In the latest assault on foreign miners operating in Kyrgyzstan, an angry crowd has attacked an Australian-run gold exploration project in the south. The company says the attack looks related to the ongoing wave of violence against foreign mining outfits in the Central Asian country.
A group of about 200 protestors attacked the offices of Australian-listed Manas Resources’ local subsidiary, Z-Explorer, at the Shambesai gold field in Batken Province on October 18, Reuters reported.
A company representative told Reuters that the angry crowd met a bulldozer on its way to the deposit, which the company discovered in 2010. The crowd then ransacked the company’s local office, “looting computers and other equipment, and burning seized documents,” Reuters quoted the representative as saying.
The company reported only “minor damage” in an October 21 statement: “A group of activists … disturbed what was initially a peaceful negotiation regarding site works. This group is likely to be affiliated with groups that have protested against mining elsewhere in the country. As a result of the activists intervening, a larger crowd gathered, blocked site access and some minor damage was recorded at the community liaison office.”
A local official also downplayed the attack. “The protesters came to the company's office, but they did not set fire to it. They only burned some papers," the head of the district, Akram Madumarov, told the 24.kg news agency.
Such attacks are common in Kyrgyzstan. Several Chinese-run projects were targeted in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, men on horseback twice attacked a South African-run mine with petrol bombs. A nearby Australian-run mine also complained of threats that year.
But the largest and most sustained violence has engulfed the only successful mine in the country, Kumtor, in the northern Issyk-Kul Province.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has been negotiating a restructuring deal this year with Toronto-listed Centerra Gold, which owns Kumtor. The mine is the largest legitimate enterprise in the country, accounting for half of industrial output in 2011 and approximately 12 percent of GDP.
Though the government and Centerra came to a preliminary deal last month to divide ownership evenly – an arrangement widely regarded among Kyrgyz and foreign mining experts in Bishkek as equitable – populist parliamentarians have balked, demanding a greater share in the operation. It is unclear if the government will survive the negotiations; some MPs seem bent on toppling the ruling coalition.
Earlier this month, as parliamentarians were arguing over the fate of the mine, protestors briefly kidnapped the regional governor and attacked his headquarters in Karakol, demanding Kyrgyzstan receive a greater share in the project, or outright nationalize it. Nationalization (or expropriation, more likely) is attractive for many Kyrgyz, but the country lacks the know-how to run the high-altitude, open-pit operation, most mining experts agree.
The timing of the violence – which followed clashes with police outside the mine this May that left at least 55 injured and cut power to the facility – looked intended to affect negotiations in Kyrgyzstan’s rowdy parliament. Posturing MPs exploiting local disputes to enhance their own political stature seem uninterested in creating a stable business climate to attract foreign investment: "In this client-patron network that we call parliament, we can't talk about national interests. Too many personal interests are part of the game,” explained one local analyst.
Few in Bishkek believe protests like those in Issyk-Kul and now Batken happen spontaneously. Instead, they are often attributed to criminal gangs or politicians trying to exact money or jobs from the mine, groups that sometimes exploit legitimate environmental concerns. Near-daily protests and roadblocks continue outside Kumtor, where protestors are also demanding the release of two men caught on video allegedly trying to extort $3 million from a Kumtor representative.