Cold Winds From Janaozen
Last year’s violence in the town of Janaozen has created a significantly more oppressive environment in Kazakstan, according to human rights defenders and analysts interviewed by IWPR.
The activists were attending a conference in Almaty on December 13, three days before the first anniversary of the bloodshed. On December 16 last year, police shot dead at 16 people in a crowd of demonstrators in the western town of Janaozen, at the end of months of unresolved industrial action by oil workers.
The event came just over a week after lawyer Asel Nurgazieva, who had helped Janaozen residents bring legal claims of police abuse, was given 12 days in jail. Officially, the charges were of disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest, though Nurgazieva’s detention looked like a way of taking her out of circulation around the anniversary.
In the course of this year, local residents and prominent figures including Alga party leaders have been given long jail terms as the Kazak authorities attempt to rewrite Janaozen as a foreign-inspired plot, rather than a labour dispute brutally put down by their security forces. (See Kazakstan: Opposition Activist Jailed and Janaozen Trial Gets Under Way in Kazakstan.)
At the Almaty event, journalist and political commentator Sergei Duvanov told IWPR that the prosecutions have sent a strong warning message, designed to instil fear in anyone who might be considering protesting. They have also put an end to opportunities for dialogue between opposition and government.
As for the courts as instruments of the state, Duvanov said, “Whereas previously they could pretend to be independent… now there’s no attempt at concealment.”
Duvanov also noted that laws on national security and religious freedom passed last year made it easier to accuse regime critics as “instigators of strife”.
“It’s very worrying,” he said.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said events last year showed how weak civil society was.
“There are several thousand non-government organisations that provide services and run social projects, but it’s far from being civil society,” he said.
Zhovtos recalled that over several months, hundreds of oil-industry workers occupied Janaozen’s central square to stand up for their rights.
“But apart from some politicians, public figures, journalists and rights activists, no one took any interest in them. It was only when shots were fired that the public was shaken up,” he said.
Zhovtis said one of the fundamental problems that led to the industrial dispute – one of several across the oil-rich west of Kazakstan last year – was the absence of strong independent trade unions.
He said the authorities wrongly assumed that they could safely crush grassroots activism and instead promote regime-friendly, tame trade unions. “But when a situation becomes tense and conflict arises, these trade unions are unable to speak for the workers and act on their behalf,” he said.
Labour activist Pavel Shumkin said that since Janoezen, the authorities had not learned the lesson that they needed to engage with genuine trade unions. While he conceded that in recent labour disputes, the authorities had made some attempt at conciliation, he said this was essentially reactive, and the first instinct was still to pressure activists into submission. (See Kazakstan's Politicised Labour Disputes for more on this issue.)
“Resorting to authoritarian methods won’t resolve problems,” he said, “That is when things could easily slide towards an ‘Arab Spring’ scenario,” Shumkin said.
Despite, or perhaps partly because of, the government cranking up the pressure on its vocal critics and opponents, the general public in Kazakstan seemed to have lapsed into torpor after the initial shockwaves caused by Janaozen.
“We have to admit that the public in Kazakstan doesn’t perceive it as a national tragedy,” Duvanov said. People seem unable to draw analogies with their own situation, or realise that they could potentially suffer the same fate.
Duvanov said the tendentious coverage in pro-government media had even led some people to view the protesters as “if not terrorists, then at least extremists”.
Sergei Khudyakov, from the Institute Local Self-Governance Development in the northern city of Petropavlovsk, agreed that people living outside western Kazakstan tended to distance themselves from events there.
While many were concerned by the bloodshed, Khudyakov said others took the view that “it happened to them over there, not to us here”.
Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR’s country director in Kazakstan. Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor.
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