Kyrgyzstan’s year has begun in incendiary fashion amid talk of horse penises, offended national pride and the fate of the country’s most valuable economic asset.
At the center of the controversy is chuchuk — a long, thick and greasy Central Asian culinary delicacy obscure enough to send thousands heading to Google for more information.
If Michael Mcfeat, a British employee at Kyrgyzstan’s largest private foreign investor, Centerra Gold, had thought to do the same before updating his Facebook page on New Year’s Eve, he might have avoided trouble.
As midnight approached, Mcfeat observed in a message that Kyrgyz people would soon be “queuing out the door” for chuchuk, which he ribaldly likened to “horse penis.”
That swiftly sparked the rage of his local co-workers at the high-altitude Kumtor gold mine, which accounts for around one-tenth of the country’s economy.
The police have also got in on the action, detaining Mcfeat on January 3 on charges of inciting racial hatred — a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.
Ironically, chuchuk is an equine dish not wholly dissimilar to haggis, a traditional and much-mocked, offal-laden specialty from Mcfeat’s home country, Scotland.
In 2005, for instance, the immensely popular Russian sci-fi writer Sergei Lukyanenko had one of his characters in the best-selling book Last Watch uncharitably liken the taste of haggis to that of a soiled nappy, and managed all the same to avoid any legal reprisals from the British authorities.
Such precedents may be lost on Mcfeat’s colleagues, who staged what appears to have been a largely symbolic one-day strike at the Kumtor mine, while more than 100 fellow workers signed off on a formal complaint handed to the local police.
Whether or not the charges stick, Kyrgyzstan has already felt the full force of the international media’s penchant for a dumb yarn.
Mcfeat and Centerra have not come out of the scandal too well either as international press quoted and re-quoted the Scot’s poorly spelled apology to the Kyrgyz people.
Common sense might have allowed the matter to be resolved more quietly. Perhaps, as has been suggested in crude terms by some local Facebook users, Mcfeat could have been obliged to actually eat a horse’s penis at a clear-the-air meal with local workers.
But Kyrgyzstan does not do things quietly, a fact attested to earlier this year when members of parliament threatened the government with a vote of no confidence in relation to a scandal over donkey meat allegedly appearing as beef and lamb in local cafes.
President Almazbek Atambayev publicly regretted the noise around the donkey meat and said it had reduced foreign trust in local agricultural produce.
Then again, this is the same thin-skinned president that sued a local journalist for roughly $26,000 after the journalist claimed he was responsible for ethnic violence in the country in 2010.
Why Centerra Gold does not have a social media policy that precludes foreign employees from including the words “penis” and “Kyrgyz” in the same social media post is another pertinent question, given the company’s foreign contractors are not known for tact or sophistication.
The company’s perennially poor relations with the government took another turn for the worse on December 22, when the government walked out of negotiations over a joint venture to restructure the mine’s ownership.
Mcfeat’s Facebook postings bear the hallmarks of a hedonist with poor spelling rather than a racist. Messages reveal a closeness to family and friends, an enthusiasm for fast cars and an ardor for British singer Cheryl Cole.
Most of all though, his Facebook page exposes a penchant for alcohol and bluster — qualities well-represented among Kyrgyzstan's expat mining community.
In one December post, he recalls a drinking session with his parents back in Scotland that ended with whisky, memory loss and a pledge to drink more to level off the subsequent hangover.
“Don’t judge a person for drinking and swearing. Judge the quiet sober ones. Those [expletive] are always up to something,” read an internet meme he posted on his profile in the same month.