Kyrgyzstan: Gold Mine Protests Move South
Protests outside the Kumtor gold mine in northern Kyrgyzstan have ended and the mine has resumed operations. But related unrest shifted south over the weekend. Outside Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan’s third-largest city, demonstrators are blocking the country’s only north-south highway, creating a traffic jam several kilometers long, local media report. Since Friday, protestors also have occupied parts of the main government building in the city.They are demanding the release of three nationalist lawmakers serving short jail terms for stoking unrest last October amid calls to nationalize the profitable mine, which, in a good year, produces 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Jalal-Abad is the stronghold of Kamchybek Tashiev. In that October incident, he led supporters over the fence surrounding parliament, vowing to “replace this government.” A Bishkek court this March found Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov – all lawmakers with the Ata-Jurt party, which draws its support largely from the south – guilty of trying to overthrow the government. The sentences were seen as light, but deprived the three of their parliamentary seats. Tashiev, who announced a hunger strike today, is due to be released this autumn.Tensions grew over the weekend when authorities arrested a self-appointed “people’s governor,” local businessman Meder Usenov, on charges of trying to seize power in Jalal-Abad. On June 2, dozens of protestors reportedly attacked the city’s National Security Committee headquarters, Vechernii Bishkek reported. As usual, numbers vary wildly: Demonstrators claim they have thousands of supporters manning the roadblock; officials say the numbers are only a fraction of that.The latest round of anti-Kumtor protests started last Tuesday in Issyk-Kul province, when villagers began blocking the road to the gold field, demanding nationalization and greater social benefits. On Friday, May 31, at least 55 were injured during clashes between police and protestors, who had twice late in the week seized an electricity substation, cutting power to the high-altitude mine and forcing production to stop for two days. Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev met with the Issyk-Kul protestors on June 1 and appointed a new governor for the province. Calling for patience, he promised that his government’s ongoing negotiations with Toronto-based Centerra, which owns Kumtor, would benefit local communities and see far more of the mine’s proceeds stay in Kyrgyzstan. "Kumtor will be withdrawn from Centerra," Interfax quoted Satybaldiyev as saying. "A new company will be set up. It will be registered in Kyrgyzstan, not in Canada, as was the case earlier. As a result, tax revenue from the development of the Kumtor gold field will increase significantly.”Production resumed at Kumtor on June 1. “Although still under evaluation, the company does not believe that the suspension of operations will have a significant impact on 2013 forecasted gold production,” Centerra said in a June 2 statement. Satybaldiyev’s ability to quell the violent protests in Issyk-Kul is a victory for his government. But extending central authority to the often hostile south presents a much bigger challenge still.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.