Shaking Trees: Women, Politics & Economics in Kyrgyzstan

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.


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.


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.


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


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.

Ingrid Pederson

This article originally appeared in the Central Eurasia Standard on June 24, 2013. 

In March of 2011, democracy was progressing in Kyrgyzstan. Less than a year before, a bloody revolution and ethnic violence threatened the small state with civil war. Instead, a female head of state stepped down to allow an elected leader to take her place as President. It was seen internationally as a watershed moment in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva detailed her country’s democratic chops in an editorial about the Arab Spring having its roots in the 2010 Kyrgyz revolution:

In Kyrgyzstan, we brought together all political parties and a wide array of civil society leaders to draft the new constitution. After several weeks of frequent televised debates and a thorough search for a national compromise, the Constitutional Council agreed to transform our country from a strong presidential system into a parliamentary republic. Within three months of the fall of the Bakiyev regime, the new constitution was put to a national referendum.

To really understand how shocking this was, compare this parliamentary republic in one of the poorest countries in the region to other governments in Central Asia: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all run by autocrats who barely hide their negligence and disregard for the people they serve. Torture, religious oppression and the lack of a free press is the rule. Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in isolation from the outside world. Kyrgyzstan was the exception to this relentless rule, and in October 2011 the entire world watched as elections were held and a peaceful transition of power took place in Kyrgyzstan, just 18 months after violence threatened to start a civil war. Democracy, Western-style democracy, appeared to be taking root.

Fast forward to just over two years later, on May 2nd, 2013 when RFE/RL reported that an analyst for a large think-tank, known for being critical of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy was denied entry back into Kyrgyzstan. It was the latest in a series of incidents where analysts, including foreign analysts, journalists and NGO workers felt threatened or harassed by the government. These accusations echo those leveled at former President Bakiyev prior to the 2010 revolution. The leader of one parliamentary faction in the Kyrgyz government stated that since 2010 there is still “an element of anarchy, some uncontrollability. Hence, distrust of people appears…The main thing is to win the trust of the people. But they [the authorities] have little success in it.”

So what is happening in Kyrgyzstan? Sadly – what’s happening is Kyrgyz democracy. A noxious cycle of corruption and revolution is confirming instability as the status quo. In 2005, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ ousted a corrupt leader and put a new champion into place – who turned out to be more of the same. The allegations, like the allegations leveled against his predecessor, accused then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of awarding key positions to his family members and increasing oppression of the press.  Journalists faced harassment and death threats while critical newspapers were forced to shut down. Current President Almazbek Atambayev now faces the same accusations from his critics.

Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by three principal ailments: a culture of corruption perpetrated by each successive Kyrgyz President; a culture of revolution; and a lack of political continuity. Without continuity, the Kyrgyz people do not see long-term initiatives come to fruition and no trust can be fostered between the people and government.  Since the election of a new administration in October 2011 (the third administration in three years) numerous international groups have accused the Kyrgyz government of torture, continued corruption and repression of civil society groups.

Like much of Central Asia, societal and political institutions are eroded by the narcotics trade. Kyrgyzstan is a transit route for opiates from Afghanistan, and while the government does work to combat the narcotics trade, a steady stream of government officials stand accused of or arrested for involvement in drug-related corruption. In 2010, the Drug Control Agency was disbanded by then-President Bakiyev, reducing transparency in a bid by the President to gain more control and influence in the drug trade. The President’s brother was accused of controlling the flow of most of the drugs through southern Kyrgyzstan at the time. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, the government itself operates the drug trade or willfully turns a blind eye to it, preventing effective governance for and by the people. This feeds into the broader cycle of short-term governments with no ability to enact long-term positive political change.

