Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Kumtor Mine Protests: A Threat to Stability or Democratic Expression?

In May, 2013, thousands of protesters in the Kyrgyz Republic's Jety-Oguz district blocked access to the Canadian-owned Kumtor goldmine, the largest such mine in the country. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the protesters were there to demand the nationalization of the mine over allegations that Centerra, the company that owns the mine, was turning a blind eye to environmental damage and paying too little in taxes. The protests, however, quickly turned violent, and some 55 people were injured in clashes with police. Although the state of emergency was lifted after several days, further protests broke out at the end of June, with protesters once again demanding nationalization of the mine. 

This is not the first time that the Kyrgyz have protested against foreign-owned mining ventures. The latest protests come on the heels of similar protests against a Chinese mining concern in May. Kumtor itself has been the subject of heated controversy in the past, with some Kyrgyz lawmakers alleging that Centerra was not paying its fair share -- a mere $114 million for $941 million worth of gold, according to one source. Although the Kyrgyz government reportedly gained a 33% stake in operations at Kumtor, unrest surrounding the mine has not ceased. Considering that the Kyrgyz economy is heavily dependent on the export of raw materials, and gold in particular – Kumtor itself accounts for roughly 12% of the entire economy – the mine protests can be interpreted as democratic, populist reactions to the perception that the republic's most valuable assets are being bought up by foreign corporations whose only interest is extracting the country's natural resources. Many people see little benefit accruing to the Kyrgyz people from such operations, which frequently employ foreigners rather than locals:
"People are frustrated with a lack of jobs and with poverty, when a lucrative source of income right under their noses goes to foreigners," says Berdibek Dairov, a resident of Emgegchil [where a mine is located] who is critical of the fact that the mine's owners have hired Chinese instead of locals to work for them.

"Why should only the Chinese come and work here?" he asks. "Why can't Kyrgyz get that job? Our demand is that the Chinese must go. Kyrgyz guys have to work here. If the Chinese must work here, then [authorities] have to hand over the mine to local companies for developing. Then Chinese workers can work for us."
However, the demonstrations also point to the ongoing development of a culture of mass protest in the Kyrgyz Republic. Although the mass mobilizations against the governments of Askar Akaev in 2005, and Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 were expressions of popular discontent with the corruption and venality of increasingly authoritarian governments, as Kevin Jones has argued, the institutionalization of mass demonstrations is potentially problematic:
The Kyrgyz pattern of protest is so deeply rooted that the most effective threat used by political entrepreneurs is that they will call out their supporters to protest or demonstrate on a particular issue. This represents a failure of the Kyrgyz democratic process. A functioning democracy depends on a functioning legal process. If leaders can be chosen by mass protests, courts overthrown by the most vocal opponent, and presidents removed by a crowd of a few hundred, democracy does not exist. Until the Kyrgyz Republic can establish institutions through which political entrepreneurs can address legitimate concerns and grievances, street protests will continue to serve as the solution to all political, social, and economic problems.
Moreover, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting has repeatedly noted the existence of so-called "rent-a-mobs" in Kyrgyzstan – essentially paid activists who will take part in any protest that promises monetary compensation, regardless of what the protest is about. Marcin Szymanek writes that
[t]his phenomenon is called OBON: an umbrella name for the informal groups organised into rent-a-mob structures, who offer services such as staging protests, breaking them up or heckling and harassing opponents of their clients. The last two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan which overthrew regimes in 2005 and 2010, as well as manifestations and other public gatherings which entailed the clashes in the city of Osh, were battlegrounds in which OBON “activists” actively took part.
The institutionalization of mass protest means that direct actions of this nature are increasingly becoming a default tactic, and the monetarization of protest guarantees that large numbers of people can be counted upon to attend any given demonstration. This combination sets the stage for such actions to spiral out of control, as happened in October, 2012, when around 1000 people gathered in Bishkek, ostensibly to protest against the Kumtor mine. However, incited by the nationalist politician Kamchybek Tashiev, the mob stormed the Kyrgyz parliamentary building and attempted to overthrow the government of President Almazbek Atambaev. Tashiev and three other leaders of the nationalist Ata-Jurt (Homeland) party were arrested, prompting Ata-Jurt supporters in Jalal-Abad to protest and demand that they be released. When the judge presiding over the case was attacked by Ata-Jurt partisans, Tashiev and his cohorts were acquitted of all charges and set free.

The very possibility of the Kumtor protests, and the government's measured reaction to them, clearly demonstrate that the Kyrgyz Republic remains the most politically open society in Central Asia -- despite the violence that broke out between police and protesters, it is nevertheless instructive to compare the Kumtor demonstrations to the Kazakh government's handling of the Zhanaozen protests, to say nothing of the events in Andijon. That being said, there are also worrisome aspects that should not be ignored. The potential for any popular demonstration to be exploited by what Jones calls "political entrepreneurs" is amplified by a burgeoning "culture of protest" in Kyrgyzstan, which itself is fed by the monetarization of direct action. As in October 2012, such mass mobilizations can serve as pretexts for coup attempts in the mould of the 2005 and 2010 revolutions. 

Moreover, as in the case of the 2012 and 2013 Kumtor mine protests, demonstrations also have the potential to become the venue for regional rivalries. Both in 2012 and during the most recent protests, supporters of opposition parties based in the south have featured prominently. Tashiev's nationalist Ata-Jurt party has its strongest base of support in southern regions, such as Jalal-Abad, and populist protests like those at Kumtor present perfect opportunities to destabilize or replace the government of President Atambaev, whose power base is in the north.

In the final analysis, then, the protests over the Kumtor mine, and others like them, cannot be neatly categorized. On the one hand, the anger over the perception that foreign companies are despoiling the country's environment and profiting from Kyrgyzstan's natural resources, with few appreciable benefits to most Kyrgyz citizens, appears genuine. Kyrgyzstan's relatively open society and tradition of protest means that these citizens have the opportunity to express their discontent in a forum that does not exist to any appreciable degree in neighboring states. On the other hand, this same tradition of protest, combined with the success of mass mobilizations against the Akaev and Bakiyev regimes and the fact that many protesters are revenue-seeking opportunists, means that political entrepreneurs have both incentive and means to try to leverage popular unrest to achieve local and regional geopolitical aims.