Unrest spreads in Kazakhstan after clampdown on Zhanaozen rioters

By bne IntelliNews December 19, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

One person was killed in a new outbreak of violence in west Kazakhstan on December 17, a day after security forces killed at least 11 rioters in the oil town of Zhanaozen. Protests also took place December 18 in the regional centre Aktau, where several hundred people demonstrated peacefully outside the city's administrative offices.

Around 50 people blocked the railway line and set fire to a train at Shetpe, a small settlement 100 kilometres southwest of Zhanaozen, in support of striking oil workers killed and injured on December 16. Protestors then moved from the railway to central Shetpe, where they knocked down the town's main Christmas tree and attacked cars and shop windows, before police opened fire, killing one person.

The previous day, deadly clashes broke out after police tried to remove striking oil workers who had occupied Zhanaozen's central square for several months, to allow celebrations for Kazakhstan's Independence Day to go ahead.

The strikers turned on police and residents who had turned up to watch the celebrations. They destroyed a stage set up in the square, torched several buildings in central Zhanazoen, including the city administration buildings and the offices of Uzenmunaigas, a subsidiary of London-listed KazMunaiGas Exploration & Production (KMG EP). Cars were set on fire and shops looted.

Security forces then opened fire on the rioters. According to official government figures, 11 people were killed and 86 injured, making this the worst violence in Kazakhstan's recent history. Many of those injured were taken to the regional administrative centre of Aktau, as hospitals in Zhanaozen overflowed.

Opposition groups say the total was much higher, with some putting the total at over 100 deaths. Opposition television channel K-plus, which is based in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, quotes one witness saying that around 50 people died, including one child.

State of emergency

President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced a 20-day state of emergency in the town at a meeting of Kazakhstan's state security council December 17. In a statement issued by the president's office after the meeting, Nazarbayev said a special investigative team had been set up. "This commission will take all necessary measures to identify and bring to justice the organizers of the disturbances, and to restore public security in the town," said a statement from Nazarbayev. "Currently, the situation [in Zhanaozen] is under the control of law enforcement bodies."

According to reports, soldiers are patrolling the streets of Zhanaozen and a strict curfew has been imposed. Roads into the town have been blocked. The authorities have also imposed a partial media blackout, cutting telephone and internet links to Zhanaozen, and blocking access to several opposition websites, news services and the social networking site Twitter.

Workers at the Uzen field, one of the largest oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, have been on strike since May 2011 in Kazakhstan's longest running industrial dispute. The strikers have been holding out for higher pay. Although their salaries are high by Kazakhstan standards, they say they should be paid more for working in tough and sometimes hazardous conditions. The cost of living in Zhanaozen is also well above the Kazakhstan average due to the town's remote location.

Both the Kazakh government and some KMG officials claim that the strike has been prolonged by support from outsiders who want to destabilise the situation within Kazakhstan. There have been rumours that former BTA Bank chief Mukhtar Ablyazov, who fled Kazakhstan in 2009 to avoid arrest, has been secretly funding the strikers.

In his December 17 statement, Nazarbayev said that security forces would "find out where this is financed from and who is organising this... One must not mix up an oil workers labour dispute with the actions of hooligans wanting to exploit the situation for their own ends." he said.

However, in recent months there has been little effort on the part of either the government or KMG to defuse the situation in Zhanaozen. KMG EP further inflamed tensions by sacking around 900 strikers in August, but the dispute continued, with strikers and sacked workers occupying central Zhanaozen. There has also been a series of attacks on both strikers and journalists trying to cover the strike. On August 8, Natalya Sokolova, the lawyer representing the striking workers, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of inciting social discord. Two journalists working for online broadcaster Stan TV were been attacked in Aktau in October while covering the strike.

Meanwhile, KMG EP says it has managed to maintain production. The company said in a statement December 17 that although some Uzenmunaigas workers did not come to work on the night of December 16 and the following day, production has continued without interruption. "KMG EP management continues to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of production facilities and the UMG employees. The police forces maintain armed security of the key sites, including OMG production facilities," said the statement.

Although Zhanaozen is now under military control, this is the most serious outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan's recent history, and it follows an unprecedented seven months of strike action in the west Kazakhstan town. Anti-government protests are rare and tightly controlled; and when they do happen, demonstrators usually number no more than a few hundred.

So far, the wider impact of the Zhanaozen strike elsewhere in Kazakhstan has been relatively small. Zhanaozen is geographically remote from Kazakhstan's main population centres, which has helped to prevent the unrest in the town from spreading. However, the last two days have seen protests spread to the nearby towns of Aktau and Shetpe.

It is too early to say whether the wave of violence in Kazakhstan's far west will be the start of a "Kazakh spring", or if the government efforts to suppress it will be successful. There is some speculation that the post-election protests in neighbouring Russia could be replicated in Kazakhstan when the country goes to the polls in next month's parliamentary elections. However, this would be a major break from tradition in a country where a large proportion of the population places a high value on political and economic stability.

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