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Centerra sues former director over Kumtor mine expropriation

Centerra Gold (TSX: CG) has sued the new external manager of its Kumtor mine, which was seized by Kyrgyzstan last weekend, claiming that he conspired to steal the asset from the company while he was a director.

The Toronto-based miner alleges that former board member Tengiz Bolturuk, secretly co-operated with Canadian and U.S. lawyers, as well as with the government of Kyrgyzstan to stage the mine expropriation, it said in a statement.

In the suit, filed in the Ontario Superior Court on May 20, Centerra claims that Bolturuk, a dual Canadian and Kyrgyz citizen, breached his duty of loyalty and confidentiality to the company by going behind its back.

Bolturuk joined the board of Centerra in December 2020 and resigned on May 17, 2021, two days before Kyrgyz authorities announced he had been appointed as “external manager” of the miner’s wholly owned subsidiary, Kumtor Gold Company (KGC), which operated Kumtor until its seizure.

Centerra also claims that prior to the seizure of the mine, state-owned company Kyrgyzaltyn JSC tried diverting US$29 million to an unauthorized bank account using forged payment instructions sent to a third party.

Kyrgyzstan has said it took control of the Kumtor mine because of the “abdication of its fundamental duties of care” by Centerra, charging that it had suspended deliveries of materials needed to operate the mine and had disabled “critical sensors” used to monitor the stability of the mine and the movement of nearby glaciers.

“We can assure our shareholders that we are pursuing all avenues available to us in connection with recent events, including against any persons who violate their obligations to Centerra and its shareholders,” Centerra CEO Scott Perry said in the statement.

“In the meantime, to deflect attention from their unprecedented and unprovoked seizure of the Kumtor mine, Kyrgyz officials and Mr. Bolturuk continue to make unjustified claims related to environmental and safety conditions,” Perry added. 

Kumtor is the largest of Centerra’s three gold mines, accounting for over 50% of the company’s total output.

The operation is also crucial to Kyrgyzstan. The mine accounts for a fifth of the ex-Soviet country’s total industrial output and has produced more than 13.2 million ounces of gold between 1997 and the end of 2020. Last year’s output was slightly over 556,000 ounces.

Arbitration proceedings can take up to ten years and even if the Canadian miner succeeds, there is no guarantee it will be paid the stipulated amount.

Dalton Baretto of Canaccord Genuity said in a note last week that he wasn’t surprised by Kyrgyzstan’s move.

“We have been anticipating something like this since President Japarov took power on January 10; however, the speed and breadth of these reforms has caught us off-guard,” he wrote.

The analyst added he believed the government has opened the door to what is likely going to be a multi-year degradation of the relationship between Centerra and the Kyrgyz State.

“While Centerra Gold will leverage all available avenues of international trade disputes, we believe these are unlikely to be effective in the long term,” Baretto said.

Kumtor has been the focus of a number of disputes between the company and the Kyrgyz government.

Japarov, who seized power after violent riots last October, once campaigned for the nationalization of the mine. After assuming the post, however, he said he no longer considered it necessary.

Kyrgyzstan has a history of popular uprisings and political turmoil since gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Protesters have ousted two prior prime ministers in revolutions in 2005 and 2010.

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