Kazakhstan: Environmentalists face prison over opposition to gold mine
Hyperlocal activism over green issues has been on the rise, but its resurgence is hurting the interests of tycoons profiting from the natural resource extraction sector.
Two villagers who campaigned against a gold mining project in northern Kazakhstan are facing prison as prosecutors strain to link them to a banned opposition movement.
The Stepnogorsk city court has for weeks been hearing the case against Nikolai Katchiyev and Aleksandra Nazarenko, a pair of residents of the mining village of Bestobe in Akmola region accused of “inciting social hatred.”
And because Katchiyev and Nazarenko are deemed to have committed their alleged crime as part of a group, rather than as individuals, they risk terms of up to 10 years in prison without hope of a non-custodial sentence.
The last hearing took place February 21, and the next is scheduled for February 28.
But how did they get here?
Hyperlocal environmental activism has been a notable trend in Kazakhstan of late. While it centers on the wellbeing of communities, the activism inevitable threatens the economic interests of the narrow group of tycoons that dominate the country’s raw natural resources extraction sector.
There are times when – in keeping with the spirit of what President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has dubbed “the listening state” – company and government officials are ready to discuss local concerns.
As Katchiyev and Nazarenko have found out to their cost, however, the more sinister police state is never far behind.
Mining in Bestobe, a village of 7,000 people, goes back as far as the 1930s. Residents’ complaints stem from the purported chronic dust pollution caused by a gold recovery plant that began work in 2018.
Katchiyev and Nazarenko were among the members of a 28-person working group set up at the behest of Bestobe’s village administration in June 2020 to hold talks with the then-operator of the gold mine, Kazakhaltyn, over the future of the project.
With the formidable Nazarenko leading the charge against the company, the public hearings became acrimonious affairs and no compromise was reached. Relations between the company and community grew only worse after the Ecology Ministry intervened on the side of the villagers, ordering the company to cease construction of a tailings dump that had gone ahead without public hearings or state expertise.
Last August, Katchiyev, a single father of two children, sent a letter to Tokayev, demanding that Bestobe’s environmental problems finally be addressed.
But at the beginning of September, police raided his house, breaking through his 13-year-old son’s bedroom window and confiscating Katchiyev’s laptop. Katchiyev says his brother’s home was also raided.
The gold recovery plant began working again at the beginning of November after the company suspended its operations for close to six months amid tensions with the community.
As investigators sought to pile the pressure on Katchiyev and Nazarenko, they played the trump card always available to prosecutors in Kazakhstan. The pair were, they said, linked to the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, an opposition force affiliated to disgraced, Europe-based banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Katchiyev has told Vlast news website that the accusation is false and a deliberate attempt to frighten residents into submission.
Ownership of the gold mining project changed in 2020, when another established mining company, Altynalmas, completed a three-stage purchase of Kazakhaltyn.
The latter company, which had mining interests across Kazakhstan, including several in the Akmola region, was formerly controlled by regime-friendly metal magnates Eduard Ogay and Vladimir Kim. Altynalmas, meanwhile, is majority-owned by Gouden Reserves B.V., a Netherlands-registered company whose ultimate beneficiary is a mystery.
The opposition-linked KazakhSTAN 2.0 website last year speculated that the acquisition by Altynalmas of assets previously controlled by Kazakhaltyn were “part of [former President] Nursultan Nazarbayev and his clan’s preparations for [Nazarbayev’s] departure from life.” This claim came with no proof attached, drawing instead on the widely circulated belief that Kim and other billionaires have been enlisted to act as stewards of the wealth for the former head of state in the past.
Kazakhstan’s political situation has changed somewhat since the case against Katchiyev and Nazarenko was first opened. Nazarbayev allies and family members have been purged from top political and corporate posts as Tokayev emerged emboldened from a bloody, nation-shaking crisis that left more than 200 people dead last month.
It remains to be seen whether these political shifts will have any bearing on the trial.
Whatever happens, Altynalmas is not threatened with any cashflow problems in the near future. Last September, Russia’s government-backed bank VTB said it had loaned the miner 1.1 billion euros ($1.25 billion) in two installments to complete its consolidation of Kazakhaltyn’s assets and further expand the business.
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