Radioactive potato derails economic reform in Kyrgyzstan

By bne IntelliNews February 9, 2012

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Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov challenged the opposition on February 8 to prove allegations that he is responsible for allowing deliveries of radioactive coal to schools and orphanages, saying he will resign if it does. The coal scandal, which first surfaced in late 2011, threatens to derail the new ruling coalition and put the brakes on planned economic reform.

An investigation is underway into how 8,500 tonnes of coal with high levels of radiation was allowed to be imported into Kyrgyzstan in September 2011, and then distributed to schools, orphanages and old people's homes in the Chui region in the north of the country.

Kyrgyz power company Electric Stations bought the coal from the Kulan mine in Kazakhstan. Two months later, an investigation was launched after lobbying from Kyrgyz human rights activists, who revealed that the coal contained high - though not lethal - levels of radioactivity. After discussions between energy officials in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Kulan has agreed to take the coal back and repay Electric Stations its import and distribution costs.

An Electric Stations spokesman told journalists in Bishkek on February 7 that the coal is now being collected to dispatch back to Kazakhstan, but this has done nothing to quell the growing political scandal. Seven officials have already been arrested for their role in allowing the coal to be imported and distributed, the Prosecutor General's Office announced on February 8.

However, the issue now threatens the upper echelons of Kyrgyzstan's political system, with the prime minister coming under pressure. The opposition Ata-Zhurt party, which was part of the previous government coalition which collapsed in December, has been quick to exploit the scandal.

At a special session of parliament on February 8, Ata-Zhurt leader Kamchibek Tashiev, who stood against Almazbek Atambaev in the October 2011 presidential elections, called for the resignation of Babanov, who he claims deceived the public by promising to have the coal sent back to Kazakhstan in November. "You knew in October that the coal is contaminated. But you didn't take any measure to recover it or return it back to Kazakhstan," said Tashiev. Babanov told the parliament that he is willing to resign if he is found to have been involved in the purchase.

Energy and Industry Minister Askarbek Shadiev said officials had been unaware that the coal was radioactive until alerted by activists. He also attempted to deflect the blame onto former parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who resigned in December after allegations of links to mafia boss Kamchy Kolbayev surfaced. Shadiev alleges that Keldibekov was responsible for the deal with Kulan.

This is the first big test for Kyrgyzstan's new coalition government, which was formed two weeks after Atambaev was sworn in as president on December 17. Once the new administration was in place, after some six weeks of negotiating, it was the first time Kazakhstan had an elected president and government since the April 2010 revolution.

The issue is now a radioactive potato, and is being exploited to the full by Ata-Zhurt, which was left out of the coalition despite having the largest faction in parliament. Most importantly, it has dashed hopes that once Kyrgyzstan's political system had settled back down following the revolution and ethnic violence in 2010 the focus would turn to the economy.

Kyrgyzstan was the only country in Central Asia to see its economy contract in 2010, and despite a partial recovery is still struggling. Two of the most pressing issues are reforms to the mining sector, which are needed to allow development projects to go ahead, and investment into infrastructure, especially the power sector. The coal scandal has once again put these on a back burner.

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