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by Eva Gudbergsdottir

Roza Otunbayeva
Dr. Roza Otunbayeva, former President of Kyrgyzstan at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. (Credit: Eduardo Fujii )

“We’ve been infected by freedom,” shares Dr. Roza Otunbayeva, who led the opposition faction in Kyrgyzstan during the 2010 revolution and became head of the interim government of the Kyrgyz Republic.

During a recent visit hosted by the Institute’s Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies, Otunbayeva held lectures in English and Russian and met with students. She also graciously found time to sit down for an interview. She shared her thoughts on the challenges of building a parliamentary democracy from scratch, establishing a system of checks and balances and maintaining the support of the people.

In 2007 Otunbayeva was elected to the Kyrgyz Parliament and led the opposition faction until April 2010, when she was named head of the country’s interim government. She says that by 2010 people in Kyrgyzstan had become deeply disappointed in the actions of the authoritarian government that had replaced the communist rule of the Soviet Union. Instead of investing in education and infrastructure, the president, his family and friends enriched themselves. “It was a revolt of the people.” The revolt was met with resistance as the authoritarian rulers tried to hold on to power and used desperate means, including shooting protesters in the street. Otunbayeva says the blood was literally running in the streets.

For the young generation, the highest values are freedom. We have been infected by freedom and it runs deep
— Dr. Roza Otunbayeva

At the time, Russian President Medvedev said the opposition’s plans to establish a parliamentary democracy would never work, reflects Otunbayeva. She says the popular uprising was a major shift in Central Asia. “You could say we are trendsetters in the old Soviet space.” She says the road to democracy has not been a straight path: “The whole country is learning.” Civil society has been damaged by the rule of the last president, who showed authoritarian tendencies, and the political parties are weak. “There was no tradition for political parties and there is a lack of stability in the parliament. We also need to work seriously on our judiciary, which is weak and not independent.”

Building a democracy takes time, she says, though she is confident that the Kyrgyz people will keep learning and adjusting. “For the young generation, the highest values are freedom. We have been infected by freedom and it runs deep.” The nation has resources: water, energy from hydro-electric plants, and 320 days of sun with all the opportunities that can offer growing both tourism and organic agriculture. “We were always too poor to afford pesticides,” she says with a wry smile, “and now our healthy agriculture is in high demand.” Many challenges lie ahead, including building the middle class and tackling unemployment, but overall Otunbayeva is confident the Kyrgyz people will stay on the difficult path towards democracy rather than falling for authoritarian rule in exchange for stability. “Russians have paid a high price for stability, and that is not the choice of our country.”

Institute students had a lot to learn from Otunbayeva, who enjoys interacting with them and her great friend, Director of the Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies and Institute Professor Dr. Anna Vassilieva.

Institute students had a lot to learn from Otunbayeva, who enjoys interacting with them and her great friend, Director of the Graduate Initiative in Russian Studies and Institute Professor Dr. Anna Vassilieva. During 2002-2004, Otunbayeva served as Deputy Head of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General peacekeeping mission to Georgia, before returning to Kyrgyzstan to take an active role in democratic changes there.  Her career before rising to lead the opposition in the revolution included serving as the deputy head of government and foreign minister of the Soviet Kyrgyz Republic, serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR in Moscow, and later working as president of the Soviet National Commission of UNESCO. After 1991, Roza Otunbayeva served as vice-prime minister and foreign minister. She was the first Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States and Canada, and later to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

For More Information

Jason Warburg
jwarburg@middlebury.edu
831-647-3516

Eva Gudbergsdottir
evag@middlebury.edu
831-647-6606

Students to Travel and Research in Russian Far East

Kieran Ficken (Joint MBA/MA International Environmental Policy), Libiao Pan (MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies), Margo Poda (Joint MBA/MA in International Policy and Development), and Hayley Manges (BA in International Politics and Economics) will conduct field research in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk in March 2018.