Last week Roza Otunbayeva led a group in Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power after protesters stormed the president's offices; at least 84 people were killed. Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth reached Otunbayeva by phone to discuss the current situation. Excerpts:
What actually caused the outbreak of violence last week?
A number of reasons. There was a lot of corruption, and then in terms of transparency, Kyrgyzstan is 166th out of 180 countries. We are a country with such a low quality of life. But since January 1, President Bakiyev and his government started to raise the price for utilities -- for electricity, for hot water, for mobile companies, for water for agricultural needs, [and his government also increased] taxes on real estate. Everything was done simultaneously. Then they started to sell strategic companies for nothing. A very big electricity company, which supplied electricity to Bishkek [the capital], was sold for $3 million, which is nothing. And they were corrupt -- in fact, the utility company was sold to the son of Bakiyev.
Wasn't there a lot of corruption surrounding contracts for the U.S. Air Force base?
I can't tell you now. Today I met with [Assistant U.S. Secretary of State] Robert Blake, and he said they are ready to open up and make things transparent regarding this issue.
The overthrow was a combination of rising electricity prices and corruption and the sale of those companies?
And political repression and such a dramatic fall of human rights issues in my country. . . . All the papers and TV and radio [stations] were closed . . . the State Department human rights report . . . provided a very thorough description of our situation.
Some say Bakiyev's overthrow was orchestrated with Russian support.
I do not agree with that. Bakiyev closed Russian TV channels in Kyrgyzstan; he closed Internet sites where the situation was described. Then the Russian press started to show what was the face of the authorities so that was probably counted as Russian support. But that was a correct reflection of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
You said you would extend the base rights for the U.S. for a year when the lease runs out [in July].
It is not a matter of extension because it goes automatically. . . . This is not a high priority for us -- for this interim government.
But you understand the air base is a high priority for the U.S.
Certainly we pay great attention to our relations with the U.S. We value those relations and we will continue with such long-term relations.
Would the interim government like economic and military aid [from the United States]?
A unique opportunity has opened up in Kyrgyzstan to deal with democracy. We started to go towards democracy, and it was interrupted. Now there is a chance to come back to democracy, and in half a year, my interim government should prepare elections -- open and transparent elections -- and we should pass a constitution based on political agreement between the parties. We have quite a task.
That is your aim -- to pass the constitution and prepare elections in the next six months?
Exactly. To stabilize life, to bring back normalcy . . . and to make a difference for the people. To show that this team will be different by nature -- not corrupt -- with good morals and good governance.
It is alleged that the U.S. was willing to turn a blind eye on the corruption [by the prior regime] to get the president's support for the air base.
Regarding corruption around the base, we should open up the facts, and then I will talk. I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kyrgyzstan. It was not paying attention to our difficulties over the last two years.
We were not happy that they never had the time to meet with us. We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S., not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing the papers and the beating of journalists. They turned a blind eye.
The prior government was beating journalists?
A lot of journalists are gone. They are refugees in other countries. One journalist was stabbed 26 times. Another journalist was killed and thrown from the sixth floor [of a building].
How do you see the long-term relationship with the U.S.?
We are now talking with the embassy and Mr. Blake, and they want to offer us as much support as possible, and they confessed that it was very difficult to work with the previous government. Now it sounds like the objectives of our governments are the same. They will help us.
You were foreign minister in a previous government, a leader in the 2005 Tulip Revolution.
I was also the ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.K.
Then you were pushed aside by Bakiyev and went into opposition, correct?
Right, I was the leader of the opposition faction in the parliament.
How did a woman like you manage to keep going during these difficult times?
I am a fighter. I believe in the bright future of my country. I believe that the people of my country deserve a decent life, and I know that my people want to live in freedom.