Acting just like a woman: Leadership advice for authoritarians in Central Asia | Freedom House

Acting just like a woman: Leadership advice for authoritarians in Central Asia

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

Otunbayeva photoBy: Katherin Machalek, Guest Blogger

At the end of this month, national elections will decide who will serve as Kyrgyzstan’s first full-term president since the April 2010 revolution that ousted the increasingly authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev. And at the end of the year, Central Asia’s first and only female president, interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, will also become the first leader in Central Asia to leave her post in a voluntary and peaceful transfer of power.

Democracy advocates, who have regrettably witnessed a great deal of backsliding in the region, have good reason to commend Otunbayeva’s short presidency. Her even-handed approach and personal dedication to pluralism and transparency have allowed Kyrgyzstan to experience possibly the most democratic period in its history. The integrity of Otunbayeva’s leadership has won the interim government a legitimacy that no other regime in Kyrgyzstan’s neighborhood has come close to achieving.
Yet, like many transitional leaders, she did not succeed in all areas. Her first months in office were marred by the outbreak of ethnic violence in June 2010 and her government’s tragic inability to exert control over regional and local authorities in the south, who by many accounts contributed to both the attacks on ethnic minorities and the impunity that followed. The violence took the lives of about 450 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, nearly all of them from the ethnic Uzbek community. According to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report for 2010, the negative developments associated with the June unrest offset the positive changes enacted by the interim government that year. To many observers, Otunbayeva’s powerlessness to halt or respond to the violence represented a major failure for the rule of law. It has caused some to worry that her administration would not be able to establish democratic practices in all corners of the country, particularly among local and regional officials who are accustomed to maintaining power and wealth through illiberal and illicit means.

The interim government’s inability to quickly contain the ethnic violence gave Bakiyev, speaking from exile, an opportunity to criticize Otunbayeva’s competence as president. He said she had acted “recklessly and irresponsibly—just like a woman,” and warned that she was being used by others in the government to accomplish their own agendas. He asserted that he had always successfully quelled ethnic unrest, as he understood the importance of “putting out these fires as soon as they flare up.”

Bakiyev certainly did not hesitate to use brute force, torture, intimidation, censorship, unlawful raids, arbitrary arrests, unjust imprisonment, and many other such tactics. But far from ensuring order and stability, the governance style he practiced led ultimately to his own violent overthrow, and arguably set the stage for the ethnic clashes and law enforcement failures that took place less than three months later. If this is “masculine” leadership, then Otunbayeva’s “feminine” style may be just what is needed to break out of the authoritarian cycle that plagues so many countries in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union more broadly.

Unlike her male peers, Otunbayeva has demonstrated an undeniable dedication to cooperative politics and power-sharing, most notably by pushing for and implementing the switch from a superpresidential to a parliamentary system of government in Kyrgyzstan. In a testament to this commitment, the first legislative elections under the new system, in October 2010, resulted in victories for parties that were actually opposed to her policies. The polls were described by observers as the fairest and freest in Kyrgyzstan’s history.

Otunbayeva has also worked to ensure the well-being of the population, rather than her own personal enrichment, by improving the probity of Kyrgyzstan’s revenues and spending, including of funds related to natural resources and utilities. This is in stark contrast to the mismanagement and corruption that prevailed under former president Bakiyev, who raised electricity tariffs by 200 percent shortly before fleeing the impoverished country with as much as $170 million, or 10 percent of the country’s banking assets.

In addition, Otunbayeva allowed civil society’s return to the public sphere, even when it criticized her for various shortcomings and scrutinized her government’s adherence to democratic procedures regarding the transfer of power after Bakiyev’s departure. Nongovernmental organizations were largely able to hold demonstrations on nearly any issue, and they were actively invited to advise the government on the drafting of the new constitution.

Finally, Otunbayeva is one of the few leaders in the former Soviet Union to have overcome the urge to hold power indefinitely, unlike Kazakhstan's  aging “Leader of the Nation” or the Aliyev dynasty in Azerbaijan. When she leaves her post on December 31, she will become the first leader in Kyrgyzstan’s recent history to willingly step down when promised. Ironically, this could be one of the defining achievements of her presidency. Otunbayeva explains: “Our experience under all former presidents showed that we cannot have a demon that would force everyone to bend to his will and the will of his family or clan…. It is very important to hand over power on one’s own free will, peacefully, and with dignity. People must see this, have this experience, and demand that successors follow suit.”

Otunbayeva’s performance will set a high standard against which her successors can be measured, but it could also serve as a powerful example to neighboring nations as they tire of seemingly endless authoritarian rule and stagnant poverty. If the dictators of the region would like to avoid a sudden and tumultuous Central Asian Spring, they may need to start acting “just like a woman.”


Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story