Kyrgyzstan on edge after days of protests

By bne IntelliNews June 18, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

The latest wave of protests in Kyrgyzstan have caused a further setback in the government's efforts to develop the economy and attract foreign investment. But although Kyrgyzstan's move towards democracy since 2010 has resulted in many citizens taking their grievances straight to the streets, any hopes the opposition harboured that the unrest would escalate into a third revolution appear to have been dashed.

Ten days of protests at several locations across Kyrgyzstan started on May 28, when residents of villages near Kumtor - Kyrgyzstan's largest gold mine - launched a local demonstration to demand compensation for alleged environmental damage. Egged on by the nationalist opposition, 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 protestors 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 protestors. 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 took 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 overthrow the government.

At the nearby village of Barpy, residents blocked the main Bishkek-Osh highway that connects 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 a visit from Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, who persuaded protestors to wait for the outcome of talks between government officials and Centerra.

While the government and security forces have remained on high alert since June 6, there has not been a further outbreak of violence, even when a Bishkek court turned down the appeal by the three Ata-Zhurt leaders against their sentences. The third anniversary of deadly ethnic clashes in Osh, Jalal-Abad and other southern towns also passed without further incidents, although the BBC reports that the yurts used during the protest have been kept in place on Jalal-Abad's central square - ready to be used again if necessary.

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.

Along with Butun Kyrgyzstan and other nationalist parties, Ata-Zhurt has openly stated that it wants a third revolution, but according to Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight, their leaders have miscalculated the level of support for their cause. "The opposition has certainly capitalized on miners' grievances and persistent economic difficulties in Kyrgyzstan, using these to bring people out onto streets and seek their own political objectives... However, thus far they have failed to appeal to voters beyond their traditional base, mainly in the southern Kyrgyzstan," she says.

The top cause of discontent against the government of Atambaev and Satybaldiyev is the high level of poverty, made worse by an economic slowdown in 2012 caused by a fall in production at Kumtor. However, at the same time, since the 2010 revolution Kyrgyzstan has made great strides towards democracy, holding Central Asia's two most fair and open elections ever in 2010 and 2011. "The opposition is free to express its views both in the parliament and outside, and the government is more transparent compared to those of Bakiyev and [Kyrgyzstan's first president Askar] Akayev. While people see hope of improving lives through peaceful measures, they are most likely to avoid bloodshed that revolutions bring," says Gevorgyan.

But Jozef Lang of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) believes the situation in Kyrgyzstan has "systematically deteriorated" in the last two months, with the recent protests demonstrating the weakness of the government and the risk of Kyrgyzstan becoming a failed state. "[I]n the long term any further destabilization in Kyrgyzstan or the erosion of the state and the disintegration of the country pose a serious threat to the country and a great challenge for the remaining states in the region," Lang writes.

He does, however, agree that a third revolution is unlikely given the opposition is still divided.

But with more than 1,200 protests and demonstrations in 2012, and a similar trend in 2013, there are no signs that the high level of political activity will settle down in the near future. The Kumtor issue is still unsettled, with a decision now expected by September 2013, and opposition leaders are also trying to rouse popular activity over other issues including the future of the Manas airbase, currently leased to US forces, near Bishkek.

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