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.