A Meeting Turned Violent

For many who had not received word of the protests via text message beforehand (including the author herself), the sound of shots over Bishkek’s Alatoo Square was the first sign that something was awry on October 3. Approximately 1,000 people rallied that afternoon to demand the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, located in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. But after the rally turned violent, many have been left to wonder if the fate of the mine was the true reason behind the demonstrations

Kumtor, which is owned by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, Inc., is one of the largest mines in Central Asia and is responsible for 60 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s industrial output. It has also been the source of a series of toxic spills in previous years and more recently has drawn allegations of tax fraud.

The rally, according to reports in the Kyrgyz press, was organized by the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) opposition party. What began as a simple meeting in front of the parliament building quickly turned violent when party leader Kamchibek Tashiyev urged the crowd to overthrow the government. Led by Tashiyev himself, dozens of protesters scaled the fence surrounding the parliament building. Police, fearful that this could spark the country’s third governmental overthrow since 2005, broke up the crowd using tear gas, rubber bullets, and dogs. As a result of the confrontation, three people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and another seven with other injuries. According to official reports, the majority of those injured were police officers. None of the injuries was considered to be life-threatening.

The following day, Tashiyev, along with fellow Ata-Jurt deputies Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov, was arrested for his role in the protests. All three have been charged with attempting to overthrow the government, a crime that carries up to a twenty-year prison sentence. According to Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general, Aida Salyanova, the charge is so serious that the deputies can legally be prosecuted even without being stripped of their parliamentary immunity.

Following the initial rally, it was expected that protests would continue in Kyrgyzstan’s southern provinces, where Ata-Jurt finds its strongest support base. However, October 4 saw only a small protest of around 500 in Tashiyev’s hometown of Jalal-Abad. On October 5, when the preliminary arrests of the three deputies were extended to two-month terms, supporters responded by erecting two traditional yurts in front of the provincial government’s headquarters and vowed to remain there until the court ruled in favor of the three men.

Over the next three days, the demonstrators in Jalal-Abad gained considerable momentum. On October 8 an estimated 1,500 protesters gathered in the city, and eighteen women began a hunger strike to demand the immediate release of the lawmakers. The protests also spread to nearby Osh, where nearly 400 gathered in the city’s central square.

Is The Gold Mine Really to Blame?

In the aftermath of the events, many have brought up the possibility that the demand to nationalize Kumtor may not have been the true reason behind the rallies. It does seem clear that newly appointed Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev’s visit to the mine at the end of September provided a reason for nationalist movements to act. After a meeting with Centerra’s top management, the prime minister told reporters that the mine would not be nationalized and that he had asked that it maintain its output. But the exact motives of the demonstrators and organizers are perhaps not so obvious.

Ata-Jurt was recently ousted from the Kyrgyz government when the previous coalition collapsed in late August. The party’s leaders were excluded from the decision making on the fate of Kumtor. This explains Tashiyev’s rhetoric on October 3, as he claimed that his party could change the situation surrounding Kumtor as well as other issues the country is facing. “Nobody but the nation should run the Kumtor [gold mine],” he said to the crowd on Alatoo Square. “We have to take power [into our own hands] in order to determine our politics and establish statehood. Only then will there be change.” Regional analyst Erica Marat suggested via Twitter that Tashiyev was seeking to be remembered as a “revolutionary.”

Other organizers were accused of harboring alternative motives as well. The head of the Erkin Youth Movement, Mavlyan Askarbekov, accused Sadyr Japarov of seeking to distract the public from the criminal charges recently brought against him, which allege that he was involved in illegally seizing property previously belonging to the family of ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. “We support the initiative to nationalize Kumtor, but we decided not to take part in the protest. It had a different goal. Sadyr [J]aparov organized the meeting in order to protect himself and score some political points,” Askarbekov claimed. And Japarov is not the only Ata-Jurt member who could benefit from a political distraction: former Bishkek mayor Nariman Tuleev is currently being held in detention on bribery charges, and the former minister of transport and education, Nurlan Sulaimanov, is under criminal investigation for abuse of power.

Tashiyev himself has downplayed his party’s role in the events, claiming that Ata-Jurt “in no way participated in the organization of [the rally].” However, he continued, “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.”

But if Ata-Jurt was not behind the protests, who could have been remains a mystery. Radio Free Liberty claims that a systematic texting campaign from anonymous numbers seems to have been used to spur the protests. As early as October 1, Bishkek residents reported receiving messages such as “Kumtor should work for the Kyrgyz. Never mind the phone charges—think about your descendants, and send this message on to seven more people.” Japarov has denied any knowledge of the messages, claiming that people he had personally made announcements via television and radio for people to attend the rally and discuss the fate of Kumtor.