Corruption goes hand in hand with the cycle and culture of revolution in Kyrgyzstan.  Major issues within the country turn people to cries for revolution as a first resort, instead of the last option. For example, while Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy is exemplary in the region, the rising tide of nationalism poses a serious threat to Kyrgyzstan’s unity and undermines a unified state, fueling conflict internally. Nationalism was blamed for deadly riots in 2010, and there are regular calls for coup d’état by nationalist groups if their demands are not met. While these demands are not considered a major threat right now, they indicate that revolution is always an option for political change in Kyrgyzstan, and a common tactic to get attention. How can Kyrgyzstan stabilize when revolution has been the guarantor of political change over the past ten years? Dialogue between the street and the elite, recent history suggests, does not pack a substantial punch in Kyrgyzstan. Revolution, and the threat of revolution, has taken the place of dialogue in Kyrgyz democracy.

Despite all of this, Kyrgyzstan is seen as the best hope, and perhaps the only hope in Central Asia, for democracy and its attendant values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. Its democracy is faltering at best. A recent article by Joshua Kucera in the Wilson Quarterly makes the case that post-Soviet countries see democracy as a source of instabilityand populations have little incentive to buy into this political system, preferring a strong leader to democratic ideals. The larger concern for the democracy-promoting West (in contrast with the preference for strong leaders in the former Soviet Union) is that Kyrgyzstan moves closer towards Ukraine on the democratic spectrum, a country with a shallow veneer of democracy where graft is rampant and political opposition is often a representation of competing business interests.

The regional rejection of democracy weakens the influence of Western countries in Central Asia, as their political values (a stated source of moral authority) are brushed aside and autocratic strength is rewarded with influence. The US is already played off Russia and China by Central Asian countries, as these smaller states attempt to leverage their strategic value to win favors from the geopolitical giants. The promise of democracy and freedom, the ‘beacon’ of Western ideals in the former Soviet Union from three years ago stands in stark contrast with a country who harasses analysts from internationally known think tanks and blocks regional news networks for over a year.

Corruption and revolution preclude any political continuity. After three different governments in the last three years, the population has not yet seen any government capable of translating democratic principles into lasting action. The current government has held power for less than two years. The two previous presidents’ tenures were accompanied by slides towards corruption and authoritarian practice. Recent events, demonstrating the current administration’s growing intolerance for dissent, may be harbingers that little has actually changed since the 2005 revolution. International humanitarian groups, most recently Reporters Without Borders, point out the contradictions of these actions with Kyrgyzstan’s democratic goals.

Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by instability, and two revolutions in ten years may have undermined Kyrgyz democracy by contributing to a constant state of instability. The social contract between leadership and population cannot grow organically when the authorities are perceived as corrupt, kick-starting the cycle of revolution over again. This is of course, not to say that corrupt leaders should have been left in power. Kyrgyzstan is still the best hope for democracy in the region. The civil society and foreign aid presence is widely touted as robust, and the people have shown that they will push back against autocracy. However, if the reports of human rights violations and corruption continue, Kyrgyzstan will slide further from the democratic ideals they want so badly to claim.


Ingrid Pederson co-founded Central Eurasia Standard in June 2012 to bring news and analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus to foreign policy watchers trying to learn more about the region. She has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, where she focused on conflict related to energy security.

Ingrid Pederson

On December 13, the Eurasia Foundation awarded Roza Otunbayeva, the former President of Kyrgyzstan, the 2012 Bill Maynes Award for demonstrating visionary leadership throughout Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional transition and providing a lifelong example of public service.

President Otunbayeva held the office of the Presidency after the 2010 April uprising, and voluntarily stepped down from office following elections in 2011. She was the first leader of a state in Central Asia to leave office at the end of a designated term. President Otunbayeva has had a long political career in Kyrgyzstan, serving in a number of roles since 1981.

Following the ceremony, Central Eurasia Standard was able to briefly chat with President Otunbayeva about her role as a leader in Kyrgyzstan and her goals to empower a new generation of female leaders in Kyrgyzstan. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What professional and personal hurdles do you encounter when trying to empower women in leadership roles in Kyrgyzstan?

