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A member of the European Parliament says Brussels needs to take a tougher line on Kazakstan in the wake of the violence of recent days.
IWPR interviewed Paul Murphy, a member of the European Parliament from Ireland’s Socialist Party, who has been involved in supporting Kazak oil workers in their campaign for better pay and working conditions since 2009, and visited the country in July.
He was behind a letter sent to Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev this week by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, GUE/NGL – a European parliamentary group of leftist parties – as well as by six other political groups. They expressed concern about the violence police deployed against striking oil workers, supporters and family members in Janaozen on December 16.
Kazak officials say 14 people, most of them protesters, were killed when police opened fire on crowds in the town centre on December 16. Another man died in the nearby village of Shetpe the following day when police opened fire on a smaller protest. (See Kazak Protesters Demand Accountability for Killings.)
“We were horrified to hear that the riot police attacked the protesters, opening fire with live ammunition on the unarmed strikers and their families,” the letter said, calling for a swift and genuinely independent inquiry into the violence, and for those responsible to be brought to justice.
IWPR: In a statement on Janaozen on December 17, the European Union’s foreign affairs high representative Catherine Ashton expressed concern about the violence and expressed hope that the authorities would investigate it. It does not seem to be a very strong statement, since the Kazak authorities have already set up a government commission. It does not look like they will allow an independent investigation. Will the European Parliament follow up on this and press for an independent inquiry?
Paul Murphy: I agree that the statement of Ms. Ashton is nowhere near strong enough. Unfortunately, the leadership of the EU in the European Commission has a strong tendency to pay only lip service to human rights issues, in my opinion, while pursuing the commercial interests of European big business. In the case of Kazakstan, they have proven willing to deal with President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev because of their interest in oil and other resources as well as the question of a Trans-Caspian pipeline.
It is the responsibility of those of us concerned about workers, democratic and human rights in Kazakstan to put pressure on the EU so that Ms. Ashton does take stronger action in this case.
IWPR: How much leverage does the EU have?
Murphy: The EU has a lot of leverage in dealing with Kazakstan, in my opinion. Forty per cent of Kazakstan’s external trade is with the EU, and there is a lot of European foreign direct investment in Kazakstan too, in particular in oil and gas.
Politically, the regime in Kazakstan clearly has an orientation to the EU. With the talks currently under way about a new, enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Kazakstan and the EU, the possibility to suspend those negotiations gives the EU extra leverage, too.
IWPR: What does this agreement involve, and how important is it for Kazakstan to get it signed?
Murphy: There is currently a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Kazakstan. The essential element of this is a trade agreement, to lower export and import duties by giving “most favoured nation” status to each other.
The current negotiations aim to go further than this, to establish a New Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, with deeper political and trade integration and relations. The first talks about this new agreement took place on October 12. From the point of view of the regime in Kazakstan, this is an extremely important agreement.
IWPR: In a video address to the Janaozen workers you posted on your website, you said you had launched a call to break off the EU negotiations with the Kazak government on the agreement. What are chances that this will be successful?
Murphy: As a call by only one MEP, it would not be successful, but it is a question of building a campaign to put pressure on the EU and Kazak authorities. I initiated an open letter from MEPs to President Nazarbayev condemning the massacre of protesters and demanding an immediate, genuinely independent inquiry. This was signed by 48 MEPs from 17 different countries and six political groups, so that is an important first step.
I will be arguing very strongly that the topic of Kazakstan, and in particular the killings of workers in Janaozen must be discussed as an urgent human rights topic at the next plenary session of the European Parliament [on January 16-19]. If we are successful in getting it on the agenda, it will be on Thursday, January 19, as part of a human rights debate.
If we can manage to get a very strong resolution passed which condemns the actions of the government and calls for a suspension of the talks, this will put further pressure on the European Commission.
The key campaign will take place outside the parliament, however, based on activists and trade unionists across Europe and the world, acting in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Kazakstan through protest actions to put pressure on governments and the EU.
IWPR: Your name is also associated with Campaign Kazakstan, a group that has organised protest actions outside Kazak embassies in several European cities since events in Janaozen. Can you describe this group?
Murphy: Campaign Kazakstan is a campaign that was initiated by me and other socialist and trade union activists shortly after my visit to Kazakstan in July. It was established to be a campaign for democratic, social and workers’ rights in Kazakstan. It has particularly been focused on building support for the oil workers’ strike in Mangistau, because of the seriousness of this dispute.
We have campaigned within the trade union movement internationally for support for the oil workers’ strike, including organising a delegation of workers to meet with trade unionists in Europe. We had planned a day of protest on Friday, December 16 in solidarity with the ongoing oil workers’ strike, but when we heard about the violence of the state forces, we immediately changed those protests into a protest against this violence.
We will be continuing to campaign on the streets and in the trade union and workers’ movement against the oppression of the Kazak state and in support of the oil workers.
IWPR: Following the initial concerns expressed by international organisations about the use of live ammunition against demonstrators, another problem emerging in Janaozen is that of ensuring that the rights of those detained after the unrest are protected. Is that something you as an MEP or part of Campaign Kazakstan are going to raise as an issue – and if so, how?
Murphy: Yes, from what I have heard, very serious human rights abuses are now being committed in Zhanaozen. There appear to be mass arrests of men in particular, to such an extent that they are unable to leave their homes. I have also heard that those who have been arrested have been subject to torture, for example being doused with cold water outside in the freezing cold.
I have raised these issues in a meeting I had with the ambassador of Kazakstan to the EU, but he denied them. However, I and the campaign will be continuing to publicise these abuses with our protest actions, my speeches in the parliament and elsewhere.
IWPR: International pressure hasn’t always been successful in making Central Asia governments listen to concerns, act upon them and acknowledge wrongdoing. What can this campaign in support of Janaozen achieve?
Murphy: I think an international campaign by trade unionists and activists in support of the workers in Janaozen can make a real difference in many different ways.
Firstly, it can bring the attention of people around the world to the massacre that happened there, and the ongoing struggle of the oil workers. Secondly, it can build real pressure on various governments and the EU to stop ignoring the massive abuses of human rights in Kazakstan, for example by withdrawing from the New Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement talks.
Thirdly, it can give real practical assistance to the workers by donating to the solidarity fund that has been set up for the workers and their families. In those ways, we can provide real assistance to the heroic workers and their families in Mangistau.
Interview conducted by Saule Mukhametrakhimova, IWPR Central Asia editor in London.
If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at email@example.com.
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