This is a guest post from Natalia Wobst. Currently the Energy and Economic Summit Coordinator for the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center, Natalia has previously worked for the Eurasia Foundation and the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation. In 2009, she studied Uzbek and researched the effects of secondary education reforms in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan, that tiny land-locked multi-ethnic Central Asian country unknown to most Americans but for its US army base, was in the news again earlier this month. The latest report relates to a public demonstration and three major parliamentarians being thrown into jail in early October, one year after their political party lost its majority voice in Kyrgyzstan’s new coalition government.
Three weeks later, this demonstration and the protests that have followed have not escalated out of the Kyrgyz government’s control. The country’s ruling coalition has remained in place and the president has promised to uphold the law. In this remote region of polarized politics, poor and often divisive governance, is this a glimmer of hope?
A Public Demonstration
When 200 Kyrgyz Ata Jurt or “homeland” party members decided to scale the fences surrounding the Kyrgyz Republic’s government and parliamentary buildings on October 3, Reuters reported that this was the most violent attempt on the Kyrgyz government, since the April 2010 protests which ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev and March 2005 protests which caused his predecessor Askar Akaev to flee previously. Kyrgyz police fired tear gas and used stun grenades to disperse an overall crowd of over 500 protesters. Only a dozen injuries were reported.
Kyrgyz nationalist parliamentarian Kamchibek Tashiev, who serves as head of the Ata Jurt party, is assumed to be behind the most recent protest. The apparent goal to which he rallied supporters was to take over the offices of ministers and members of parliament and forge a government better able to listen to the needs of the people. The demonstrators cited a recent decision of the government not to nationalize the Kumtor gold mine as the cause. The mine has been operated for the past 20 years by a Canadian-based company called Centerra Gold. Kyrgyzstan owns one-third of its total shares. During his early October visit to the gold mine, new Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev emphasized the parliament’s decision to renew Kumtor’s operating license. The nationalists had hoped instead that the government would have used the visit to renegotiate the contract in the favor of the Kyrgyz.
Since then, the prosecutor general’s office has opened a criminal case against Tashiev and two of his fellow deputies. Those also under question for inciting massive unrest are Sadyr Japarov, head of the Ata Jurt party faction in the parliament, and Talent Mamytov, vice speaker of the parliament. They have been incarcerated in the pretrial detention center of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), and await sentencing within the next two months, while the criminal court reviews their case.
The three deputies have been charged with forcefully trying to overthrow the government which could result in a jail sentence of 12 to 20 years. Tashiev and Japarov have also been charged with appealing to the public to violently bring about change in the constitutional order, for a potential addition of five years to their sentences. The protesters were said to have been unarmed, although a Kalashnikov and several bullet proof vests were recovered from Japarov’s car after the event.
Fellow party members deny that the actions of the arrested men were an attempt to overthrow the government. An official Ata Jurt party statement on October 6 maintained that the actions of their fellow deputies were a stupid (mis)step and suggested that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev move to forgive his ‘companions’. According to his advisor Farid Niyazov, Atambayev has remained firm in his pledge to uphold the law. And, Atambayev has yet to speak directly with protesters.
Friends, family members and supporters continue to gather in larger numbers in Bishkek around the White House, and in the south: in Jalalabad, just 7 kilometers outside of Tashiev’s hometown of Barpy, and most recently in the city of Osh. In fact, the largest protests to date have taken place in the south. This is cause for concern in a region which so recently was the scene of massive unrest in Kyrgyzstan.
In Osh, only two years ago, in the aftermath of President Bakiev’s overthrow in June of 2010, ethnic riots between the native Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations forced 100,000 Kyrgyz Uzbek citizens to flee and 500 Kyrgyz and Uzbeks to lose their lives. A number of protesters have gone on hunger strike until the Ata Jurt leaders are released. Tashiev, too, went on a short-lived hunger strike of three days which rapid weight loss and deteriorating health forced him to end prematurely.
Before addressing a little more about Kyrgyzstan’s political history, it will help to consider what sparked the current unrest in the first place.
The Kumtor Gold Mine
The Kumtor gold mine has been called the crown jewel of the struggling Kyrgyz economy. Its profit accounted for about 12% of the country’s GDP and over half of its total exports in 2011. The decision about whether or not to nationalize the mine has come up in parliament several times over the years. Its nationalization was most recently voted down narrowly in the parliament in June. In part the opposition stems from feelings among certain parliamentary deputies that they had never agreed to it opening for production in the first place. Many deputies reasoned that the mine was opened with the help of an agreement signed behind closed doors by first Kyrgyz President Akaev.
President Akaev praised Kumtor as an excellent example of international cooperation at its formal opening in 1997. The mine project had already generated discord in the preceding 5 years, during its evaluation and development stage. The Canadian operators were not satisfied with the standards of Kara-Balta, the Soviet-era uranium refining facility the Kyrgyz government initially proposed to use to refine the gold from Kumtor. The parliament for its part has issued various reports that the Kumtor project was not meeting agreed upon standards. For example, they blamed it for overspending its budget and not taking precautions to protect the environment.
Tempers flared in particular after a horrendous mishap in May 1998. A truck from the Kumtor mine carrying sodium cyanide – used in the gold extraction process – crashed through a bridge and spilled into the Barskoon River, which provides drinking water to the valley’s residents and irrigation for its fields. As it flowed down river to Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Lake, the contamination sickened 2,600 and led to the hospitalization of at least 1,000 people.
Over a period of at least eight years, the local population fought to get proper compensation for their suffering as a result of the incident. However, reparations paid by mine officials to the government never reached those who had suffered. And, commissions set up in the parliament to measure the degree of local suffering failed to release the results of their studies. These instances and other infrastructural hurdles affecting the basic social and economic wellbeing of Kyrgyzstan’s populace have lead to a growing mistrust of centralized authority.
