Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Kazakhstan mounted a large police presence on February 25, outstripping the number of demonstrators turning up to events across the country during the second "Day of Dissent." The government continues to use plenty of stick in its bid to quell the series of protests seen this year, but with the context of the complaints becoming ever more fundamental, it's also having to reach for the carrot.
Several hundred people demonstrated in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty on February 25, calling for a transparent investigation into the Zhanaozen tragedy and an end to the government crackdown on the independent media. Smaller demonstrations took place in the Kazakh capital Astana and the western city of Uralsk.
At all three events, demonstrators were heavily outnumbered by police and security forces, who carried out a number of arrests. Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov, who head the Social-Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, were rounded up in advance of Saturday's demonstration, along with four other opposition leaders.
The Almaty demonstration was promoted on local social networks as "Day of Dissent 2," and was originally due to take place on a square near the city centre. However, the area was fenced off by police, forcing demonstrators to congregate on a narrow strip of pavement outside the Soviet-era Hotel Kazakhstan, where police hemmed them in on both sides.
The majority of the demonstrators, who numbered around 300, were older ethnic Kazakh men. They were accompanied by what appeared to be up to 1,000 police, plus deployments of SOBR, Kazakhstan's rapid response force. Although the event took place just across the road from KIMEP, one of Kazakhstan's largest universities, the protests against the government have not mobilised students or the wider population.
Suppression of the independent media is one reason for that. "Since the deaths in Zhanaozen, the police have been arresting journalists. They have searched our offices and taken away our documents," one cameraman at the protest in Astana tells bne, before being pushed away by police.
Despite the massed police presence, protestors remained in temperatures of around -8C for two hours or more. Just after 2:00 pm local time, police suddenly moved in and bundled many of the crowd into buses. Demonstrators shouted "Nazarbayev go away!" as they were arrested.
Under Nursultan Nazarbayev's 20-year rule, Kazakhstan has seen little anti-government protest, and when it does occur it is closely monitored by the security forces. However, a series of protests have taken place in recent months following the deaths of strikers at Zhanaozen two months ago.
What started as industrial action in the western oil town turned into a seven-month protest that grew increasingly acrimonious after over 1,000 workers were sacked. On December 16, 2011 - Kazakhstan's independence day - violence broke out after police tried to evict strikers from the central square. Sixteen people were killed when police opened fire, and government offices, shops and banks were destroyed in a day of rioting.
Whilst on first glance Zhanaozen looked little more than an extended industrial dispute, the events it has sparked point to a more fundamental issue, with Kazakhs starting to question the distribution of wealth from the country's massive oil and gas reserves. Workers at the field, who say they are operating in difficult and dangerous conditions, complain that they're blocked from sharing in the wealth they help to produce.
Aware of this danger, the government has been careful over the last few years to ensure at least some of the oil wealth trickles down to the population and has spent money to maintain employment during lean times. It already has contingency plans in case a second wave of the international economic crisis hits Kazakhstan. The economy is still growing, but on February 14 Prime Minister Karim Massimov dropped the 2012 growth forecast by 90 basis points downwards to 6%.
While the protesters in the capital and elsewhere still appear isolated, there is a growing fear in Astana that discontent could spread to other industrial towns or to the rural migrants that have settled on the outskirts of Almaty, from where they view the urban elite getting richer as they struggle to make a living.
The government is keen to prevent an escalation, and has clamped down on opposition activists and independent media in the last two months. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the the Alga! DVK opposition party, was detained on January 23 on his return from meetings with EU officials to discuss the events at Zhanaozen. Security forces also arrested several of Kozlov's colleagues and searched both the Alga! headquarters and party officials' homes. Igor Vinyavskii, an opposition activist and editor-in-chief of Vzlgyad newspaper, was arrested at the same time and charged with "calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order using mass media."
However, Astana is also adding a little carrot to the stick, and in an attempt to build bridges and restore social harmony has promised a generous financial package for the development of Zhanaozen, and even put the town at the top of the list to receive digital television this year. At the same time, the official report into the violence spreads the blame onto the police as well as the rioters and strike organisers. Several local government officials and police officers are under arrest while the investigation is carried out.
Despite this, the opposition insists it will maintain its efforts and has already announced another demonstration on March 25. The Kazakh action does, however, remain tiny compared to the tens of thousands that have turned out in Moscow and other large Russian cities ahead of the presidential elections there. Kazakhs often say that whatever happens in Russia will happen in Kazakhstan next, and wider protests cannot be ruled out, but they're not looking likely to happen soon.
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