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Qishloq Ovozi

Askar Akaev claimed his greatest mistake "was to give consent to the [Kyrgyz] government to restructure the deal in 2003."

Kyrgyzstan is in an international ownership dispute over a very lucrative gold mine and the government has shown it's ready to do whatever necessary to stake its claim, including bringing back a fugitive former president.

Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan's first president, returned to his homeland on August 2 for the first time since he was chased from power more than 16 years ago.

Akaev was needed by the government to testify about alleged corruption and other violations surrounding the Kumtor gold mine. There are still charges against him connected to Kumtor, and although he was questioned about those charges, it was a carefully managed visit that lasted only six days.

During his return, Akaev publicly repented for agreeing early during his 1990-2005 presidency to disadvantageous terms with a Canadian mining company that have cost his country hundreds of millions of dollars.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) arranged Akaev's brief homecoming so he could be questioned about agreements made with the Canadian-based Cameco Company about Kumtor, which is located in the mountains of northeastern Kyrgyzstan.

Akaev made that clear on the day he arrived, saying, "I came to cooperate, to help, and I will tell everything I know about Kumtor."

And although Akaev still faces corruption charges over the Kumtor agreements, it was also clear from the day he arrived that he would not be facing any charges -- but was rather a guest of President Sadyr Japarov who was staying at the presidential residence outside the capital, Bishkek.

"I am grateful to President Sadyr Japarov for giving me the possibility to come to Kyrgyzstan," Akaev said.

Making Bishkek's Case

Akaev's comments to the press indicate that there were indeed bad decisions and corrupt motives for the deals made with the Canadian company.

The UKMK has already detained or arrested several current and former members of parliament, prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, and other officials from previous administrations in an attempt to show that a series of agreements signed with Canadian companies over the years were flawed and should be considered illegitimate.

But Akaev was there from the start of the deal, so his testimony is vital to showing that the original agreements as well as subsequent deals signed over the course of the 15 years he was in power were, at best, not in Kyrgyzstan's interests and, at worst, simply illegal.

Akaev said that from the start, in 1992, Kyrgyzstan had made "numerous concessions, including violations in the interests of the Canadian side to the detriment of national interests."

Akaev mentioned the "illegal" decision in 1992 to free Cameco from paying taxes, "including for the use of natural resources," and the transfer of management of the project to the company as being among the foolish concessions his government made.

But he claimed his greatest mistake "was to give consent to the [Kyrgyz] government to restructure the deal in 2003." He said that at that time "the government convinced me that it was necessary."

The restructuring agreements of 2003-04 lowered Kyrgyzstan's stake in Kumtor by 25.7 percent. Kyrgyzstan currently owns a mere 26 percent of the mining project.

Japarov To Blame?

Japarov's government imposed external management on Kumtor in May amid the latest dispute with Canadian company Centerra, which bought Cameco's share in the project in 2009. That move temporarily put the mine under Kyrgyz control, but Centerra quickly filed a case in an international arbitration court, where it is likely there will be ruling in its favor.

Kyrgyz authorities seem determined to show the deals with Cameco and later Centerra were illegal from the start and the result of corrupt domestic politicians conniving with the Canadian side.

As for Akaev, he also got something from the visit.

He was allowed to visit his native Kemin region for the first time in 16 years -- and he received a very warm welcome there as he met with friends and relatives. Also on tap was a trip to the northwestern Talas region to celebrate the 103rd birthday of his mother-in-law.

Akaev also had the chance to attempt to partially vindicate his past. In a video he made just before he flew back to his home in Moscow on August 8, the ex-president said, "There were great hopes for Kumtor [but] unfortunately it did not turn out as we wanted."

In an August 4 interview, Akaev blamed current Economy and Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov (no relation to the president) for the restructuring agreements. "Akylbek Japarov played the key role then in [the restructuring agreements]," he said. "[He] was the chairman of the parliament committee on taxes and budget."

Akaev said Akylbek Japarov was in the commission that flew to Toronto for talks on the new deal. He said that upon returning he claimed that "[Cameco] was the best company in the world" and that the new agreement took into account the interests of the company and of Kyrgyzstan.

Revising History

Akaev also had a good opportunity during his return to tell the Kyrgyz media his side of the story about the events in 2005 that led to his ouster and subsequent flight from Kyrgyzstan.

"As the first president who was in power for the first 15 years of independence, I have one regret," Akaev said. "That if a [presidential] election had been conducted in 2005, I would have handed over power."

He blamed "political adventurists" that he said "knew they could not win in free elections" for "staging a coup six months before the end of my term and seizing power by force."

Akaev's version omits the rigged parliamentary elections of February and March 2005 that saw two of his children elected and several popular politicians barred from competing by questionable court decisions. Along with the fact that constitutional amendments were implemented that allowed him to run for a third term in office in 2000 and what many suspected would be a fourth term in elections later in 2005.

