Some fears might be the product of poor education combined with xenophobia. One environmental scientist working for a miner exploring on the other side of Kyrgyzstan describes a constant barrage of complaints: “Villagers say there is radiation coming from our exploration holes, which is mutating their cherry trees, causing oddly shaped apples and a one-eyed sheep. Some men complain their beards are not as bushy as they used to be.”
Since strongman Bakiyev’s departure, Kyrgyzstan has experimented with a parliamentary system, which has decentralized power and left the country edgy and divided. Even before that, local power brokers were mobilizing their supporters to ensure against predation by opponents (including ones in office). But with each successive revolution, a sense of injustice seems to spread. It is easy to exploit, regardless of the truth. And Kumtor—which means money and jobs in a country with little of either—is a sitting target for opposing elites pushing agendas that are populist or nationalist, or both.
During the workers’ strike in February, 2012, when Kumtor was in the spotlight, MP Sadyr Japarov announced the formation of a parliamentary commission to look at the mine’s environmental impact. (This body helped inspire Sariev’s current commission.) Japarov—who had recast himself as a nationalist after heading Bakiyev’s anti-corruption agency (a joke even when Bakiyev was in power)—said Kumtor had made “$10-billion in profit” since opening; in fact, Kumtor’s gross revenue since 1997 is about half that. No one was surprised when, in mid-June, Japarov’s 300-page report accused Kumtor of stealing gold and devastating the environment. His call for nationalization was narrowly defeated in parliament.
As Japarov was itching for nationalization, in late May and early June, villagers in Barskoon turned to a tried-and-tested method of extracting concessions from the mine. They blocked the service road, stopping supplies like the 340,000 litres of diesel the mine needs daily. It’s not clear whether the two events were linked and, if so, how.
Kalchayev, in the Superman hat and the Benz, says he and his friends organized the roadblock on behalf of a community furious about environmental damage. So does a young man named Joldosh. He has similar grievances, but, with his poor Russian and calloused hands, he is clearly not a city boy like Kalchayev. Joldosh, who only provides his first name (for “security reasons”) and refuses to discuss Kalchayev’s role, says “the youth” of the villages around Barskoon elected him in 2011 as their representative.
Joldosh based his complaints on a concern I heard echoed across the country, from villagers, other mining outfits, government officials and non-governmental organizations: that until the latest revolution and subsequent talks of nationalization, Kumtor was “unavailable,” obsessively secretive and ignored the community. (Some Kumtor representatives admit the company has not always been good at community relations, and pledge to do better.)
During the May roadblock, Joldosh led a group of young men (he says 500 or 600, Kumtor says 100 to 150) to stop traffic. Their concerns were primarily environmental, he says, but jobs were also a factor.
Roadblocks are an effective way to get Kumtor’s attention. In previous years, roadblocks forced the mine to employ more locals and make its hiring process more transparent. “People know they can block a road and get a concession. Then everyone goes home and it’s quiet for a year or two until they want something else. The rest of the country sees this and I think it’s created a real risk for other companies,” says Styers of Oxus International.
Kumtor executives believe the youth groups around Barskoon have political connections in Bishkek and may be paid. They’re too well-organized to be acting on their own, the argument goes. Fischer, the president, says that far from being unavailable, Kumtor is on the receiving end as the groups constantly blackmail the mine with demands for contracts. Young men who somehow have 20-tonne dump trucks at their disposal say they are the legitimate representatives of “the youth” and ask him to chase off other groups with similar demands. “One week it’s one group and the next week it’s another group unhappy that we’ve engaged the first group,” Fischer says.
In October, the anti-Kumtor protests reached their climax. This time, Kamchybek Tashiev, a brutish populist admired among ultra-nationalists for his racist comments about Kyrgyzstan’s minorities, and Japarov, whose motion had failed in parliament, led protests in Bishkek calling for nationalization.
Both are members of the opposition Ata-Jurt (“Fatherland”) party. Tashiev, a presidential contender the year before, had grown famous for getting into bloody fistfights with other lawmakers and regularly calling for the government to resign, while himself lending little substance to the legislature. On Oct. 3, he led a group of protesters over the fence around parliament. News footage showed Tashiev chasing armed security guards across the lawn. He later said he was just trying to get to work.