The governor of Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul Province was taken hostage for several hours on October 7 in the latest bout of unrest related to a controversial, Canadian-owned gold mine. Hundreds of protestors, including some on horseback, continued to clash with police late in the evening.
Protestors grabbed Emil Kaptagaev, who has been governor only since a summer shakeup that followed violent riots outside the nearby mine in May, and stuffed him into a car. Some reports said the rioters wanted to nationalize the mine, Kumtor; others said they wanted the government’s stake in any future deal to be no less than 70 percent.
Kaptagaev was released around 7 p.m. local time amid unconfirmed reports he had been drenched in gasoline and threatened with matches.
Several hours later, protests flared up again, with police reportedly employing stun grenades and tear gas in failed attempts to disperse rioters throwing rocks and pouring petrol on the road, according to Kloop.kg.
A press officer for the local police told Kloop.kg earlier in the day that the protestors were supporters of Bakhtiar Kurmanov and Ermek Dzhunushbaev, who were arrested last month for allegedly trying to extort $3 million from Kumtor.
Few in Bishkek believe protests like this happen spontaneously. Instead, they are often attributed to criminal gangs or politicians trying to extort money from the mine, the largest legitimate business in Kyrgyzstan. In a good year Kumtor accounts for 12 percent of GDP and half of industrial output.
“Blackmail is a way of life here. That’s a fairly normal business practice,” a senior mining executive said last month of the $3-million shakedown. What happened in the video, he said, was “nothing unusual.”
In February, parliament voted to restructure Toronto-based Centerra Gold’s Kumtor operating agreement for the third time in ten years. Last month, the government came back to parliament with a memorandum outlining the terms of a tentative deal in which Bishkek and Centerra would form a 50-50 joint venture. Though industry insiders believe the deal is the best either side can get, several populist factions in parliament are pushing for more. Should the two sides fail to reach a deal, parliament has reserved the right to unilaterally cancel it and move toward expropriation.
Bishkek’s chattering classes had been expecting another round of Kumtor-related protests this autumn.
“The May riots were very well organized. Protestors were clearly paid. Why else would they come out during the growing season? [Protests often occur before planting or after the harvest.] The government played them well and they [the protestors’ paymasters] backed off after they spent their money. It’s been summer since, so quiet. Now it’s fall,” said the mining executive.
Another analyst in Bishkek said today’s protests were “an inevitable reaction to the [Kumtor] negotiations winding down. No mater what the deal, some people were never going to be happy and some where going to use riots to score points.”
Parliament had been due to resume discussing the Kumtor restructure this week.
With violence in Karakol continuing into the evening, it seems likely the protestors will attempt to gain control of the regional administration building. Though Kyrgyz protestors frequently seize government buildings, those tactics in recent years have been confined primarily to the south. Should that happen in the north, in the stronghold of the ruling SDPK party, it would present a psychological blow to the government's attempts to portray Kyrgyzstan on the road to normality.