Kyrgyz were variously enraged and bemused after a British expat working at a foreign-owned gold mine jokingly compared a beloved local equine delicacy to a "horses penis" (sic).
But the Facebook jest by Michael McFeat -- a welding superintendent at the Kumtor Gold Company in Kyrgyzstan -- could scarcely have come at a worse time for his Canadian bosses, whose relations with Bishkek are at an all-time low.
The mine's owners have recently been locked in a fierce battle with the Kyrgyz government over fresh mining permits and a redivision of profits from an enterprise that generates around 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP.
McFeat is already paying a price for the perceived slur. He was detained at Bishkek's Manas Airport early on January 3 for "document irregularities" and sent to the regional capital, Karakol, before being expelled two days later, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service confirmed, quoting the border service.
Initial reports said he faced racially motivated hate charges that could have resulted in up to a five-year jail sentence.
Issyk-Kul police chief Emilbek Saliev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that dozens of Kyrgyz employees at the Kumtor gold mine filed a collective complaint about McFeat's comments on January 2.
They also staged a brief strike at the mine the next day to protest the failure by Kumtor management to punish McFeat for his comment, which he deleted from his Facebook page before issuing an apology.
Many in Kyrgyzstan were outraged that McFeat would dare to compare chuchuk -- a sausage prized among the former nomadic Kyrgyz, who consider the horse a noble animal that is only eaten on special occasions -- to horse genitalia.
Prominent Kyrgyz historian and publicist Kyias Moldokasymov wrote on Facebook: "The guy who mocked chuchuk must definitely be punished! And don't you think that those who are destroying Kyrgyz glaciers and creating irreparable damage to our environment while taking natural wealth out of the country are also laughing at us and asking, 'What can you do about it?' must also be punished?"
Samat Dolotbakov, a director at the Emark construction company and the CEO and founder of the magazine #ONE, wrote on Facebook: "Dear friends, I saw in [McFeat's] post written in English that he laughed [and made fun] of our nation.... I can't leave that without reacting. It is not his first day in Kyrgyzstan. He works here, makes his money. I want him and other foreign guests to learn their lesson. Because I will never insult another nation while visiting it, I hope you wouldn't either..."
A Kyrgyz vendor sells sausages prepared from horse meat at Bishkek's Osh Bazaar. (file photo)
But some Kyrgyz suggested the real outrage was the authorities' response to the Facebook quip, which merely appeared crafted -- however crudely -- to get a laugh out of McFeat's friends and family in Scotland.
"Horsesausagestan -- a country without leadership, where the emotions of three-year-old hooligans rule the day," tweeted Edil Baisalov, a former parliament member and government official.
Bektour Iskender, founder of the kloop.kg website, asked: "OK, to call chuchuk a horse's penis is, of course, not the smartest thing. But please tell me why for doing this someone should be taken to the police station? What law is violated when somebody refers to horse sausage like that? I would like to now hear from the most competent lawyers."
Aliya Suranova, a well-known Kyrgyz blogger, said the strong reaction to McFeat's comment is a symptom of something deeper in society.
"What happened is that this story is a very vivid reflection of us [and our society] at the current time. It is the result of our anger toward 'strangers, foreign agents, State Department spies,' etc. We have so much hatred and anger toward all of them that we are ready to go out and start beating anyone who is not Kyrgyz by blood," she wrote on Facebook.
Whether an overreaction or not, McFeat's comment has certainly resulted in some bad PR for Centerra, the Canadian-based company that owns the Kumtor mine -- which is Central Asia's largest Western-managed gold-deposit project.
Centerra has been especially image-conscious since 1998, when a Kumtor truck carrying cyanide overturned while driving along the curvy mountain road that leads up to the mine. The spill poisoned the Barskoon River that supplies water to many of the villages along the southern shore of the lake at Issyk-Kul. Hundreds of people became sick and several died (here and here); pregnant women were advised to have abortions; and the government evacuated many of the downstream villages.
Centerra Gold and Kumtor mine officials have rejected reports that the cyanide spill caused fatalities.
But after that tragedy, Kumtor officials made infrastructure investments in the region and in small communities near the mine, partly, no doubt, in an effort to generate positive PR.
In 2014, government officials heeded calls by Kyrgyz nationalists and told Kumtor to revise its agreement with the state to give the government a bigger share of the mine and, therefore, its profits.
Under a veiled government threat to nationalize the gold mine, negotiations between the two sides began nearly two years ago. At issue was a government proposal to exchange its 32.7-percent stake in Centerra for 50 percent of a joint venture that would give the state control over the gold mine. Those talks broke down on December 22, with the government citing its "national interest" in walking away from the table, casting doubt on the sides' ability to agree on mining permits that were running out fast.
Kyrgyz officials said afterward they will propose a new deal that would give Kyrgyzstan "an increase in financial flows."
The government has also accused Centerra -- which is also Kyrgyzstan's biggest taxpayer -- of lowballing its estimate of the gold reserves at the Kumtor site.
Centerra officials have argued that Kyrgyzstan is bound by the current agreement and that any dispute over the current contract should be decided by an international court.
Prospects of reaching an agreement have been complicated by a Canadian court's freezing of Bishkek's portion of Centerra stocks after international arbitrators ruled in favor of foreign investors.