Protests outside the Kumtor gold mine in northern Kyrgyzstan have ended and the mine has resumed operations. But related unrest shifted south over the weekend.
Outside Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan’s third-largest city, demonstrators are blocking the country’s only north-south highway, creating a traffic jam several kilometers long, local media report. Since Friday, protestors also have occupied parts of the main government building in the city.
They are demanding the release of three nationalist lawmakers serving short jail terms for stoking unrest last October amid calls to nationalize the profitable mine, which, in a good year, produces 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP.
Jalal-Abad is the stronghold of Kamchybek Tashiev. In that October incident, he led supporters over the fence surrounding parliament, vowing to “replace this government.” A Bishkek court this March found Tashiev, Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov – all lawmakers with the Ata-Jurt party, which draws its support largely from the south – guilty of trying to overthrow the government. The sentences were seen as light, but deprived the three of their parliamentary seats. Tashiev, who announced a hunger strike today, is due to be released this autumn.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have declared a state of emergency and curfew after police clashed with protestors who have forced the country’s largest enterprise, the Kumtor gold mine, to shut down.
Since Tuesday, hundreds of protestors have blocked the road to the high-altitude mine (or thousands, depending on the source). They are demanding Kumtor pay for new schools, hospitals and roads in the region, and calling on the government to tear up the existing operating agreement. On May 30, protestors seized an electrical substation and cut power to the mine.
Officials said 92 people had been arrested and 55 wounded, including security forces, in the May 31 clashes around Barskoon on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Police used stun grenades and rubber bullets, according to Kloop.kg. Some local news sites reported that protestors took the head of the district hostage, later exchanging him for detained protestors.
In an open letter to the prime minister, Kumtor outlined how it has fulfilled many of the protestors’ demands through the tens of millions of dollars it pays into a development fund for Issyk-Kul province and other contributions.
The road to the Kumtor mine, which sits at 4,000 meters in the Tien Shan mountains.
For the last three days, several hundred protestors have again blocked the road to Kyrgyzstan’s largest and most lucrative enterprise: the Kumtor gold mine. Late on May 30, demonstrators seized an electricity substation and cut the power supply to the mine, the company announced on Twitter.
The protestors – mostly angry young men, judging from photos – have demanded environmental safeguards and more investment into local infrastructure. Specifically, they want hospitals, schools and gymnasia. Some also wish to tear up the government’s 2009 operating agreement with the company operating the mine.
“It’s like first slaughtering a cow and then asking her for milk,” one Bishkek analyst said of the demands.
Kumtor – which produces about half of Kyrgyzstan’s exports and, in a good year, 12 percent of GDP – is a frequent target. Environmental concerns have plagued the operation since it began in the mid-1990s, heightened by a sodium cyanide spill into a river in 1998. But few believe environmental concerns alone are behind the regular unrest.
In a country with widespread unemployment and few opportunities, young men like those blocking the road this week are easily whipped into a fury. Many observers believe they are paid. And the timing of this particular roadblock, which began on May 28, is curious.
The "black box" flight recorder from the U.S. Air Force jet that crashed in Kyrgyzstan has been found, and the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan have reached an agreement on the sensitive issue of sharing access to the information contained therein.
The black box was discovered May 16, but was only reported by the Manas air base authorities this week. The press release from Manas alluded to the potentially controversial issue of who gets access to the data and discusses the compromise reached:
Officials from the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic have verified the item, taken photographic evidence, and sealed the component for delivery to a decoding facility. The Government Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic responsible to investigate this accident consented to send the component to the Air Force Safety Center in the United States for decoding to ensure both complete data extraction and the continued flight safety for the Boeing 707 fleet, which is of mutual concern to both the Kyrgyz Republic and the United States. The Government of the Kyrgyz Republic will receive a copy of the analysis for their investigation.
The United States Air Force Safety Investigation Board thanks the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic Special Commission for their continued cooperation as it proceeds with its investigations.
Recall that earlier, Kyrgyz authorities said that they may hand over the recorder to Moscow, because they don't have the technology to decode it. That obviously was going to be unacceptable to the Americans.
Kyrgyzstan MP Akram Amirjanov looks out a window of a KC-135 Stratotanker during an air refueling demonstration over Kyrgyzstan in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
Kyrgyzstan's government has declared that it is canceling the current agreement that it has with the U.S. on the Manas air base the Americans operate in that country. But it's not clear, given that the agreement is scheduled to expire next year anyway, what import the announcement has, and it is probably of greater political than legal significance. And the U.S. State Department reiterates that it isn't giving up yet.
On its website, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that as of July 11, 2014, the agreement it has with the U.S. will be "repudiated." But that's when the agreement, reached in 2009 for a five-year period, expires.
Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, consistently says that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas in 2014. He said that again today, explaining that "the government has already made its decision and confirmed legislation about the end of the term of the agreement...All that's left is for the parliament to accept this law... I am deeply convinced a civilian airport should not have a military base."
Whether this is his final decision or a bargaining point is anyone's guess. The U.S. clearly hopes to extend its presence beyond July of 2014, and in a statement to The Bug Pit, a State Department spokesperson downplayed Bishkek's announcement. "Our understanding is this text is a draft of a possible law. Therefore, I’m not going to speculate on hypothetical next steps," the official said. "This does not change our existing agreements or timeline with the Kyrgyz Government." The U.S. "remains in close contact" with Kyrgyzstan, the official added.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant Russian nationalist, is no longer welcome in Kyrgyzstan.
