When you think of Kazakhstan, you probably think of A-level students holidaying in Newquay who think it's funny to wear green mankinis and, well, not much else, really. So, here are some interesting things you might not have known about Kazakhstan: It's where apple trees originate from, it's bigger than the whole of Western Europe, it's home to the launch site man used to put the first rocket into space, and before Christmas, police opened fire with live bullets on striking oil workers in the desert town of Zhanaozen, killing 16 people and wounding around 100 more.
Kazakhstan is a Central Asian republic that used to be part of the USSR. Unlike many of the Soviet jigsaw pieces Gorbachev spilled in 1991, however, Kazakhstan decided against implementing democracy when it gained its independence, and instead stuck with a brutal autocracy helmed by the same leader. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1989, though every landslide election victory he's won since has been greeted with widespread accusations of fraud.
Under Nazarbayev, political freedoms and human rights are still stuck in Soviet times, and most media outlets are state-controlled (those that aren't are routinely harrassed). On a scale of 1-7 – one being "most free", and seven being "least free" – democracy watchdog Freedom House ranks Kazakhstan with a six in Political Rights and a five in Civil Liberties. Overall, the NGO sadly concludes that Kazakhstan's offical freedom ranking is "Not Free".
Unfortunately for the Kazakhs, the Arab Spring never reached the cold steppe, and with Nazarbayev set to claim his obligatory 90 percent of the vote in April's election, things aren't likely to change any time soon. This impression was reinforced on the 16th of December, when thousands of oil and gas workers who'd been protesting for six months for better pay and, in some cases, their jobs back, were shot at by police and soldiers at a rally in Zhanaozen.
Since the 16th, Zhanaozen has been on complete lockdown. A state of emergency has been officially declared in the area, international press have been banned, checkpoints have sprung up and the whole population's been prohibited from voting in the next election just to make double-sure Nazarbayev doesn't get embarrassed. To get an update on events and a clearer idea of what the fuck is going on, we spoke to Campaign Kazakhstan, a campaign group for democratic, social and political rights in Kazakhstan.
VICE: Could you give us an insight into the background behind the Zhanaozen killings?
Campaign Kazakhstan: The massacre came after a seven-month hunger strike by oil workers, who are unhappy that they're not getting paid what international law says they're due for working in such dangerous conditions. Their employers are all daughter companies of KazMunaiGaz, the state energy company.
From the beginning, the management have refused to enter into meaningful negotiations. Of the six people originally elected to represent the workers in the talks, a lawyer named Natalia Sokolova has been jailed for six years, while another, Akzhanat Aminov, has received a two-year suspended sentence. A third workers' representative has had his house burnt to the ground.
Jesus. So exactly what happened on the 16th?
The strikers were organising a peaceful demonstration in the central square of Zhanaozen. Those workers still working in the region's oil fields also struck on that day. Although the protest was peaceful and disciplined, the regime was preparing for confrontation. Anti-riot troops and the country's US-trained marines were moved to the edge of the city and issued with live ammunition. As the demonstrators were still gathering, the squad of riot police marched down the road approaching the square firing live bullets into the crowd. The unprovoked attack led to an uprising, as the workers gathered to defend themselves and fight back. Within a short period key buildings in the city had been burnt down, including the City Council and the headquarters of one of the oil companies, OzenMunaiGaz. Officially, the government has admitted to killing 16 people and wounding dozens more, but Aktau, the independent union federation, believe that up to 70 people died at the hands of the police and troops that day, although their investigation is made difficult by police attempts to hide the real figures. There have been reports of unidentified bodies being cremated.
How about the oil workers who were imprisoned? How are they getting on?
Hundreds are still being detained in police cells and in the past few days there have been reports of new arrests. Russian and international journalists who were able to visit the city have confirmed that torture is being practiced in the police cells, and that women prisoners are being raped. As torture is already a widespread practice in the country’s prison system, it is hardly surprising that such methods are used against the oil workers.
So I guess the state-run gas and oil companies must have a history of treating workers badly, too?
To put it mildly. The twenty years since Kazakhstan declared its “independence” have been one, long experiment in introducing neo-liberal capitalism. In the 90s, not just factories but whole cities – sometimes referred to as 'ghost cities' – were declared surplus to requirements. As jobs were lost, a new process of internal migration developed – Russians returned north and the mainly Kazakh speaking youth left the countryside to settle in slum regions around the big cities. But rather than use the country’s vast reserves of oil, gas and – as the locals are fond of saying – all the other elements found in the periodic table to help develop the country and provide jobs and homes for the poor, the wealth has been used to line the pockets of the super-rich.
How important is the oil industry in Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan has the tenth largest oil and gas reserves in the world and, due to its key geographical position south of Russia and between China and Europe, it is seen as an alternative supply to that of Russia and also a key new supplier for the energy-greedy Chinese economy.
Why has there been no international outcry?
See our previous answer! When Joe Higgins, now a Socialist member of the Irish Parliament and then a member of the European Parliament, visited Kazakhstan a couple of years ago, he met with a representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the organisation that is supposed to be the main international watchdog protecting democratic rights in the region. He was told quite bluntly that the Western powers turn a blind eye to the lack of democracy in Kazakhstan because the defence of Western oil and gas interests are seen as more important, and also because the US was then reliant on Kazakh airspace to fly into such countries as Afghanistan. Ordinary Kazakhs simply think that their freedom has been sold for oil and gas.
What does the state of emergency mean for the people of Zhanaozen?
The city is still effectively under occupation, and the state of emergency and the curfew have been extended to the end of January. Arrests continue. While some reports say that some production has been restored in the oil fields, this is only at gunpoint with troops watching guard. Meetings and demonstrations are banned, as are communications, photocopying and other means of printing. Strikes, naturally, are outlawed.
Is Nazarbayev expected to win another landslide in the next election?
There is no election. On the 15th of January people will be expected to go to polling stations and put their cross against one of the parties that has been approved by the ruling elite. But all the parties (including the so called “People’s Communist Party”) are stooge parties set up by the Nazarbayev clique with the sole purpose of creating an impression of multi-party elections. Organisations such as the pro big-business Alga Party are refused the right to participate in the election and now the actual Communist party has had its right to compete withdrawn after it formed an alliance with Alga.
And, as if banning all opposition was not enough, there are already reports that each polling station has been prepared with inflated voting lists, so that on the day the ballot boxes can be easily packed with fraudulent votes. In this way, Nazarbayev will be able to claim he has a huge majority of the vote.
Do you think that, on the whole, the Central Asian republics are ignored by the international community, left to their own devices and therefore the governments there are able to get away with more human rights abuses?
Yes, and for the same reasons as Kazakhstan. In the late 19th century the region was subjected to the “great game”, as the British and the Russians fought amongst themselves for imperial control and influence. Now, the game has been resumed using modern communications, weapons and other technologies.
And finally, what is the situation like in Zhanaozen?
Despite the extension of the "state of emergency" and the ongoing repression, the strikers have not been defeated. They are continuing to work to establish a strong and united trade union across the region, and there are reports from the mining regions that more strikes are taking shape.