President Otunbayeva: These days women have a lot of advantages and certainly disadvantages. Advantages are that the world is open to us, we can travel, we have role models and we can communicate with many people in the world, but the disadvantages are clear: there is aggression from religious forces and traditionalism. [Seeing women] having to wear scarves, it irritates me a bit, because it was never like that in Soviet days.

Now, of course we have a democracy and pluralism and people can go as they feel comfortable, but look, [I am] for progress, progress of mind and knowledge, whereas they are sitting at home and conforming to some man’s pleasure. I don’t like [seeing] that. The generation of women of my age have been very active, striving for education and working alongside men. I don’t like that the generation of my daughter sits at home and are the fourth or third wife of someone because of Sharia law permits that and makes that happen. This is very sad news for us.

In this regard, I feel that we have an obligation and duty to work with young women and explain our perspective. The progress within the country depends very much on their stance. If a woman is [handicapped socially and economically], then her daughter will be handicapped economically, socially and so on.

With regard to the programs run by President Otunbayeva’s Initiative:

President Otunbayeva: I don’t run ‘women’s projects’ in my country. I do projects with early childhood, immigration and some cultural projects, [such as] exposing children to classical music. It is important because there is so much popular ethnic music, and this is good. [We should] search for [the] authentic, but without forgetting about what we have learned and what made us competitive in the modern world. So I’m trying to give, especially to the disadvantaged, access to this high-class music, which will make a difference to them. For example, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks all of them go to work in Russia. So if my compatriots will know Tchaikovsky,  Stravinksy, etc, [those who they work with] will understand that this is an educated guy, and this is important. This is not just for pleasure, this is for competitiveness.

Photo credit: Eurasia Foundation

Photo credit: Eurasia Foundation

One of the more public cultural issues that Kyrgyzstan struggles with is bride kidnapping, in which thousands of girls are kidnapped each year into forced marriage. Bride kidnapping has persisted in Kyrgyzstan over centuries and is reported to be increasing in frequency. Women are often encouraged to stay with the new family after being kidnapped, no matter the circumstances there.   

What do you think can be done about the problem of bride kidnapping, and do you feel that it is an issue that can’t be addressed by the government?

President Otunbayeva: It should be addressed, we feel this is wild, this is shameful, this is what you should overcome. Its time for active resistance to this, not for it to slide away and to be left for another generation. It’s getting worse. More than 10,000 girls were kidnapped [in the past year].

If I find the time in my schedule, I’m going to go to big villages at the end of the school year to address girls and their moms because part of this tradition are women. They convince girls to stay in the place [to which] they are taken. This is absolutely ridiculous.

I can tell you even more, kids who are born from such a ‘love’ are not kids of love, real love. They are part of the population who is [marginalized].  This has generations-long consequences and we should address this issue. It is not  just the deformed mentality, but it impacts on the quality of the nation as well.

When I started to deal with early childhood [issues], I realized why these guys are kidnapping sometimes, because within the nation, children are not getting together, they are not going to kindergartens at all. Only five percent of children in rural areas go to kindergarten and in my country, 70{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of people still live in rural areas. It means the majority of children are being raised in their homes and do not communicate with each other. Boys and girls are also raised apart, and when boys grow up this way, they don’t know how to find a girl and communicate with her.

So they are socially isolated by this rural setting?

President Otunbayeva: Exactly, and [we] should bring them together. We would be more than happy to have more kindergartens but we don’t have the infrastructure so this is a big socioeconomic issue.


Ingrid Pederson co-founded Central Eurasia Standard in June 2012 to bring news and analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus to foreign policy watchers trying to learn more about the region. She has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, where she focused on conflict related to energy security.

This op-ed was originally published in the Central Eurasia Standard on December 18, 2012.

Further Reading:

Carnegie’s Background on Otunbayeva –
The Eurasia Foundation, which hosted the interview
Eurasia Foundation’s write-up of Otunbayeva’s recent DC trip:
The Roza Otunbayeva Initiative