Striking a balance between environmental worries and the need for foreign investment is proving difficult in Kyrgyzstan. Of late, investment has outweighed ecological concerns, but officials in Kara-Balta, an industrial town about two hours west of Bishkek, are calling for a reordering of priorities. The sources of their concern are China’s relentless economic push into Central Asia and the Kyrgyz government’s hesitation in enforcing environmental protection statutes.
Members of the Jayil Regional Assembly’s Environmental Commission claim that the construction of an oil refinery in the town -- a project financed by a Chinese firm, Zhongda -- will negatively impact air quality in the area and pollute a local river. The refinery will process crude that is transported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan.
Work on the site began in late 2009 after the former president’s brother, Janysh Bakiyev, signed a letter granting permission to build. Following a brief hiatus after last year’s political violence, which resulted in the downfall of the Bakiyev clan, construction recommenced. A storage facility emblazoned with giant Chinese characters appeared over the summer, while the rest of Kyrgyzstan continued to be unsettled by economic, social and political turmoil.
“We didn’t have time to blink before they had built it,” said Marat Usupkozhoyev, a Kara-Balta resident and member of the region’s Environmental Commission.
Local officials “are not against investment,” Usupkozhoyev added, but maintain that the work in progress violates Kyrgyzstan’s law on environmental protection, which states industrial facilities may not be built within a kilometer of residential areas. The Zhongda project site falls within that radius. “We simply want confirmation that the economic benefits of the factory won’t be outweighed by the environmental costs,” Usupkozhoyev said.
In response to Usupkozhoyev’s appeals, he said the Department of Sanitary Epidemiological Surveillance at the Ministry of Health in Bishkek sent him a circumspect letter stating that the 1-kilometer limit regulation “no longer functions.” Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office told him that it was parliament’s responsibility for enforce the law. One of Usupkozhoyev’s colleagues in the Kara-Balta government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, alleged that powerful political figures with a personal stake in the investment are pressing for environmental regulations to be waived.
Anna Kirilenko, a Bishkek lawyer specializing in environmental disputes, said the negative ecological side effects of China’s economic miracle are “well documented.” Now, as Beijing looks for cleaner methods of industrial production, Kyrgyzstan is an obvious destination for the country’s “obsolete and dirty technology.”
“In principle, a refinery that used clean technology and produced quality benzene for the domestic market wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Kirilenko said. “Unfortunately, violations that have already taken place surrounding this investment suggest these aren’t considerations. Rather than a single factory affecting a single area, we have to consider [Zhongda] as a model for future investments from China.”
Given that political instability, nationalization and a perceived lack of security have deterred foreign companies from setting up operations in impoverished Kyrgyzstan, officials and economic experts have argued that any willing investors should be warmly welcomed.
“The Chinese can invest in Kyrgyzstan without any worries,” Jeenbek Kulubayev, the Kyrgyz ambassador to China, said in a recent interview reprinted by the 24.kg news agency. The ambassador highlighted resource extraction, telecommunications and agriculture as spheres for potential cooperation.
Seyitbek Usmanov, director of the Central Asia Free Market institute, believes that China is “a great friend to Kyrgyzstan” and argues Bishkek is not in a position to pick and choose economic partners.
“In Kyrgyzstan we have less than 10 major foreign investments,” said Usmanov, adding that such a sparse portfolio is an indicator of an investment climate that has grown increasingly bleak over the last decade. “We are a country with a small productive base so we need these investments to create jobs and build an economy. Environmental protection is something that only rich countries can afford to be concerned about. Now the government is tightening regulation and criticizing foreign companies for not doing certain things. But Kyrgyz firms aren’t doing these things either. We should have single standards for all."
As the Jayil Assembly’s Environmental Commission moves forward with its complaints, the economic implications of the Zhongda project should become more of a factor. Townsfolk are already involved in the construction of the refinery, earning as much as $10 per day working illegally. In a rare moment of contact with Zhongda, a company representative told Jayil officials that the refinery would eventually create 2,500 jobs for the area, making it one of Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers.
On a hill overlooking the site, Usupkozhoyev cuts an embattled figure. “I think we will be fighting this to the end,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “People here are poor, so they think only with their stomachs and not about future generations. In this country, nature is our greatest resource. If we destroy it, we will have nothing.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.