Roza Otunbaeva’s historic rise from opposition figure to revolutionary leader to Central Asia’s first female head of state has been well documented. One year ago this month, she gracefully ended her 20-month term as interim leader and transferred power democratically in another region-wide first.
But while Otunbaeva may no longer be grabbing headlines, the 62-year-old hasn’t lost her drive or, she says, her influence.
She plays a key role behind the scenes as a government adviser, she told during a recent trip to Washington. She said she holds “regular” meetings with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev and Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev and sends “feedback” to Bishkek from her meetings with citizens and visits to foreign capitals.
And while her new ambitions are mainly civilian in nature, she isn’t ruling out a possible return to politics someday.
“I don’t see, so far, that I will return to politics in the future — although I must tell you that we will fight for this course, for the success of what we have started, and we will not allow this course to fail. And so we are ready to stand again for that,” Otunbaeva says.
Otunbaeva’s continuing clout at home and continuing status as a darling of the West were reflected in the schedule for her first U.S. trip since stepping down as president.
In addition to meetings with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Otunbaeva’s visit also included meetings with top State Department officials. Her nickname there — “the Energizer bunny” — has not been forgotten, staffers say.
But high-profile meetings aside, Otunbaeva was also here to take care of business: she needed to register her Bishkek-based NGO so it can receive U.S. donations. The Roza Otunbaeva Initiative, established late last year, has occupied most of her time since, she told RFE/RL.
“I have set up my foundation and didn’t stop for any minute — keep going, keep going,” Otunbaeva says. “I was quite busy over the [previous] 1 and 1/2 years while I was in the presidency, but then couldn’t stop, because the promises and the aims which we have chosen — this is hard to reach. The hopes of people we can’t deny or betray.”
Otunbaeva visits the Kyrgyz region of Osh in October 2011.
While reserving time for the occasional yoga break, Otunbaeva knows she has her work cut out for her. She concedes her NGO is “not structured very well so far,” in part due to the number of ambitious projects it plans to implement.
The foundation’s work is aimed at solving some of her country’s daunting social problems. Otunbaeva says her list includes the lack of early childhood education, the outward flow of labor migrants and “brain drain,” few opportunities for women, lack of cultural enrichment for youth, and weak levels of trade with neighboring countries.
She cites early successes like the first meeting of a newly established congress of Kyrgyz diaspora in Bishkek this past August, and a partnership with the Kyrgyz National Conservatory designed to expose youth to classical music.
But what’s yet to be done dominates Otunbaeva’s thoughts. She says the coming year will be “decisive” toward achieving her top goal of establishing a year of compulsory pre-school education for Kyrgyz children.
Another pressing social issue the country faces — and one that the Roza Otunbaeva Initiative is not taking up — is interethnic reconciliation. Her government was criticized for failing to stop the deadly riots that pitted ethnic Kyrgyz against ethnic Uzbeks following the 2010 revolution.
Asked to assess the current government’s progress on the issue, she offers a point of disagreement with President Atambaev.
“He thinks that he should stabilize the country economically,” Otunbaeva says, “and he feels that this matter of interethnic relations will be solved.
“Yes, this is probably the right approach, absolutely. But if I were there I would try to work with all the possible means. He prioritizes — after solution of this first priority he’ll come to this problem. I would go parallel, alongside,” she says.
She has advised the president on the matter, she adds. Of her new roles, Otunbaeva concludes, “It doesn’t matter if I am at the helm or not.”
“I still have a very big amount of work, I must tell you.”