Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bishkek Blunder

by Gregory Feifer

August 28, 2010

Smiling in a conference room of her aging Soviet-era office suite, Roza Otunbayeva appeared confident—possibly for the first time in her short presidency. It was only two weeks after June 10, when ethnic violence had begun engulfing the south of her country, but Kyrgyzstan's diminutive leader, a bespectacled former diplomat with a bob cut and the good-natured manner of a high-school principal, announced that the bloodshed had failed to discourage people from participating in a nationwide referendum. Its single yes-or-no question asked voters to keep her in office until the end of next year and to approve a new constitution that would make Kyrgyzstan a parliamentary republic. Otunbayeva said it would transform the country from a corrupt autocracy into a prospering democracy.

Otunbayeva, who has been in power only since April, when street protests forced her predecessor from power, called it an historic moment. But she lacked a crucial piece of information: how many people had actually voted for the measure. That number hadn’t been tallied. So Otunbayeva offered her own informal survey instead, prodding journalists in the room who had voted in favor to raise their hands. "See," she concluded, wrinkling her nose as hands went up, "let's just say it was a positive result."