Accessibility links

Breaking News

Was Kyrgyz Protest Really About Gold Mine Or Face Time?

Police detain a protester during an opposition rally in Bishkek.
Police detain a protester during an opposition rally in Bishkek.
BISHKEK -- From the moment protesters began climbing the gates outside the Kyrgyz parliament building on October 3, doubts began to surface about what they were really there for.

Officially, they had gathered to call for a government ouster, after Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev this week refused to nationalize a Canadian-owned gold mine that is one of Kyrgyzstan's most profitable industries, accounting for more than 10 percent of its GDP.

But many observers believe the protest -- which ended in chaos, with riot police firing tear gas and arresting the three main organizers, all members of the nationalist Ata-Jurt (Homeland) party -- was less about mining rights and more about politics.

Mavlyan Askarbekov, the head of the Erkin el youth movement, accused organizer Sadyr Japarov, the leader of Ata-Jurt's opposition parliamentary faction, of using the protest to distract the public from his looming criminal case on charges of looting during massive antigovernment protests in April 2010.

"We support the initiative to nationalize Kumtor, but we decided not to take part in the protest. It had a different goal. Sadyr Zhaparov organized the meeting in order to protect himself and score some political points," Askarbekov said.

'Faux Coup'

A day after the protest, the blogosphere was rife with speculation about the "faux coup" staged by Askarbekov and party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, a burly politician who invoked the image of Mongol warrior Genghis Khan in calling on his supporters to help take power.

"In Bishkek, some think that Tashiev wants to be incarcerated as a revolutionary, not for corruption charges," regional analyst Erica Marat wrote on Twitter.

Others noted, with amusement, that the Ata-Jurt website had been the victim of a somewhat pornographic hacker attack. (The site is now down.)

Protests continued on October 4, with some 500 demonstrators gathering in Tashiev's hometown of Jalalabad in the country's south to call for the release of Tashiev, Zhaparov, and a third Ata-Jurt member, Talant Mamytov, who are facing possible charges of seeking to forcefully seize power.

Such protests are a source of concern in Kyrgyzstan, which suffers from a sharp north-south divide.

Deadly ethnic clashes in the southern city of Osh in 2010 has only heightened concern in northern Bishkek about the potential for continued unrest.

Outside Decision Making

Ata-Jurt, which draws the bulk of its support from the south, is the largest party in the Kyrgyz parliament. But it is not part of Satybaldiev's parliamentary coalition, an exclusion that leaves it outside major decision-making like the recent ruling on Kumtor.

Ata-Jurt's time in the opposition has also been marked by numerous criminal cases targeting its members.

In addition to the charges against Zhaparov, an additional party member, former Bishkek Mayor Nariman Tuleev, is currently being held in detention on bribery charges. A second member, Nurlan Sulaimanov, is also under criminal investigation.

Legitimate concerns remain about the Kumtor mine, which is currently undergoing safety and environmental reviews ordered by the Kyrgyz parliament.

The mine is notorious for a 1998 incident in which a truck operated by the mine dumped nearly 2,000 kilograms of deadly sodium cyanide into a local river during a road accident.

Tashiev, speaking at the October 3 rally, played down Ata-Jurt's role in the protest and pointed to Kumtor as the motivating factor.

"Ata-Jurt in no way participated in the organization of this meeting. But since Kumtor is something that affects all Kyrgyz, we're going to express our opinion on it. This isn't an idea that belongs only to the opposition. Those who say this is a political game are mistaken," Tashiev said.

Many questions remain about the organization of the protest, which appeared to use a systematic SMS campaign to rally at least 1,000 mainly young, mainly male protesters.

As early as October 1, residents in the capital, Bishkek, reported receiving text messages encouraging them to turn out for a protest.

One such text read, "Kumtor should work for the Kyrgyz. Never mind the phone charges -- think about your descendants, and send this message on to seven more people."

It was the first such instance in Kyrgyzstan of a protest being organized by SMS, although speculation was rife during the 2010 ethnic clashes in the south that text messaging was also used to mobilize angry crowds.

When the text messages were traced, none of the numbers from which they had been sent existed. State investigators have launched a probe into the origin of the SMS campaign.

Japarov, for his part, denies any involvement.

"I don't know anything about the SMSs. I used television and radio to call on people to participate in the rally, and I said we would be talking about Kumtor, not about politics," Japarov said.

"It's possible that phone messages may have been sent by our supporters. There are a lot of patriots in Kyrgyzstan besides us."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Bishkek by Bakyt Asanov

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.