Clare Nuttall in Aktau -
Nearly a year after the deaths of 16 oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan's government is planning to launch a range of support measures for the oil-rich region as it tries to ensure the tragedy doesn't happen again. At an international investment forum in the western town of Aktau, Lyazzat Kiinov, the chairman of Kazakhstan's state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas, announced on September 24 that a series of investment deals will shortly be signed to channel more development funds into the region.
Although western Kazakhstan is responsible for over 30% of the country's GDP and has less than 15% of its population, living standards in many regional towns are well below those in the country's main cities Astana and Almaty. The trigger for the strikes that preceded the December 2011 shootings in Zhanaozen was the perception by oil workers that profits from the country's vast oil and gas resources were going only to the elite, while their living conditions remained low.
On December 16, Kazakhstan's independence day, the strike erupted into violence when police tried to evict sacked oil workers and their supporters from Zhanaozen's main square so that a celebratory concert could go ahead. When clashes broke out, security forces opened fire, killing 16 people. Oil company offices, shops and banks were attacked in violent riots in Zhanaozen and in nearby Shepte.
The events shattered Kazakhstan's carefully nurtured reputation for internal stability, and Astana quickly realised the need to placate workers, announcing investment plans for Zhanaozen and a new programme to support mono-industry towns in general. "The main idea of this event is to prevent last year's tragic events at Zhanaozen from being repeated," Kiinov told the West Kazakhstan investment forum in the regional capital Aktau. "We believe one of the main reasons was the high level of unemployment, because when a person has no job, he has no life and no prospects, so we are discussing how to create new jobs." Plans include setting up an industrial park in Zhanaozen in a bid to diversify the local economy.
Summer 2012 saw two brief strikes in Zhanaozen, but this time managers quickly opened talks with workers. On a Sunday afternoon in late September, the town was quiet and calm, although there was a considerable military presence around the UzenMunaiGas offices and local administration. There were no traces of the buildings burned down during the riots, and teams of women were picking up litter and sweeping the sandy verges in the town centre. However, behind the freshly painted facades on the well-kept main streets, lie dirt tracks and shabby apartment blocks.
While the situation in the region is currently calm, feelings are still running high and Kazakhstan's opposition are being pressured by the authorities. On the day the investment forum opened, across town at the regional court house the trial of opposition leader Vladmir Kozlov resumed. The Alga! party leader was arrested as part of a security clampdown in January on his return from discussions with EU officials on Zhanaozen. He faces a range of charges including plotting to overthrow the government, and could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Kiinov warned of the potential for unrest in other parts of west Kazakhstan, including the Atyrau region, where development of the massive offshore Kashagan oilfield is taking place. "Construction work for the first phase of Kashagan is nearly finished, which seems like good news, but when construction ends 7,000 people will lose their jobs. We need to think about who will employ them," Kiinov said.
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