The government's interests in the Barskoon incident are clear. Kumtor is a joint-venture between the Kyrgyz government and the Canadian gold mining company Cameco Corporation, with the government holding a two-thirds interest of the venture. Thus, it is understandable why the government has consistently sought to minimize the hazards associated with the spill. Not only are the interests of a major mining operation at stake, but also those of Kyrgyzstan's tourism industry. Lake Issyk-Kul is a regional resort area, and, therefore, a source of significant revenue.
Unfortunately, the government response to the Barskoon incident has been characterized by secrecy. The government has not been forthcoming with information, and has hindered attempts to generate independent assessments of the spill's impact. No consensus has been reached on key aspects of the spill, including the number of people affected. According to various reports, between 500 to 800 people were hospitalised because of cyanide poisoning, while 4,500 people were evacuated from the area as a precautionary measure. As for the actual number of fatalities, the number varies according to the source: the Kyrgyz government claims that two people died, Radio Free Europe and other Central Asian media sources raise that number to four, while Cameco Corp. denies any fatalities were directly connected to cyanide poisoning.
Since the spill, the government, along with its Canadian partner Cameco, has insisted that the incident poses no long-term health threat to the local population. President Askar Akayev, for example, insisted that no lasting environmental damage was done. "It [Lake Issyk-Kul] is just as clean as before and is awaiting all the tourists," he said.
Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have urged an independent investigation. However, such appeals have been greeted with silence from government agencies, as well as from businesses and financial institutions involved with the project. The government has accused NGOs and the media of exaggerating the hazards.
In general, the nongovernmental sector is more developed in Kyrgyzstan than in other Central Asian nations. But the Barskoon incident underscores existing limitations on NGO advocacy capabilities. Currently, the nongovernmental sector in Kyrgyzstan lacks the capacity to act as a government watchdog, and thus influence policy development. A few Kyrgyz NGOs have established a presence in the aftermath of the cyanide spill, including the 'Tabiyat' ecological group and the 'Aleyne' ecological movement. These groups have led efforts to gather and spread information about the spill to those residing in the affected area. They also played a key role in organizing demonstrations in June of this year, when people blocked the road to the Kumtor gold mine in a protest over the issue of compensation. In a June 4, 1998, press release, issued by Cameco, the company pledged to provide about $400,000 to those affected by the spill. So far, however, only about $22,000 has been distributed.
Third Sector effectiveness is limited by inexperience and disunity. The concept of an independent sector remains in its infancy in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in all the Central Asian republics. Aliya Sasykeava, the president of Interbilim Centre, a prominent Kyrgyz NGO working on capacity-building issues, explained: "NGOs have developed since 1995, with over 200 local NGOs being active in their areas. But there is a need for a coalition to propose alternative legislation that will allow them a strong presence." Right now there are about 4,000 NGOs registered with the Ministry of Justice. However, all information kept by the Justice Ministry on NGOs is confidential, and no official database exists. The tendency of the government is to continue acting in a mode of secrecy. A consequence is a lack of communication between the NGOs, which hinders the independent sector's development.
The aftermath of the Barskoon incident demonstrates that the proper balance between governmental priorities and societal interests, as reflected by NGO activity, has yet to be found. Many nations face difficulties in trying to promote economic development while protecting their citizens from the consequences of such development. In Kyrgyzstan's case, difficulties would be greatly reduced if the government adopted more open practices, and if local NGOs took steps to better coordinate their activities.
Daphne Biliouri is an independent consultant
and policy analyst based in the UK. She specializes on global
and policy development in Europe and Central Asia. She recently
a lectureship at the dept. of International Relations, American