Kyrgyzstan’s “foreign agent” frenzy, actively supported by Russia, involved the Kyrgyz state security service (GKNB) this month after Prague-based environmental NGO CEE Bankwatch traveled to the site of protests against the Kumtor gold mine project operated by Canadian mining company Centerra Gold.
In 2011, Bankwatch investigated the impact of the gold mine on glaciers in Kyrgyzstan and in its report noted that transparency and “compliance with environmental and social standards” remained a concern. Following its initial observation, CEE Bankwatch visited the Kyrgyz Republic this month after multiple reports of human rights violations during the anti-mining protests in 2013. On October 5, GKNB agents harassed and intimidated the Bankwatch team in the provincial town of Karakol, within driving distance of the Kumtor gold mine. Initially, the agents checked passports for possible visa irregularities, but it became clear after hours of questioning that the GKNB wasn’t concerned with Bankwatch team’s status in the country; rather, they were interested in the purpose of the NGO’s trip to the area near Kumtor gold mine.
Facing immense pressure to leave, the Bankwatch team was unable to meet with local community members, Kyrgyz NGOs, and public figures in Isyk Kul province. Harassment and intimidation of CEE Bankwatch representatives in the form of aggressive tailing by GKNB continued throughout the duration of the European organization’s stay in Kyrgyzstan.
It is unclear why the Kyrgyz government employed state security apparatus resources against an independent environmental organization, but the Kumtor project has become highly politicized and hotly debated in the country in the last five years. Reports of torture and repression against environmental activists following mass protests in 2013 against Centerra Gold and the Kyrgyz government’s mining policies reignited domestic debate. However, the government’s approach to resolving tension in the villages near Kumtor mine remains counterproductive.
Attacks on Kyrgyz environmental activists in areas near Kumtor have become a concern in the last three years. In one episode, Daniyar Bolturukov, head of the local Public Board that oversees the provincial development fund that is financed by Centerra Gold, told CEE Bankwatch that he was kidnapped by local mob group members and beaten for hours. Bolturukov says the kidnappers threatened to kill him, forcing him to denounce on video his critical statements about Kumtor company. Daniyar believes that the attacks against him were orchestrated by the Kumtor mine management. Asked if he was able to seek help from the local law enforcement, Daniyar said that the Kyrgyz police and courts have lost credibility, and he felt unable to file a police report. He added that he had a medical report after the last attack.
Similar incidents occurred in the village of Saruu, which was at the center of mass protests against the mining project. In 2013, community activists were kidnapped and attacked, while violent police raids have left residents of the village in fear. On one occasion, in October 2013, Kyrgyz special forces with air support attempted to storm Saruu. According to local villagers, more than a thousand residents formed a blockade to protect the village. Since then a number of Saruu community leaders and activists have been imprisoned, while more await trial.
Toronto-based Centerra Gold denies involvement in the local conflict while declining to meet and discuss the issues with CEE Bankwatch and local community activists. Kumtor refused to meet with Bankwatch representatives in Kyrgyzstan, suggesting that they communicate in writing with Centerra’s headquarters in Canada.
The Canadian company is facing similar protests in Mongolia, where it is gearing up to open another gold mine, Gatsuurt, with Mongolian activists protesting Centerra’s environmental record at Boroo Gold project and potential damage to ancient burial sites in Mount Noyon. While Centerra remains recalcitrant, its record in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia is having repercussions for the global image of the Canadian mining industry.
Ryskeldi Satke is a writer with news organizations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com.