The Ritualistic Analysis of the Events in Kazakhstan

by Joshua Foust on 12/20/2011 · 16 comments

I have a piece in The Atlantic, reiterating my plea to stop comparing the crackdown in Zhanaozen to the Arab Spring:

The riots in Kazakhstan are actually a localized labor dispute between some oil workers striking for better working conditions and higher pay and the state-run oil company, OzenMunaiGaz (with the clever acronym OMG). There is also terrorism in Kazakhstan, a worrying trend that so far has remained very small scale — limited to a few bombs and a bunch of scary talk on the Internet. But there’s no apparent reason to combine the two into a broad argument about some Arab Spring-inspired uprising in Central Asia. And that does not match with the facts of what has happened.

There is no indication that Jund al-Khalifah enjoys any popularity within Kazakhstan (most of its leadership is in northwest Pakistan, anyway). Similarly, apart from a 12-person protest in Astana, the plight of those oil workers just hasn’t resounded throughout Kazakhstan the way Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation rippled across the Middle East. Previous protests in Kazakhstan over Chinese land leases and high housing prices drew crowds that dwarfed even Zhanaozen’s rioters. Additionally, Jund al-Khalifah remains an unpopular and marginal group within both Kazakhstan and the “global jihad” movement, no matter what its eager Internet videos say.

In the process of making this argument, I noticed a worrying trend of people pointing to Jund al-Khalifah as evidence that Kazakhstan is the next hotbed of Islamist extremism, a conclusion I think is wholly overblown and at bad variance with the reality of Kazakhstan. I describe such analyses, which you see in the most bizarre places (like Venezuela?) as “ritualistic.” And while a full treatment of that point didn’t make it into The Atlantic, I think there is something to the idea of certain people falling into ritual (or perhaps just schtick) when describing events.

You can see this in Mark Ames’ hyperspeed OMG THE LOBBYISTS ARE COMING TO GET US analysis of Zhanaozen. Starting with calling it “The Massacre Everyone Ignored” (except for, I suppose, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Reuters, and CNN), or with his claim that “up to 70″ workers were killed (a technically true statement, since people have claimed 70 dead, but in reality the number is not confirmed and reputable news outlets are going with 15-ish dead), Ames falls into some rather predictable ritual tropes: the West ignores the former Soviet Union (when it doesn’t, it’s just not the most important thing in the universe), the West also supports evil tyrants like Nazarbayev (which isn’t really accurate, at least the way he describes it), and that everything is because of Chevron and lobbyists trying to oppress workers (which is, well, it’s basically pure unadulterated paranoid lunacy).

Keep in mind, the oil company whose workers are striking for better pay and union recognition, KazMunaiGaz, is “owned” by the billionaire son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s Western-backed president-for-life. Among Kazakhstan’s leading American partners are Chevron, whose website boasts, “Chevron is Kazakhstan’s largest private oil producer”–adding this bit of unintentional black humor:

“In Kazakhstan, as in any country where Chevron does business, we are a strong supporter of programs that help the community.”

How funny indeed! Except if Ames were honest he’d note that Chevron has nothing to do with KazMunaiGaz (which is wholly owned by the government of Kazakhstan), so tying the American oil company to workers employed by a Kazakh firm is actually pretty mendacious. And to repeat: dishonest. Sadly, the rest of his piece continues in this vein, and it’s really not worth unpacking in further detail.

Ames’ ritual is pretty straightforward: everyone here is corrupt or ignores the region especially in tragedy, and it’s all a dark web of conspiracy and oppression. Just like other analysts see Islamist boogeymen behind every corner, even a labor protest that has nothing to do with Islamists, Ames is almost trapped by his own analytic tropes.

This is a bigger phenomenon than just the coverage of the Zhanaozen riots (and in fact is a common intellectual shortcoming, especially of polemicists). Nevertheless, I think it’s really interesting to think about when we ponder how we try to develop insight about breaking events.

