Tajikistan likes to brand itself as the last Central Asian Eldorado, a place that (once the deep-pocketed foreigners get over their corruption concerns) will be swimming in hydrocarbon and mineral wealth – or at least look something like Kazakhstan.
So far though, in its 20-plus years of independence, Tajikistan has enjoyed little foreign investment, even though it boasts over 600 documented mineral stores, including what’s believed to be one of the largest silver deposits in the world.
A new poll has found that nearly half of Tajiks would welcome foreign investment in their mining sector, while more than a fifth were against it. These figures are almost the mirror opposite of sentiments in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Asked how they “feel about foreign companies developing mineral resources,” 45 percent of Tajiks said they were in favor, while 21 percent said they were opposed. In Kyrgyzstan, only 25 percent responded positively, with 43 percent opposed. (The poll was released on August 5 by regional pollster M-Vector, covering 1,008 respondents across Tajikistan and 2,656 in Kyrgyzstan.)
The pollsters offer no hypotheses about the difference, but why not bounce around some unscientific ideas about the possible reasons that people in two desperately poor, mountainous post-Soviet states bordering China have such different views on outsiders extracting their natural wealth for a fee?
Experience vs Dreams
Unlike Tajikistan, where attracting out-of-country extractive companies is on the government’s to-do list, Kyrgyzstan has a much longer history of dealing with foreign miners. The country’s flagship gold mine, Canadian-owned Kumtor, is critical to the national budget: It has accounted for as much as 12 percent of GDP in a good year and gets a special section in the state’s monthly economic stats.
Just like most corporate-industrial majors, Kumtor has faced its share of PR disasters. Plenty of Kyrgyz believe that ordinary people haven’t benefitted from its presence – or profits – and that its operations have caused massive environmental damage. (That fear is easy to exploit when recollections of a very real cyanide spill at the mine back in 1998 are combined with a dismal level of education and public health awareness.)
Moreover, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are woefully corrupt, ranking 157 and 154, respectively, out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. Average residents, obviously, are wise to this. And since the middlemen between foreign companies and locals are inevitably government officials, companies like Kumtor suffer from public perceptions that they collude with venal officials. In Tajikistan, for now, there aren’t enough foreign mining outfits to have built up such a bad rep.
Pluralism, More and Less
Political life in the two countries unfolded in hugely dissimilar ways post-independence. Tajiks lived through a grueling, five-year civil war. This, some say, left them inured to pesky annoyances like official corruption – better that than war, the reasoning goes. And, more importantly, the current authorities in Dushanbe, who came to power as peacemakers, continue using a mix of carrots, sticks and automatic weapons to wipe out competing factions, thus dominating the political playing field.
Kyrgyzstan, on the contrary, came to be known as Central Asia’s “Island of Democracy,” with plenty of Western-funded civil society projects and enough competing regional clan networks to ensure its own brand of political plurality – opaque and imperfect, but more of it than in the region’s other four countries combined. To this day, rival groups continue to fight over pieces of pie – and if that means hurling accusations at a giant, lucrative mining company to extract concessions, so be it. Kumtor, the biggest piece of the mining pie, has faced unrelenting protest and corruption allegations, with smaller foreign-run mines falling prey to arson attacks, license battles, and beatings of employees.
So where does that leave Tajikistan?
If ordinary Kyrgyz are fatigued with foreign investors – at heart, because they can’t trust their own officials to cut deals in the country’s best interests – what’s to say foreign mining in Tajikistan won’t land in the same water? Tajik officials aren’t any more upstanding than their neighbors and there are even fewer mechanisms for accountability – though there is tighter state control of media, so maybe word won’t leak out in the same way.
Both governments are eager for investment, and are actively wooing Chinese companies not known for giving much thought to transparency or corporate social responsibility. Earlier this year, a secretive outfit, Cayman Islands-registered Tethys Petroleum, helped lure in energy majors Total and the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) to develop Tajikistan’s Bokhtar oil and gas deposit.
If Tajikistan does manage to bring in the foreign miners, it’ll be interesting to hear what average Tajiks have to say about it a few years down the road. Their leaders will likely still be rich, and still flaunting their wealth. And the Chinese – the likeliest big investors – have a habit of importing their own workers, not hiring locals. So if that gas (a big “if”), silver or gold ever comes out of the ground, will average Tajiks see any benefit? And will the memory of civil war still keep them quite so tolerant?