Kazakstan: Janaozen One Year On

Authorities repressive and responsive by turn, but the old social contract has been torn up.

Kazakstan: Janaozen One Year On

Authorities repressive and responsive by turn, but the old social contract has been torn up.

On December 16, a year will have passed since police opened fire on demonstrators in the town of Janaozen in western Kazakstan.

Sixteen people died in Janaozen and one in the nearby village of Shetpe, at the end of months of industrial action by oil workers. 

The anniversary, like the violence itself, casts a shadow over Kazakstan’s independence day celebrations. (See also Cold Winds From Janaozen.)

The legacy of Janaozen is that trust between the authorities and the public has broken down.

Formerly, there was a kind of contract between the two, in which the government guaranteed peace and stability in return for the people refraining from protesting and making political demands. The bloodshed dealt a blow to this unspoken agreement.

The limited communication that used to exist between the Kazak leadership and its most vocal critics in the opposition has disappeared. By handing down a lengthy prison sentence to Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the opposition party Alga, the authorities showed that they were in no mood for compromise.

Other trials confirmed the policy was to tighten the screws, deter critics, and prevent further protests. Seventeen residents of Janaozen and Shetpe were jailed for their alleged part in the unrest.

More recently, prosecutors have launched an offensive against opposition-leaning independent media, with a court action to ban more than 30 TV, online and print outlets. That leaves the internet, or at least those websites that have not been blocked, as the only remaining source of alternative information. (See Kazak Officials in Bid to Silence Critical Media on this.) 

People I have spoken to in Aktau, the main city of Mangistau region where Janaozen is located, are unhappy that the two main national TV channels have reported virtually nothing about the Janaozen violence or its aftermath.

They also told me how tired they were of the stream of visits by various organisations and politicians. They said felt used and let down by some of them. They were also angry that their comments about life in Janaozen were taken out of context and made to seem more negative than they were. Trade unionists, meanwhile, said the behaviour of outsiders who came to help was often intrusive and left them feeling they were being told what to do.

The result is a kind of “publicity fatigue”, which has left local people wary of outside visitors and reluctant to talk to them.

It has become almost fashionable for both pro-government and independent NGOs to launch projects in Janaozen. That is not to say that work is not needed; some of them have made a real difference.

Janaozen set a precedent by showing that standing up for your rights gets you a hearing, even if in this case, the price was extraordinarily high. It was only after the violence took place that national government started paying attention to the oil workers’ grievances and to the social problems affecting the town’s residents.

Residents say the Mangistau regional government is trying to address the social issues facing Janaozen.

Provincial governor Baurjan Muhamedjanov and Janaozen mayor Serikbay Turymov, both of whom are recent appointments, seem to have learned some lessons from last year’s oil dispute.

There seems to have been a realisation, shared by central as well as local government, that it is crucial is avert conflicts before things get out of control. Local government, in particular, has got better at stepping in swiftly to mediate before disputes can escalate.

The Almaty-based Institute for Political Solutions, which publishes monthly reports on social and political dynamics in Kazakstan, notes that localised protests involving the extractive industries tailed off in November, after proliferating in the summer and autumn. In most cases, these were resolved after local authorities intervened. The labour and welfare ministry has also announced plans to change the law to strengthen trade unions and enhance their role as mediators.

Another example of the authorities’ greater responsiveness can be seen in the debate on a plan to rename Janaozen. On December 10, the provincial administration quoted Mayor Turymov as saying that the proposal had been dropped because it had not won public support.

This year, the municipal authorities in Janaozen have decided against holding Independence Day celebrations. The date will be marked solely by a public meeting held three days in advance. But at the same time, there will be no commemorative events for those who died in the town.

An Aktau resident told me that when workers at one oil firm wanted to arrange a commemorative event, their management offered them a venue on company premises – clearly to avoid a higher-profile public event.

Even if the authorities in Mangistau have made positive attempts to engage with the public, central government has many challenges that it needs to face up to.

Social inequalities, divergent views on religious and language policies and plenty more areas all have the potential to create trouble. And there is no shortage of dissatisfied groups – pensioners unhappy with plans to raise the retirement age, traders angry at the closure of city markets, investors who lost their money to bankrupt construction firms, people unable to worship freely because of stricter legislation on religion, and many others besides.

Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR’s country director in Kazakstan.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR. If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team atfeedback.ca@iwpr.net.

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