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– author of 1849 posts on

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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Oldschool Boy December 21, 2011 at 12:31 am

No wonder the CA countries fall again into Russian embrace. Russians at least do not show such arrogant ignorance.

prefabrik December 21, 2011 at 1:57 am

prefabrik hakkında tüm bilgiler burada.

zaji December 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

Unfortunately, I think your coverage is also “ritualistic”. Or at least parasitic on the “rituals” of others. While I enjoy bashing ignorant bloggers and writers as much as the next person, here it really seems that you are reaching by trawling the web to find people who are saying stupid things about Zhanaozen.
The fact is there will always be people who say stupid things about everything. Who really cares what Mark Ames is writing about it? I don’t think anyone turns to Ames to read the “truth” about anything. I think you’d be better off focusing on developing your own analyses of the event- sound analyses are the best means to counter crappy analyses- than looking for stupid statements from others…..I mean, talk about fish in a barrel.

Joshua Foust December 21, 2011 at 8:59 am


I get what you’re saying but Ames retains a significant amount of cachet because of his work at The eXiLe. He writes for the New York Times regularly about politics in the region and retains a lot of influence. So I do think he’s worth pushing back against on this stuff.

But I agree with the overall point, and I also try to provide my own analysis. You can find that in the previous two posts.

Grant December 21, 2011 at 9:56 am

I think LeVine has something at least worth reading, even if I still think he’s drawing too many connections where they might not exist.

Aside from that have these people taken a look at the world? If the U.S insisted on strict good governance while still planning to be a part of the international community we would find ourselves with a sinking economy, few friends in vital parts of the world, little ability to stop genocide or war, nations flooding to the General Assembly and the kind of anti-American alliance that the U.S has managed to avoid so far.

upyernoz December 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I don’t mind the comparison to the Arab spring because “the Arab spring” itself is not one thing. the Arab spring in Tunisia began as an protest about economic issues and evolved into a political challenge against the regime. Egypt was overtly anti-Mubarak from the start, but has lately become more about constitutionalism, the secular-religious divide and the role of the military. in society. Libya was tied up in regionalism issues in a way that the others weren’t. Bahrain is about the Sunni-Shia divide in a way that none of the others are. Syria is about more issues than I can count. yemen’s spring is extremely clan-based and seems to be mostly just about which faction gets power. the protests in morocco were tied into long running economic and political grievances that have largely been co-opted by the government.

so in that sense, the protests in western Kazakhstan are nothing like the Arab spring. but on the other hand, they are exactly like them. the only real criteria for being “Arab spring”-inspired is having an anti-government protests in 2011. and yet, the “Arab spring” phenomenon seems to be a real thing. other than kaz not being an Arab country, I don’t really see any basis for saying it has nothing to do with the Arab spring. if nothing else, the presence of stories about protests tend to influence people and possibly inspire other protests. probably they would have done it anyway, but we can never say for sure. and the AS might at least have made open protests more likely, even if just by a little bit.

Down and Out of Sài Gòn January 1, 2012 at 4:33 am

Joshua: it looks like Ames is telling the truth and you are making things up when you say “Chevron has nothing to do with KazMunaiGaz “:

Fact #1: Tengizchevroil, which operates one of the world’s ten largest oil fields in Kazakhstan, is owned 50% by Chevron, 20% by KazMunaiGaz, and smaller shares owned by a handful of other oil firms.
Fact #2: The Caspian Sea Pipeline consortium, the multibillion-dollar oil export pipeline, is led by Chevron, and has among its partners KazMunaiGaz….
Fact #3: A few weeks ago, Chevron signed a new deal bringing in KazMunaiGaz as a partner on yet another major oil field project in Karachaganak.

Joshua Foust January 1, 2012 at 9:45 am

Not quite. Ames was trying to blame Chevron for the shootings (just as he tried to accuse me of either covering it up or covering up the Andijon massacre). But Chevron had nothing to do with events in Zhanaozen. These local ventures are subsidiaries with local leadership who don’t report back to Chevron, even if Chevron gets a majority share of the profit. There’s a reason the executives of KazMunaiGaz were fired after the shootings in Zhanaozen and the Chevron executives in Aktau were left untouched: because they had nothing to do with the atrocity.

Ames is being really slippery with the facts there because he thinks oil companies are to blame.

Now: do you think he’s telling the truth in the rest of his post, when he links to stories I’ve written that say the opposite of what he says they do, or when he psychoanalyzes my teenage years to spuriously accuse me of shilling for the defense industry? Because you might want to consider that as well before you take his analysis of petro-ownership in Kazakhstan at his word.

