Simmering Tensions Boil Over in Kazakstan

IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova explains the backdrop to the protests, and how the authorities are handling the crisis.

Simmering Tensions Boil Over in Kazakstan

IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova explains the backdrop to the protests, and how the authorities are handling the crisis.

Monday, 19 December, 2011

A state of emergency is in place in the western Kazakstan town of Janaozen, where 14 people died when police opened fire on protesting oil workers on December 16. 

What are the current casualty figures?

According to officials, 14 people, most of them protesters, were killed when police used live fire on crowds in central Janaozen. Some 70 people were detained. Another man died in Shetpe the following day, as police moved in to stop protesters blocking a railway line. Close to 100 people were injured in the two incidents.

A state of emergency is in place in Janaozen until January 5. 

Has the government tried to explain what happened? 

The authorities are trying to present this as the result of deliberate troublemaking by a group of local hooligans, and to uncouple the clashes from the long-running oil strike.

What they omit to mention is the fact that tensions have been simmering in Janaozen for months, with the specific grievances of the oil industry strikers amplified by broader local concerns about unemployment and the like. And the government has chosen to ignore all this.

It had in fact been predicted that this long-running industrial dispute, involving oil workers who were sacked when they demanded better pay, could get out of hand. Several hundred of them have protested daily since May.

Denying that these grievances have anything to do with what happened on December 16 is the government’s way of justifying the use of excessive force. Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev has backed the heavy-handed response, saying the “police were carrying out their duty and acted legally within their authority”. This is being interpreted by some observers as a message telling the police that this is exactly what is expected of them, and that the authorities will defend them. 

What was it that actually triggered the clashes?

The unrest started when oil workers and their supporters among Janaozen’s young and largely unemployed population stormed a stage on Yntymak Square erected to mark the 20th anniversary of Kazak independence and smashed sound equipment.

The square has been the focus of the strikers’ protests for the last several months.

The disturbances then spread beyond the square and the town hall, the headquarters of a local oil company, a hotel and dozens of other buildings were set on fire. Cars were also torched.

It was at this point that police began firing live rounds and the casualties occurred.

Extra police and troops were sent into the town from neighbouring regions and the authorities regained control in Janaozen.

The trouble spread to the nearby village of Shetpe the following day, as a group of local resident blocked railway lines in protest at what had happened in Janaozen. Again, police opened fire, killing one person and wounding about a dozen more.

The tensions also spread to the provincial capital Aktau, where hundreds of people attended a rally.

What do these developments mean for western Kazakstan?

This unrest aggravates the already uneasy situation in western Kazakstan – the country’s oil-producing region –which aside from massive oil industry strikes, this year also experienced a series of attacks that suggest a rise in Islamic militancy.

Elsewhere in Kazakstan, the west is now being viewed as a trouble spot. With the latest clashes and the information blackout that has been imposed – mobile phone communications have been disrupted and access to Twitter and some internet sites is restricted – the sense of isolation is growing even greater.

What’s the reaction been outside the region?

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union have expressed concern, as has New York-based watchdog, Human Rights Watch. Internationally, there have been calls for an independent investigation, and the government has been urged to give journalists and rights groups unhindered access to the area.

Opposition parties and rights groups in Kazakstan made similar statements. Many called for restraint on both sides and a negotiated solution to the underlying industrial dispute.

The Kazak authorities have responded by launching their own official investigation, and it seems unlikely that they will sanction a truly independent probe.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.

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