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Kyrgyzstan: Chinese Issykul Tourist Project Faces Resistance

The Kyrgyz government has made its tourism industry a top priority for development. It is looking to upgrade its tourist infrastructure and hoping to attract foreign investment. So it should come as good news that a Chinese company is now planning to build a large resort complex on the shores of Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issykul. But the project is facing stiff resistance from Kyrgyz politicians, residents, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alike.

Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A group of Kyrgyz NGOs have issued a joint statement condemning what they say is an atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the ambitious Issykul project.

Kyrgyz authorities say simply the project involves a 49-year-lease of some 800 hectares of land to a Chinese firm. They have refused to name the company.
"One month ago, our officials announced a Chinese plan to build a very big tourism complex on Issykul Lake. What is this company? Our people are afraid because the agreement was [made behind] closed [doors]."

Tolekan Ismailova, the executive director of an anticorruption group in Bishkek, says she is concerned by the lack of public participation in the decision-making process: "It's a very hot issue. This lake is very, very beautiful. Citizens think about its future development, including small business structures. [But] one month ago, our officials announced a Chinese plan to build a very big tourism complex on Issykul Lake. What is this company? Our people are afraid because the agreement was [made behind] closed [doors]. And NGOs are demanding that our government and the Chinese Embassy clarify this issue."

The planned resort would be located in the Jetyoguz District, on the lake's southern shores. Issykul is Kyrgyzstan's most popular tourist destination, but the Jetyoguz area remains relatively undeveloped. During the Soviet era, most tourist resorts and sanatoriums were built along the lake's northern shores.

Tokon Shailieva, the governor of the Issykul region, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the Chinese project will contribute significantly to the region's economic development: "If the project is finalized, it will be good. [China] will bring $200 million in investment and will create 1,000 jobs."

But local residents show little enthusiasm for the project. They say they are worried the Chinese complex may do permanent ecological damage to the lake, which is home to a number of endangered animals and plants.

Many Kyrgyz remember a notorious incident in 1998, when a truck crashed and accidentally spilled nearly two tons of cyanide into a river feeding Lake Issykul. Four people were reported killed from cyanide poisoning.

Rana Mitter, who teaches modern Chinese politics and history at Britain's Oxford University, says doubts about Chinese safety and environmental standards are justified: "In China itself, developers with money have often been able to use influence to build developments that simply don't measure up on safety grounds, or else don't measure up to pollution standards. That is something that would need to be kept a very close eye on, particularly if the environmental regulations in Kyrgyzstan are not yet very fully developed."

But the controversy seems to spring primarily from Kyrgyz resentment over China's potential long-term presence in the Central Asian republic. Sultan Jumagulov is a correspondent for the BBC in Bishkek: "Leasing the area for 49 years is a whole generation, locals think. Experience shows that where the Chinese go, they usually stay for a long time. That's what the locals are afraid of most of all."

Indira Kazieva, who lives in Tamga, a village in the Issykul region, says it is not the first time residents have protested Chinese investment in the area:

"In the village of Bozbeshik in the Jetyoguz District, some Chinese [businessmen] came and attempted to buy a [resort] and run it for themselves. The local residents have complained about that [recently]."

Opposition lawmakers have voiced their concerns regarding the project as well.

Parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, who leads the nationalist Asaba (Flag) National Revival Party, says the government must reconsider its lenient privatization policies: "Resort complexes at Issykul, our nation's sacred land, is being sold into private hands. It is proper, if they sell these places to Kyrgyz citizens. However, they are selling them to foreigners, those who have more money. We, lawmakers, have to block such privatization."

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)