BISHKEK (Reuters) - Roza Otunbayeva was sworn in as Kyrgyzstan’s interim president on Saturday after guiding it through three months of revolt, ethnic violence and a referendum intended to build Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy.
A former foreign minister, Otunbayeva, 59, came to power on April 7 during a popular revolt that overthrew the government of the small but strategically-placed central Asian state, which borders China and houses both U.S. and Russian military bases.
She was sworn in to act as president until the end of 2011 under the terms of a new constitution that voters backed in a referendum last week, creating a parliamentary system in a region otherwise dominated by authoritarian presidents.
The referendum was held despite violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country that saw villages burned, hundreds of people killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes.
“We are living though one of the most dramatic periods in our history,” said Otunbayeva at the ceremony held in a concert hall in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.
She pledged to support a liberal economy and guarantee private property rights.
The first woman to lead a Central Asian state, Otunbayeva, has faced stern challenges since taking power in the wake of a revolt that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who himself came to power in an uprising that ousted Askar Akayev in 2005.
Nearly 300 people were killed, and probably hundreds more, in several days of violence in southern regions of the country that began on June 10, triggered by attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas in the south’s biggest city Osh.
The United Nations estimated that 400,000 people fled. About a quarter crossed into Uzbekistan, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan. Most of the refugees have since returned.
Some Kyrgyz citizens said they appreciate her success so far at limiting the spread of violence.
“Otunbayeva is taking on a heavy load to bear. Let her rule,” said Abbas, 48, a taxi driver. “She is a mother, she is taking on a big responsibility for people. In a hard time she has managed to prevent war from raging on.”
Yet others worry that power brokers who have dominated the country in the past will remain in control behind the scenes.
Liliya, an accountant said: “I’m not sure that it will be better. It’s the same people that were with Akayev and Bakiyev.”
The violence is alarming for both the United States and Russia, which have competed for influence in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. base is one of the main logistical hubs for the war in Afghanistan, while Russia wants American influence curbed in its ex-Soviet hinterland.
Under the new system adopted in the referendum, parliamentary elections are planned for October 10 of this year. The power of the presidency will be reduced, giving parliament and the cabinet more authority.
Until now, the five states of former Soviet Central Asia have all been run by presidents with vast powers, many of whom are criticized by human rights watchdogs for stifling dissent.
Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Peter Graff