Still, the mine has continued to operate, and if not dramatically – noticeably at least – a little more on Kyrgyzstan’s terms. A ‘new terms agreement’ signed by the government in 2009 brought Kyrgyzstan’s ownership of Kumtor to a 33% level from 15.66%. It also allowed for additional concessions from its Canadian owners, including a profit percentage for local development, and a micro-development scheme for villagers.
Miners had hoped that the installation of a “parliamentary democracy” in October 2010 would usher in a new era. Democracy, or so they hoped, would usher in a much needed peaceful break. However, unless the recent unrest is the final word on Kumtor, this remains unlikely. In fact, starting in 2012 the unrest in the parliament and on the streets of Kyrgyzstan has begun to noticeably affect the mine’s profit.
Still Kumtor remains valuable real estate for a country as poor as Kyrgyzstan. The nationalist Ata Jurt party seems to have taken specific interest in winning a piece of this stake. While the mine is a serious issue, the real stake that the southern based party appears government seems to have lost is its voice in the parliament.
The Kyrgyz Parliament
Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary system is unique among the centralized governments of its neighbors in Central Asia. In its short history as an independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has experimented with five different renditions of the parliamentary system. It was not until 2010, however, that the government was restructured to give stronger voices to the prime minister and the deputies in the parliament and reduce that of the president, who had held much of the power previously (and had often abused it).
The current parliament was the result of a June 2010 constitutional referendum signed into effect months after President Bakiev’s violent ouster. With one signature, citizens were asked to approve an interim president and a new constitution for their country. The new constitution diminished the role of the president and allocated more power to the parliament. The new parliament – the “Supreme Council” – would have 120 seats, no more than 65 of which could be assigned to an individual party. The electoral code further outlined the number of seats which would be given to women and to minorities and took measures to mitigate extremism and increase transparency.
Coalitions are Formed
The first parliamentary elections in October 2010 brought five parties into parliament. Because none of these parties had the clear majority, a coalition was built. This coalition included the Social-Democratic party of current President Atambaev, as well as the Respublika, and Ata-Meken (“fatherland”) parties. The coalition stemmed from the agreement of these parties on who would serve in the nation’s top government posts.
One hundred thirteen deputies came out in favor of the election of businessman Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party as the prime minister. However, the first coalition collapsed a day after it was formed, when Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev failed to earn enough votes to become the parliamentary speaker. (Together with prime and deputy prime ministers, the position of parliamentary speaker is one upon which deputies must agree).
In an attempt to create a more lasting coalition, the Respublika and Social Democratic Parties allied themselves instead with the country’s southern Ata Jurt Party. This informal agreement also resulted in the appointment of an Ata Jurt party member as parliamentary speaker, thus creating a de facto liaison between the country’s north and south and for a while this worked.
However, a year after coming to this compromise, Social Democratic Party leader Atambayev won the post of president of the Kyrgyz Republic in the country’s first official presidential election. This meant that the coalition had to be reconfigured again. Since this restructuring, which replaced the Ata Jurt with the pro-Russian Ar-Namys Party, the Ata Jurt Party has no longer belonged to the parliament’s majority party, although it won the largest percentage of the votes coming in.
Though this coalition would last a lot longer than the one that preceded it, it too was disbanded in August 2012 amid corruption allegations filed against former Prime Minister Babanov. These lead to the successive departures of Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys parties from the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Satybaldiyev was elected nearly unanimously to replace Babanov. As a technocrat with plans to focus on the Kyrgyz economy, Satybaldiyev was seen as a safe choice for all.
The Kyrgyz Government Today
There continues to be a lot of mistrust in and between parties of the Kyrgyz parliament. Some parties have voiced their interest in the return of a strong presidential system, while others feel that the president has enough power already, complaining that Atambayev has been too heavy handed. Recently, this has been brought up in the treatment of the parliamentary delegates.
But perhaps the bigger question is not who is in power because several politicians are now able to voice their opinions within the parliamentary system. The larger question is who is not in power and what is being done to engage with their alternate visions for Kyrgyzstan. Economic investments – like Kumtor – are important, but only as long as they serve the greater good. Rule of law is effective, but only so long as it is upheld and speaks to a diverse and multiethnic populace.
That the nationalist party stems from Kyrgyzstan’s geographically separate and politically isolated south is not a fact that should be overlooked. That the nationalist party rose to its current popularity after a time of great political uncertainty, and violent interethnic conflict, should not either. Discussions of progressive politics in Kyrgyzstan must involve plans that make sense for both the country’s north and south.
It is difficult to imagine the circumstances which led to the recent unrests in Kyrgyzstan disappearing anytime soon. More likely, Kyrgyzstan – the country recently said to have the largest budget deficit among CIS countries – will continue to be home to a proliferation of actors with varying opinions about how this country should move forward. Corruption allegations will continue to be made against successful individuals and ventures, as long as there is perceived inequality among ethnic, political, and geographical groups.
The profitable Kumtor gold mine seems doomed to be caught in the “crosshairs” of both internal and foreign policy. The circumstances are self-perpetuating. The more people perceive themselves to be unequal from their peers, the more they will become convinced that they should side with external or oppositional Kyrgyz political groups. And, this is exactly the kind of fertile breeding ground these political actors rely on in their recruitment.
International observers will want to pay attention to this country because of its strategic location, north of Afghanistan and west of China, and it is the only country to host both a Russian and an American army base. Nowhere in the world do Russia and the United States find themselves in such close proximity, in a location which is renowned for being so exceptionally capricious and unstable.