Roza Otunbayeva: Women in Kyrgyzstan are the Most Educated Part of Society

March 8, 2013, 06:00

Roza Otunbayeva became the first female President of Kyrgyzstan and all of Central Asia. Moreover, she entered the position during the most difficult period in the history of the republic. She had to take responsibility for a country torn apart by clan rivalries, political squabbles and economic problems. She is blamed for the mistakes of the male members of the interim Government that were in power at the time, she is judged for her love of folk costumes and for the fact that her speech is replete with foreign words.

Roza Otunbayeva became the only Kyrgyzstani president that talked about her work online over Twitter and Facebook. I do not know a single politician in our country that is this open. She represented Kyrgyzstan with dignity in the international arena (perhaps the only president who has not forced us to blush during international summits). She is the first president that handed over power after elections in accordance with the Constitution.

Today, Roza Otunbayeva wished the readers of K-News a happy International Women’s Day and answered our questions.

Roza Isakovna you became the first female president in Central Asia. In Asia, traditionally, it is still difficult for women to defend their rights. How do your colleagues, the other Central Asian heads of state, treat you?

When I first appeared in summits (STO or CIS, I don’t remember anymore), I was greeted by the complete support of my colleagues. They did their best to support me. But behind each of them is a nation, and each is the guardian of his or her own national interests. During the most difficult months of 2012, some of them helped in more than words but in practice, sending us aid that we were in desperate needed. The highest circle of politicians in the CIS are highly educated, deeply experience, have seen much of the world, easily discern truth from lies, relevant from superficial, and quickly see through any politician. I have known some of them for two decades already. They have accepted me into their circle. We have discussed the pressing issues of our countries in two-party and multi-party formats. Each of them was prepared to help at that time.

Sometimes there is an impression that our male politicians, your, one could say, supporters did not take it sufficiently seriously when you became president and did not provide you with the respect called for by etiquette.

And what signs of respect should they have shown me? Yes, those men were quite rigid. We all know then and have seen them in times both good and bad. This is the ambition of a politician, each of whom claimed to be a national leader. Yes, and those were not simple times. Each of them was faced with urgent and complex problems. One had to write quickly write a Constitution, and another provide security and stop the flow of money out of the country, while a third had to hold together a crumbling economy.

In general there was no time to think about chivalry. We crossed swords in meetings of an Interim Government that existed for all of 3 months or during press conferences that we held together.

Those were times of crisis, times of strife, the old forces tried everything in their power to hold onto authority and built up scandals wherever possible. Everyone worked to the limit, because it was necessary to maintain national unity and stop the centrifugal force. There were failures on the part of people that had to be forgiven and consensus sought, but when it came to “riding” rights, banging on the table, and demanding the proper piety towards oneself… no, there was not time for that.

But in relation to you, did you ever feel any male chauvinism from their side?

No, there wasn’t. We had all known each other for a long time. We knew how each had grown up, the ins and outs of each person. In terms of age and political and governmental experience, I was older than most. Some of them had been students and young politicians when I held leadership positions not only in Kirgizia, but in the USSR as well. In our society and politics, it must be said, there is a respect of elders and of women. For all that men dominate everything, respect for their mothers and for women is maintained. I appreciate that nobody let himself or herself, at that time, disrupt or say a harsh word in relation to me; under me everyone at the table had to be tolerant, seek unanimity, and find unanimous solutions. There was not another leader at that time.

How did you agree to take such a responsibility during, without a doubt, the most difficult period in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan?

If you remember, even during Bakiev’s reign, I was the leader of the opposition party in parliament. We were 11 people against 79 MPs from Ata-Jurt (translator’s note – Ata-Jurt was the party of then-President Bakiev) and the party of communists often joined them. I had to be the mouthpiece, expressing the consolidated opinion of the opposition. Later in March 2010, I was chosen to be chairman of the Kurultai (political council). This was a very risky position against a smugly confident regime. We traveled quite a bit around the country and openly spoke out against the lawlessness of that regime from podiums and in print.

The shooting of people in front of the White House on April 7th brought an end to that bloody regime, Bakiev fled Bishkek, and the White House was full of soldiers. It was necessary to end the killing, so a few of the leaders of the opposition entered the building, met with a confused clique from that regime and demanded that they end the bloody carnage. (Prime Minister Daniyar) Usenov wrote a letter of resignation of the government and handed it to me. That night we took responsibility for the situation and for pulling the country out of the crisis. “You are the head of the Kurultai, continue that work further,” said all of my colleagues who has spent the night before in the dungeons of the SNB (Committee for National Security). There were no other alternatives or discussion on this issue. It was chosen by fate.

Roza Isakovna, your career has been an example of stubborn, professional work, civil and political struggle. You reached the highest rungs of the career ladder. Please tell us how you managed to maintain both career and family?

