Honorable Prime Minister Abylgaziev, Minister Abaev, Chairman Salimzoda, Mr. Bekmorodov, Dr. Kassim-Lakha,
My Kyrgyz teacher taught me, “Оюндан от чыгат” or in Russian, “маленькими щепками можно разжечь больцой пожар.”
I would argue that the most important event for civil society recently has been the anti-uranium mining protests that started in the small village of Kok-Moynok in Issyk-Kul Oblast.
It is a David and Golaith story of local people and civil society activists confronting the interests of wealthy companies and powerful people. Like any good story, in the end the local people won after an epic struggle.
Because of the power of democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan, they prevented big and influential businesses from damaging the environment of one of Kyrgyzstan’s most beautiful regions.
When people from other parts of Central Asia see what happened here, they are surprised that people can gather peacefully to protest the actions of government or big business. This freedom is rare in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
So how did they do this? It started in November when concerned villagers met with local leaders in the Tong District of Issyk-Kul to say that they did not want uranium mining in their town. They had seen what had happened in Mailuu-Suu and other towns where local people suffered from serious health problems because of uranium tailing sites near their town.
Some local leaders said they needed the mining to bring income and jobs to the region. After the news in March that a Russian company had agreed to uranium processing in Issyk-Kul worth $30 million, local people decided they needed to take action.
They circulated a petition and within 24 hours had received 29,000 online signatures. They gathered by the hundreds and marched from Balakchy to Bishkek. Then they protested peacefully in Gorky Square.
Civil society is powerful in Kyrgyzstan. The First Vice Prime Minister met with the demonstrators. The Prime Minister declared that they had canceled the license of the Canadian-Russian company planning to mine at Kyzyl-Ompol.
Then President Jeenbekov said clearly, “We must preserve clean green nature for our future generations . . . no uranium mining will take place in Kyrgyzstan.” He went on to say that the mining sector, and particularly licensing, is drowning in corruption.
Parliament is now considering a complete ban on uranium mining in the country. This is all because of the power of a group of committed citizens in a small village in Issyk-Kul Oblast.
That is power. It is the power of local people using their democratic right to free speech and freedom of assembly. It is the power of a free press that reports on peaceful demonstrations.
Finally, I often hear other countries criticizing the West for trying to export democracy to Central Asia. To them I say, democracy is not a Western idea. It is a Kyrgyz idea. Kyrgyz people have been meeting in kurltais for centuries to decide the future of their people.
You have the best elections in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union. You have the freest media. And you have the strongest civil society. Congratulations on all these successes.
Thanks to your dedication, Kyrgyzstan will continue to cultivate its innate (врожденные) democratic traditions and values.