Protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northwest have clashed with police and blocked a major road, alleging a Kazakh project to survey for gold is polluting the local environment. It’s the latest in a string of violent, mining-related clashes in the Central Asian state. Once again, mining experts in Bishkek are skeptical about the protestors’ motivations.
Early on April 3, several hundred protestors blocked the road leading from Talas, the largest town in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas Province, to Taraz, in Kazakhstan. By evening, the number had swollen to 500 and some reports circulated that two officials had been kidnapped. At least 19 police were wounded in a confrontation with stone-throwing residents, 24.kg reported, citing an Interior Ministry official.
The protestors are demanding Kazakh mining concern Altyn Kumushtak, which has been exploring the Shiraldjin gold deposit since 2005, stop. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, a self-identified participant in the riots, Nurlan Muzurov, said he and others “don’t want deformed children, pollution of the water and the air.”
In 2009, Altyn Kumushtak’s license had been annulled and given to a Chinese company in one of many murky exchanges during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid bloody street protests in 2010. In 2013 the Kazakh company successfully appealed and won back the rights to the deposit.
Protests targeting foreign miners are common in Kyrgyzstan. Though environmental fears can be legitimate, many observers believe powerful individuals manipulate locals in order to seize deposits, shake down foreign investors, or destabilize the government. Locals in such remote and impoverished areas often do not have access to alternative sources of information.
In August, two men who had previously led environmentally themed protests against the Canadian-owned Kumtor goldmine were caught on tape demanding $3 million from a Kumtor representative in exchange for an apparent guarantee not to orchestrate protests. They have since been sentenced to jail terms and protests demanding their release continue. One protest apparently on their behalf last fall saw the local governor kidnapped, doused with petrol, and threatened with matches.
Altyn Kumushtak has not begun tapping the deposit at Shiraldjin, said Kadyrbek Kaketaev, a senior advisor at the State Geology Agency who retired last year. He believes the protestors have been bribed by local powerbrokers to riot. “These peoples’ claims are groundless. Exploration does no such harm,” Kaketaev told EurasiaNet.org.
Altyn Kumushtak has suspended operations, director Rustam Tashiev told the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper on April 4. He believes opposition leaders are stirring up trouble to seek concessions from the government. "We don’t want to be a political card for the opposition,” he said, adding that the company is evacuating employees and equipment.
Elsewhere in the same province, Talas Copper Gold, a subsidiary of South Africa’s Gold Fields, was attacked twice by men on horseback wielding Molotov cocktails in 2011. The company has since pulled out of Kyrgyzstan.