Kyrgyzstan swears in caretaker president amid hopes for stability and democratic freedoms

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kyrgyzstan swears in caretaker president

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan’s provisional leader Roza Otunbayeva was sworn in as president Saturday, ushering in what the turbulent Central Asian nation’s government hopes will be a new era of stability and democratic freedoms.

Speaking after her inauguration, Otunbayeva, 59, hailed what she described as a momentous new era for Kyrgyzstan, which has endured months of political and ethnic violence since former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was deposed in a bloody uprising in April amid widespread anger over falling living standards and rampant corruption.

“In Kyrgyzstan, democracy is a system that has deep roots in the souls of the people,” Otunbayeva told an audience of top government officials, diplomats and politicians.

Over the course of her tenure as caretaker president, which lasts through to the end of 2011, Otunbayeva will oversee the implementation a newly adopted constitution. The new founding law dilutes presidential powers in favor of a European-style parliamentary system and has raised hopes Kyrgyzstan could become former Soviet Central Asia’s first true democracy.

“As president, I will spare no effort in creating a new political culture based on strict adherence to the rule of law,” Otunbayeva said in a speech interrupted periodically by bouts of rhythmic clapping from the audience.

But before addressing some of her loftier ambitions, Otunbayeva will need to deal with the aftermath of ethnic clashes between majority ethnic Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority last month, which left much of the southern city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest, a smoldering ruin.

“I promise that before the onset of cold weather, the Kyrgyz government will provide housing for all who lost the roofs over their head,” she said.

The official death toll from the violence that tore apart Osh and nearby Jalal-Abad currently stands at around 300, although Otunbayeva has said as many as 2,000 people may have died in the rioting. Most of the unrest involved mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz trashing and setting fire to ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods, and some 400,000 people were displaced.

Despite expressing her sorrow for the events, Otunbayeva has consistently stopped short of addressing the ethnic roots of the problems and the intercommunual tensions still plaguing the south.

Before the inauguration, there had been some fears of a violent disruption, but the ceremony proceeded without event. Security was relatively light and in a park by the Philharmonic Hall where the swearing-in took place, policemen lounged under trees on unfurled bulletproof vests, seeking respite from the swelteringly heat.

Streets in the capital, Bishkek, set against a crystal clear backdrop of soaring snow-peaked mountains, were largely empty and silent ahead of the ceremony as swathes of the city were closed off to traffic.

Otunbayeva’s inauguration as president marks a vital turning point for the interim government, which has been systemically weakened by a perceived lack of political legitimacy.

In a national referendum last week, more than 90 percent of voters approved keeping her on as caretaker president and gave their support to the revamped constitution.

Over the coming week, Otunbayeva is set to form a new Cabinet. The new leadership will likely not feature top members of the current government, many of whom are expected to step aside as they prepare for parliamentary elections in October.

Otunbayeva had appealed for prospective candidates in her interim Cabinet to resign, saying that is the only way to ensure a level playing field in the parliamentary vote.

Otunbayeva, who will be prohibited from running for the presidency in elections planned for October 2011, started her political career in the twilight years of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s rule as a low-level Communist Party functionary in Bishkek, formerly called Frunze.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Otunbayeva quickly rose to influential positions, serving as her country’s foreign minister and later as Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and Britain.

After returning to Kyrgyzstan, she became one of the leaders of the 2005 Tulip Revolution that swept then-President Askar Akayev, a former physicist and once the most promising leader in Central Asia, from power and brought Bakiyev in.

Within years, she grew disaffected with Bakiyev’s increasingly authoritarian style of leadership and broke away to join the opposition.

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