Last week seven demonstrations took place in Kyrgyzstan. Five of them were related to the Kumtor gold mine. The events in Karakol attracted the most attention.
The riots began in Karakol during a demonstration on October 7, when protesters took hostage Emilbek Kaptagaev, the Governor of the Issyk-Kul region. The participants of the demonstration demanded the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, threatening to set fire to a car with Mr. Kaptagaev inside it. Demonstrators attempted to storm government buildings in the Issyk-Kul region, but all their attempts were unsuccessful. After negotiations with authorities the protesters released the governor.
After the governor’s release, the police launched an operation to disperse the demonstrators using special devices, including stun grenades and rubber bullets. The demonstrators – mostly residents of the Jeti-Oguz district of the Issyk-Kul region – came out in open confrontation with the police, pelting them with stones and other materials at hand. By midnight on October 7 the situation stabilized. Police detained 23 protesters, including two of the organizers of the demonstration, Naris Kalchaev and Ulan Chibutov.
The arrest of the demonstrators provoked another protest the following day, October 8, on the road connecting Balykchy and Karakol, by residents of the village of Saruu. The protesters blocked traffic on the highway and demanded the release of the detainees from the previous demonstration and the distribution of shares of Kumtor so that Kyrgyzstan holds 70 percent, instead of the currently proposed half. During the day the Balykchy-Karakol highway was blocked twice; after negotiations with the local authorities, the demonstrators could not decide whether or not to unblock the road. The highway was finally unblocked in the late afternoon on October 8, after the government promised to release all those detained in Karakol if they are not guilty.
The Prosecutor General’s office, in turn, has opened a criminal case into the actions of the protesters in Saruu – in particular for the attack on the head of the Jeti-Oguz Office of the MIA, the attempted car arson, and for the illegal blocking of roads. Half of those detained during the unrest in Karakol were remanded into custody until December of this year.
Meanwhile, President Almazbek Atambayev has stated that the nationalization of Kumtor is unacceptable. Nevertheless, he added that the final decision on nationalization and the distribution of the proportion of shares in the company lies with Parliament. Atambayev first expressed his position on the question of nationalization of Kumtor during a meeting with reporters on October 9. “There are a lot of risks. Just imagine that Kyrgyzstan may lose about 7 billion soms because of this decision,” said Atambayev, according to the 24.kg news agency.
Discussions concerning the future of Kumtor have been a major point of contention between the authorities and the opposition for the past year. The opposition is not the first year requires nationalize gold mine. Today it is majority-owned by the Canadian company Centerra Gold and part-owned by Kyrgyzstan. After a series of protests, the government proposed in the summer of 2013 a new version of the memorandum on Kumtor, according to which Kyrgyzstan would have refused the shares in Centerra Gold, but would receive half of the shares in a new company created solely to manage gold mine in Kyrgyzstan. However, the opposition did not accept this option, but demanded that Kyrgyzstan should own 70 percent of the shares of the new company.
Meanwhile, there were various rumors about the real motives behind the protests concerning the gold mining company. Many believe that this is just an excuse to destabilize the situation. The number of alleged organizers of this demonstration is also quite extensive, including Akayev, Bakiyev, and even Rosa Otunbayeva. There is also a view that a third party may stand behind it, such as the U.S. According to these rumors, the U.S. seeks to destabilize the country in order to save its military base at Manas Airport.
Time will show what will be the outcome of this Kyrgyz gold rush. The vote in parliament on Kumtor should be held in late October. The wait will not be long.
EDITOR’S UPDATE: On 23 October the Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the draft of the new agreement, with only two votes in favor of the administrations proposed deal. Protests continued in Issyk Kul province demanding the release of the two men jailed for taking the provincial governor hostage.