Roza Otunbayeva and the Unheralded Kyrgyz “Silent Spring"


Before events in Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, there was another democratic revolution that took place – albeit more quietly and gradually – in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, spearheaded by the first female president in the region, Roza Otunbayeva. The shift could potentially be more historic than the attention it has been getting due to the potential effects it could have for the region.

There is consistently little known about Central Asia. It is a region where each state has treaded cold water since its independence from the former Soviet Union, mired in corrupt dictatorships that continue engaging in myriads of human rights abuses. The sustainability of these polities is largely due to their geopolitical importance and foreign relations, since it is sandwiched between Russia, China, and the West, all of which have reasons to try and keep the region within the status quo and politically stable. This has helped prop up these dictatorships, which in turn silences domestic media from within.

Though each of the five “stans” within Central Asia are majority Muslim, authoritarian, and are dealing with varying degrees of socio-political issues (corruption, human rights abuses, and/or unemployment problems), the region has been largely unaffected by the Arab Spring for the reasons outlined above.

However, back in the summer of 2010, a half-year before Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the land-locked state of Kyrgyzstan overthrew its dictator Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Following this and overcoming major ethnic violence in the South (perhaps making labeling the transition “silent”, at least for those in Kyrgyzstan, a huge misnomer) two weeks before, the country voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new constitution.

The media muteness surrounding these events, and the current interim leader trying to markedly change the make-up of her country in a region that has previously never sniffed democracy, is unfortunate. Otunbayeva is not only the first female president, but also the first Central Asian leader to voluntarily step down and respect the outcome of an election (she has barred herself from running). During the last year, she helped establish the Constitutional Council that drafted a new constitution, limited the power of the executive while transforming the country into a parliamentary democracy, and is spearheading what looks to be Central Asia’s first free and fair election. So far, preparations for the elections are going smoothly thanks to the Central Election Commission.

Most importantly, she has established a precedent for her country and the region for women as political leaders and has shown that Central Asian states are not fatalistically authoritarian. There is a progressive future for the region.

This does not mean that Kyrgyzstan, like most states that have toiled long under dictatorships, does not have an uphill battle in becoming a democracy. Most importantly, there is a tense north-south divide that exploded last summer and continues to simmer and has the potential to explode again after the election. A loose Southern border that struggles with drug and weapon trafficking, a highly inadequate judicial system, an ill-defined checks and balances system on legislative authority, and a lack of democratic infrastructure and political will on the ground also plague the state. Furthermore, certain human rights abuses have persisted and freedoms restricted. Being the lone state attempting to democratize in the region won’t help it either (geographically, India is the closest democracy anywhere near Kyrgyzstan). There is certainly danger that Kyrgyzstan will not progress and build upon Otunbayeva’s reforms and that one of the new candidates who becomes president will reverse course or genuinely will not be able to overcome the challenges.

However, what Otunbayeva has managed to do in steering her country towards a democratic transition deserves recognition beyond her recent “International Women of Courage Award,” and Kyrgyzstan deserves more notice. Throughout the past year, it has pushed and pulled itself towards democratization despite the odds, establishing itself as a potential model for the region. In Otunbayeva’s own words, “the path to democracy is not easy, but it is the only way forward.”

For the benefit of the people in Central Asia, let us hope for a successful Kyrgyzstan and the continuation of the “Silent Spring.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons