Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Protests Put Pressure on Kyrgyz Authorities

Government's opponents are using local grievances to pursue their own interests, analysts say.
By Altynai Myrzabekova, Saule Mukhametrakhimova

Analysts say Kyrgyz opposition groups are using the charged issue of managing the country’s largest gold mine as a means to exert pressure on central government.

The government in Bishkek has been confronted with two major protests in recent days, both fed by the issue of the Kumtor mine in the northeastern Jety-Oguz district, which is run by Canadian company Centerra.

In the south of the country, the main Bishkek-Osh highway outside Jalalabad was blocked by protestors demanding the release of detained political activists from the Ata Jurt opposition party, as well as action over the mine.

At the Kumtor mine, a state of emergency was declared when angry residents demanding more investment in the local community forced operations to be suspended.

The Kyrgyz authorities are currently renegotiating the contract with Centerra, in the face of constant demands for the state to renationalise the mine.

Protests in Kumtor came to a head on May 31 when police clashed with locals who had cut off the electricity supply and blocked the road to the mine, demanding more funding for social projects.

According to officials, at least 50 people were injured and about 80 arrests were made. The situation only stabilised five days later, when the government promised to address problems faced by people in the area.

Meeting with resident, Kyrgyz prime minister Jantoro Satybaldiev said the government would adopt a package of measures to address social and economic problems, to be funded out of a regional development fund.

He also tried to address concerns over the mine by maintaining that the ongoing renegotiation of Centerra’s contract would ultimately benefit local communities, but added that the talks would take time.

Ulugbek Babakulov, editor-in chief of the MK Asia newspaper, explained that the government is against nationalising Kumtor as that might lead to production collapsing, and with it budget revenues.

Gold production accounts for more than half of Kyrgyzstan’s export revenues and contributes around 12 per cent of its gross domestic product.

“The government has a budget deficit problem and it wouldn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Babakulov said. (For more on Kumtor and the economy, see this interview.)

Babakulov sees the protests in Jety-Oguz as an example of how various interest groups jump on local grievances as a way of pursuing their own agendas. Opposition parties are happy to find a stick with which to beat the government, and there are also powerful figures keen to acquire a slice of the gold industry.

In this environment, Babakulov said, the authorities made a mistake by failing to step in decisively when the first signs of trouble emerged. When they finally took action, it was too late – “The crowd had grown, and people had become more aggressive,” he said.

Pavel Dyatlenko, a political analyst with the Polis Asia think tank, said it was effectively the Kumtor protestors who set the agenda, while the authorities were only reactive.

The government was able to bring the situation back under control by making various promises, but Dyatlenko says it is unclear what will happen if these are not delivered on. “This is only stage one of the confrontation,” he predicted.

Bishkek-based political analyst Medet Tiulegenov said that the unrest clearly showed the “inability of government agencies in the centre and in the regions to neutralise protests”.

Opponents of the government, he said, were identifying and targeting its weaknesses.

In southern Kyrgyzstan, a blockade of the highway linking the country’s north and south began on June 2, with demands for renationalisation of Kumtor and for the release of three jailed leaders of the nationalist Ata Jurt party.

Party leader Kamchibek Tashiev and two associates, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov, are serving sentences for to one year in prison for an attempt to storm parliament last autumn. (See Kyrgyz Nationalist Leader Routed.)

Later on, protestors supplemented these demands with calls for the release of Ata Jurt activist Medet Usenov, who days earlier had launched a takeover of regional government offices in an attempt to declare himself “people’s governor’. 

Interior ministry spokesman Jorubay Abdraimov said some 800 vehicles were stranded along the blocked road, with tensions rising between protestors and the drivers, who included many traders carrying fresh fruit and vegetables who faced hefty losses.

The blockade only ended after the authorities entered into negotiations with the protesters and released Usenov. It is unclear whether Usenov will face charges.

Political analyst Mars Sariev suggested that the attempt to declare Usenov governor was an attempt by regional elites in the south to see how far they could push central government.

Usenov is a wealthy local businessman who did well under President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was ousted in 2010. “I think that [declaring him governor] was an attempt by southern elites associated with Bakiev to take their revenge,” Sariev added.

Government opponents already have an example in neighbouring Osh, where mayor Melis Myrzakmatov has long defied Bishkek’s rule. (See Southern Mayor a Tough Survivor.)

Asked how events in Jalalabad would play out for the mayor, Sariev said, “Myrzakmatov is not supporting these actions, but, at the same time he isn’t condemning them.”

While the twin protests in north and south may have rattled the government, Tiulegenov does not see them as a precursor to a broader revolt of the kind that brought down Bakiev in 2010 and his predecessor Askar Akaev five years earlier.

“Overall, the potential for protest is low across the country, and it’s insufficient to bring about a repetition of 2005 or 2010,” he said. “There’s dissatisfaction with the poor performance of government and parliament, but there isn’t a specific focus for that dissatisfaction.”

Altynai Myrzabekova is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan. Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.
 

More IWPR's Global Voices