Parliament voted May 15 to ask the Foreign Ministry to declare the Russian State Duma vice speaker persona non grata. Though some deputies warned the measure could damage relations with Moscow, 67 of 120 voted for the ban.
Zhirinovsky, who heads Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, angered many in Bishkek last month by suggesting Kyrgyzstan give up one of its most prized assets – picturesque Lake Issyk-Kul – in exchange for a debt write-off.
He often makes disparaging remarks about Central Asian migrants in Russia and has pushed to tighten visa requirements. But his venom is not just directed at Kyrgyzstan.
A few weeks back, Zhirinovsky suggested that Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon – who is engaged in a protracted dispute over the lease for a Russian division based in Tajikistan – could end up facing a brutal and public death at the hands of the Taliban were it not for Russian aid.
A conference focusing on Kyrgyzstan’s present problems and future choices threatens to become sidetracked by a conflict-of-interest controversy. One of the financial backers of the event is involved in a legal tussle with the Kyrgyz government over allegations of financial impropriety.
The all-day workshop, titled Kyrgyzstan since 2010: Progress, Problems and Opportunities, is scheduled to take place May 15 in Brussels. It is being organized by the Washington, DC,-based Atlantic Council. Ambassador Ross Wilson, the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, confirmed that Latvian financier Valeri Belokon was one of several event sponsors, his support coming via his involvement in the council’s Connecting Central Asia and the Caucasus Initiative.
Belokon remains a highly controversial figure in Kyrgyzstan. The Latvian banker is widely believed in Bishkek to have been a reputed business associate of Maxim Bakiyev, the son of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The Kyrgyz government is investigating whether Belokon helped Maxim illicitly transfer state assets out of the country amid the collapse of the Bakiyev administration in April of 2010. Belokon adamantly denies any wrongdoing.
U.S. military officers show Kyrgyz journalists the Manas air base. (photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rachel Martinez
One thing that was notable about the early coverage of the U.S. air force refueling jet crash on Friday was how unpoliticized it was. The air base at which the KC-135 Stratotanker was based, Manas, is a very sensitive issue in Kyrgyzstan, and any developments there are closely parsed for their political and geopolitical meaning. This crash, in which three U.S. airmen were killed, would seem to be a human tragedy and possibly an aviation safety story, with no political angle. When I noted on twitter that the Kyrgyz press focused primarily on the search for victims and, somewhat surprisingly, avoided any political angles, the press secretary of the president of Kyrgyzstan, Kadyr Toktogulov, responded, "what kind of political speculation could there possibly be?"
Well, now we're starting to find out. 24.kg reported that the Americans were "obstructing the examination" of the bodies of the crew members killed in the crash:
Representatives of the Transit Center at Manas didn’t let the investigation agencies to examine the bodies of the crashed airplane casualties, the special investigation group told 24.kg news agency today.
It’s noted that, despite promises of the U.S. side not to interfere and assist in investigation of the plane crash, the transit center officers decided to take the bodies of pilots away.
The bodies of the three crew members were taken to the airbase. Local investigators have no information about further actions of the Transit Center at Manas.
Also, the investigation group noted that the filling station at the base is cordoned off; however, American officers do not let Kyrgyz investigators to the base.
After appearing in Kyrgyzstan and Chechnya, leaflets expressing support for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Djokhar Tsarnaev have now emerged in central Kazakhstan.
The Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reports that fliers featuring Tsarnaev's picture, along with a note reading "Pray for Djokhar" in English, had been found plastered in a pedestrian underpass in Karaganda. Police have said they will charge anyone caught pasting the posters on public property.
"Should the individuals who put up the leaflets be identified, they will face an administrative offence for damaging public property. Plastering announcements and other posters is a sign of littering," Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted the regional police press service as saying.
Earlier Interfax reported that similar leaflets had appeared in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and in Russia's Chechnya region, Tsarnaev’s ancestral homeland.
Leaflets found on an avenue named after Russian President Vladimir Putin in downtown Grozny, the Chechen capital, called on people to raise funds for Tsarnaev and his family. Those fliers explained that Tsarnaev was in serious condition in a prison hospital in the United States and that he needed medical and legal aid. "Djokhar's parents appeal for your assistance," the posters said.
KC-135s on the tarmac at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
A U.S. Air Force refueling jet has crashed in Kyrgyzstan near the Manas air base, according to Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS).
The plane exploded in mid-air, said a local official, reports Kloop.kg: "The former mayor of the Panfilov region Taalaybek Sydykov said in an interview with Kloop.kg, that... 'Residents of the region who were working in the fields say that there was an explosion in the air and the plane fell behind the mountains.'" A couple of twitterusers reported the same.
An MChS official told AFP that the plane, apparently KC-135 Stratotanker, crashed after taking off:
"According to my information, the plane broke up into three pieces. Information on the dead or wounded is being clarified. All the rescue services have gone to the scene," the ministry's press secretary Abdisharip Bekilov said.
The plane crashed near the mountain village of Chaldybar, around 200 kilometres from the capital Bishkek and close to the border with Kazakhstan, the emergency ministry spokesman said.
Information about who may have been on board is still sketchy, but CA-News reports, citing MChS sources, that there were five crew members on the flight.