BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Opposition politicians demanding the nationalization of the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan have been accused of an attempted coup, prompting analysts to warn that agitators are using the controversial foreign investment to plunge the revolution-prone Central Asian republic into further instability.
"There is a fear that with all the political turmoil and economic worries in recent years that Kyrgyzstan isn't a viable county and a fear that foreigners are here to stir things up and take the wealth and resources of Kyrgyzstan," said Nick Megoran, a senior lecturer specializing in Kyrgyzstan at Newcastle University in Britain. "By picking on the Kumtor case, a nationalist party like Ata-Jurt is able to press all sorts of populist buttons."
On Wednesday, dozens of protestors gathered outside the government building in Bishkek that is known as the White House to demand the release of Ata-Jurt leader Kamchybek Tashiev and fellow party members, who were arrested and charged with "public appeals to violent change of constitutional order" and "forcible seizure and retention of power," after they had scaled the building's perimeter fence on Oct. 3.
The daughter of former military prosecutor Kubatbek Kozhonaliyev, who also was arrested in connection with last week's protests, was among those demonstrating in Bishkek. Daniya Kozhonaliyeva, 27, said she had been on a hunger strike since Friday and had stopped taking liquids as of Wednesday.
"The government does not want to listen," Ms. Kozhonaliyeva wrote on a notepad, her mouth taped shut. "No food, no water, until justice comes. [My father] is innocent."
Analysts say the Kyrgyz government is treating last week's events as a serious attempt at revolution.
"In 2005, [former President Askar] Akayev was overthrown when people stormed the White House," Mr. Megoran said. "Since that time, this has been implanted in politicians' minds as a strategy to change power and, of course, in 2010 [Mr. Akayev's successor Kurmanbek] Bakiyev himself was overthrown in the same way So it's obviously a challenge the government takes seriously."
Protesters said that more than 20 relatives of the detained politicians are also on hunger strike in Ata-Jurt's stronghold in south of the country, where more than 1,000 people came out in protest in the city of Jalal Abad this week.
"I think the government has handled this very [heavy-handedly] by arresting them and risking making them martyrs," Mr. Megoran said. "It could backfire and become the catalyst for more significant protests."
Observers say the protests were designed to stir up popular unrest and threaten the stability of the new government, formed last month after the previous ruling coalition collapsed amid political infighting and claims of corruption against the former prime minister.
"Ata-Jurt is politically isolated, which is why most of its initiatives are unlikely to gain parliamentary backing," said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. "This means the party uses its influence outside of parliament by organizing anti-government rallies."
Ata-Jurt has campaigned for a return to the strongman presidential system under which the country was governed before the popular uprising in 2010 ushered in a parliamentary democracy.
The opposition politicians' immediate demand is the nationalization the gold mine, which accounts for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP and is operated by Canadian company Centerra Gold. The Kyrgyz state holds a 33 percent share in the mine, and periodically has threatened nationalization.
During an Oct. 1 visit to the site in Kyrgyzstan's Issyk Kul region, Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev promised the Canadian company that Kumtor would never be appropriated by the state.
Analysts says that Ata-Jurt's calls for the mine's nationalization are unrealistic because of the damage it would do to Kyrgyzstan's ability to attract foreign investment and because few believe that the famously corrupt state would be able to run the operation effectively.
"Centerra operates on a fully legal contract, signed by previous Kyrgyz officials," said Asel Doolotkeldieva, a researcher in Kyrgyz politics the University of Exeter in Britain. "This contract is not to be overruled by street protesters or a bunch of revolutionary-oriented politicians."
Still, others say that a lack of transparency in the government's dealings with Centerra Gold has raised suspicions over who is benefiting from Kumtor's wealth.
Bakyt Beshimov, a former Kyrgyz parliamentarian living in the U.S., says that politicians have long used Kumtor for political and financial ends.
"Kumtor, from the beginning, was a corrupt project," Mr. Beshimov said. "More than 30 percent of Kumtor belongs to Centerra Gold, more than 30 percent belongs to the Kyrgyz government. The question is, who owns the third part of the share? It's uncertain. [Centerra Gold] explains that the shares were bought on the financial market, but that's not so convincing for the Kyrgyz public."
The environmental impact of the mine is also an emotive issue in Kyrgyzstan: In 1998, a cyanide spillage poisoned water supplies close to the mine.