Kyrgyzstan has recently experienced an upsurge in tensions around the issue of pollution in the Kumtor Gold Mine, which it has not known since the ethnic riots of June 2010. Oppositional nationalists are using this tension to put Kyrgyzstan again on the edge of stability, at a moment when Islamist are growing strong in the region and Afghanistan is going through a security transition that could affect the rest of Central Asia.
By Alejandro Marx, 8th September, 2013
Since its independence in 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan has known stability until the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in 2005 when its first president Askar Akayev, elected in 1990 was succeeded by Kurmankek Bakiyev. Bakiyev left Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 as a result of violent street protests, followed soon after by ethnic riots. After the transitional presidency of Roza Otunbaeva, Almazbek Atambaev was inaugurated president in December 2011. Atambaev is the leader of the Kyrgyzstan Social Democratic Party, which has 26 out of 120 seats in parliament. He previously held the post of prime minister in the governments of Bakiyev and Otunbaeva. His party rules an unstable coalition with the other parties, apart from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party.
Russia is assuming increasingly the role of a protective power in Kyrgyzstan and the region by providing $1.1 billion of military assistance to the Kyrgyz Army and maintaining military bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In addition to combating extremism, this presence allows Russia to maintain leverage against the other countries in the region, particularly Uzbekistan. This move takes place as the NATO Transit Center in Manas is due to be closed by July 2014. China is also active in Kyrgyzstan and the region, fostering security in cooperation with Russia and the Central Asian States through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China invests also heavily in the mining sector in Kyrgyzstan.
Ata-Jurt: a strong, nationalist opposition
Kamchybek Tashiev is the leader of the Ata-Jurt party, the largest party in parliament with 28 seats, which is the main organ of the opposition in Kyrgyzstan. This party has often been accused of engaging in nationalistic rhetoric and of supporting Bakiyev’s return to power. Tashiev and two other MPs from the Ata-Jurt party were arrested in October 2012 on charges of attempting to forcibly overthrow the government during a protest at the parliament in Bishkek. They were acquitted on 17 June, after the judges were assaulted by Ata-Jurt supporters.
The Kyrgyz government struggles to maintain its rule in the rest of the country. Melisbek Myrzakmatov, the Mayor of Osh, who has the backing of Ata-Jurt, rejects the authority of the government, thus creating a fiefdom where the rule of the State is challenged.
Environmental concerns fuels social unrest
The protests against the Kumtor mine, a gold mine majority owned and operated by the Canadian company ‘Centerra Gold’ and with a 33 percent minority stake owned by the Kyrgyz State started on 27 May. Demonstrators expressed their discontent with the environmental damage caused by the mine and demanded for environment friendly mining infrastructures and medical facilities.
This pollution has been documented by the NGO ‘CEE Bankwatch Network’ in a report from January 2012. The government decided to intervene after protesters seized and closed down the power plant supplying the mine, causing violent clashes. Other parts of the country also saw protests with demonstrators seizing the governor’s office in the city of Jalal-Abad and putting in power a new representative called Medet Usenov. Usenov called for the liberation of Tashiev and two other opposition MPs from the Ata-Jurt Party, who were arrested in October during a protest in favour of the nationalization of the Kumtor mine. Ata-Jurt used the opportunity of the clashes in Kumtor to exert pressure on the government for its own end.
The Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, visited the protesters on 1 June 2013 to defuse tensions, and to announce that the government would study the protesters’ demands.
Following this conciliatory move by the government, the police arrested Usenov in Jalal-Abad. In response, his supporters blocked the strategic Bishkek-Osh highway on 2 June. Prime Minister Satybaldiyev, again, sought to ease tensions by freeing Usenov and meeting with the protesters on 5 June. The situation subsequently returned to normal.
Despite the fact that the Kyrgyz government had embarked on new negotiations with the unwilling ‘Centerra Gold’ to create a joint venture to change the legal framework and allow the Kyrgyz States to increase taxes on ‘Centera Gold’ operations and potentially pay for medical facilities and cleaning operation in the region of the mine. Protests took place again on 27 of June in the village of Kyzyl-Suu, close to the Kumtor mine. The citizens have not been convinced by the government’s reassurances.
The conflict around mining in Kumtor is not the first one. Chinese operators and Chinese workers in mining have also been targeted by Kyrgyz protesters in October 2012 and August 2011, angry at the pollution and the treatment Kyrgyz workers receive in these mines
Islamists engaged from Syria to China
Kyrgyzstan has succeeded in avoiding further bloodshed for now, but the upheaval is a reminder of the instability that continues affecting Kyrgyzstan. The withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan could encourage violent Islamists to step up their activities in the countries of Central Asia, using unstable Kyrgyzstan as a route to other countries. The Islamist group Jund-Al-Khilafa, based in the North Caucasus, Afghanistan and Pakistan, carried out three separate attacks in Kazakhstan in late 2011, two of them close to the Kyrgyz border. If the Afghan authorities lose control of their territory after 2014, Jund-Al-Khilafa could strengthen its activities in Kazakhstan and use Kyrgyzstan as a route to smuggle weapons and combatants. Despite good neighbourly relations, Kazakhstan has been fortifying its border with Kyrgyzstan in an effort to clamp down on smuggling.
Another Islamist group called the East Turkistan Islamic Party, targeting the Chinese region of Xinjiang, is based in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Again, if the Afghan government fails, Kyrgyzstan would be part of a direct corridor to Xinjiang through Tajikistan. In April and June 2013, violent clashes took place in Xinjiang between ethnic Uighurs and police officers, leading to a death toll of 56.
It has been reported that young Kyrgyz men have been travelling to Syria to fight in the insurgency. The Kyrgyz government is working to localise these individuals and repatriate them. However, those individuals who fail to return to Kyrgyzstan could become links between Islamists in Central Asia and jihadists in Syria, thus bringing new players into Central Asia. Already, in late 2010, an Islamist group, Zhaishul Mahdi, composed of Kyrgyz citizens carried out a series of bombings and attempt bombings in Bishkek targeting a synagogue, a sport complex, and a police station. The leader and some of the members were killed in a shootout with the police in January 2011. The other members were arrested.
Navigating between dangers
Although it is unlikely that Central Asia will see Islamist uprisings, the trend of localised terrorism may increase in the future. An unwelcome development at a moment the population is eager to reap the benefits of the mineral wealth in the region.
Powers in the region are cooperating to maintain security in the region. However, they seem to give a mayor importance to hard security, when soft security is also needed.
The international community has to keep in mind that the fair redistribution of the benefits of mineral resources and the environmentally sustainable extraction of these are part of the support for political democratisation and regional security. The increasing investment in mineral resources in the region will make this issue only too important. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, It is important to resolve the issues caused by mining to the local population. The resolution of these issues would stop Ata Jurt from using the frustration of the population to exert pressure on the State and, thus creating instability.
Alejandro Marx is a former Junior Analyst of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He previously worked for various agencies of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.