The Colgate Scene
November 1998
Table of contents
Friendship without borders

Excerpts from Martha Olcott's remarks to the
Class of 2002 at the Founder's Day Convocation

[IMAGE] I would like to tell you about my best friend. I'm 8 months older and both of us are beginning to look decidedly middle-aged. She teases me about getting too plump. I make fun of her for dyeing her hair. While at first glance some are surprised at the friendship, there is far more that binds us together than draws us apart.

     The friendship was slow to develop. Our paths crossed initially in 1974-75 when we were both working on our dissertations. Then I went into teaching, she went into government service, and our paths didn't cross again until we met at a party in 1987. This time we really didn't like each other. Finally in 1992, a common friend forced us together, saying we were like two peas in a pod. She was right, of course. Over the years we have shared visits, joys, fantasies and sorrows. Our close friendship is one proof of the monumental changes that the end of the Cold War has brought. My best friend's name is Roza Otunbaeva, and she is Kyrgyzstan's Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. When we first became friends she was ambassador to the United States, a job she left to become Foreign Minister of her country.

     Kyrgyzstan is in what used to be Soviet Central Asia. Although poor, it has made a strong commitment to democratic values, which has brought Kyrgyzstan a great deal of foreign attention and comparatively great per-capita support from international financial institutions. To a great extent this is because of the respect accorded Kyrgyzstan's President, Askar Akaev. It is also to no small degree due to the efforts of Roza herself.

     We first met in 1975 in the dorms of Moscow State University. She was a philosophy student and a Young Communist League activist unable to have American friends. We met again years later when she was sent to the UN as Kyrgyzstan's representive at the Soviet delegation. She viewed me as a westerner who was unfairly critical of Moscow's policies, while I saw her as a servant of a repressive regime.

     When the Soviet Union collapsed, Roza left Russia to serve her newly independent homeland. When we met again, Roza had just presented her ambassadorial credentials to President Bush.

     We still speak Russian to one another. This shared language helped draw us closer. I'm sure my knowledge of Central Asia played a big role as well. I had already made several trips to Kyrgyzstan, and knew its history, culture and customs.

     But part of the reason we hit it off was found in Roza's plight. She is a scrupulously honest woman representing a very poor country, and she desperately needed all the help she could get. She had a tiny Embassy staff, which I helped flesh out for the first three summers by sending Colgate students to serve as interns. Initially the Kyrgyz all lived together in a large house and all the women shared the cooking.

     Roza, always generous, returned the favor. When President Akaev came to the U.S. in 1993 Roza invited me to spend a day with her President. I attended an official lunch at Harvard, and from Logan Airport I got to spend half the flight to Andrews Air Force Base on "Kyrgyz One" in conversation alone with him.

     Over the years we have also shared sorrows. When her 19-year-old niece died tragically, I participated in the age-old mourning ceremonies. Women tear their garments and sit weeping in yurts, the traditional tent-like dwellings of the nomadic Kyrgyz, which are erected near the mourners' house -- while inside all the mirrors are covered, tables are laden with food, including delicacies made from fresh horse meat, the animal most revered by the Kyrgyz, so its slaughter is the ultimate sign of respect.

     Roza's niece's death presented a situation where Soviet/post-Soviet values made an uneasy peace with traditional ones. But while it strengthened my relationship with Roza, it also confirmed to me that no matter how much I learned about the Kyrgyz, I would always be an outsider. At the same time it helped me understand the bittersweet attitude my Central Asian friends had about independence, that the collapse of the USSR brought with it a sense of loss as well as excitement over vague promises of a better future.

     When the Soviet Union first collapsed I viewed its demise with euphoria. I'm now a little embarassed about the simplicity of these early views. As I watch these new states grapple with independence, I've become increasingly more convinced of how rich a color gray really is. The collapse of communism can not be understood in black and white terms. Even now it is still too soon to fully appreciate the power of the social, economic and political forces which were unleashed. But this doesn't discourage me from trying to understand and help alleviate the implications of what the end of the USSR has meant for the Kyrgyz, as well as for the other Central Asians. It would be nice to be able to say that people in the region are happier, healthier and living better.

     Unfortunately this is not yet the case. Standards of living have dropped precipitously. Where people used to spend about a quarter of their salaries on food, they now often spend three times that. The gap between rich and poor is growing. It is greater in both relative and absolute terms than any time during Soviet rule. And while the old Soviet bosses tried to hide the fact that they lived better than the people, the new post-Soviet elite usually takes pleasure in flaunting their status.

     Most of the Soviet-era benefits have slipped away as well. The health care system has been all but abandoned in rural areas, leaving polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis at near-epidemic levels. There have also been outbreaks of typhus, typhoid and even bubonic plague. For the first time in decades children are likely to receive less education than their parents did. Many can not afford to attend school at all.

     The reports of deteriorating living standards are making Central Asia's leaders more frightened of their people. All of the region's leaders -- except President Akaev -- extended their terms of office through referenda, rather than face a competitive election. Even Kyrgyzstan has done some backsliding, arresting journalists including one of Roza and my mutual friends.

     Deteriorating economic and social conditions are natural fuel for corruption and organized crime, as well as extremist groups: Communists, nationalists and, in Central Asia, also radical Muslims. The problems that this region faces -- its growing drug trade and that just beyond its borders is Afghanistan, a haven for international terrorist groups -- means that not just Roza and I have to be concerned about Central Asian and Kyrgyz problems. Those of us assembled in this room are no longer able to escape them, either.

     This was made crystal-clear when U.S. missiles attacked Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in August, as the new states of the former Soviet Union have been frequent destinations for terrorists travelling from these camps. The Afghan-Tajik-Kyrgyz drug route is quickly becoming a new "French Connection" for the transport of heroin. Kyrgyzstan's poverty is making it a producer as well as a transport point on this chain. Though Kyrgyzstan's government is receptive to international drug control measures, international efforts are still woefully inadequate. As social conditions deteriorate, governments respond by becoming more repressive.

     Today's world is highly interconnected. Problems left to fester in Afghanistan, in Central Asia, or even just in Kyrgyzstan eventually come to have an impact on all of us. For the next four years you will not have to engage with them directly, but you will have the chance to prepare for active lives in a world in which they will be too costly to avoid.

     Personally, I have always found engagement more satisfying than avoidance. The satisfaction that trying to solve problems in faraway places has given me is greater than the frustrations over the incompleteness of the solutions achieved.

     One of the great enduring pleasures I've gotten, of course, is my friendship with Roza. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, I no longer panic, for I know that I am likely to hear her voice at the other end, and that she soon will be embarassed by her failure once again to correctly calculate the time difference separating us.


Martha Olcott is Professor of Political Science at Colgate and Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Top of page
Table of contents
<<Previous: "Enhancing..." Next: "The food of life" >>