Inquiry launched into Kyrgyz protests

By bne IntelliNews June 7, 2013

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Calm has been restored in south Kyrgyzstan after riots in several parts of the country in late May and early June. Authorities are now working to find the organisers of the riots in the southern Jalal-Abad region and around the Kumtor gold mine, while the government seeks to reduce the chances of further outbreaks of unrest.

More than a week of protests at several locations across Kyrgyzstan came to an end on June 6, when Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev met with protesters in the southern town of Jalal-Abad. Later in the day, Satybaldiyev told a government session that a special commission is to be set up to bring those responsible for the unrest to justice.

The protests started on May 28, when residents of villages near Kumtor - Kyrgyzstan's largest gold mine - launched a small demonstration to demand compensation for alleged environmental damage. The protest steadily escalated over the following days, with demands for the mine, majority owned by Canada's Centerra Gold, to be nationalised added to the initial calls.

Villagers blocked the access road to the mine on May 30, and cut off the power supply from a nearby substation, forcing Kumtor to suspend operations. On May 31, security forces moved in. Several people were hospitalised during clashes between protesters and police, and several dozen arrests were made. President Almazbek Atambaev declared a state of emergency in the surrounding Zheti-Oguz region.

The situation in Zheti-Oguz quickly returned to normal, but protests in the southern Jalal-Abad region started on the same day in solidarity with the Kumtor protesters. Those events in the nationalist hotbed developed with much greater stamina, and continued for a week.

Jalal-Abad activists invaded the city's administrative buildings on May 31, and appointed Meder Usenov - a local leader of the nationalist opposition Ata-Zhurt party - as mayor. He was promptly arrested, adding to the protesters' anger. Daily demonstrations have taken place on Jalal-Abad's central square, with the crowds demanding the release of Usenov and three Ata-Zhurt leaders - Kamchibek Tashiyev, Sapar Zhaparov and Talant Mamytov - who were jailed in March on charges of trying to over-throw the government.

At the nearby village of Barpy, residents blocked the main Bishkek-Osh highway, connecting the capital to the south of the country, putting up yurts and scattering gravel to prevent cars and trucks from passing. The situation in the region only returned to normal after Satybaldiyev's visit, when the PM persuaded protesters to wait for the outcome of talks between government officials and Kumtor, as well as a appeal court decision on the Ata-Zhurt leaders' sentences.

Striking a balance

The protests came as the Kyrgyz government closed in on concluding negotiations with Centerra over the future of Kumtor. Bishkek opened talks in February, after MPs backed plans to renegotiate the 2009 investment agreement for the mine to get a better deal for Kyrgyzstan.

Centerra has proposed setting up a new joint venture that would own the mine, with the government exchanging its minority equity stake in the Canada-listed company for a stake of equivalent value in the new Kumtor Gold Company. The size of the state's share in the venture has not been announced, but is expected to be at least 51%. On June 5, the parliament agreed to extend the deadline for negotiations until September 10.

The government is trying to strike a balance between popular demands of resource nationalisation and the need to reassure foreign investors following the country's two revolutions. The opposition Ata-Zhurt party - which includes many supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev among its members - is one of the most vocal advocates for nationalising the mine, and has tapped into and encouraged the growing mood against foreign investors among the population.

According to the International Crisis Group, Ata-Zhurt was at least partly responsible for the unrest around Kumtor, as well as being at the centre of the Jalal-Abad protests, adding that the action piles on extra risk for the economy. "The mine is one of Kyrgyzstan's biggest sources of foreign earnings, and disruption to its operations could damage the country's faltering economy," the NGO warned in its report. "Despite the protesters' environmental demands, much of the unrest appears to have been organised by the nationalist Ata-Zhurt party."

Although the situation has now calmed, Bishkek and regional law enforcement agencies are on high alert over concerns of more unrest in the volatile and ethnically mixed south of the country. With the third anniversary of large-scale ethnic clashes that followed the April 2010 revolution in Osh, Jalal-Abad and other southern towns approaching, there are clearly good reasons for fears of another outbreak of violence.

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