A state commission in Kyrgyzstan has used claims of environmental damage at the country’s largest, most lucrative gold mine, Kumtor, to argue for a new agreement with the company operating the mine, Toronto-based Centerra Gold, and to fine Centerra almost half a billion dollars.
Economics Minister Temir Sariev, who headed the commission, says he has evidence, including two reports by European scientists, that the mine is inflicting “colossal damage” on the environment.
But, until now, hardly anyone in Kyrgyzstan has seen those scientists’ supposedly damning reports.
In December and February the commission, acting, respectively, through two state agencies – the State Inspectorate for Environmental and Technical Safety (SIETS) and the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry (SAEPF) – fined Centerra approximately $467 million for alleged environmental damages, waste disposal and water treatment violations dating back to 1996. Centerra calls the claims “exaggerated or without merit.”
In its report for the state commission, SIETS said discharge from Kumtor is a "serious contamination threat" leading to "irreversible environmental impact on water resources."
Yet the two independent environmental audits Sariev commissioned, carried out by Slovene and German researchers last fall, found nothing unusual in Kumtor’s discharge. The Slovenes said water samples do not “indicate an environmental pollution or contamination situation.” The Germans said cyanide (used in the gold milling process) and heavy metals in Kumtor effluent “are significantly below the limit values of the German Ordinance on Waste Water.”
Basically, the reports – which EurasiaNet.org has seen – do not support the state commission’s environmental claims.
Nothing irritates Tashkent more than neighboring countries' plans to build hydropower dams upstream. But rather than making the usual effort to thwart those plans with blockades and talk of “war,” a senior Uzbek official has offered some constructive advice.
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Water and Agriculture Minister Shavkat Khamraev told UN Radio this week that the only way to solve arguments about Central Asia’s unevenly distributed water resources is to construct small hydropower stations instead of giant dams, like the ones upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hope to build on the tributaries of the region's main rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Speaking of Tajikistan and the Amu Darya in particular, he said in a March 19 interview, "Let them build. We are also building small hydropower stations that do not alter the water and environmental pattern of this river and its basin.”
Khamraev is in New York to attend a March 22 meeting on water cooperation at UN headquarters. A Tajik delegation is also expected to attend.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Dushanbe’s plans to build what would be the world's tallest dam, Rogun. Dushanbe pins great hopes on the 335-meter dam, believing it will ensure energy security for the country, which now depends heavily on its neighbors.
Tashkent, however, says Rogun will hurt its agricultural sector and poses unnecessary risks in a seismically active region. Last fall, President Islam Karimov said projects like Rogun could “spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
An industry survey has called Kyrgyzstan one of the world's “least attractive” places for mining companies to invest. In one category, Kyrgyzstan, which is embroiled in a contract dispute with its largest foreign investor, ranked last for "uncertainty concerning the administration, interpretation and enforcement of existing regulations.”
The survey, released February 28 by the Fraser Institute, a non-profit Canadian research outfit, is based on interviews with representatives of 742 mining companies working in 96 jurisdictions (countries, states, provinces) who spent a total of $6.2 billion in exploration worldwide last year.
Fraser uses something called the Policy Potential Index (PPI), “a comprehensive assessment of the attractiveness of mining policies in a jurisdiction, [which] can serve as a report card to governments on how attractive their policies are from the point of view of an exploration manager.”
Overall, Kyrgyzstan ranked 92nd of 96.
Miners answered questions about topics like environmental and tax regulations, land disputes, “socioeconomic agreements, political stability, labor issues” and security. Corruption (where Kyrgyzstan also plumbed the bottom of the rankings) was surveyed but not factored into the PPI.
Kyrgyzstan fared slightly better in “potential” and quite high in “room for improvement.”
A Bible bonfire is unlikely to boost Kazakhstan’s religious freedom credentials. After all, the country likes to tout itself as a bastion of religious tolerance. Yet as Astana enters new territory in its zealous attempts to control religion, it looks like officials are about to strike the match.
A court in northern Kazakhstan has ordered Christian literature including Bibles to be destroyed, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports. One official has said the Holy Scriptures are likely to be burned.
The order to destroy religious books may be a first for Kazakhstan, Forum 18 said. A legal order last April to destroy religious works, including a Bible, was annulled.
The latest order concerns 121 Bibles and other religious books and leaflets belonging to Vyacheslav Cherkasov, a Baptist from the town of Shchuchinsk. He was slapped with a fine of around $575 after being arrested for distributing religious literature for free.
In his defense, Cherkasov cited his constitutional rights, but the court ruled that only two bookshops in Shchuchinsk are licensed to distribute religious literature. Last year local authorities throughout Kazakhstan issued decrees authorizing only named, licensed bookshops to sell religious literature, Forum 18 said.
Cherkasov is appealing, but if he fails the Bibles are likely to be “burnt,” Justice Ministry official Kulzhiyan Nurbayeva told Forum 18.
“[T]his is terrible, terrible,” the watchdog quoted prominent human rights campaigner Yevgeniy Zhovtis as saying.
International Women’s Day on March 8 is seen in much of the world as an opportunity to raise awareness about gender equality – but, as in most other former Soviet states, in Kazakhstan the holiday is more about giving flowers and chocolates and making saccharine speeches extolling the virtues of the fairer sex.
