly.

Her spokesman says Otunbaeva (standing) could often be seen on commercial flights mingling with the other passengers.
Her spokesman says Otunbaeva (standing) could often be seen on commercial flights mingling with the other passengers.
As such, she is eligible for provisions laid out in the Akaev-era constitution until new legislation can be adopted. Daniyar Narymbaev, Otunbaeva's special representative in the Kyrgyz parliament, says she will be able to retain a portion of her presidential salary -- a modest 30,000 soms ($700) per month.

She will also enjoy other privileges, including the right to remain in her official residence on the leafy Ala Archa state grounds just outside the capital, Bishkek, with incoming President Almazbek Atambaev and the parliament speaker as near neighbors.

"She'll keep 75 percent of her salary, and she'll keep a special house situated on the territory of the state residence," Narymbaev says. "Of course, she'll have bodyguards. And all these conditions are part of the old law."

Working Out The Details

It remains to be seen how long it will take Kyrgyzstan's notoriously fractious parliament to approve the new law on an ex-president's status.

The provisions are part of a broader article governing all presidential rights and responsibilities -- a legislative gap that was created when Kyrgyzstan made the historic switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system under Otunbaeva last year.

Work on the new presidential article was initiated by Omurbek Tekebaev, the head of the reformist Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, and enjoys the support of some, but not all, parliamentary factions.

Tekebaev says the new document will not stray far from the original legislation, though they will extend no special conditions for family members -- a key provision for both Akaev and Bakiev, who maintained strong ties to their families and clans.

But Otunbaeva will be guaranteed medical insurance, an official office, and a small staff of secretaries and advisers. Most importantly, Tekebaev says, the conditions will ensure that she -- and all future ex-presidents -- will remain in public service for years to come.

"The state will guarantee the ex-president's public and political activities," Tekebaev says. "This means all the experience and all the knowledge of the ex-president will continue to be used for the good of the nation."

Mixed Legacy

Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister who served in a variety of diplomatic and UN posts, has expressed a determination to remain in Kyrgyzstan following the end of her presidential term rather than pursuing new interests abroad.

Almazbek Atambaev (left) takes over from Otunbaeva, in Central Asia's first peaceful handover of power.
Almazbek Atambaev (left) takes over from Otunbaeva, in Central Asia's first peaceful handover of power.
In particular, she has expressed interest in creating a foundation to support cultural and educational programs in a country where she is strongly credited with lending momentum to the Kyrgyz national-identity movement.

Otunbaeva, who is long separated from her husband and shares her home with her elderly mother, may also find a new role to play as a first-time grandmother: her daughter, Karachach, who lives in London, gave birth to a baby boy on November 11. Otunbaeva's son, Atai, lives in Bishkek, where he is involved in charity work.

Otunbaeva leaves behind a complicated legacy as she steps down from a leadership post during one of the most restive periods in modern Kyrgyz history.

She is credited with stabilizing the country after the public protests that led to Bakiev's ouster, and with promoting the role of rule of law and civil society in a country still struggling to adhere to democratic principles.

Most notably, she oversaw the referendum that led to a critical shift in Kyrgyzstan's governing model -- away from a strong presidency toward a more pluralistic parliamentary democracy. Speaking at her final press conference, Otunbaeva expressed a "sense of satisfaction at what has been accomplished."

'I Am Clean Before My Nation'

At the same time, Otunbaeva may be remembered for her disastrously ineffective role during the bloody ethnic riots that rocked Kyrgyzstan's south in June 2010. And despite requesting an international commission to investigate the state's role in the clashes, Otunbaeva shocked many of her admirers when she refused to acknowledge a final report holding her administration responsible for much of the chaos.

Otunbaeva appeared to acknowledge her shortcomings during her final address before parliament November 30. "I want to apologize again for my failure to prevent bloodshed," she said, referring to the 400 lives lost in the southern clashes. But she defended her tenure as president, saying: "I have done everything I could and I am clean before my nation. The rest will be judged by history."

Many of her close advisers say Otunbaeva is clearly cut from a different cloth than many politicians in Bishkek, few of whom would have accepted such a difficult, and deeply compromised, post in the wake of Bakiev's ouster.

Otunbaeva is far from wealthy. She has never used her political posts to engage in business, and even specifically forbid her son from becoming an entrepreneur.

Her press secretary, Sultan Kanazarov, says Otunbaeva rarely requested special aircraft for presidential business, and could often be found on commercial flights walking the aisles, talking to ordinary passengers about their view of life in Kyrgyzstan.

Even in her final days in office, Kanazarov says, Otunbaeva burned the midnight oil, answering letters, signing documents, and cleaning up paperwork. By her last day in office, he says, her desk was "empty and clean."

"This last month has been full of appointments; so many people want to meet her. Enormous numbers of people are coming and asking for a meeting with the president, even for just a couple of minutes," he says.

"Many just want to see Otunbaeva, to shake her hand and thank her and to let her know that they hope to see her again in times to come. If you come to the president's reception room, all you'll see are tons and tons of flowers."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, with reporting by Aidanbek Akmat-uulu, Kubat Kasymbekov, and Janarabek Akaev in Bishkek
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