Every protest movement has its slogan: Tax the rich, we are the 99%. The striking oil workers in Kazakhstan, though, put it a bit more bluntly: “Don’t Shoot the People.”
The statement of stark desperation and defiance was displayed by protesters in the western Kazakh city of Aktau on Monday. Hundreds of them gathered to defend their labor rights and confronted a hail of bullets.
The New York Times reported, “The authorities have put the death toll from those clashes at 14, though witnesses and human rights workers have said the number of dead could be many times higher. Scores more have reportedly been injured.”
The scene was replayed elsewhere in the region. The first major crackdown took place in the nearby city of Zhanaozen on Friday, where police reportedly opened fire on strikers who had been occupying a central square for months. Gunfire rang out later over demonstrators who had blocked local railroads in the neighboring city of Shepte.
The weekend of bloodshed was a stunning climax to a long-running struggle in the petrol-rich area known as Manghystau, between an elite protected by the ex-soviet state, and the state oil and gas workers left behind by the boom. It also suggests that labor conflicts are galvanizing a mass social movement.
Radio Free Europe reported in September:
The strikes began strong, with more than 10,000 workers participating in the walkout. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled to just over 1,000. Authorities at Zhanaozen's OzenMunaiGaz and Aqtau's KarazhanbasMunai energy works -- both of which have ties to the state -- have repeatedly taken advantage of Kazakhstan's flimsy labor protection, firing hundreds of the striking workers for absenteeism and hiring new employees in their place. A number of the labor activists who have supported the group have been detained and even given lengthy prison sentences.
By September, only the toughest strikers remained:
"The heat doesn't bother us," said one of the strikers, Qaiyrzhan Shaghyrbaev. "At the oil works we worked under much worse conditions. Extreme temperatures, toxic runoff. So this is easy to deal with. We can stay here for a hundred days more, or even longer. We won't retreat."
An eerie calm
This latest spate of attacks seems to have battered but not broken the opposition, according to RFE. After the government deployed soldiers and armored vehicles to suppress riots stemming from the strikes in Zhanaozen, a curfew was imposed until January 5. Officials claimed order was returning and restored Internet services, which had been shut down. But life is not back to normal:
"We're staying indoors," said Aigul Zhalgasbaeva, a bookkeeper from Zhanaozen. "Special buses [from workplaces] come to take men to work. We women stay at home with our kids. Schools are closed. To enter hospitals you need a special permit card."
The labor conflicts continue to fester. The activists’ chief complaint was that long-promised raises for oil and gas employees never materialized. One striker interviewed by RFE, Bakhytzhan Orazbekov, blamed corporate and government collusion:
”The money landed somewhere in the pockets of the company administration," he said. "There's corruption everywhere. Right now our jobs are being filled by new people, people who had to pay bribes to get those positions. Every vacancy is worth close to $2,000. Can you imagine how much money they're making?”
A memo sent to In These Times by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) stated while some organizers were rounded up for instigating disorder, “Many of the strikers were fired ‘for absence from work without good cause.’”
In October, ICEM documented various human rights violations and demanded an official investigation:
On July 8 and 10 workers’ rally in Aktau was stormed by riot police. The participants of the rally were violently beaten....
On August 2 Zhalsylyk Turbaev, 28-year old drill operator and a union activist, was murdered right at his workplace, his skull was broken....
Oil workers and their family members are frequently beaten by thugs. Every day workers also receive death threats.
Labor activists aren’t the only ones threatened by the regime. Recently, international aid workers were forced to pull out due to hostility from the authorities and several incidents of sexual assault, according to Peace Corps volunteers.
A 2010 investigation by Human Rights Watch uncovered severe abuses of migrant workers, including young children, in the country’s massive tobacco farming sector.
Anger simmers in the Kazakh winter
So do the clashes in Mangystau foreshadow a “Kazakh winter” parallel to the Arab Spring? President Nursultan Nazarbaev has anxiously declared that "there will be no Arab-style revolution" in Kazakhstan and predictably blamed foreign agitators for the violence.
According to the ICEM memo, however, the protests have reportedly attracted a diverse range of local actors, including youth bearing Molotov cocktails. The crackdown has also led to international condemnation--even prompting Sting to cancel a concert in solidarity with the protesters.
As for the workers themselves, simple economic concessions will no longer satisfy the demand for justice. ICEM regional representative Anatoly Surin told ITT this week that following the firing of 2000 employees, amid “international pressure,” officials and management arranged 3000 temporary jobs and 230 permanent jobs, “but only 6 workers agreed to accept the proposals.”
The authorities may try again to buy the silence of protesters. But after facing down the bullets of the state, workers have proven that they don’t have to settle.