While women’s rights activists in other parts of the former Soviet Union – including neighboring Kyrgyzstan – have stepped forward to try to reclaim Women’s Day, in Kazakhstan the image of the female as either beauty idol or perfect wife remains central to the festivities.
To celebrate the rising role of women in the military – and there are over 8,500 of them, including 750 officers, according to the Defense Ministry – why not vote for Miss Military Kazakhstan? Vox Populi, a magazine, is running an online contest featuring uniformed women striking sexy poses, with readers voting for their favorite military sex bomb.
Not to be outdone, Kazakhstan’s rail industry has its own beauty queen: This year's proud Miss Railways is HR specialist Minuar Sarkynshakova, who won the beauty pageant after a stiff competition in the pages of trade magazine Kazakhstan Railroader.
A Kyrgyz groom inspects a bride, 1871-1872 (top). Hotel Kyrgyzstan (now the Hyatt), 1974 (bottom).
Much of Kyrgyzstan’s rich history is buried in poorly organized government vaults, not necessarily off-limits, but difficult to locate. A new online photo project seeks to change that.
Kyrgyzstan's Union of Photojournalists has begun a crowd-sourced website to collect historical photos in one place accessible to all. And the archive is set to expand as the project officially launches tomorrow, says Vlad Ushakov, one of the founders of Foto.kg, The Kyrgyz Photo Archive.
“We offer all Internet users an opportunity to create the history of our country themselves. The motto of the website is ‘The country's history in photos, the history of photography in the country.’ Users will be able to display old photographs taken before 2000, which depict events, people, and historical facts. All this will be freely available and free of charge,” Ushakov told Vechernii Bishkek.
Each photo appears with historical information, whenever possible, including the year, location, and name of the photographer. Some are borrowed from other online sources, such as the Library of Congress, but this appears to be the first attempt to amass such a collection in one place.
Photo aficionados can register and post their images (though moderators will ensure users stick to appropriate themes), or they can have site administrators scan and restore their old photos, which are then returned. Images from earliest days of photography to the year 2000 are welcome.
A lawmaker in Kyrgyzstan is pushing a resolution that would ban young women from leaving the country without their parents’ written consent.
Irgal Kadyralieva from the Social Democratic Party says the resolution, which would apply to girls under 23 years of age, is intended to "protect their honor and dignity” from trafficking or sex work. “Such measures are needed to increase morality and preserve the gene pool," Vechernii Bishkek quoted her as saying on March 4.
The ban would not prevent girls from studying abroad, Kadyralieva says, but is specifically designed to stop them from traveling abroad for work. Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz women work abroad, mostly in Russia, often in unskilled jobs for low wages and sometimes in dangerous conditions.
Kadyralieva says she was specifically motivated by a series of reports last year about Kyrgyz women in Russia being beaten and raped by Kyrgyz men calling themselves “patriots.” The men were angry at the sight of Kyrgyz women socializing with non-Kyrgyz men.
"This proposal of mine protects national security, social security, moral security and [is an] economic issue," Kadyralieva said in an interview with Kloop.kg.
Muslim communities practicing outside the strict boundaries permitted in Kazakhstan are coming under increased pressure, an international watchdog says, as zealous officials present bizarre interpretations of a controversial new religion law.
One mosque in northern Kazakhstan said it had been told to conduct sermons only in the Kazakh language, Oslo-based Forum 18 reports, although the law contains no such provision.
The mosque facing the stringent linguistic demands is the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl (known as Petropavlovsk in Russian), which has just lost one appeal against a liquidation ruling. The Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir congregation is among many religious communities facing closure under a re-registration process that ended last October.
A 2011 religion law required all religious communities in Kazakhstan to re-register under stringent criteria within a year or face closure. The results were stark: approximately one-third of religious organizations did not receive re-registration, leaving 3,088 operating against the previous total of 4,551.
Petropavl’s 19th-century Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque, whose congregation includes members of the city’s Tatar minority, is among those appealing. It now faces an unusual demand from officials monitoring its sermons, currently held in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and Tatar. (Prayers are held in Arabic.)
“The authorities insist we have sermons only in Kazakh,” Forum 18 quoted an anonymous community member as saying. “But we hold sermons in the language of the people who attend the mosque so that they can understand what is said.”
Behind closed doors, this week a Tajik court ruled in a controversial libel case. To no one’s surprise the plaintiff – the son of a high-ranking government official – won. That Tajikistan’s rich and powerful use courts to bully the media is nothing new, but, this time, the process has exposed Tajiks’ apparently widespread hatred for their country’s judiciary.
In 2010, Rustam Khukumov was sentenced to almost 10 years in a Russian prison, charged, along with three other Tajik nationals, with possessing nine kilos of heroin.
Khukumov is the son of the powerful head of Tajikistan’s railway boss, Amonullo Khukumov. The senior Khukumov is an ally and relative of the Tajik strongman, President Emomali Rakhmon (Khukumov is father-in-law to Rakhmon’s daughter). Could that have anything to do with why the Khukumov scion was released early, under murky circumstances, only a year into his jail term?
For asking that question, the weekly “Imruz News” now owes Khukumov over $10,500 in “moral damages,” a Dushanbe court ruled on February 25. The paper vows to appeal, which means more embarrassing attention on Khukumov.
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”