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Central Asia: Region's Economies Fail To Seize Golden Opportunity

Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine (official site) For impoverished Central Asian countries with gold deposits -- particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- that commodity's all-time high on world markets should bring welcome benefits to their economies. But, for the moment, they are not rushing to cash in.

Observers suggest those countries risk missing out on the potential boom but appear to be sidelined by indecision and tempestuous relations with foreign investors.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all have sizable deposits of gold, most of which were discovered and initially mined during Soviet times.

"A country that owns large reserves of gold either minted in bars or in [unmined] deposits is potentially a rich country," Kyrgyz economic analyst Jumakadyr Akeneev tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

Kazakhstan's gold reserves are estimated at over 800 metric tons, Uzbekistan's estimated gold reserves are more than 2,000 metric tons -- and it is already the world's ninth-largest producer of gold. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also have large deposits of gold -- more than Kazakhstan but probably less than Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have large hydrocarbon resources and are perhaps too involved in exploiting them for the world market to increase gold production to take advantage of the extremely high prices.

But for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have no significant oil or gas resources, gold might represent an opportunity to exploit a high-revenue export. However, gold production in both countries has actually decreased in recent years and -- like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- neither the Kyrgyz nor the Tajik government has given any indication that it will try to increase gold output.

By the end of the 1990s and early in this decade, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were each producing more than 2 tons of gold annually. They are now producing about half of that amount.

Bakhtiyor Rabiev, an aide to the director-general of the Zarafshon Gold Company in Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that his company expects to produce slightly more than 1 ton of gold this year. Zarafshon is one of just three gold companies currently operating in Tajikistan.

Mixed Results

Kyrgyzstan's experience has shown that gold production can provide an economic crutch. In 1997, the Kumtor gold mine's first full year of production, Kyrgyzstan reduced its foreign-trade deficit by more than two-thirds.

Kumtor is the best-known gold-mining project in Central Asia. Original estimates in the 1990s suggested there was 514 metric tons of gold in Kyrgyzstan. A later assessment raised that figure to 818 metric tons.

Kumtor, a joint venture between Kyrgyzstan's state gold company Kyrgyzaltyn and Canada's Cameco (known as Centerra Gold in Kyrgyzstan), provides an example of what is happening to Central Asia's gold business in general.

For at least the last two years, Kumtor has decreased output, as have other smaller gold-mining operations in the country. Currently the Kyrgyz government is negotiating with its Canadian partners to gain a bigger government stake in Kumtor.

Kyrgyz Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov has said those negotiations are nearing completion.

"We have the big deposit at Kumtor and we are gradually coming to the end of our negotiations with the company Centerra and we [will] have a stake worth $1 billion," Japarov says. "No country has ever had $1 billion in such shares and the higher the price of gold the more these shares [will be worth]."

Foreign investment looks to be key to improving Central Asia's gold-mining industry, although the history of foreign ventures in the region is arguably lacking success stories.

Analyst Dosym Satpaev, director of Almaty-based Risks Assessments Group, has warned of a recent trend in Kazakhstan to reassert state participation that might equally apply to other countries in the region.

"The situation in the gold-production sphere is similar to the situation in the oil and gas [spheres] -- that is, according to some figures, Kazakhstan as a state, for example, owns between 12 to 15 percent of the oil and gas extracted, [while] the remaining 80 percent-plus belongs to foreign investors," Satpaev tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We have the same situation in gold mining and other precious-metal sectors."

Easy Come...

Satpaev notes that many foreign investors arrived in the early 1990s and are working Soviet-era sites with more advanced technology. "After the events with Kashagan, I wouldn't exclude that once [the government] has gotten a handle on the oil and gas spheres it will try to boost the role of the government in other areas, [including gold]."

The Kazakh government recently managed to double its stake in the oil and gas company in the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea at the expense of an international consortium.

A similar process is already happening among Central Asian gold fields. Commonwealth and British Mineral, Nelson Gold of Canada, and the U.S.-based Newmont Mining are examples of how complicated the gold-mining business can be in Central Asia. All of these companies signed significant contracts that gave them special tax exemptions and other incentives that the governments in Central Asia later reconsidered and changed, like the Centerra contract was in Kyrgyzstan. Commonwealth and British Mineral sold its shares in the Zarafshon gold mine to China's Zijin Mining in 2007.

The Uzbek government canceled the contract with Newmont in 2007 after seizing some of the company's assets. Newmont's gold mines were Uzbekistan's largest direct foreign investment to date.

With the possible exception of Kazakhstan, none of the Central Asian governments could probably fund their gold-mining industries without foreign backing. But the record of foreign companies mining gold in Central Asia is complicated and many are unwilling to take the risk. As Western companies have left the region, Chinese and, in Tajikistan's case, Iranian companies have taken their places.

Satpaev said there is still a window of opportunity for these countries.

"The high value of gold will be maintained for a rather long period of time," Satpaev says. "According to economists' forecasts, in the next 1 1/2 or two years the economic situation will remain somewhat unstable -- and that means many investors will try to put [their money] into more reliable instruments, in particular gold, platinum, and other precious metals."

How aggressively Central Asian governments strive to cash in on those developments is far less predictable.

(Ulan Eshmatov and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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