Japarov's government, meanwhile, seems confident Akaev's visit and his statements about the early Kumtor agreements strengthen Kyrgyzstan's legal case to take control of the gold mine. Just a few days after Akaev left, on August 11, the Kyrgyz government officially annulled the final agreement with Centerra.

An arbitration court is unlikely to approve of the Japarov government's unilateral move to take over Kumtor. In fact, that could work strongly in court against Kyrgyzstan's overall case.

But Akaev's testimony will likely demonstrate that there were serious problems with the Kumtor agreements and that Kyrgyzstan has not received its fair share of the wealth extracted at the gold mine.

Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Japarov (left to right), Kazakhstan's Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, Uzbekistan's Shavkat Mirziyoev, Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon gather in Awaza for a summit on August 6.

All five Central Asian heads of state gathered at a resort on Turkmenistan's Caspian coast on August 6. And while there was something familiar about their talk of cooperation, new realities lent greater urgency to the discussions.

The meeting in Awaza was already important because it had been so difficult for so long to get all five men in the same room.

Awaza marked their third "consultative meeting" since 2018, although it was the first that did not include Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Nazarbaev's successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, didn't attend the summit in Uzbekistan in November 2019 despite his election five months earlier, but he was on his own for this one.

Also new -- and unavoidable -- at this meeting was discussion of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for cooperation to combat the spread of that virus.

As the five men assembled, a new wave of COVID-19 has been tearing through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The conversation must have been interesting, since Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov continues to insist that his country hasn't registered a single case of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

That makes Toqaev's comment that all five leaders supported "the proposal of the president of Turkmenistan on the creation of a [regional] center for virology and epidemiology" a bit surprising.

Also a bit surprising was that the battle against the spread of the coronavirus was point 19 of the 28 points included in the group's joint declaration at the end of the summit.

But the usual talk of improving regional trade took on new meaning as the economies, production, and exports of many countries have been negatively affected by COVID-19 and partners outside the region are less reliable than before the pandemic.

The health crisis affected regional trade, too.

Just prior to the meeting in Turkmenistan, Uzbek and Turkmen officials agreed to renew mutual air and road traffic.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon arrived early to meet with Berdymukhammedov. Those two succeeded in partially resolving the problem since 2018 of Tajik cargo trucks crossing through Turkmenistan en route to Iran and back.

However, in accordance with rules that Turkmenistan implemented as the scale of the global pandemic was just becoming clear in March 2020, goods arriving at Turkmenistan's borders must be loaded onto Turkmen trucks and carried across the country, then loaded onto vehicles from those goods' ultimate destination.

Toqaev spoke of boosting regional trade and transportation networks and said Kazakhstan could export up to $1 billion in goods to its Central Asian neighbors.

The biggest topic on the agenda, however, was the situation in Afghanistan.

The seventh point of the leaders' joint statement mentioned Afghanistan, where the situation -- especially right across the border from Central Asia -- is more desperate than it has been for at least 20 years.

But their language could have come from any statement in past 30 years.

All five leaders "confirm that one of the most important factors in maintaining and strengthening security and stability in Central Asia is the earliest possible settlement of the situation in neighboring Afghanistan."

And to that end, they "expressed their readiness to render all possible assistance in the earliest possible achievement of civil peace and harmony in Afghan society."

Unfortunately, the three Central Asian states that border Afghanistan are each pursuing different policies toward that country.

Uzbekistan has been speaking with the government and the Taliban and trying to mediate a peace between them.

The Tajik government has avoided communications with the Taliban.

Turkmen authorities are speaking to the Afghan government and the Taliban, but Ashgabat prefers as little involvement in Afghan affairs as possible.

Certainly there was much more said about Afghanistan than what was mentioned in the joint statement. One report noted that Rahmon had warned about "extremists who are well-trained in sabotage, terrorism, and propaganda activities and have far-reaching plans concerning our region."

But arguably the most notable achievement of this latest meeting of the Central Asian Five was the atmosphere, including the sense that they all seemed to be on relatively good terms with each other.

In fact, aside from the formal portion of the meeting when all five men wore suits, it looked more like a party than a summit.

The Central Asian presidents take a tour of the weight room.
The Central Asian presidents take a tour of the weight room.

They were photographed in casual clothing going for a boat cruise and wearing sweatsuits in the weight room, prompting Eurasianet's Peter Leonard to write on Twitter that he was "Getting some strong poker night vibes off today's summit of Central Asian presidents." It was an apt assessment of the camaraderie that the five were seemingly trying to project.

That might seem like a trivial matter.

But in the nearly 30 years that those five countries have been independent, their leaders have too often been at odds with each other, even in the face of common threats.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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