Back in January, Canadian mining firm Centerra Gold confirmed that it was in talks with the Kyrgyz government for an out-of-court settlement of their dispute over the Kumtor Gold Mine. On March 28, the company confirmed reporting that the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers had approved a decision to conclude an agreement with Centerra over the mine that would fulfill the core terms outlined by the company earlier in the year.
Nothing is set in stone, but Kyrgyzstan and Centerra may be nearing the end of their long relationship.
Centerra has been involved in Kyrgyzstan’s most lucrative gold mine, Kumtor, since 2004, though the first agreements regarding the mine were reached in 1992. The mine was both a critical asset and a livewire in domestic politics — a flashpoint for occasional calls for nationalization. Kumtor accounted for nearly 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP in 2019, demonstrating how important its operation has been to the Kyrgyz economy.
With the rise to power of populist President Sadyr Japarov, Kumtor was once again a target.
Japarov infamously served a few months in prison for attempting to take over the Kyrgyz White House during a 2012 pro-nationalization protest. He was later acquitted and released, but ran into further trouble when a protest against Kumtor the following year in Karakol went sideways. Japarov fled the country but was arrested upon return in 2017 and jailed on an 11.5 year sentence that ended early in dramatic fashion when protestors in October 2020 set him free. He quickly parlayed his release into power, rising to the top of the Kyrgyz political pile by January 2021.
Kumtor’s latest troubles kicked off in May 2021 when the Kyrgyz parliament passed a bill allowing the state to seize temporary control of the mine if certain conditions were met, namely violations of environmental regulations or other local damage. The same day a Kyrgyz court issued a $3 billion fine to Centerra’s Kyrgyz subsidiary following a suit by four private citizens (one of whom was the son of the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Ecology and Climate Committee) on behalf of Kyrgyzstan seeking reparations for the mine’s past environmentally damaging practices. The Kyrgyz government then made good on its new option to take over the mine and did so on May 17.
In the months since, the country and the company have traded headlines: Centerra announcing it would pursue arbitration and filing for bankruptcy on behalf of its Kyrgyz subsidiaries in the U.S.; Kyrgyzstan welcoming back one of its exiled former presidents to cooperate with the state’s investigation; Kyrgyzstan being blocked from trade in London’s precious metals markets and then suing Centerra over blocked access to company computer systems; Centerra saying the mine’s output was down and the Kyrgyz saying the gold mine’s revenues were booming.
In January 2022, however, Centerra confirmed that it was in discussions with Bishkek over the fate of the mine. I summarized the company’s stance at the time:
The press release laid out five expectations with regard to any resolution of the conflict. These include the return of state-owned mining company Kyrgyzaltyn’s shares in Centerra, which Centerra would then cancel. Kyrgyzaltyn is presently Centerra’s largest single shareholder, with a 26.1 percent stake in the company. Centerra also said that it would expect the resignation of Kyrgyzaltyn’s two nominees to the Centerra board of directors.
In addition, Centerra expects that Kyrgyzstan would assume all responsibility for the company’s two Kyrgyz subsidiaries and the Kumtor Mine. Centerra also stated an expectation of payment in cash “equal to the net amount of the three dividends paid by Centerra in 2021 that Kyrgyzaltyn JSC did not receive as a result of the seizure of the mine and certain other financial consideration associated with the settlement of inter-company balances between Centerra and its two Kyrgyz subsidiaries.”
Finally, Centerra would expect the “full and final release of all claims” and the end of all legal proceedings “in all jurisdictions with no admissions of liability.
Put more simply: Centerra wants to wash its hands of the Kumtor headache and walk away, with at least some compensation. Bishkek, for its part, may prefer an out-of-court settlement for fear of losing in court over its seizure of the mine.
This remains the outline for any potential agreement, at last as far as the Canadian firm is concerned. Importantly, Centerra’s most recent press release stipulates that although negotiations are proceeding “there can be no assurance that any proposed transaction will be agreed to or consummated or as to the final economic and other terms and conditions of any such transaction, if agreed.”
While the Kyrgyz Cabinet of Ministers has reportedly approved a decision to conclude an agreement with Centerra, the details of that potential agreement — a “peaceful divorce” as RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service called it — have not been made public.