Trying to Make Sense of Zhanaozen

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by Joshua Foust on 12/18/2011 · 9 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Realist Writer December 18, 2011 at 8:40 pm

“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.”

The protests started in May right, one month after the elections? Isn’t it at all possible that Nazarbayev was very popular before April and THEN got a massive hit to his popularity after April?

It seems unlikely and implausible, but at the same time, it does seem likely that a dictator may once be popular and beloved by the masses and then, later on in the dictator’s reign, loathed and hated. Things may have indeed be awesome in Kazakhstan…but that does not mean it will stay awesome.

Grant December 19, 2011 at 2:50 am

While he might have enjoyed more popularity prior to the elections, I seriously doubt that any leader truly enjoys 90% support from the population. Even the most successful probably range somewhere over 60%, Reagan never got beyond 68% (and that was after surviving an assassination attempt)* and he managed to win nearly every nation in the country in the 1980 election. Obviously that’s working with democracies and not authoritarian/totalitarian states where people are taught to support a leader, but you simply can’t trust the official numbers that come from dictatorships and NGO polls are often hampered.

*And recent approval of him suggests to me that Americans have poor memories and a tendency to forgive presidents after they leave office.

Schwartz December 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hey Josh,

A nicely balanced post. Here are my two tenge (or should I say 200, considering price inflation?) as I try to think about this broadly, i.e., in the context of the whole country based upon my own impressions:

Until Shetpe I would have said the odds of this becoming something bigger and more violent were small. Now, I think there’s a solid possibility for the western oblasts to catch fire, especially *after* the military intervention. Simon Ostrovsky reported five hours ago (!/SimonOstrovsky/status/148766797259223040): “Shetpe and Zhanaozen rammed with riot police, locals nowhere to be seen. Hundreds on main square in Aktau facing down as many police.” Instinctively, I also feel eyes should be on Shymkent, because as I understand it, that city has a chip on its shoulder and it’s looking for a reason to fight.

Nevertheless, the country’s terrain, both geographic and informational, make a “Kazakh Spring” very unlikely — and indeed, we should probably think very, very carefully before applying such a label when/if any kind of revolt breaks out. Adding to that is the general sense of upward movement/progress perceived by the working and middle classes of Almaty and Astana, no doubt buttressed by the neo-patrimonial system that’s at the core of Kazakhstan’s material development. I imagine they would have a lot to lose in the event of a serious revolt.

Finally it’s also my understanding that the largely ethnic Russian oblasts in the north are keeping their head low for the moment, despite the recent downgrading of their language in the official media. We should probably expect them to stay on the sidelines in the event of a serious crisis.

But with all that said, I must also concede: I could be wrong, I could be wrong!

Oldschool Boy December 19, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Joshua and other commenters,
Your imagination is definitely playing tricks with you. These clichés!
First of all, you think that any protests that happen in “third world” countries should necessarily be against their presidents or “regimes”. Did you at least try to read the history of the Zhanaozen conflict? If you did you would know that all the protesters wanted was salary increases. None of the protesting oil-workers had any political demands. I doubt they still do.
Second, if you think that this riot has a potential to spread across the Western Kazakhstan, you definitely know nothing about geography or social and ethnic structure of Kazakhstan. So, stop speculating. Western Kazakhstan consists of four huge oblasts: Western, Aktobe, Atyrau, and Mangystau. The population that inhabits them is so heterogeneous that even in Atyrau, the closest oblast to Mangystau (where Zhanaozen is located), people in general do not associate much with Adais (the largest clan in Mangystau oblast). Even in Aktau, many do not sympathize with Zhanaozen men who have reputation of being quite restless in general and cause a lot of upsets to public security.
In 1989, Zhanaozen was the center of the interethnic riots against Chechen and other North Caucasus population, when the USSR Government had to deploy special KGB forces and impose the Martial Law. In 2000s there were several interethnic clashes – all against Azerbaijan population in Aktau – that were initiated in Zhanaozen. So, generally speaking, Zhanaozen men have a reputation as not being very peaceful. That is why I do not think that their riot will meet any understanding in other regions of Kazakhstan. I think that in other parts, particularly Northern, Eastern, Almaty and Astana, people will be more sympathetic with the government and police forces. Plus, for most people, demands of the Zhanaozen protesters, who reportedly make way higher salaries than in the rest of the country, are not very justified.

Schwartz December 19, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Hey Old School Boy, that’s real food for thought, so thank you. I was indeed not aware of the clan and ethnic issues. I also do agree that quite a bit of the country will side with the government (most critically of all, the populations of Almaty and Astana), but I nevertheless do think there *could* be trouble since human logic is such that those differences could be set aside if they feel subject to unfair group punishment. But now perhaps I’m making a general argument and not one very Kazakhstan-specific, so take it for what it’s worth.

Dr Red Book December 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Joshua, I suggest you think several times(not even twice) before making such solid and unipolar conclusions, which are in my opinion unfair and has very little to do with the reality. I’m from Kazakhstan, Zhanaozen, and I’m not street striker. And believe it or not, those people who participated in these clashes, have a life standards better than mine – actually better than most mid-layer people in Kazakhstan. I have seen those people who were the pawns moved by skillful hands behind the unrest, they were not only drunk and “trying to make sense” unsuccessfully, but also well-organized and well-prepared, which leads me to a questions, whose skillful hands were behind these clashes, who doesnt favor harmony and peace in Kazakhstan(as anywhere else). Anyone has a right to express their dissatisfaction, but in a legal way, in a way that would not harm the society, in way that would not kill people(eg young boy was killed by demonstrators while he was going to the market), in a way that would not lead to maraud, robberies of malls and private property, and certainly not in a way which would compromise celebration of 20th anniversary of independence by other citizens of Zhanaozen, who I suppose you shall give a right to celebrate national holidays.

Kazakh Spring December 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm

While consultants and commentators think, talk and write, blood is being shed by our brothers and fathers and sons. Please help us spread news, by contributing news items and video links to our We are just individuals who love our country and wish our dictator would leave. You can contact via or direct on our new website.

Dr Red Book December 20, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Tell me the truth, are you Kazakh?

Bakhyt Aktau December 25, 2011 at 10:43 am­5005 Many people who is work in goverment can not manage country and interesting only money(oil) and killing everyone who is want to live for democrats. Our prezident is a dictator like Stalin or Gitler. I hate this fucking goverment of prezident Nazarbayev and Rakhat Aliev! We need to change govermant and prezident.This is key for good life! Give up!!)))) !!

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