Interview with Roza Otunbayeva (Part Two): After the 2010 revolution

Interviews | | 6-04-2018, 07:25

A prominent stateswoman and diplomat, Roza Otunbayeva has had huge impact on the modern history of Kyrgyzstan and even served as President from 2010 to 2011. In this exclusive interview with Christian Eccher that took place in Bishkek in November 2017, she tells about her intense political life and the challenges her country might face in the near future.

In the second part of Christian Eccher`s interview, former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva recalls the political effects of the 2010 revolution and talks about fellow politicians.

The first part of the interview is available here.


Eccher: Why didn’t you run for the office after serving as an acting president? You enjoyed a popular support.

Otunbayeva: Because we had established those conditions. We had agreed that the acting president would not run. Not to mention the fact that Almazbek Atambayev had always remembered of not becoming President immediately. At that time nobody wanted him. That night between 7 and 8 April, no one proposed him as President. There were several potential candidates for the presidency. One of them was Omurbek Tekebayev, who had his own party; he would never agree to nominate Atambayev for the presidency. Neither would Azimbek Beknazarov. In short, there were indeed many strong leaders with a great competition among them. I was the head of the opposition movement at the time and none of those who took to the streets had experience in the institutional field. I had already been in Parliament and always spoken on behalf of the opposition. When there was something to be said they would all come to me and I represented the different souls of the same opposition movement. In short, I was the guiding figure around whom the various people of the opposition gathered. “You will be the interim President”, they told me. Since then, Atambayev has had anger towards me; for him it was an offense not to have become President immediately. But I repeat again: nobody would have let him at that time!


But in the end he managed to become President.

It happened later. We were from the same party and we were all interested in our party`s getting to power. Prior to the constitutional referendum, the Osh clashes happened between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in June 2010. Obviously everyone blamed us for what happened. In any case, we managed to stop the fighting and restore order. The international community was also very effective; there was even a conference aimed at raising funds. We had to go further, overcome this great misfortune that had happened to us. The people were attentive and wanted changes. The new Constitution gave a completely new form to public affairs. We had had two Presidents since the collapse of the USSR and both experiences had been catastrophic because of autocratic and/or family ruling. 

Instead of trying to contribute to the construction of parliamentary democracy, Atambayev turned it into an autocracy again. He has accumulated all the power in his hands. He has worked all alone. He was a real autocrat. Now he must leave the presidency but the country finds itself in an autocratic regime. We set up a parliament which he ignored it. 


To what extent are the prospects for democracy in Kyrgyzstan?

To get to where you are today, how many centuries and how many mishaps did Western countries have to pass? Democracy is not built in a moment, with a click. Nothing falls from the sky, even this food that is now on the plate in front of us, has certainly not materialized by itself. It takes time. And sacrifice. 

Look how many people are now in prison in Kyrgyzstan?


In prison is there also Tekebayev, who was arrested in February 2016 for having received a bribe, even if there is no evidence.

Not only! Just to give an example, Ulan Saljanov, the brother of the former Attorney General got killed today (November 6, 2017). Losses of this kind are not necessary, but this also happens because those in power want to control everything, leaving no room for those who think differently. If it was only Tekebayev in jail... There are at least 20 other people. Here's how it works, just to give an example: we are now sitting in this restaurant, we talk and someone records us. Then they make a selection of what we have said, they edit what recorded and analyze the text. All this material goes to the law-enforcement or security services. This is absurd, is this not? On the other hand, do you know how many people end up in jail or lost homes when building a democracy? Here, democracy goes through large losses. But democracy can only be built by putting oneself at stake, through own experience, not that of others. And we fight. We sacrifice ourselves and our families. Why not? The Kyrgyz people are very open, very eager for changes.

Our parliament also consists of majority and. However, the rights of the opposition are not respected, as provided for by the Constitution. In the opposition was Omurbek Babanov that did absolutely nothing! He sat there, under the protection of President and thought of his business. Now there is still hope that he can become an important factor in the political field. This is because the outgoing President has made a desert in the political field and totally deformed it. To such an extent that in fact there is no longer any opposition. As much as he could, Atambayev had all the opposition men banged in jail. He frightened them. Today there is no longer freedom to meet and protest in the square. We wanted to go down to the streets but we could not because they would have arrested us right away. Freedom of expression has also been seriously questioned. 

Thus, there are only two factions: that of Babanov, which the authorities now want to destroy, because it annoys them. The other one is the faction of Tekebayev; they naturally want to destroy this too. Here, this is the real struggle that is taking place now. Thank God, however, we still have the opposition press; and there are also social network. We do our best to fight. The civil society sector is unfortunately weak, although it was much stronger. 

Atambayev fought human rights defenders and civil movements. He took their public funding. And now he fights Soros funding.


Exactly like in Serbia and Hungary. Soros is the only culprit responsible for everything that happens.

This can also be partially be explained by the Russian influence. And not just Russian. Trump is against him too. But Soros really helped and still helps us. By the way, where are the Americans? There are not here. In fact, they turned their backs, or not? I mean Trump. They are no longer interested in democracy because of their war with Russia. No country satisfies them. They think it is necessary to remove finances from NGOs. Trump believes that it is necessary to take them away from the sector that deals with democracy. The American Embassy has been missing an ambassador here for six months. Trump recalled the ambassadors from Central Asia and not replaced them. In my opinion, Trump is not able to include in the State Department the people who know the Central Asia.


What about the Russian presence in Kyrgyzstan?

