Striking oil workers and their supporters in the Mangistau region in the west of Kazakhstan wanted to use the twentieth Anniversary of the country’s Independence to highlight the demands of their industrial battle which is now well into its eight months.
Since May 2011, thousands of oil workers (16,000 at the height of the strike) in the Uzen oil fields near the Caspian Sea have been out on strike. The little coverage that the strike got in international and official domestic media claimed that the strike is over wages and conditions. This allowed for the government and management of Kazmunaigaz to portray the strikers as being a group of “greedy” and already overpaid group of workers; trying to isolate them from the rest of the working class.
And while it is true that the workers demand higher wages and better conditions for working in extremely difficult desert climate and living in a remote area that leads to higher prices for basic goods, the demands of the workers went far beyond the immediate issues of wages and conditions.
For years on end they witnessed how the wealth that is generated through the exploitation of the enormous natural resources has been creamed off by multinational corporations, oligarchs and the close circles of the Nazarbayev regime itself. That is why they demand the nationalisation of the oil and gas fields under democratic control and management of the workers. Linked to this is the struggle for genuine trade unions that can defend those demands. Many workers see the official leadership of the pro-government and pro- employers´ Confederation of so-called Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan not suited to fit workers´ interests and have therefore engaged in setting up independent trade unions.
The need to build independent trade unions is not limited to the region of Mangistau. Workers express dissatisfaction with the official trade union structures and will therefore become an important feature in future struggles of workers in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia in general.
The official trade union structures did not support the strike in the Mangistau region and are therefore complicit in undermining the demands of the striking oil workers.
The leadership of the international trade union movement should break the links with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan if they do not want to be seen a lending authority to an anti-worker trade union.
Another key demand of the Mangistau workers is the release of their trade union lawyer Natalia Sokolowa who has been jailed for six years in prison on trumped up charges of “stirring up social conflict” in an unfair and farcical trial.
None of these demands have yet been met and no meaningful negotiations have taken place in an attempt to settle the conflict.
Instead, striking workers have been harassed, arrested and up to 2,000 were sacked while on strike. One worker and trade union activist was killed and so was the daughter of another trade union activist.
Workers turned to the international workers movement for support and launched an open appeal. In early December, representatives of the striking oil workers held a skype conference with Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, Paul Murphy in which they raised the idea to turn Independence Day into a Day of peaceful protest in Zhanaozen, the centre of the protest whose main square occupied by the workers since the early summer as well as to hold protests outside different Embassies across the world in solidarity with the striking oil workers and their demands.
On Independence Day, a prestigious event for the regime, oil workers and their supporters were met with brutal force by the state forces. Police and Army shot live ammunition at peaceful and unarmed protesters, leaving many dozens dead and many hundreds wounded.
(see www.socialistworld.net and http://campaignkazakhstan.org/ for background articles and youtube videos)
Social networks, mobile phones and the internet were closed down straight away in an attempt to prevent protesters from communicating with each other and to try and prevent “the world from watching” the regime’s tail of blood at first sight.
In an initial response on 17 December, Nazarbayev stated that “yesterday, during festivities in the town of Zhanaozen criminal acts committed by a group of individuals led to mass disturbances. Peaceful citizens who gathered on the central square (…) were attacked by a group of hooligans. The perpetrators attacked the police (…).”
This shameful distortion of reality acted as an excuse to impose a State of Emergency in Zhanaozen which has now been prolonged until the end of January.
The city is basically under siege. Following a meeting with the Kazakh Ambassador in Brussels, Paul Murphy MEP wrote a letter to the Ambassador in which he asked: “If, as you have stated repeatedly, “Independence Day celebrations has been tarnished by criminal acts committed by a group of individuals” – could you then please clarify for me why point 5 (Prohibit the holding of meetings, rallies and demonstrations, marches and picketing, as well as entertainment, sports and other mass events;) point 6 (Prohibit strikes and other means of suspension or termination of activities of legal entities;) and point 7 (Limit or prohibit the use of copiers, radio and broadcasting equipment, audio and video recording equipment, as well as ensure the temporary withdrawal of sound-amplifying equipment;) are part of the State of Emergency?
The Ambassador chose not to answer this question in his reply.
An international and independent inquiry into the events is therefore a very important demand in order to get to the real story of what happened on 16 December.
Ever since the revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East, dictatorships across the world are worried that the idea of revolution and protest would enter “their” countries, undermine, challenge and eventually end their reign of power. The recent mass protests against the election fraud across Russia have certainly not helped Nazarbayev to feel more “at ease”, as he is facing parliamentary elections on 15 January.
Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan Party have ruled Kazakhstan continuously and single-handedly in a one party parliament ever since the country declared its independence after the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1991. Not long ago, he passed the “Leader of the nation law” which protects his (and his families) wealth and immunity beyond his time in office. Family and cronies hold important positions in the state machinery and positions in strategic sectors of the economy.
Kazakhstan, primarily because of its rich oil and gas reserves and his strategic position in the region has friendly ties with European leaders. Kazakhstan is very eager to portray itself as a secular state that can guarantee stability for Western imperialist interests in the region.
However, discontent has been boiling under the surface for some time. In its Christmas edition published only a day before the events in Zhanaozen, the Economist writes: “Central Asia, thus, is not as stable as it seems. It might not take much- a powerful earthquake ineptly handled, growing protests by the dispossessed or, especially, a bungled succession for the brittleness of these nasty, brutish and long regimes to show”.
And clearly, the regime is worried about the wider implications of the events in Zhanaozen. Nazarbayev himself flew into Zhanaozen, then later signed a decree changing the Akim (governor) of the Mangistau region and to replace the President of the national oil company Kazmunaigaz as well as Timur Kulibayev, his son in law and expected to be his successor, as being in charge of Kazakhstan´s sovereign wealth fund.
In a declaration from 26 December, President Nazarbayev stated in relation to the oil workers strike and the events in Mangistau ” The main reason is that government officials, the Samruk-Kazyna management and all who were directly responsible for dealing with labour disputes showed irresponsibilility, and, in fact, misinformed. This is why all of us should draw lessons from these events”.
Nazarbayev has not seen “the light”; he is trying to take control over the situation and guarantee a life-line for his regime by taking some “responsibility” for the event, “cleaning” the ranks, calming down public opinion and at the same time continues with repression.
It is people like Tony Blair, former British PM, who has recently been hired by the Kazakh regime who assist defending those dictatorships. Tony Blair has been hired to help burnish the image of this rotten regime.
But no matter what efforts the regime and its Western friends make, an important section of the working class and poor in Kazakhstan have drawn the conclusion that they need to set up their own fighting organisations, both politically as well as in the work places to defend their rights.
Workers in the Mangistau region call for a boycott of the parliamentary elections (and have done so before the events in Zhanaozen) and call for the establishment of their own, democratic and independent workers´ party.