Interview with Roza Otunbayeva (Part Three): Kyrgyzstan's future prospects

Events | | 19-05-2018, 10:40

Third and final part of the interview with Roza Otunbayeva. In this section of the interview with Christian Eccher, the former President of Kyrgyzstan reflects on the future of her country and on Bishkek's relations with the other Central Asian countries.

The first part of the interview is available here.

The second part is instead available here.


The relations with Kazakhstan have been tense since Kyrgyzstan became a democracy. For months there have been problems at the border, miles of trucks waiting in line. Perishable goods go bad and Astana authorities do not allow haulers to pass.

What happens is not supposed to happen. What is happening says a lot about the level of preparation of our outgoing President, Atambayev. Nazarbayev is also like that; he wanted excuses from Atambayev. Now he does not care anymore, Atambayev leaves. The problem is that the Government is simply not able to solve fundamental issues. In fact this Government has been nicknamed “kinder-Government”. The issues related to customs must be resolved quickly; the customs is in the hands of the President. There is an oligarch there, which takes enormously terrible amounts of money. They have renounced millions of dollars from Kazakhstan only because they know they can take money directly from the border.


Perhaps the new President Zheenbekov will prove to be more effective than his predecessor.

It will not be easy for him too. He's really provincial. He never went anywhere, he does not know people where it would be necessary. He was always sitting there in the province. He is a man who was pumped from 2% of the votes up to 54%, as Babanov says. What should we expect from him?


Currently there are not many perspectives for Kyrgyzstan. We must wait.

Yes, miracles do not exist and there will not be. It is necessary to observe, analyze and decide in which direction to go. The outgoing President has done so much of the damage to the country. I do not really know how Nazarbayev and Putin will save all of this. In my opinion, we have regretted 100 times that we had entered the Eurasian Union.


Kyrgyzstan sits at a strategically important position. It is also realized by China. There are important agreements with Uzbekistan. There are also talks of Kyrgyzstan`s possible exit from the Eurasian Union.

Uzbekistan is very prudent and pragmatic. As for China, we should not keep too many illusions; they have everything they need.


Another important issue for me is that the Kyrgyz politics has few women, despite the fact that women are the strength of this country: mothers, workers, who are often engaged on several fronts.

You see, I am, a Soviet product, so to say. The Soviet Union gave us an enormous basis for education and carried out “feminization” in society. Freedom consisted of self-awareness, especially with regard to religion. Today, however, a huge process of Islamization of Kyrgyz society is under way. This constitutes a major obstacle for women in the future; it worries us and we will take this situation into account. It seems to me that it is very important to change the economic environment of Kyrgyzstan, which is very weak from this point of view. The living conditions of the population must be improved. Per capita income is $1500 per year, which is really ridiculous in contemporary world.


But can Kyrgyzstan really do it alone?

It is necessary to completely change the foundations on which the economy of our country is based, so as to guarantee the participation of women in social life. There is a photographic exhibition here in Bishkek, entitled “Women through the language of art”: go and see portraits of ladies who bring water, who do the most humiliating and primitive jobs, surely the most tiring. And what kind of political activities of women can we talk about in this case? When I became President I took care to allocate the key positions of the country's political life to women, because they were the only ones with clean hands, they were the only people not “contaminated”. They were also very professional. It does not mean that I simply appointed some people to different position. No! In accordance with the Constitution, I would propose the nominations to Parliament, which would then discuss and question my nominees. The parliament would check if everything was in order and I would sign the necessary documents only after approval by the legislative body. In contrast, Nazarbayev and Karimov would simply say: “This is the person I am appointing.” I was the first to have a woman appointed as the Attorney General. The President of the National Bank was also a woman, as was the chairperson of the Auditing Chamber. The Vice-Premier and the Vice-President of the Parliament were female too. In short, several key positions were occupied by women. In Bishkek it was not unusual to find women in power: it is the capital city, there is a great social life, there are many educated people.

The problem, however, becomes obvious when going to province. Kyrgyzstan is administratively divided into seven regions (oblast) and 40 provinces (raion); there is no single female head (akim) in oblasts or raions. During my tenure, however, there was a female governor. 

Do you now understand why economic life is important? It is important to have, especially in the province, a middle class; it is essential to create the conditions so that women can dedicate their time not only to matters related to survival and family, but also to others, to higher needs. Women mostly work as teachers or doctors. But I wish at least some of the villages were headed by women.

Education comes into focus here. There is no young person in the institutions who has graduated from foreign prestigious universities. We have a government formed by educated people. But the local education system leaves me many doubts and all our politicians are products of this system. I think that the degradation of the education system has been colossal. Those who have studied within this system are now in power, parliament, ministries. 

For instance, in Kazakhstan many politicians come from universities abroad, thanks to scholarships granted by Nazarbayev. 

There could be someone in Kyrgyzstan who has finished his studies elsewhere, but a single person does not make change. 


