It’s difficult to know what to say about the continuing unrest in Western Kazakhstan. The region has been beset with unrest for the last several months over a labor dispute with oil workers; hundreds have been arrested so far and at least one Sting concert canceled.
Over the weekend, an independence day celebration turned into an anti-government riot, and the government response killed at least ten protesters (the news channel K+ is claiming fifty dead, but that number remains unconfirmed).
In the aftermath, the government of Kazakhstan shut down the internet, blocking twitter and local ISPs — part of a government-wide effort to control the spread of news about the violence. AP reporter Pete Leonard has been trying to get to Zhanaozen for a while now; on his Twitter feed he’s been reporting the various blockages, delays, and barriers the local authorities have erected to keep journalists out of the area.
In the meanwhile, the government has declared a state of emergency until January 5, which means it will be damned hard to get solid news out of the area for a while longer. The unrest has spread to the train junction town of Shetpe, where at least one more person has been killed by police.
Tensions are high and the government is clearly worried about this unrest spreading beyond oil workers into a more general movement against the country. It makes for a darkly ironic contrast with the government’s (and its enablers’) pronouncements in April that Father Nazarbayev won a 90% share of the vote because everything in the country is awesome. It clearly is not. In fact, the situation in Kazakhstan has become precipitous enough in recent months that the Peace Corps up and left the country in November, citing threats to volunteer safety the police declined to investigate.
What can we make of this? It’s way too early to say if these riots have any meaning beyond the local labor dispute with oil workers. So far there’s no real sense that the unrest is spreading into the big cities, where the protests (frankly, sadly) would really matter: Astana, Shymkent, Karaganda, and Almaty. The official response out of Astana has been solemn but not apologetic, so it’s unlikely there will be much restitution over the killings—more likely they’ll be treated as criminals who got what they deserved.
Nursultan Nazarbayev is no doubt acutely aware of the revolution fever burning through the Internets whenever a protest happens (so far we’ve been thankfully spared insipid calls for a “Kazakh Spring”). That probably explains some of the rapidity and viciousness of the Kazakh government’s response to the riots — they don’t want to take any chances of the protests spreading and a rapid, brutal crackdown with an immediate news blackout is the best way of doing that.
But amidst the violence in Mangystau oblast there is another reason Nazarbayev is probably nervous: Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the Zheltoksan Riots. December 17, 1986 saw thousands of young Kazakhs take to the streets of Almaty (then Alma-Ata) to demand a role in national politics and to protest their status as second-class (i.e. non-Slavic) citizens in their own country. The Soviet response was brutal, but it sent the message that the Soviet’s social policies were unsustainable and needed to change. We all kind of know what happened at the end of the 80s.
Nazarbayev is not necessarily drawing on lessons right now from Snowstorm. But the context and history of these sorts of events — not regime ending revolutions but system disrupting protests — is important for understanding both what the protesters are hoping to accomplish and how officials in Astana are probably perceiving them. We will have to wait a while yet for primary source news out of Zhanaozen — some European groups have set up ad-hoc dialup ISPs that will no doubt result in some cell phone footage uploads and more first hand accounts (and hopefully soon some journalists will be on sight). So we still don’t have the whole story. But we can conclude that this is not a simple, small, or meaningless affair. The Zhanaozen riots have gotten the attention not just of Moscow but of Brussels and Washington as well. They know people are watching. How Astana chooses to respond — whether with conciliatory measures meant to defuse the situation or yet more crackdowns — will ultimately determine how this ends.