Kyrgyzstan’s government has suspended work at a brand new Chinese-built oil refinery, the prime minister has announced, after local protestors demanded the polluting plant clean up its act. A lack of coordination with the community, and suspicion about Chinese intentions, are likely to turn the dispute into another cautionary tale about doing business in the protest-prone Central Asian country.
Residents in the northern town of Kara-Balta have rallied several times in the past month, complaining of fetid smoke from the $300 million Junda facility, which opened on January 17. Initial work stopped on January 27 after a trial run, the company says, promising that future activity at the refinery will be cleaner.
The Junda refinery (sometimes written Zhongda) is designed to process crude oil imported by rail from nearby Kazakhstan. Bishkek has eagerly embraced the project, set to employ over 2,000 locals, making it one of impoverished Kyrgyzstan’s largest employers. No less significantly, it would help Kyrgyzstan break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly by producing an estimated 600,000 tons of fuel annually, about half domestic need, thus lowering petrol prices at the pump.
But what’s happening in the once-industrial town two hours west of Bishkek seems to be following a familiar pattern.
For over three years locals leaders have complained that the national authorities have ignored their concerns, that the plant will negatively impact air quality, that it’s too close to residential areas, and that it will pollute a local river. In early 2011, local lawmaker Marat Usupkozhoyev told EurasiaNet.org that Kara-Balta had not received convincing assurances the project was not breaking environmental regulations and that it would not endanger local residents’ health.
With those concerns never adequately addressed, according to local residents, it should have been no surprise that the refinery would meet opposition when it finally opened. (Usupkozhoyev is now reportedly saying that Chinese workers are impregnating Kyrgyz women, an old trope useful for inflaming passions.)
After several weeks of protest, the State Environmental Agency has said a soil sample collected near the refinery showed petroleum levels 175 times the allowable limit, according to 24.kg, though it’s unclear if the contamination came from the Junda refinery or earlier industry in Kara-Balta.
Certainly China has a lousy record caring for the environment. Locals complain Junda is uncommunicative. And Sinophobia is already high in Kyrgyzstan.
“Rising nationalism, ingrained suspicions about Chinese expansionism, few tangible grassroots benefits and a sense that the companies respect only those who can assist their commercial ventures at the highest level have left many disinclined to view China as a beneficial force,” the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, said last year in a report on Beijing’s activities in Central Asia.
A parallel to the Junda dispute is the years-long saga over the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine in Issyk-Kul Province. Though responsible for over half of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial output, the mine brings little tangible benefit to the majority of Kyrgyz. In the area around Kumtor, anxieties about pollution, and a poor understanding of how the mine works, have fueled protests and made locals easy to exploit by vested interests.
But environmental concerns alone rarely get the backing of prominent politicians in Kyrgyzstan; too often they become convenient excuses for targeting deep-pocketed foreigners. Some of the recent protests against Kumtor have been led by the same men who sought to extort millions of dollars from the mine, the same men, Kumtor officials say, who tried to muscle in on lucrative waste-removal contracts. They are thought to have links to the obstructionist lawmakers demanding Kumtor’s expropriation.
One sign suggesting Kara-Balta could be similarly manipulated was the appearance of Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of parliament's Ata-Meken faction, at a Kara-Balta rally on February 17. In what seemed an attempt to discredit the government, he claimed the oil at the refinery may have come from the same fields as a scandal-plagued shipment of allegedly radioactive coal. That forms a string of associations: Just as the coal had been used by opposition lawmakers in their attempts to force out former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov in 2012, so Tekebayev has pushed hard to expropriate Kumtor as part of his effort to oust the government of Jantoro Satybaldiyev. Will the Chinese refinery become an instrument in a similar fight?
The environmental argument is a genie not easily stuffed back into the bottle. Early last year Economics Minister Temir Sariev used poorly documented pollution claims (to the tune of almost $500 million) to force Kumtor to renegotiate its operating license. Since then, as opponents of his government sought outright expropriation and anti-mining protests raged around the country, Sariev – who had harbored presidential ambitions – has backed off and sought compromise with Kumtor while setting aside those earlier claims. He says – and he should know – that the anti-refinery protestors are being manipulated by people wishing “to earn political points.”