MJ January 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I don’t know, Joshua, sounds like a feeble defense to me. I do think Ames went a bit over the top with his post, but his main points rely on things that you wrote, affiliations you have/had, disclaimers you “forgot” to insert into your posts, and other things that are hard to take out of context. You might do well refuting these accusations if you want to retain at least a bit of your credibility.

When you write something like “Chevron has nothing to do with KazMunaiGaz” or “Ames relies on a completely invented bodycount” when those statements are factually wrong it does sort of seem like you are the one making things up to in order to defend your analysis. I’d call that dishonest.

Joshua Foust January 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Actually, MJ, most of what Ames wrote of my employment (“paid PR flack,” etc) is factually wrong. His appeals to my childhood to explain why I’m “evil” is worse than just flourish, it is mendacious character assassination. Every single recent article he linked to, including my Senate testimony, actually argues the opposite of what he said it does. And the old deleted blog posts he excerpts are indeed true, but he neglects to excerpt the later posts on that same blog where I admit I was wrong, apologized, and pledged to do a better job of getting it right in the future.

In other words, that was a piece built almost entirely of lies about me. If you want to accept, on faith, that he’s telling the truth and I am not without bothering to see for yourself that is your choice, but I feel no particular obligation to do your homework for you.

Grow up.

Steve Magribi January 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Ames-OMG doesn’t do in this strange bizarre interest in Foust for questioning the casualty figures.

Does 20 matter, or 50 or 100? It is clear there was a masacre. Nothing is going to change that.

Strange and Bizarre. Caffeine overdosed. When you stoop to analyzing someones GPA, or friggin uninteresting High School in attacking a discussion of casualty figures in a public tragedy things are going wrong in the mind’s membranes.

Oh the absolute boredom of character assassination, interest in the meaningless, avoidance of the serious.
It is artificial. It is not worth the effort, it makes no real contribution to an analysis of this world we live in now.

What one thought of Iraq a decade ago doesn’t matter. What one ate for breakfast last week doesn’t matter.

The world of ideas and discussion is a chaotic place. We can never expect to agree all the time or find respite from utter confusion. Reading Ames’s is what you get when you go out of your way to be confused, in a confusing world.

If Kazahkstan is that important to Ames, he should join the resistance and leave Foust out of this. Does he care that much? Plenty of legit targest out there. Petty stuff not even up to Exiled standards.

Thank God for Children, the grownups, like Ames (/) are the lost ones now.

Jawlson January 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Let this be a lesson to anyone who didn’t read the eXile in the 90s – don’t take on Mark Ames and expect to win.

counterbury January 2, 2012 at 8:49 pm

oboyoboy. stop writing forever

spooz January 3, 2012 at 3:46 am

Seems like you are getting lots of criticism from well respected websites. You look to be a tool of the defense contractors. Didn’t know your name until Yves posted this piece. And since in this day and age we are all looking for the someone to blame, you may want to think of changing your name. You look to be one of the worst kinds of propaganda spinners, and I would now doubt the reliability of anything written by you. Guess you’ve got to make a living, but did it have to involve selling your integrity?

Bakinets January 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Late to this but — seems like you are not worrying about most of Ames’s rant, which is right. No regular readers of Registan — including those who disagree with you a lot of the time — will take it seriously. As you note, those who read the eXile and spent time in Moscow in the 1990s will always have some semi-respect for Ames, as he and Taibbi really did capture the spirit of the age. But this sort of ad hominem attack is just weird (although it does put you in good company!).

That having been said, on the issue that started this — the number of deaths in Zhanaozen — Ames does have a point, doesn’t he? Just because “reputable news outlets” lazily accept the official Kazakh figure doesn’t make it the right figure, or justify defending that figure. The Novaya Gazeta article does not settle the issue for once and for all, but it is the most respected newspaper in the post-Soviet space. I will take their source and their journalist’s judgements about the veracity of that source over the Kazakh government any day.

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 7, 2012 at 11:02 am

I think you are absolutely right on all counts, Bakinets. My own analysis of the Novaia Gazeta article in my recent post certainly shows that it is Ames, and not NG, that is the problem.

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