I understand, but your words leave me very surprised and perplexed. An example: Serbia has now a Premier, Ana Brnabić, who has studied in Great Britain; and I have the clear impression that she is really far from the people and has no idea of the real needs and problems of ordinary citizens.

She probably works according to schemes developed where she studied, right?


Would it not be better to develop the educational system here in Kyrgyzstan? To create competitive schools and universities? Would it not be better for future cadres to study here instead of abroad?

If you remember, 20-30 years ago the Mexican economy was developed by Harvard alumni, Indian economy alumni of other foreign universities. We can continue these examples. What I mean is that we need people who are completely new and do not rule as was ruled in the past. Our government can utilize economic schemes which have been developed, applied and yielded real results elsewhere. Of course, I do not think that graduates of foreign universities alone can change things. But I reiterate the absolute necessity of quality education instead of quasi-education. It's also important for me that our kids go to school here and understand the local realities. For example, our current Prime Minister is a young man who carried office papers and later headed a department of international affairs. Product of our universities, he never worked in any embassy. He does not know concretely what should be done, how the whole machine of diplomacy moves. He`s never presided over any province or chaired over people. He has no idea about agriculture. Our government suffers from the fact that there is no governor who has any understanding of agriculture.


It seems to me that the best people leave the country, that they go to seek their fortune elsewhere. Do you agree with this analysis?

If the best really go away I do not know. There are excellent people who remain, who are here. 

And here I would go back to talking about women. I am here, and I am the strength of the country. Kyrgyz women have more strength and energy than males. This applies to every nation, I think. Women always bear excessive workload. Now fewer children are born, but until recently it was normal for a woman to give birth to 9-10 children. We all come from very large families. In any case, I repeat it once again, economic growth is necessary for the progress of women. There is no middle class here, and this is the misery of the country. We can not in any way attract capital to the country. You may ask: ‘But from where?” Just check the map: we have China to the east, Russia and Kazakhstan to the north and Uzbekistan - to the west. The surrounding could be quite beneficial. If Uzbekistan continues to implement its open door policy, it will soon become the center of gravity of Central Asia. Undoubtedly, it will be Uzbekistan, not Kazakhstan. The country comprises almost 30 million people, capable, with a real entrepreneurial spirit! Do you understand why I assert that Kyrgyzstan is in a fortunate geographic context, with an excellent neighborhood? 

We have Afghanistan as a neighboring state, which is usually depicted as scary. I am the Board member of the International Crisis Group. Ten days ago I came back from New York, where we gathered for a meeting. Kabul is a city with a commercially very strong potential. The continuous explosions, the Taliban, however, terrorize the whole area. 

This is a good region where we should focus on commerce instead of always praying that the Taliban will not come to us.

Russia has been punished with commercial isolation, but it has huge economic resources. Russia, therefore, will survive for at least another five Putins. 

We, the Kyrgyz, are a small but free people, who have made a long way in 25 years. We are not worse than you in the West, we have enormous potential. We are free.


You mentioned Russia…

Recently I returned from New York via Moscow. Do you know how many Kyrgyz live in Moscow? There are so many shops, cafes, restaurants run by the Kyrgyz. From the most remote mountainous villages, my countrymen have all poured into Moscow. Or to Berlin, Dubai, Chicago. Had the USSR not collapsed we would not have traveled so far. Go to Osh and there you will find Turkey, Iran, China: international contacts intensify and we also become dynamic. The way to go is long: agriculture and tourism must be the focus of Kyrgyz economy. The problem is that we often have no patience to sit down and make a plan that guarantees success. An example? In Russia, apples are imported from Slovenia and Italy. Moscow buys them from Poland, but now wants to change the market. On this we must aim, make a plan, know how and where to grow our apple orchards. Russia is immense! Do you understand what business potential there is for us? But we must think, organize and not improvise.


One last question: I come from Italy, which had the strongest Communist Party in the whole West. Some of us have dreamed of building real socialism there as well, you were born in that world and have been an undisputed protagonist. What are the differences between that type of government and the current, global, capitalist or neoliberal one?

The difference is great. I was a member of the Central Committee of the Party? The socialist system had its advantages, and this is even clearer when we realize the disadvantages that the capitalist system presents. There was the Party Plenum (how many people was it composed of? I do not remember now: 12 or 15) and there were discussions. It was not possible for one person to decide everything. In contemporary Kyrgyzstan, Akayev or Bakyev decided everything on their own. For me this was inconceivable. Instead of the Committee, they had family members and friends to help them settle matters of national importance. It is disgusting. 

During the Soviet time, we had discussions at different levels, each of us had our own say. time of the Here, we do not discuss anything now. We criticize the former President (Atambayev) because he has never presented himself before the Parliament, to account for what he had done during the previous year and what he intended to do in the next. He simply talks empty and usually badly about everyone else. All in a very emotional, immoderate, absolute. We criticize this behaviour. Putin or Nazarbayev or other leaders report about their activities. If you are the President, you must prepare explain what you did and what you intend to do! The people must know.