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.
Tajikistan has one significant industrial asset, an aluminum smelter that dates back to the Soviet era. The state-owned plant, Talco, uses so much electricity it is responsible for regular, rolling blackouts around the country. Many Tajiks would like to know where Talco’s substantial profits go; the company keeps a tight lid on earnings information.
Lawmakers may have destroyed Kyrgyzstan’s reputation among investors in the process, but after a year of heated arguments, which often spilled out into the streets, parliament voted to accept a restructuring roadmap with the country’s largest investor on February 6. The arrangement evenly splits control of the Kumtor gold mine between Bishkek and Kumtor’s Canadian owners.
But Kumtor will probably remain divisive. Outside the high-altitude mine in Issyk-Kul Province, villagers have been holding another one of their periodic roadblocks in recent days, demanding concessions from the government and the mine. In a country with widespread unemployment and few opportunities, young men like those blocking the road this week are easily whipped into a fury. Many observers believe they are paid. The ostensible reason for the latest roadblock is the arrest of several local men last August on charges of trying to extort $3 million from the mine.
In the late-afternoon vote on February 6, after weeks of deliberation, 60 deputies voted for the resolution and 35 against. Two abstained and 23 were absent, according to a count published by AKIpress.
Under the agreement, Kyrgyzstan would trade its 33-percent share in Toronto-listed Centerra Gold for a 50-percent interest in a new company that would own and operate Kumtor. In 12 years, Kyrgyzstan would have the opportunity to purchase another 17 percent of the joint venture at market value.
Four days after the mysterious, violent deaths of 11 men near Kyrgyzstan’s border with China, key questions remain unanswered – like why none of the men, whom Kyrgyz officials suspect of decapitating a local hunter and plotting terrorism, could be taken alive. In a country where conspiracy theories flourish and distrust of authorities abounds, many Kyrgyz, including some lawmakers, seem to doubt official explanations.
"There's a lot that's not clear. There are no witnesses. We don't know whom to believe. Some people say one thing, others say something completely different,” Kyrgyz lawmaker Nurlan Torbekov, an Afghan war vet, was quoted as saying by Kloop.kg on January 27.
Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service says the men, tentatively identified as ethnic Uighurs, crossed over from China’s Xinjiang Province and were carrying belongings that indicate they harbored “extremist” views – prayer rugs, a Koran, knives, masks, a compass, and more.
The group, described initially as “armed,” had one gun. They had stolen it from the Kyrgyz hunter, Alexander Barykin, whom they allegedly killed early on January 23 about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz territory after he killed two of them. Later that day, the remaining nine suspects in Barykin’s murder were “liquidated” by border troops, the only witnesses.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan say they have killed 11 unidentified attackers in a remote mountain valley near China, sparking a storm of speculation but providing very little concrete information about what happened or how.
The State Border Service said in a statement that the members of a “criminal gang” had been killed while putting up resistance on January 23 at an isolated frontier post, some 40 kilometers from the Chinese border, after they had killed a hunter and used his gun against border troops.
It’s unclear what the alleged attackers, nationality unknown, were doing running around in the dead of winter in a remote region where mountain valleys average above 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), but Kyrgyz media, officials and talking heads were happy to spend the day speculating, pontificating, and criticizing the bizarre situation.
Governor Emil Kaptagaev of Issyk-Kul Province, where the incident took place, started the guesswork off provocatively when he suggested the group could be Uighur militants from China. (No stranger to drama, Kaptagaev made headlines last autumn when he was kidnapped and doused with petrol by match-wielding constituents demanding the nationalization of a Canadian-run gold mine not far from Thursday’s shootout.)
Nearly a week after a border shootout between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dushanbe admitted firing mortars, raising the specter of further militarization along the disputed frontier. And conflicting stories about exactly what happened have developed into a heated diplomatic row with the potential to do long-lasting damage to once-decent ties.
On January 17, six days after the violence, a Tajik official finally commented on allegations that his troops had fired mortar rounds at Kyrgyz border guards. Yes, Tajikistan did, said Major-General Sharaf Faizullayev, first deputy commander of Tajikistan’s border troops. But the outnumbered Tajiks used mortars only to protect themselves after first being fired upon by Kyrgyz sharpshooters and without the intention to hurt anyone, he said.
"Given the numerical superiority of the Kyrgyz border guards and the intensity of their fire, a decision was made to use a small-caliber mortar to curb [the Kyrgyz’s] fire with the aim of evacuating the wounded," Faizullayev said in comments carried by Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He added that the fighting occurred on Tajik territory.
Thousands of supporters of southern strongman Melisbek Myrzakmatov rallied in Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, Osh, on January 15 to protest his defeat in mayoral elections.
A controversial figure who has long opposed central authorities in far-off Bishkek, Myrzakmatov was fired last month after appearing to support an anti-government protest.
Over the following weeks, Myrzakmatov somehow lost his support in the Osh city legislature, which voted 25-19 against the former mayor. He alleges the vote was rigged and says his backers were intimidated. Supporters and opponents alike believe the central government engineered his removal.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are each struggling to claim the moral high ground after a January 11 border clash left security forces wounded on both sides. The challenge now is for officials in the two countries to keep populist impulses at bay, experts say.
Days after an agreement that had the potential to ease tensions on the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a shootout between the countries’ border guards left several injured on each side January 11, local media report. In what could herald a sharp escalation in the simmering conflict, a Kyrgyz official has alleged that Tajik troops used heavy weapons.
As usual, there are conflicting stories over how the violence started.
Several Kyrgyz news outlets reported that Tajik border guards shot first after an altercation over road construction on contested territory. The 24.kg news agency said at least five Kyrgyz guards were wounded and that angry local civilians were protesting in the village of Kok-Tash.
Citing a local Tajik resident, Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news agency also reported that Tajik guards clashed with their counterparts over the construction of a road through disputed territory. But in this account, Kyrgyz border guards fired first, wounding two Tajik guards.
For the second time in two months, a company behind a foreign-operated hydropower dam in Tajikistan has said the state-controlled electricity distributor is not paying its bills. And despite the annual winter electricity shortage, this time the company – in this case Iranian rather than Russian – has shut operations until it gets its money, Radio Ozodi reports.
A source at the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe told Radio Ozodi that the company behind Sangtuda-2, Sangob, has stopped the dam’s output until Barqi Tojik, the chronically broke state-run energy distributor, begins paying its $28 million debt (which is growing by $2 million a month). Ozodi says the company’s offices in Dushanbe are empty.
Barqi Tojik didn’t clearly answer Asia-Plus’s questions about what’s happening at the dam on the Vakhsh River. Yet whether or not it is operating, Barqi Tojik’s ongoing failure to pay its bills underscores systematic problems in Tajikistan’s troubled energy sector.
The conflict is eerily similar to an episode last month, when Tajikistan’s second-largest hydropower plant, Russian-controlled Sangtuda-1, threatened to shut down for similar reasons. That dispute was resolved when the two sides agreed on a payment installment plan.