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On December 16th (Kazakhstan's Independence Day) more than 3,000 people met up for a demonstration at the main square of Zhanaozen, a town situated in the oil-rich Mangystau Province in the west of the country.
The people who took part in action were the ex-workers of local oil companies, fired after a bitter seven month strike. Their main demands were the payment of all outstanding salaries and improvement of work conditions.
As expected the oil workers and other town folk announced their intentions to hold a peaceful protest to the authorities of Kazakhstan. However, during the demo, a police Jeep was deliberately driven into the crowd of protesters and 'peaceful' went out of fashion from there on in. Angry people turned a police car upside down and set it on fire. A nearby police bus and a yurt (placed on the square “for the celebrations”) were also torched. Following this, the people, armed with sticks, pipes and molotov cocktails occupied the office of the local gas company and burned rooms on the ground floor of its office building. The local council building and a hotel were also burned. The oil workers surrounded the building and would not let the firemen get to the building. As an encore, they looted the houses of the rich in the exclusive, private area of town.
The state's answer was to send army divisions, armoured transport and more police. The town's population defended the strikers and, as a result of the attempt to bring it to 'order' more than ninety people (civilians and security) are said to have been killed, with eight hundred injured (these numbers are constantly growing).
Unsurprisingly, official media channels tell of much lower numbers. Many workers across the region have stopped work in support of the demonstrators. First oil workers of Mangystau Province started a sympathy strike, then workers of non-oil industries in the region also stopped their work in solidarity. The protests have become a general strike.
Some workers are talking of the abolishing the current corrupt system. In the town of Shepte, demonstrators were met with the usual violence, resulting in twelve people being admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds - one of whom consequently died.
In what will probably become a 21st century standard 'state-under-threat' response, mobile phones in affected areas cannot be accessed, landlines do not work, Internet social networks and media are being blocked.
The government of Kazakhstan had promised to deal with the labour protest which has so far lasted more than seven months. But many say that it's too late for talks, when during all this time the government has supported the management of "KazMunajGas" (the state-owned oil company) in the conflict with the striking oil-workers all the way.
Spin aside, the state's real position can be inferred from the president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbaev. He's started up a special commission, for ”punishing the guilty of protesting against the state”. Commission members have flown into Zhanaozen to investigate the events / conduct witch-hunts . Of course, no mention has been made of punishing any police officers for firing on unarmed and peaceful people.
A huge country (the size of Western Europe), Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources and enormous economic potential. The varied landscape stretches from the mountainous, heavily populated regions of the east to the sparsely populated, energy-rich lowlands in the west, and from the industrialised north, with its Siberian climate and terrain, through the arid, empty steppes of the centre, to the fertile south. For twenty years, ever since the break up of Soviet Union, president Nazarbaev has held a firm grip on power, and his government has long restricted fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and expression. Public assembly is tightly controlled, and any politically motivated public meeting is likely to be denied a permit, broken up by police, or both.
Kazakhstan and Russia have maintained close ties ever since the two countries split during the break up of the Soviet Union, and Russia is still active in the oil and gas sector there. However, Russia now has to contend with China for its share of Kazakh wealth. According to Kazakh customs data, Russia and China are neck-and-neck in terms of bilateral trade with Kazakhstan. China had been acquiring oil assets in Kazakhstan since the late 1990s in order to secure a new source of energy - on it's doorstep - to fuel economic growth and reduce dependence on Middle East supplies. Chinese companies now have ownership of about a quarter of oil produced in the country and their investments do not end there; Kazakhstan's agricultural sector has been the latest target as China knows it has a lot of hungry mouths to feed in the coming years.
The vast majority of the profits from the sale of the country's resources are not shared with the nation's poor, and the Kazakh government has a terrible human rights record. Time and time again members of the security forces, torture, beat, and mistreat detainees. The government continues to use arbitrary arrest and detention, and selectively prosecutes political opponents, often detaining them for long periods.
One might say that the spirit of the Arab spring has been taken up by Central Asians, but with the current low media interest (apart from a few newspapers here and there), there isn't the same pressure on president Nazarbayev that there has been on Middle-Eastern leaders this past year (and they weren't exactly exactly keen to fold up that pressure in any event). However, Kazakhs don't need to look as far away as the Arab world for inspiration. Another ex-Soviet Central Asian country, Kyrgystan, chucked out their despotic president Bakiyev in April 2010, following riots and demonstrations that led to Bakiyev's ousting and the formation of a transitional government, headed by former philosophy lecturer Roza Otunbayeva. And what country did Bakiyev flee to? Kazakhstan. No doubt president Nazarbaev has double checked his private jets are full of fuel and that his Swiss bank cashcard is still valid. Just in case.
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