Russia has always been here. We once had Ekho Moskvy, even during the Bakiyev years. It was broadcast freely. But now Ekho Moskvy is completely out. Now we only have Sputnik, pure Russian propaganda.


Atambayev's policy is not very clear. A little with Russia, a little against, then with America and again with Russia. How do you assess his policy?

He does not understand America at all. He first visited America in 2017 when attending the General Assembly. 

He carries out an inflexible, one-way policy: he put himself completely under Russian. We are not against Russia, but we reject such a one-way policy.  

Atambayev and Putin

There is democracy In Kyrgyzstan, but society is deeply divided into clans. Isn`t there any risk that these clans will influence too much on electoral dynamics?

Yes, there are the clans, so what? Aren`t there any clans in other countries? Aren`t there any, say, in Britain? In each state there are special interests. We obviously have not reached the level of those countries; we have not yet matured even for the market economy. We suddenly moved from feudalism and socialism, mixed together, to the market economy and to democracy. However, we are not yet completely passed to the new order. Kyrgyzstan is like a big "Social Fabric." Something does not work. But we learn, make our own the experiences of others, we are smart enough, somehow we are also sincere. After all, we are the only country in the CIS to be democratic. There is also Georgia, which I know very well. And there is Ukraine, of course. There are now many expatriates in Ukraine dealing with democracy. Then there is also Moldova.  Russia is not naive at all. In Russia they do not have the vocabulary that is here now. In Russia, democratically oriented Russian journalists come to Kyrgyzstan and are amazed at the progress made. But we are not yet a sophisticated country with much knowledge and experience like the European nations.


I asked my question because in 2011, Kamchybek Tashiev, then candidate for Presidenct struck me with the following sentence: "You cannot understand the Kyrgyz democracy, if you don’t know what clan is.” In the south, people vote for a southerner, in the north for the one from the north. There is no real electoral platform, and one does not vote for the program.

At the level of ideas in Kyrgyzstan we are weak. The party? What's this? It's a platform, is it not? When I entered the Social Democratic Party, we knew what to do, we had a program and we were a social-democratic force. We had created our party on a platform that could be defined worldwide, the one based on social democracy precisely. Now it's not like that anymore. The platform is gone. There are a lot of businesspeople who have filled the party and have arrogated the right to eliminate that platform. This is the real problem. Here too it is a matter of time. Formally we are a democracy; we do everything properly. Essentially not. In 2010, when the first Parliament was formed after the revolution, I personally asked the ambassadors and foreign guests in our country to give our parliamentarians the opportunity to go to their respective countries to look, to study and to understand what parliamentary democracy is. Thank God, everyone replied positively. Some MPs went to different countries. Some went to the European nations and met their parliamentary colleagues, with whom they discussed for a long time. They came back full of experience and convinced that in 20-30 years our democracy would be mature like theirs. It means that we are on the right track. 

We are busy, but democracy is still lacking in real content. An example? Tashiev founded the Ata-Zhurt party. What is it? The founder defined it as an "idealist" party. What does it mean? They do not even know it. Even the other parties are not immune to this depletion of content: Tekebayev`s Socialist Party, for example. It is a party that has really gone far from socialism. Perhaps Tekebayev is really convinced of his own ideas: he will never be in favor of the oligarchs, that is for sure.

Also Babanov`s Respublica party is incomprehensible. What basis does it have or what contents? Babanov himself led an unclear election campaign. I did not support Babanov, I say it openly, because he promised to hold a referendum to ask the people if they want to live in a parliamentary or presidential democracy. In other words, he would prefer the presidential option. I did my analysis of the situation and I published it on Cactus media. I wrote: "Listen, we have chosen parliamentary democracy, now we do not like it anymore and we change it. No, this is not the case; governing a country is not a toy for children.” So we do not like parliamentary democracy any more, and we would like to go back to the presidential system, where everything is in the hands of one man. The state is not a Rubik's cube. You absolutely must not do this. We need patience, we must do our best to improve the system we have. Babanov made an election campaign in which he promised that within 6 years Kyrgyzstan will become one of the ten most developed countries in the world. Based on which mechanism, it is not clear. People in any case were incredulous. No one understood what he meant, how Kyrgyzstan would become one of the ten most developed countries in the world at any moment. Honestly, I really cannot understand why Babanov decided to run for president. If he wanted to change things in this country, he could have done it as Prime Minister. According to the Constitution, President does not have great influence in matters of domestic politics and economy; the most important charge in this sense is that of the Premier. Babanov arrives, he runs for President, promises mountains of gold, asserts that he will pave roads, organize water supply, find gold mines, etc. In short, what he did was to confuse people.

 Omurbek Babanov

Perhaps the problem also lies in the fact that the parties are not associations of people, but leaders who guide their followers. The head of the party is the absolute leader and it is his charisma that determines the strength of the party. 

Today we are undergoing this stage. It is exactly what I am talking about: Babanov is a candidate for the presidential elections, he promises everything because the people expect the President to solve all the problems. The people… Here the bread is missing, something else is needed… There are some material issues of primary importance, and Babanov answers: "Of course, I resolve everything myself"; he is supposed to respond such material questions. It is necessary: at least that is what the people want. 

As for the parties, they depend on the funds today. If the party wants to exist, it needs money. Who can guarantee them? Businesspeople. Who else? These gentlemen do not have anything else in mind except to protect their own businesses. In our time, we had clear divisions between the Right, the Left and the Center. Now nothing is clear in our parliament.