The trial of three members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament from the opposition Ata-Jurt party began in Bishkek this week. The deputies, Sadyr Japarov, Talant Mamytov, and Kamchybek Tashiev stand accused of incitement and attempting to overthrow the government for their roles in organizing demonstrations against foreign-owner mining interests in the mineral-rich Central Asian nation last October. The protests descended into violence, with police firing tear gas and live ammunition at protesters who scaled the fences and broke into the Kyrgyz parliament building.
Demonstrators gathered in front of parliament to demand the nationalization of the Kumor gold mine. The mine, owned and operated by the Canada’s Canterra Gold Company, is the largest and most productive in the country. The Economist magazine recently estimated that Kumor accounted for 12% of Kyrgyzstan’s total GDP in 2011 and generated nearly half of its industrial output.
Protests against foreign mining companies had been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the summer. A report in the Economist documented locally-directed mobs carrying out attacks on foreign companies. In late August, protestors managed to shut down a televised mining lease auction by breaking into the studio. Then in October, Japarov, Mamytov, and Tashiev sought to use the issue to seize control of the government from Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev, according to the government prosecutors. Tashiev, the leader of Ata-Jurt, in particular exhorted the crowd to storm the parliament building.
“Nobody but the nation should run the Kumor [gold mine]. We have to take power in order to determine our politics and establish statehood. Only then will there be change,” he said. “Genghis Khan took power just with the help of his 17 sons. Why should we bring 10,000 people here to gain power? Why should we bring 20,000 people here to gain power? We don’t have to. If necessary, we can go now and take the power! We must take it! We must take it! We must!”
Tashiev and about 50 demonstrators managed to break into parliament but were turned back by police. The three have been detained since then awaiting trial. Ata-Jurt supporters continue to demonstrate on behalf of the lawmakers, demanding their release. Rallies have been held in the cities of Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Karakol.
Kyrgyzstan’s economy is heavily dependent on its mineral wealth. When output from the Kumor mine decreased in 2012, for example, the country’s growth rate dropped from nearly 6% in 2011 to just over 1%. Kyrgyzstan lacks the technical capacity to develop its natural resources and as such, foreign investment in critical.
That is why proto-nationalists like Tashiev and his Ata-Jurt party are such a threat to Kyrgyzstan’s future. The country has made strides of late, reforming its constitution to establish a parliamentary system of governance, ending years of corrupt authoritarian regimes and stabilizing its power structure. Satybaldiev’s selection as Prime Minister was another hopeful sign, as he is not affiliated with any party, and is seen as someone who can bridge the divide between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that had been roiling the country’s southern cities.
Tashiev’s attempt to seize control would likely have meant an end to that political progress, and a serious damper on Kyrgyzstan’s economic future as well. The authorities now must make sure that a fair and open trial is conducted. This is a basic responsibility of a democratic government that serves the interests of the people, not itself. Bishkek must leave no opportunity for Tashiev’s supporters to view him and his cohorts as victims of a politically motivated sham prosecution. That will only serve to fan the flames of nationalism and lead Kyrgyzstan backward to the instability of the past.