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Protest being held in Toguz-Toro against the building of a new factory for the Makmal mining company on February 7.

Kyrgyzstan has a long history of a troubled mining industry which is at the center of another debacle this week after violence erupted at the Chinese investor funded gold-plant facility in the Toguz-Toro district of southeastern Kyrgyzstan.

The G.L. Makmal Developing company met fierce resistance from the local population months ago when hundreds of residents demanded closure of the gold project in their area out of environmental concerns.

Whether these concerns were addressed by the Kyrgyz authorities or not is unclear.

Previously, the country's media reported that construction of the gold processing plant was launched in September 2017 and planned to be operational in the first quarter of 2018. The government seems to have responded to the local protests only after an initial outburst of public anger in February this year.

It appears the State Committee for Industry, Energy, and Subsoil Use recommended G.L. Makmal Developing Company conduct an environmental impact assessment of the project on construction of a gold recovery plant and hold public hearings," according to a state agency official last month.

However, the Chinese investor had also requested assistance from law enforcement agencies last month, including the country's State Committee for National Security (GKNB), to settle tensions with local villagers and create a safe environment for workers.

"Such actions are dangerous for the company’s employees. We ask you to initiate a criminal case, eliminate illegal actions, and take measures to avoid serious consequences," G.L. Makmal Developing said.

It didn't help.

On April 11, hundreds stormed into the gold plant and burned down the company facilities and equipment following a brief meeting with the interagency commission that ended with violent confrontation and three policemen wounded, one of whom was hospitalized.

The central government reacted by removing the head of the local district who was blamed for mismanagement of the crisis. Some in the Kyrgyz parliament called for swift punishment of the instigators who were orchestrating the protests against G.L. Makmal Developing.

Lawmaker Aitmamat Nazarov from the Kyrgyzstan faction in parliament criticized the central government's inaction regarding the "needs of the people" during the session on 12 April and proposed a review of the situation in the committee.

"Yesterday, we learned that this factory was built illegally, construction wasn't permitted by the authorities. Then why wasn't it suspended from the start?” Nazarov asked. “There was no public discussion whatsoever. No one talked to the people. More than two months have passed,” he said and added, “Not a single high-ranking official visited the district in the last two months.”

Nazarov continued, “People of the district are against this plant. Talking to people was the way, and it should have been resolved through communication. The governor of the province should have visited the district.”

Nazarov pointed out: “A district delegation came forward to speak with the government but no one met with them. As a result, we saw what happened."

Besides the escalation of the dispute in Toguz-Toro, there are two more mining conflicts in southern Kyrgyz provinces. Tiandi International Mining Co. Limited, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned Guizhou Geological and Mineral Resources Development Co. Ltd that operates the Shambesai gold deposit, is reportedly negotiating with the local population that has been staging protests against the mining plans since March 2017.

Another Chinese firm, Full Gold Mining, is locked in a protracted dispute with the local villagers at the Ishtamberdy mine where the company's operations were met with roadblocks, protests, and so-called ninja mining.

Nonetheless, this latest conflict between a foreign investor and local population in Kyrgyzstan could be another example of policymaking that has been criticized by some for corrupt practices, questionable transparency, and flawed record of accountability.

The Kyrgyz Republic is consistently plagued by widespread corruption. According to the UNDP, the estimated damage from corruption in the country reaches $700 million annually. Corruption continues to be listed as the second-worst obstacle for doing business out of 16 systemic issues in the country.

Furthermore, 20 percent of foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan admit to paying bribes, according to research by the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

An IFC representative indicated that the actual figure may be even higher, as investors are reluctant to confess to making unofficial payments.

Additionally, systemic risks in Kyrgyzstan include the mountainous nation's judiciary, which is deeply distrusted by the public and foreign investors alike.

I raised this structural issue in my opinion piece for The Diplomat Magazine in August 2017.

"The International Development Law Organization, an intergovernmental group in Rome, has stated that the Kyrgyz judiciary is not favorably viewed by the public and, at the same time, the public is not well-informed about the functions and duties of the courts.”

The World Bank’s survey results also highlighted a low level of trust in the justice system of Kyrgyzstan within the domestic business community; firms avoid settling commercial disputes via the country’s courts.

