After protesters in Kyrgyzstan stormed the president's office and guards shot roughly 75 people, Roza Otunbayeva led a group that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power. NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth reached Otunbayeva by phone to discuss the situation. Excerpts:
Weymouth: What actually caused the outbreak of violence?
Otunbayeva: A number of reasons. There was a lot of corruption: in terms of transparency, Kyrgyzstan is 166th out of 180 countries. We are a country with such a low quality of life. But since Jan. 1, President Bakiyev started to raise the price for utilities [and] taxes on real estate. Then they started to sell strategic companies. 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.
The cause of 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 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 [it] was a correct reflection of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
You said you would extend the [military] 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 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 toward 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 [regime's] corruption to get [its] support for the air base.
Regarding corruption around the base, we should open up the facts, and then I will talk. 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 of papers and the beating of journalists.
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.?
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 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.