Roza Otunbayeva became Kyrgyzstan’s acting president in April after the violent ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiyev by angry crowds. Last week, after an explosion of interethnic violence in the country’s south, she appealed to Russia to send peacekeeping troops. Otunbayeva accused Bakiyev and his allies of fomenting the violence, a claim backed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Otunbayeva discussed the roles played by Bakiyev, Russia, and the United States with NEWSWEEK’s Anna Nemtsova by phone from Bishkek. Excerpts:
What are the consequences of the recent unrest?
Officially there are 186 dead, but the actual toll is likely many times higher because according to our traditions, people bury bodies immediately. There are thousands of injured in Jalalabad and Osh. Thousands of refugees are standing in the open fields [on the Uzbek border]. Today I appealed to all my people to return to their homes. Life is beginning to stabilize in tiny steps. The market in Osh is coming back to life. People are cleaning their streets, picking up dead bodies. But the security issues remain acute.
Was it a spontaneous outburst of ethnic violence?
In that part of our country there have been [ethnic] issues as far back as Soviet times. And people there live hard lives. But in this case the trouble was caused by the Bakiyev family, who have done everything possible to provoke conflict since they were chased out of power. We think that the Bakiyevs have more trouble up their sleeve and want to spread the conflict to the north, too.
Did they hire mercenaries abroad?
The Bakiyevs watched too many thrillers and horror movies. In Osh and all over the south they used a modern weapon of mass destruction more deadly than guns or explosives: they organized and provoked a major ethnic conflict. They obviously did hire mercenaries from all over; some were hired in Moscow. The mercenaries were supported by criminal groups involved with drug trafficking.
The United States did a lot of business with the Bakiyev family. Is the U.S. partly responsible for the violence?
No. The U.S. was close [to the Bakiyev family] to a certain extent, but they had to be in order to maintain the [Manas] air base. However, there were many intrigues, scandals, and questions around the base’s presence here. The income from providing jet fuel to the Americans, for instance, all went into [the Bakiyevs’] hands. The Americans’ hands were tied by having to keep that air base; they seemed unable to talk to us about anything else. But it would be absolutely wrong to blame America for what has happened.
What role should Russia play?
Russia understands that the unrest here can set fire to the borderlands. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, [a regional security bloc led by Moscow], is now negotiating ways to provide us with military and technical help. We have already ordered partial Army mobilization and formed National Guard units, so we need equipment more than manpower. Russia has also sent experts to work at our central election commission to help us hold a constitutional referendum planned for June 27, which our enemies have been trying to derail. So Russia’s help is invaluable.
Will Russia send peacekeeping troops?
I don’t think that Russia will get involved like that. We have so far been able to calm the situation ourselves without involving any outsiders. God bless Russia for its willingness to help, but now it looks like all countries of CSTO are going to help us, not just Russia.
Are you discussing with NATO any ways it could help with military or humanitarian aid?
Do you think that Kyrgyzstan will always be dependent on Russia?
We are always going to rely on Russia. In our most difficult moment, the first thing we did was ask Russia for help.