In the heart of Central Asia we are watching with solidarity as events unfold in the Middle East. The “people power” that the world witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt reminds us in Kyrgyzstan of our own victory last year against a corrupt dictator. Nothing can be more moving than to see humans celebrate their freedom. There are many skeptics and cynics who warn against popular revolutions, citing the violence and instability that they unleash, and the unpredictable consequences. There are those who dismiss national uprisings as shows set up by foreign governments, international media and terrorist groups – claiming that millions of people are all on hallucinogenic drugs.
To these critics, our response is clear: We are humans. Irrationality may be simply part of our nature. Muslim or Christian, black or white, we are wired that way: The Almighty provided us with such a powerful sense of dignity that we cannot tolerate the denial of our unalienable rights and freedoms, no matter what real or supposed benefits are provided by “stable” authoritarian regimes. It is the magic of people, young and old, men and women of different religions and political beliefs, who come together in city squares and announce that enough is enough. During such times we discover that the youth we had always grumbled about as uninterested and apathetic are also patriotic, brave and so selflessly heroic that they choose liberty even at the cost of their lives.
Having paid such a high price, we cannot squander the historic opportunity we have to right past wrongs and to build a better state and a more just society. Our experience, however, tells us that there is no highway to democracy. In fact, toppling the dictator may well be the easiest part.
Each country faces a unique set of challenges. After years of totalitarian leadership, most countries must first untangle the suffocating net of draconian rules that had been dictated into legislation by the ruling few, who acted in their own interest. 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.
Whatever good intentions people have to build a democracy, no one should be tricked into holding elections overnight. After years of one-person rule it is important to first ensure that political parties are able to compete around the country and have access to voters, that there is a free press to provide for national dialogue, and that civic associations have space and the opportunity to advocate their interests. Most important, the rule of law must be provided for. This is the hardest part. For years our societies have been repressed. Newly found freedoms can be too intoxicating. Shortly after revolutions, law enforcement bodies are mostly discredited and too weakened to provide for the public order. This is where we most tragically stumbled: Interethnic conflict between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks took many lives last year and almost tore apart our country.
Support from the international community is vital. Sympathy and understanding from immediate neighbors are even more crucial. The people of Kyrgyzstan are forever indebted to the friends, near and far, who helped us through our challenging times.
The new country we are building is inclusive and grounded in the rule of law. We choose to celebrate our differences and to resolve them not in the streets but in parliament, via democratic channels. Through all of this, the Kyrgyz people have persevered, as will our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. The path to democracy is not easy, but it is the only way forward.
By Roza Otunbayeva, president of Kyrgyzstan and a recipient of the U.S. secretary of state’s 2011 International Woman of Courage award.