Nationalist protests continue to stalk Kyrgyzstan

By bne IntelliNews June 3, 2013

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Work resumed at Kyrgyzstan's largest gold mine Kumtor on June 1 after police quelled violent protests against the mine's Canadian shareholder Centerra Gold. However, unrest in the southern Jalal-Abad region intensified over the weekend, as resource nationalism continues to rise.

Supporters of Kamchibek Tashiev, leader of the opposition Ata-Zhurt party who is currently serving an 18-month prison term, seized the local administrative offices in the southern town of Jalal-Abad, and installed their own governor - Meder Usenov - on May 31. Protests and skirmishes between Ata-Zhurt supporters and police continued through the weekend.

Around 1,000 people gathered outside the regional government offices on June 2. According to government reports, the protests, led by Usenov and Tashiev's brother, were "aggressive". Participants threw Molotov cocktails at local administrative buildings and a group of women broke into the city hall building. In the nearby settlement of Barpy, protesters blocked the main road between Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan's second city of Osh overnight, with up to 800 cars waiting to pass as of early on June 3.

Jalal-Abad residents first took to the streets on May 31 in solidarity with protesters at Kumtor. They also demanded the release of Tashiev, who was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government in March. Police briefly managed to restore order on the evening of June 2, but a rumour that Usenov had been arrested brought his supporters back onto the streets. A government delegation is on its way from Bishkek to Jalal-Abad to meet with protesters.

The protests in southern Kyrgystan follow riots at Kumtor which took place on May 28-31, the crowds growing increasingly aggressive as demands for the mine to be nationalised were added to initial calls for compensation for environmental damage. Work at the mine was suspended on May 30, when protesters blocked the access road to Kumtor and cut the power supply to the mine. Overall, 55 people - including 13 police - were injured in the clashes, prompting the imposition of a state of emergency on May 31.

Order has now been restored, with the mine's majority shareholder Centerra Gold announcing on June 2 that production had resumed the previous day. "While most mining operations were suspended between May 30 and June 1, the mine continued to operate sufficient equipment to continue to remove ice and waste from the high movement area of the pit," it said in a statement.

"Although still under evaluation, the company does not believe that the suspension of operations will have a significant impact on 2013 forecasted gold production," the company's press release claimed. The state of emergency was lifted on June 3.

However, Centerra still faces considerably uncertainty concerning its future at Kumtor. The Kyrgyz government, which holds a 33% stake, is still in discussions with the Toronto listed company as it tries to renegotiate the 2009 investment agreement on the mine. The government says that the agreement, signed under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is not in the country's interests. On June 1, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev met with protesters and said Bishkek is seeking a majority stake, with management to be transferred to a new company.

The unrest around Kumtor and in Jalal-Abad creates additional problems for the government of President Almazbek Atambaev. Efforts by the government to revive the economy, and maintain stability have been seriously undermined by the recent unrest, believed to have been stirred up by Ata-Zhurt, which numbers many Bakiyev supporters among its members.

"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 International Crisis Group points out in a recent report. "Despite the protesters' environmental demands, much of the unrest appears to have been organised by the nationalist Ata-Zhurt party."

Many in south Kyrgyzstan remain loyal to Bakiyev, who was ousted in the April 2010

revolution and is now in exile in Belarus. The region is also the heartland of Kyrgyzstan's nationalist opposition, and in June 2010 both Osh and Jalal-Abad were the site of deadly clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, which resulted in the deaths of at least 400 people.

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