Unfortunately, I was unable to make time for both me family and career. My career cost me a divorce. In the mid-90s my husband and I divorced. We moved often and worked in many different countries while trying to preserve our family. At the time, I was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. And even though my children were already grown, they continued to demand attention from me that I did not give, there were simply scouting missions. And I set aside practically no time for my husband. And then the issue arouse of saying goodbye to something. The happy combination, family and career, did not work out for me. My hope and support, my already adult children, bring me happiness. They are my wings.

You are very confident in the saddle, more so than many men. How instilled in you this love of riding?

Oy, someone has been telling you stories! I can ride a horse, but it is not something I greatly enjoy. The things is, I have reached a certain age. But I can ride a horse and jump – that’s a fact. I believe that without this we, Kyrgyz women, cannot answer to our spirit and historically developed image. We are nomads. This is how my grandmother and great grandmother lived. My mother did not ride horses, but I decided that, if I live in this country with such a history and way of life, than I must be able to hold onto a saddle. I took special horse riding classes. But to say I can jump brilliantly is not true. There have been some risky moments, but I held on to the saddle. However, last year I forget about caution, flew down and fell from the saddle at a full gallop. God spared me and I remained in one piece.

As I understand, you lead a very active lifestyle. How do you spend your free time?

Horses, skiing and skating, I love all of them. I truly love winter, for me it is an active season. I travel to the ski bases in Orlovka and Karakol to ski. I am not talking about “black” slopes, but I do dare to ride on the “red” slopes. I have stood on skates since I was a child growing up in Naryn, where we used to skate in the streets. Now in Bishkek you can go to a skating rink, we will promote ice-skating. Tatiana Anatolievna Tarasova promised to come and support our young figure skaters. Of the summer sports, I love to play tennis. I try to regularly do yoga, which I have been doing for a long time.

Roza Isakovna, do you relax with you children? Do you have more free time now? 

I began a Foundation and have to set quite a bit of time aside for it. It is not necessary to work in the government, when it is possible to do so much good outside of it. The “Roza Otunbayeva Initiative” International Foundation has a large program. In one year, we have done quite a bit, and you can learn more about this on our site. At the moment we have many strong, interesting projects in development. In May we have scheduled a large citywide festival of education. Everyone at the Foundation is pouring over it now. We conduct regular current activities. By the way, thank you K-News, for publicizing our work. We began classes for children and adults at the fine arts, conduct classical music concerts at the Conservatory, lead classes on new educational methodologies for parents and teachers at Arabaev University and are introducing the Montessori system into practice. We are expecting, in the near future, specialists from Moscow, who will talk about how a child in the mother’s womb already by 7 months needs preparation for a healthy, full life

So, you are now, in a very literal sense, working on the future of the country?

In this “transitional” period that for us has dragged on for two decades, we have been fully committed to building a life and economy in line with the market and democracy. Meanwhile, we have undergone endless changes, struggles of opinion, shocks and revolutions. But we have not been able to seriously commit to children, the new generation, and reforms in education: there are not enough resources and it is believed that all of this should be tolerated until times get better. Financing for education is meager due to the small size of the nation’s economy. Primary education is roundly criticized and the universities draw their contingents from the schools. It is a vicious circle. How and where do we break the cycle? With the support of many international organizations, we are now working on a project, the first in Central Asia, in preparing children for school through a specialized program. Early childhood development has been proven by science, and we are lagging behind, missing the most fruitful time for educating people that are useful to society. Each dollar invested in a small child will save 7-8 dollars for preparing a specialist. In our country, with its many children, we will be unable to send every preschool aged child to kindergarten. The task is simpler – solidly prepare 100,000 children that are going to school in the next year. This is completely achievable if we work on this issue seriously.

What plans do you have for the future? Is it true that you have been offered a position in an international organization and are preparing to leave the country?

No, I am not preparing to leave. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invited me to become a member of the Board of Directors of the UN’s University of Peace. I have accepted his invitation. The university is located in Costa Rica and is involved in the issue of building peace and understanding in society. I will travel there once a year for the board meetings. 10-15 world-famous individuals are on the board and they periodically changed on a rotational basis. The UN General Secretary, in consultation with the General Director of UNESCO, makes the appointments.

Roza Isakovna, wish something to our readers in honor of March 8th!

According to the traditions in the West, the men write the laws, but the women set the manners of society. When people speak highly of women, they expect pure intentions and worthy deeds. We have more than a few women in high positions of authority. The eyes of hundreds of thousands of girls are fixed on them. They dare not disappoint the expectations of society.

I wish all girls, in the city and the village, to work hard on yourself, to diligently and seriously study. Nobody may deprive you of education; you are the masters of your own destiny. Learn foreign languages, drive every type of car, and be familiar with any technology. The women of Kyrgyzstan are the most educated part of society. The future of our children is in our hands.

Women in our country are the backbone and hope of society. Let the flowers and warmth of this spring warms your dreams and sorrows. Let there be light and joy in their eyes. Let the energy and inspiration of women become the basis for true change this year.