‘Where is the gold?’ has become a recurring riddle in Kyrgyzstan. Since the Kyrgyz state took over control of the country’s Kumtor gold mine in May 2021, governance of the gold-mining sector in Kyrgyzstan has got out of control, with controversies over resources reaching new levels of bizarre. Kumtor gold keeps mysteriously disappearing and reappearing.
Observers lauded the licensing of the Kumtor mine, the largest in the country, to Canadian investor Cameco in 1992 as the success story of the independence era. With Kumtor came not only a reckless rush for Kyrgyz gold but also resistance to this rush. Unfettered gold-mining infrastructures have sprung up with corruption and violence inscribed into them. Gold mining was supposed to lead to prosperity, but it has brought more damage than development.
Gold for glaciers
Thirty years and 14 agreements after its licensing in 1992, the Kumtor gold mine now fully belongs to the Kyrgyz state. The mine’s nationalisation, dubbed a big victory by Press Secretary Erbol Sultanbaev, supposedly ends decades of injustices perpetuated by a foreign investor in one of the world’s highest mines.
These injustices, however, were the concerted making of global paradigms and national processes. Kyrgyzstan opened its doors to what had by the 1990s become a resource-intensive global economy under neoliberal governance. With the aid and advice of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Kyrgyzstan’s ruling elite, under then president Askar Akaev, dealt glaciers for gold. When the Kumtor Operating Company started commercial gold production in 1997, the permafrost at the mine’s altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level meant that glaciers had to be literally removed to get to the gold reserves beneath.
In an interview in 2015, the head of the Kumtor environmental department explained to me that the mode of mining operations and their potential ecological effects had been set out in the initial environmental impact assessment. The Kyrgyz government approved this impact assessment. ‘It is interesting,’ he continued, ‘that there is a lot of criticism about the project, when all the things that were going to happen were already predicted and discussed in the environmental impact study.’ It is all the more interesting that the government moved to renationalise the mine in 2021 on grounds of environmental and safety violations, accusing the operating company of ‘a barbaric attitude towards glaciers’.
Less visible, not less violent
Environmental rights are human rights, as the UN General Assembly declared in July 2022. Kyrgyzstan might have abstained from the UN’s ‘resolution for the whole planet’, yet at least on paper, the country recognises the constitutionally protected right to a healthy environment as well as access to public information and deliberation about projects that might undermine this right.
In practice, however, the Kyrgyz state incessantly and insidiously violates people’s environmental rights and, with that, their human rights. First Kumtor and then other mines in Kyrgyzstan have become contested sites as gold-mining operations have unfolded amid haphazard law enforcement since the country’s independence. Beneath the neoliberal platitudes of an essentially deregulating state, Kyrgyzstan has gone to great lengths to reregulate the country’s resources as sources of rent for ruling elite networks.
At first, violence took the form of dispossession. Through toxic spills and deadly accidents, bodies of water became contaminated, while people lost their lives and livelihoods. As affected residents sought justice for perished human and non-human lives, their basic rights to information and meaningful participation, together with their demands and aspirations, were gradually violated through denial by the state. With every new Kumtor deal, every new concession negotiated behind closed doors, and every court case, the state resorted to physical and psychological violence, perpetually repressing ordinary people’s resistance to gold mining.
When the protests against these injustices and crimes got louder from 2010 onwards, the violence became more lurid. Politicians turned to co-opting and moralising ordinary people’s grievances, be it through pushing for nationalisation of the Kumtor mine or pitting people against each other as ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ communities. Calls initiated, among others, by the current president Sadyr Japarov to return the nation’s resources to its people would have to wait a decade, until this year. Nonetheless, the move to nationalise Kumtor not only served to deny the state’s own wrongdoings: it also showcased how neoliberal policies, populist politics, and authoritarian grip can all co-exist and complement each other.
Not much is known about what has been going on at the Kumtor gold mine since the Japarov administration started to nationalise it. For alleged security reasons, it is not known how much gold is produced at the mine or where it is exported to. What is known, however, is that the mine is now managed by Heritage of the Great Nomads, a national holding established in December 2021. The same holding has in no time at all become an opaque one-stop shop for strategic investments in the country. In August 2022, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation to pursue joint projects in mining, hydropower, and logistics. Unfortunately, nothing more is known about the terms or timeline of this new partnership as well as several other partnerships with Chinese mining companies in Kyrgyzstan.
The politicisation and nationalisation of the Kumtor gold mine is not likely to translate into the politicisation and nationalisation of responsibility, either at Kumtor or at other mines that remain out of the limelight, as the Kyrgyz state continues to distract the public with lost and found gold from its extractive entanglements. Kyrgyz gold mining is authoritarianism and violence under the guise of development.
Dr Beril Ocaklı is a researcher at ZOiS, where she heads the project 'China, the EU, and Economic Development in Eastern Europe and Eurasia', funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.