The Kyrgyz government's conduct to the recurring mining conflicts resembles its previous demeanor in the run up to the mass protests against the Kumtor gold mine in 2013.

Just as in Toguz-Toro, the Kyrgyz government ignored demands by the local population which led to controversy and reports of abuse by police.

It also demonstrates that the Kyrgyz government has done little since then to reform itself.

In the absence of meaningful steps to prevent conflicts and adopt the necessary policies, it is more than likely that such incidents will continue to take place in the future.

Ryskeldi Satke is a Bishkek-based freelance writer for news organizations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey, and the United States. For many years he has been living in, and traveling around, "Inner Asia," and that means some time in Mongolia as well as Central Asia. Satke has been a leader in reporting on environmental issues in this region. He can be followed on Twitter @RyskeldiSatke

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily express the opinions or views of RFE/RL.


Alleged fighters for the Islamic State and Taliban in Afghanistan

The view southward from Central Asia has been grim since 2014, when groups of Taliban militants started fanning out across northern Afghanistan.

Thinly stretched government forces in the area were forced to enlist the help of local paramilitary groups, known as Arbaky, who arguably are often little more than bandits with a sheriff’s badge and might not be fighting Taliban forces at all. Some Arbaky are suspected of trafficking narcotics or even selling the weapons and ammunition that the government gives them to the Taliban.

And as the security situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorated, particularly in the northwestern part that not so many years ago was relatively peaceful, the black flag of the militant group Islamic State (IS) was raised in some isolated areas.

It was an added complication few wanted to see, including those north of the Afghan border.

Which is why the killing of Qari Hikmatullah, or simply Qari Hikmat, is probably welcome news for much of Central Asia and Russia.

Hikmat was killed in Faryab Province on April 5. He was the commander of an IS force in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Faryab to the east. Both provinces border Turkmenistan.

Hikmat had managed to hold off government and Taliban forces attacking him since summer 2017, and it was about the time Hikmat seized control of the Darzab district that there were reports that a handful of IS militants were caught in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat never confirmed that, but the Turkmen government in power at the time had virtually never confirmed any security threat to the country.

Russian officials have been warning Central Asian states about the threat from militants in Afghanistan for years. Hikmat’s announcement that he joined IS, and his ability to hold territory in Darzab, fueled the Kremlin’s dire predictions of instability spilling over into the “CIS southern border.”

Russian officials claim there are thousands of IS militants roaming northern Afghanistan, but the only place where there was absolutely someone occupying ground and declaring himself to be IS was Darzab under Hikmat.

Hikmat’s group was quick to announce a new leader -- Qari Habibul Rahman -- but he will be hard-pressed to replace the formidable Hikmat.

Hikmat was an extraordinary opportunist. He was part of the Taliban, but he apparently grew tired of following the commands of the Taliban leadership so he took his fighters over to the government, pledging to fight against the Taliban.

That did not last long, and he reportedly struck out on his own. He reinforced his own force with pro-IS militants who were already in northwestern Afghanistan, remnants of a Taliban-splinter group that had declared loyalty to IS and also a splinter group from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militant group that were present in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, and had also sided with IS.

The two groups joined to fight Taliban forces in northwestern Afghanistan at the end of 2015, but the Taliban pummeled them and the fighters scattered throughout northwestern Afghanistan.

Hikmat, himself an ethnic Uzbek from Afghanistan, was able to gather some of the former IMU fighters and others. There were reports that some IS fighters from Syria and Iraq had fled the battlefields there and joined Hikmat’s group.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said Afghan and U.S. forces had killed Hikmat “and they will kill any successors.”

So IS in northwestern Afghanistan seems to have suffered a major setback, and with both the government and Taliban forces intent on attacking them, the IS group’s days might be numbered.

It might be a rare bit of welcome news out of Afghanistan for the governments of Central Asia, and presumably Moscow, though it is unlikely the latter will tone down its alarming statements about the IS threat in Afghanistan.

Hikmat’s armed group is still in Jowzjan Province.

And of course, the Taliban is still there, too.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw 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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