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Amid More Political Discord, Kyrgyzstan's Media Suffers

While Kyrgyzstan's parliament debates a new ownership structure of the Kumtor gold mine – the largest foreign investment in the country – protests in the Issyk-Kul province where the mine operates ensure the legislature's discussion take place against a fiery background. In reporting on the brewing political crisis, even reputable media outlets seem to take leave of their senses.

On October 7, between 300 and 500 protesters gathered in the center of the town of Karakol, demanding that the Kyrgyz government insist on a 70% stake in Kumtor under the new restructuring, rather than the 50% which the government has so far proposed in negotiations. The restructuring discussions between the company and the government began in January this year and are now reportedly close to conclusion. In May, riots near the mine in the eastern Issyk-Kul region and the seizure of a government building in the country's south rocked the fragile republic. A video posted on YouTube appeared to show the involvement of local criminals in inciting the riots.

Emil Kaptagaev, a former Presidential Chief of Staff and current governor of Issyk-Kul, had a strange day on October 7 (scanned photo taken from Gezitter.org)

Emil Kaptagaev, a former Presidential Chief of Staff and current governor of Issyk-Kul, had a strange day on October 7 (scanned photo taken from Gezitter.org)

Now the “K” word is spicing up Kyrgyz politics again. During the afternoon of October 7, in what began as a non-violent demonstration, the governor of Issyk-Kul province, Emilbek Kaptagaev was suddenly taken hostage in bizarre circumstances. During the ensuing hours, which saw police and protesters clash, rumors flew that he had been covered in gasoline and readied for immolation. Once freed, Kaptagaev clarified [ru] that the protesters had only threatened to burn him and “cut him into pieces like mutton”.

It should be noted that Kaptagaev, a former chief of staff to ex-President Roza Otunbayeva, is not a popular public figure. In a comment under an article where he describes his recent experience as a hostage, one reader, writing under the pen name “reader”, wrote [ru] the following:

О Боже, какой он бедный и несчастный! Зарезать прям его хотели…Да и вообще тебя надо было пристрелить или зарезать. а потом волкам на шашлык отдать. Хотя, если так посмотреть, то даже волки достойны лучшего мяса чем у лысика.

My God, poor unlucky him! They actually wanted to cut him… Well, they should have either cut you or shot you, and then they should have served you to the wolves like a kebab. That said, wolves deserve better meat than this baldy.

In parliament meanwhile, an ad hoc parliamentary committee has decided to renew discussions over Kumtor's ownership and also prepare a vote of no confidence in the government.

Dastan Bekeshev, a young Kyrgyz MP and one of the most followed Tweeps in the country found the committee's sudden flurry of activity amusing:

It is strange to see how “timely” Alymbekov's [member of the parliamentary committee] decision to issue a vote of no confidence in the government is. Apparently he [Alymbekov] wants play on the moods of protesters against Kumtor.

Bekeshev also reflected [ru] that without Kumtor Kyrgyzstan's political opposition would not have much to do:

The opposition and other bad forces are lucky to have Kumtor as a pretext [for disturbances]. Otherwise, they would have to come up with something else. 

Edil Baisalov, another former presidential chief of staff and an active Twitter user, argued during the maelstrom that the country's beleaguered prime-minister should leave the office:

By the way, while we are on this topic: [Jantoro] Satybaldiyev [the prime-minister] should resign anyway. He has failed, has not met the expectations, has not been able to make things work. And it is not just about #Kumtor!

Among the republic's small Twitter community, #СпаситеЖанторо [#SaveJantoro] is now trending as a hashtag. The idea is to save Satybaldiev – by sacking him. 

Protesters in Karakol held governor Emil Kaptagaev as hostage. Image by Kloop.kg, used with permission.

Protesters in Karakol held governor Emil Kaptagaev as hostage. Image by Kloop.kg, used with permission.

Mainstream media melts down

Although Kyrgyzstan is not a perfect democracy, its media enjoys the dubious complement of being the freest in post-Soviet Central Asia. Mainstream media coverage of events in Karakol, however, was poor. The state-owned first channel, OTRK, aired just a short report about the events, paying much more attention to President Atambayev's trips and his birthday message for the Russian President. The channel did not even mention the fact that the protesters in Karakol held a governor hostage.

Elvira Sarieva a Bishkek entrepreneur tweeted [ru]:

Whoever he [Kaptagaev] is – they cannot simply capture a government representative, the authorities should respond immediately, without waiting for the nightfall; and @KTRK_kg [state TV] should cover the news adequately.

As conspiracy theories whirled about the government being overthrown by ex-presidents and “outside forces” such as the United States, Vecherniy Bishkek, one of the oldest and most respected newspapers of Kyrgyzstan, posted a host of articles citing its “own sources” that seemed designed purely to fan the rumor mill. An article citing [ru] a mysterious figure “in the echelons of power” said that Emil Kaptagaev's capture was planned by his former boss, ex-President Roza Otunbayeva, acting jointly with former Prime Minister, Omurbek Babanov and, surprisingly, Kaptagaev himself.

Under yet another sensationalist article full of unnamed sources, a reader wrote [ru]:

Уважаемая вечерка,понятно,что на вас давят и требуют,чтобы вы размещали подобную информацию из “источников” . Но,помните,что для многих вы являетесь пока еще источником достоверной и объективной информации. Попробуйте объяснить тем,кто на вас давит и заставляет публиковать чернуху и желтуху, что вы просто перестанете пользоваться доверием и превратитесь в такой же отстой, как,скажем,аки-пресс.

Dear Vecherka [diminutive for Vecherniy Bishkek], it is clear that you are under pressure and [they] demand that you print such information based on “sources”. However, remember that for many people you are still a source of reliable and objective information. Try to explain to those who are putting pressure on you and forcing you to publish such rubbish that you will simply cease to enjoy the trust of your readers and turn into the same crap as Aki-press [a Kyrgyz news agency].

Atai Sadybakasov summed up the collective bemusement with arguably the country's leading print and online media outlet when he tweeted [ru]:

Vecherochka [even more affectionate diminutive for Vecherniy Bishkek], my sunshine, have you gone ****ing mad?

Below are scenes from the chaos in Karakol, where one protester threatened to set himself on fire.

 

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