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Kyrgyzstan's new leader tackles challenging job

By Ben Wedeman, CNN
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What next for Kyrgyzstan?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chairwoman of the Kyrgyzstan interim government faces huge obstacles
  • One tough task: Finding deposed ex-president in hiding
  • Also urgent: restoring law and order, figuring out country's financial situation
  • She must also deal with recent airbase controversy with the U.S.

In April CNN's Ben Wedeman was in Kyrgyzstan covering the fall of its government and efforts to restore order. He met with Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the new interim government, who shared some of her disappointments with past U.S. involvement in her country and her hopes for the future.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (CNN) -- The nice thing about people new to power is they haven't yet learned the pretensions of state. When we arrived at the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry to interview Roza Otunbayeva, the chairwoman of the interim government, no one checked our identities, there were no metal detectors, and no one frisked us or checked our equipment.

Soldiers helped us carry our gear to her office, and while Otunbayeva stepped away for an interview with another news agency, we completely rearranged her office. No one bothered us.

Otunbayeva -- a former Soviet official, United Nations representative, Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom, and and Kyrgyz foreign minister -- is not a newcomer to this business. A short, unpretentious woman, it's clear the weight on her shoulders is intense. She's working long hours, taking no time off.

Her immediate challenge is dealing with the deposed Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, in hiding in the southern part of the country. She has called on him to resign. He has refused. She has offered him free passage out of the country. He hasn't responded.

Beyond that, the interim government has managed to restore law and order in the capital, Bishkek. In the days following the fall of the old government last week, looters ransacked and torched department stores and the national tax office.

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Otunbayeva also needs to find out what happened to all the government's money. The deposed regime apparently made off with tens of millions of dollars, though she says the state coffers do have more than the 16 million euros ($21 million) initially claimed by some of her aides.

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RELATED TOPICS
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Russia
  • China
  • Afghanistan

A remote, mountainous country with a population of 5.3 million, Kyrgyzstan is of key strategic importance to Russia, the United States and China. Kyrgyzstan was part of the former Soviet Union, and Moscow considers it to be well within its sphere of influence. Russia maintains a large military base in Kyrgyzstan. The country has a long border with China, and Beijing's growing economic clout is apparent in the markets and stores of Bishkek.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the United States has had a huge airbase at Manas, just outside Bishkek. Manas is a critical transit and supply point for the United States and its allies. The previous government had threatened to close it down -- under pressure from Russia, it is believed -- but reversed its position when the contract for the base was rewritten, upping the annual rent paid by the United States from $17 million to $60 million.

Otunbayeva told me under Bakiev, the United States ignored the deteriorating political atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan for the sake of the Manas base. U.S. diplomats in Bishkek were "never in touch with the opposition here, never sitting and listening to what's going on in this country," she said. She added this was "a very serious situation, and I was seriously discomforted with this."

Did she feel the United States put its military and strategic interests above its commitment to democracy, I asked.

"We had such a feeling," she told me. While tensions between the Bakiev government and the opposition increased, she felt "that the United States [was] not interested in our democratic development, with what [was] going on within the country. For you [the United States] we understand that the base is a high priority, and you focused only on the base."

She insists the interim government will abide by the base agreement. There's one problem, however. She told me she has never seen the base agreement that was renegotiated in early 2009. U.S. diplomats in Bishkek have promised to provide her a copy. When she finally receives it, she said, "We'll study this paper and then we will see how it was signed, how it was agreed to."

Equally important to Kyrgyzstan are ties with Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called Otunbayeva twice since she became the head of the interim government. She described Putin as "very well briefed. He asked me in detail about many things, and he asked me if we need any assistance in that difficult moment."

She is all too aware of the interest of the great powers in her small country. And it's not always comfortable.

"Sometimes we feel very much tight between all of those actors and players," she said at the end of the interview. "I hope that the foreign policy of our government will be based on national interest and friendly to all those countries. We will try to do our best not to be a soccer ball between those countries."

 
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