Kyrgyzstan: An interview with Bermet Akayeva, daughter of ex-president Askar Akayev

Bermet Akayeva warns against an increasingly Islamist state and the erosion of secularism.
"Bermet Akayeva, the 35-year-old daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, is the only member of her family to return to Kyrgyzstan following the "Tulip Revolution" of March 2005 that forced her father from power. Today, she remains under court order not to leave Bishkek, following her arrest in early May on charges of obstruction of justice. Her arrest and questioning by authorities stem from an April 24 public disturbance at the Kemin District courthouse in northern Kyrgyzstan, where Akayeva’s supporters broke furniture and windows. The courthouse melee was a reaction to a legal ruling banning Akayeva from running in an April parliamentary by-election. The court based its decision on a finding that she had not lived in Kyrgyzstan for the last two years as required by law, a charge she denies. Akayev was interviewed in Bishkek on June 22."
EurasiaNet: Is this obstruction of justice charge going to go away?
Akayeva: No, no. Yesterday [June 21] I was in interrogation. I think it’s going to go to the courts and I think I’m going to get convicted. Just the way the investigation is going. This is my impression.

EurasiaNet: Do you think you will go to prison?
Akayeva: I don’t think so. I’m charged with obstruction of justice. They want some punishment, I think, but I believe it [a prison sentence] will be suspended. … Unofficially, I am being delivered a message: if I leave, they will drop the charges against me – on the condition I don’t come back. It’s like a punishment, but they don’t want to make a [political martyr] out of me. I think they realize that. If convicted, I would not be able to run for any office.

EurasiaNet: If you are placed on probation, do you plan to remain in the country?
Akayeva: Oh yes, I will. I am opening an institute on Central Asian research, on Central Asian studies. It’s an independent think tank on the problems not only of Kyrgyzstan, but on regional problems. It opened it in Moscow a few months ago. And I’m opening an office here [in Bishkek]. We’re trying to [gain] registration.

EurasiaNet: What influence does Kazakhstan have on Kyrgyzstan right now?
Akayeva: A lot of Kyrgyz businesses are being bought up by Kazakh businessmen -- and very, very fast. It bothers many people. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are very close people, but of course us being the poorer, we’re becoming like the younger brother. Just because they have a lot of oil, Kazakhs are getting the upper hand and people don’t like that.

EurasiaNet: How would you describe the state of Kyrgyz politics?
Akayeva: In Kyrgyzstan every person has very much a tribal mentality. They are not a nation yet. They are not one people, not yet, just a set of tribes that were never united. I don’t think it will change; it will not change very quickly.

EurasiaNet: What are the implications for nationhood?
Akayeva: We have to think seriously about the big structures, about changing the big structures so they are not played off each other. Some people say we should leave the party system and make it a parliamentarian system and all the differences will disappear. I don’t believe it. I don’t think they’ll just go away. Probably we should think more about a kind of federation structure, so that the regions are a bit more independent, they have a bit more power. I think that’s the major source of discontent, basically; the different groups and the division of the power, the division of the wealth. Maybe a federal kind of structure would work better for us. We have to think about it; the parliamentary system is not going to work, I think."

EurasiaNet: Is there a growing nationalism in Kyrgyzstan?
Akayeva: I don’t think there is a growing nationalism. There is a total ideological vacuum in the country. And it should be filled with something. And there are only two ideas that haven’t been played out yet and that’s nationalism and the Islamic card, the only two ideas that could work.

EurasiaNet: What about the growth of Islam in Kyrgyzstan?
Akayeva: The population is becoming more and more Islamic. People are saying – and not only in the South but also in the North – people are saying more and more we should become an Islamic state; we should give more power and pay more attention to the Islamic leaders. We should institute a lot of Islamic principles and customs in everyday life, accept shar’ia laws. Even our Minister of Justice [Marat Kayipov] – excuse me – for three months he’s been trying to legalize multiple marriages but worst of all, during the last change in the constitution, he threw out the words that Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, so we’re not a secular state anymore according to our constitution. It’s a trend in Kyrgyzstan. People are more and more accepting religion, which is not a bad thing in itself. It keeps our society more moral, cleaner. There is a huge threat. The south is practically overtaken by it.

EurasiaNet: Are you worried about this trend?
Akayeva: It is worrisome. First of all, we never had any independent religious thinkers or a big school of Islamic thought here. Most of our mullahs are not well acquainted with the Koran. There is a system being built – just like the Americans built a system of NGOs - … Islamic forces are building a whole network. There is a mosque in every region. They are building a base. And you never know how this base is going to be used. The mullahs are not independent. They are mostly financed from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And you never know how it’s going to be used. It might be turned any way. And this is bad. Growing nationalism, I don’t think it’s ever going to be very problematic in the North. In the South, even in the short or mid term, it might become a huge problem between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz population.

EurasiaNet: Does Iran have any influence in Kyrgyzstan?
Akayeva: Iran is very popular here. It is the leading Islamic country in the world, I think. They are popular here because of their stance with the United States. Iranians are very clever people. There is a huge and clear division between the Shiite and Sunni, but not here. This is a bit strange. The Saudis don’t have any influence at all. They’re just financing things. Even the Kuwaitis have more influence than the Saudis. Nobody really cares [about the Saudis].

EurasiaNet: How is the United States viewed in Kyrgyzstan?
Akayeva: Screwed up [laughs]. In the ’90s, there were such high hopes for the West in general and the United States in particular. People were very much pro-American. Maybe because America is seen as a stick, or whip. Also, because we see America though Russian eyes. Also, of course, there is Iraq, which is the major cause [of anti-American feeling]. People don’t see any help from the United States. And they are not happy with all of the political meddling, through NGOs and the shooting [of a Kyrgyz national by an American serviceman in 2005]... I really doubt that [US President George W.] Bush or anyone in the Republican administration even knows where Kyrgyzstan is.

EurasiaNet: Is there a chance a woman could become president of Kyrgyzstan?
Akayeva: Not every woman. I have a chance. Not because I have a huge ego, but because of my name and my position enables me to have a chance. It is very difficult for women to even get elected to Parliament. Unless you have the financial means, and unless you have a certain future, it is very difficult. It is a bit easier for me because I come from a political family, and I have a name, and although probably many people are critical of my father, but still, there is this kind of political recognition.

EurasiaNet: What is your father doing these days?
Akayeva: Our family -- that is, my parents, my brother with his family and my sister -- lives in Moscow. My father works in the Prighozhin Mathematical Institute at Moscow State University. He went back to being a scientist, but instead of physics he works in the field of mathematics and economics. At present he is working on a book that develops mathematical models of economic processes, development of poor countries and poverty reduction. He has published many works and articles. Last year he was elected a member of Russian Academy of Science amid fierce competition. He looks and feels much better than during his presidency.

[Akayeva was interviewed in Bishkek on June 22 by Timothy Kenny, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, and freelance reporter Ruslan Myatiyev, a recent graduate of the American University of Central Asia. Kenny, who has traveled to the region three times since 2003, is a former foreign editor and Fulbright scholar. He is researching a book on the development of media in Central Asia.]

Interview by: Timothy Kenny and Ruslan Myatiyev

17 July 2007