2018-10-12 | Security
Russian military exercises near Lake Issyk-Kul draw ire of Kyrgyz
By Kanat Altynbayev
BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz citizens, civil society activists and environmentalists are expressing their indignation at Russia's military testing and exercises at Lake Issyk-Kul, which they say are causing damage to the environment.
The mountain lake is the country's main tourist attraction.
Though Russia has long used the former Soviet republics for unscrupulous disposal of uranium tailings and for weapons testing, the recent resentment was sparked after the Russian Defence Ministry organised Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) counter-terrorism exercises on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul in September.
During the exercise, troops aided by Russian Su-25 fighter jets practiced rescuing the passengers and crew of a simulated hijacked airliner.
After the rescue, they pounded "hostile positions" in the mountains around Issyk-Kul with an Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system and wiped out "militants" who had seized the aircraft.
Killing off the local ecosystem
"This is something worth seeing! 20 photos of military exercises in Issyk-Kul" reads the headline of a photo essay of the drills published by Sputnik, the Kremlin's propaganda arm.
Many local readers perceived this phrase as sarcasm and took special offence at the combat drills around the lake, which is considered almost sacred because of its therapeutic waters and delicate ecosystem.
Baktygul Stakeyeva, an environmentalist engineer from Bishkek who works for the MoveGreen environmental movement, condemned the exercises around Issyk-Kul for seriously harming the lake's ecology.
The explosions that inevitably come with combat training spread harmful substances, she told Caravanserai.
"Craters form where these explosions occur, and the surrounding soil and vegetation are ruined," she said. "Not only can pollutants penetrate soil, water and animals' bodies, you have noise pollution too."
The local ecosystem is already fragile enough without the damage from military exercises, she said.
"Killing off the already compromised ecology of our beloved lake is the wrong decision," she said.
Shock and disbelief
The photos shocked many Kyrgyz residents who saw their beloved lake and mountains defaced by fighter jets, missiles, firefights, gigantic explosions and clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky.
"I look at the photographs, and I can't believe that is happening at our Issyk-Kul," Bakytbek Israilov, a civil society activist from Bishkek, told Caravanserai.
Israilov's family vacations at the lake every year, returning home "charged with natural energy", he said. "Why did they have to pick that spot for mock combat operations?"
Other Kyrgyz citizens exchanged indignant comments on social media.
"The planes turned the shores of Issyk-Kul into a test site," Bishkek attorney Ulam Jumakov posted on Facebook. "They are bombing our mountains there, they're training and they found a place to do it for free."
"Can you imagine anywhere where a civilised state would allow another country to test weapons on its territory and to drop bombs on its land?!" he said.
"During Soviet times, those crafty communists from Moscow always used smaller republics in the Soviet Union to ... test weapons and also to dispose of nuclear waste, which Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan is inundated with," he added.
More drills, secret naval testing
Russian forces are not done with the military exercises around the lake.
The rapid reaction forces of the Russia-backed Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) launched exercises on October 9 at the Edelweiss training grounds near the lake.
The so-called Co-operation 2018 drills involve about 2,000 troops, 300 vehicles and pieces of weaponry, and 40 aircraft. The "active" part of the exercise is scheduled to start Saturday (October 13).
Meanwhile, environmentalists are continuing to raise concerns about a Russian naval testing facility at the lake that dates back to Stalin's time.
The site, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by a pillbox, has functioned since 1943 in a suburb of Karakol, according to a 2015 investigative report by the Current Time TV channel, a joint Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America project.
The facility is designed to test underwater weapons, mostly torpedoes.
Environmental activists say they lack the information they need to determine the damage the testing facility has inflicted on the environment at Issyk-Kul.
At the very least, hundreds of Russian artillery shells lie on the bottom of the lake, Ulukbek Ormonov, former deputy director of a Bishkek torpedo factory, told Current Time.
Even disarmed torpedoes tested by Russia threaten the ecosystem, Anara Dautaliyeva of Bishkek, director of Kyrgyz NGO Taza Tabigat (Pure Nature), said in the video.
The testing facility should be shut down, Manasbek Sultanov, vice president of the Kyrgyzstan Equestrian Federation, wrote on Facebook in response to the video.