Shaking Trees: Women, Politics & Economics in Kyrgyzstan

written by On December 19, 2013 in 2010-2016, WIIS Blog, Women Peace & Security

By Sarah E. Orndorff

As I discovered while interning during the summer of 2013 at the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative*, a non-profit foundation in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, women and their supporters may very well be the best asset the country has for future security and development.  A small, mountainous country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is in many ways a country of contradictions.  Though a low-income country, the people are well educated (a result of its Soviet past).  It is a communist republic still under the shadow of Russian influence, but has overthrown two corrupt leaders to establish a parliamentary democracy.  And though its 2012 ranking in the UN Development Program Gender Development Index is lower than its neighbors, including China, women’s development in Kyrgyzstan is still ranked higher than other, more developed countries, including Georgia, Turkey, Indonesia, and India.

Of course no one in Kyrgyzstan highlights the potential of women more than the founder and heart of the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative.  Ms. Otunbayeva’s list of diplomatic positions in the USSR and independent Kyrgyzstan is long.  She not only served as President of Kyrgyzstan from April 2010 to December 2011, but also as the first ambassador from the Krygyz Republic to the United States and Canada, and the first ambassador to the United Kingdom.  Her most impressive accomplishment so far is completing the first democratic turnover of power in Central Asia.  Giving up power is rare in Central Asia.  Her two greedy and corrupt predecessors were overthrown in popular coups.

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Roza Otunbayeva, former President of the Kyrgz Republic

Ms. Otunbayeva is a veritable force of nature.  She is petite but carries herself with a palpable sense of determination and focus.  When she thinks it is necessary, she purposefully ruffles feathers, both in the international community and among her fellow citizens.  She calls it “shaking trees.”  I call it “pointing out what people in positions of comfort prefer not to notice.”  In meetings with the directors of museums and theaters in Bishkek, she asked what they were doing to contribute to cultural education for the growing youth population.  When they answered “nothing”, she provided them with ways to change their answer.  Those institutions now offer numerous educational opportunities for children and their parents.

She also “shook the trees” of youth.  The Bishkek Humanities University presented Ms. Otunbayeva with an honorary doctorate this summer at its commencement ceremony.  Following her speech, the graduates were able to ask her questions.  As an atheist, Ms. Otunbayeva often receives questions relating to the existence of a god.  Her response was gracious and demonstrated her belief in everyone’s responsibility to care for one another, regardless of religious beliefs.  However, when she was asked whether she will open an institute for diplomatic studies in Bishkek, she was much more blunt.  Bishkek has plenty of opportunities to study international relations and diplomacy, she remarked.  If she were to open an institute to contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s growth and development, it would not be more of the same; it would be an institute for the study of tourism.  The mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan have significant potential in ecotourism, but its tourism sector needs dramatic improvement.  This may not have been the answer the graduate expected, but it was the one the population needed to hear.

With her peers on the international level, Ms. Otunbayeva shakes trees with hurricane force.  Before a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, Ms. Otunbayeva summarized her speech for me.  The glint in her eye hinted that she enjoys her occasional position as the underdog, a former President from a small, landlocked, developing country.  Her message to the OSCE was clear:  Poverty breeds insecurity and threatens democracy.  Kyrgyzstan is among the poorest nations in the OCSE.  If they really value security and democracy, then what are they doing to contribute to development and poverty alleviation in Kyrgyzstan?  To the wealthy nations of the OSCE, it was a challenge to follow through on their rhetoric, delivered by a grandmother who often can barely see over the podium.

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Women playing the “komuz” in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan.

While Ms. Otunbayeva’s passion and focus may be unique, strong women and support for women in society are more prevalent than I expected.  Rather than working with others’ ideas, the women working at the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative took a risk in joining a new nonprofit so that they could see their own ideas in action.  Sheryl Sandberg would be proud to see these women leaning in.  Joining the Initiative was not the only risk my coworkers took.  Declaring to the world that you have ideas worth implementing and then implementing those ideas can be a risky endeavor.  Failure to achieve goals can be disheartening or even embarrassing.  The women are unique in their determination to move forward with their lives, both public and private, and to assert their will.

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The summer kindergarten is housed in yurts – the same structure that Kyrgyz nomads have traditionally lived in. One yurt is the school, another is a kitchen.

The people of Kyrgyzstan are proud of women’s talents and active roles in society.  Near the end of my internship, I went on a trip to Naryn, a provincial city of about 35,000, for a conference held by the Initiative.  On our way, we stopped to visit kindergartens attended by children whose families live as nomads for the summer.  Local performers sang and played music for us during our breaks.  Upon returning to Bishkek, I remarked about how much I enjoyed listening to one particular lady who sang and played the komuz, a Kyrgyz stringed instrument.  The response was matter-of-fact: “Well, yes, they have very talented women in the Naryn Region.”

Women in Kyrgyzstan face significant challenges, including increasing patriarchal and nationalistic trends, limited educational opportunities, and a very restricted economy.  Yet they continue to thrive in the workplace, pushing for recognition of their ideas and acquiring valuable skills necessary to build the country’s economy and new democracy.  They are doing this with the support of a society that appreciates the talents and abilities of women and with the example of a former President determined to improve the future of her country, even if she has to shake things up.

When I arrived at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, I knew I was going to be working with one of the most impressive women in the world, former President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva.  Only later did I realize that she is not an exception in a society of resilient and determined women.  Despite the focus on Kyrgyzstan’s nascent democratic government and its potential in hydroelectric power, geostrategic location, mineral resources, ecotourism, I realized that women and their supporters are Kyrgyzstan’s biggest assets.

*You can find more information about the Roza Otunbayeva Initiative at www.roza.kg.

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Sarah Orndorff served as a nuclear propulsion plant operator in the U.S. Navy before earning a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service in 2008 from Georgetown University.  Combining her technical military background and foreign affairs education, she worked supporting nuclear weapons policy and nuclear response programs for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security for three years.  In 2013, she completed a MSFS with a concentration in International Development at Georgetown University. She is particularly interested in the relationship between development and security.