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© RIA Novosti. Anatoliy Ustinenko

Kazakhstan plunged into crisis by mass shootings

by Yulia Ponomareva at 17/12/2011 23:59

Kazakh police have shot dead dozens of striking oil workers and their supporters in the town of Zhanaozen, near the Caspian Sea. The area is now in a state of virtual siege from security forces, according to local eyewitnesses and independent TV reports.


The death toll has been put by the Kazakh government at 11, but some independent trade unions and opposition activists claim the real figure is 70 or higher. The number of wounded has been estimated as high as several hundred.


Workers across the Kazakh oil industry responded by calling wildcat strikes, and protests have spread to the regional capital, Aktau.


The mass shootings – which are reminiscent of the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan in 2005 – could threaten the stability of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s authoritarian regime. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since before the Soviet collapse with an increasingly iron grip, while Western, Russian and Chinese energy companies have sought to get their hands on Kazakhstan’s vast oil and gas resources, the 11th-biggest in the world.


Independence Day rally


The shootings took place on Friday December 16 – the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. Strikers were marking seven months of a bitter dispute over poor labor conditions and low wages with the Kazakh state oil and gas company, Kazmunaygas, with a peaceful rally in Zhanaozen’s main square.


Trouble started after authorities erected a stage for an anniversary party on the square – and a group of burly men in Kazmunaygas uniforms rushed the stage. Police started shooting after protesters reacted to a police bus ramming into the crowd.


“There’s real carnage going on here, police are shooting assault rifles,” eyewitness Omirbek Isabayev told the independent TV channel K+ by phone. “People are gathering in the city center. It looks like the whole of Zhanaozen has taken to the streets.”

Communications cut off


Little independently verifiable information has been available from the town, as mobile phone and Internet connections were cut off soon after violence broke out. On Friday, authorities deployed the Marine Corps and military vehicles to the region.


The main highways into the town were blocked by authorities, K+ television reported.


The exact death toll remains unclear, as authorities have not yet released the bodies of the shooting victims, opposition activists say.


According to protesters, the conflict was sparked after a police truck drove into the crowd, injuring several people. Protesters then overturned the vehicle and set it on fire. At the same time, a group of men in Kazmunaygas uniforms began to attack a New Year’s tree and a stage mounted for Independence Day celebrations.


The Kazakh government has claimed that the violence was instigated by fired oil workers, who, according to the country’s Interior Ministry, “hampered celebrations, crashing a stage mounted on the square – and then took to looting.”


A crowd set fire to the buildings of the town hall and a hotel, and the administrative building of a local subsidiary of Kazmunaygas.


Strikers’ representatives questioned who was behind these acts, and accused the authorities of using agents provocateurs to blame workers for the disturbances.


State of emergency


On Saturday, President Nursultan Nazarbayev imposed a state of emergency and a nighttime curfew in Zhanaozen until January 5. He also ordered an official investigation, to be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev, RIA Novosti reported.


Fighting between police and protesters in and around Aktau was continuing Saturday evening, an activist with a local independent trade union told The Moscow News by telephone.


The Aktau airport was closed but was reopened later Saturday, while protesters dismantled railway tracks in the region and set a train on fire, said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.


Tensions rose after 1,000 protesters in Aktau were surrounded by 3,000 riot police, the activist said. No clashes broke out there, however, he said.


Protesters were demanding talks with the mayor of Aktau and an independent inquiry into the shootings, the activist said.


As of Saturday, oil production in Zhanaozen and the rest of the Mangistau province was suspended due to a spreading strike by oil workers.


Workers’ grievances


One of Kazakhstan’s exiled opposition leaders, Ainur Kurmanov, who is also deputy head of the independent trade union Zhanartu, or Renaissance, said that workers had planned to hold a peaceful protest rally on Independence Day to call for better labor conditions, higher wages and releasing trade union leaders and labor activists from jail, which they have been demanding for months.


“Local workers die of professional diseases, associated gas intoxication, and because of using obsolete equipment,” said Kurmanov, who is co-leader of the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan. “Workloads were increased twofold as several departments stopped operating earlier this year, and workers just wanted to have them reduced.”


The confrontation between workers and management at Kazmunaygas has been escalating since early July, when riot police dispersed a protest of several hundred workers, who went on hunger strike at a workers’ tent camp on corporate premises. Every day after that up to 3,000 workers protested on the main square in Zhanaozen, a town with a population of 90,000.


Strikers’ lawyer jailed


A lawyer for the strikers’ trade union, Natalya Sokolova, was arrested in May and later jailed for six years for “fomenting social unrest.” The leader of the strikers, Akzhanat Aminov, was arrested in July and given a two-year suspended sentence.


Kurmanov, the socialist and trade union leader, said that town and company officials had refused to meet with the protesters throughout the seven-month strike. The employer refused to meet workers’ demands, even suffering a 40 percent fall in production.


“The negative emotions [around the strike] have been accumulating for months,” Kurmanov told The Moscow News by telephone. “Over 2,600 of those protesting there were fired, trade union activists were arrested – and two people were killed.”


In August, a trade union activist, Zhaksylyk Turbayev, 28, and Zhansaule Karbalayeva, 18, the daughter of a trade union leader, were killed. The strikers have accused the authorities of being linked to the men who carried out the murders.


Some moderate opposition parties expressed concern over the shootings, but said they were unlikely to step in to help the workers.


“We contact our representative in the region every hour and will fly there as soon as needed. But we don’t want to derive political dividends out of it,” Amirzhan Kosanov, of the National Social Democratic Party, said in an interview with K+ television. Members of the Rukhaniyat Party say they are unable to go to the town since access to it has been blocked off.


International protests


In the meantime, several activists from the Socialist Movement of Kazakhstan and members of the “Leave Housing to the People” movement, who were organizing a rally in the country’s commercial capital, Almaty, in eastern Kazakhstan, were reported arrested Saturday morning.


“All those who care just decided to stand up against violence in Zhanaozen,” Almaty socialist activist Zhanna Baitelova told K+ TV, adding that she had escaped arrest but had been unable to reach her detained friends on the phone.


The United Nations has expressed its concerns over the situation in Zhanaozen, calling on the Kazakh authorities “to investigate the incident promptly and to ensure that law-enforcement agencies do not use excessive force in maintaining public order.”


Kazakhstan’s embassies in Moscow, Berlin, Brussels, London, Vienna, Dublin and other European capitals were picketed in protest at the shootings by socialist and trade union activists Saturday.

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