This is a guest post by Nate Schenkkan, a freelance journalist based in Bishkek. Find him on Twitter @nateschenkkan.
This post started with a conversation with Josh over how to interpret what happened over the past weekend in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, when striking workers rioted, and then were shot, in numbers that are still being debated as the government maintains an information lockdown in the city.
First, a caveat: I’m not in Kazakhstan. This is a rumination, not a dispatch, and I welcome responses from people on the ground who can offer more fine-grained perspective, just as I encourage reading the excellent reporting being done by Joanna Lillis (Eurasianet), Peter Leonard (AP), and Kazis Togubaev (Radio Azattyk), among other journalists who are on location.
Now to the subject.
At the Atlantic, Josh argued that we should not read too much into the conflict, taking to task over-eager analysts who jumped on the opportunity to label Kazakhstan the next hotbed of popular revolt or Islamic terrorist menace.
On these points, I agree. Comparison with the Arab Spring is simplistic. Kazakhstan is not headed for a revolution, and Islamic terrorism is not a threat to the state.
But I also think Josh is too hasty to discount what is happening in Kazakhstan as just “normal” workers’ complaints or “marginal” terrorist activity. And it tells us less about the country we’re examining if we focus on the inevitable use of a few clichés rather than on the details of what is happening.
Here is what I see: Zhanaozen matters because it is the latest evidence of a crumbling social compact in Kazakhstan. The formula was simple and familiar: the government distributed rising living standards in exchange for social grievances – over religion, over money, to a certain degree over nationality – being tabled until a later date. Eased by oil profits and buttressed by rigged elections, arrests of human rights defenders, and firm control over the media, the formula seemed stable.
But now that “later date” is arriving sooner than Nazarbayev would like. The first evidence for this were the strikes in western Kazakhstan, where workers walked off the job in May this year, demanding higher wages. (The government claims they are paid well above the national average; the workers deny this. For background on the counter-claims, see Joanna Lillis’s report from October for Eurasianet) The numbers of workers involved is significant: as many as 15,000 were striking originally, and almost 2,000 have been fired. That hundreds of workers have insisted on remaining on Zhanaozen’s central square even after they were fired and bitter winter set in indicates that discontent in the West is deeply rooted.
As far as how this plays in the country overall, a poll conducted in September by Astana’s Institute of Political Solutions showed about 28% of respondents supported the worker’s demands – the same percentage as did not support them, or answered “I don’t care” (16% did not answer).
To my mind, this is a pretty high number of support in a country with little history of political activism and state dominance of the media. Those supporting the workers on this question are openly rejecting the state narrative, and 28% is a solid basis for legitimate opposition, if one were allowed to exist.
The other visible manifestation of the crumbling compact is the emergence of a persistent, homegrown Islamic terrorist movement. Over the last six months, Kazakhstan has experienced a series of terrorist attacks apparently targeting law enforcement. Thirty-seven people have died, including 14 members of security services.
A new terrorist group calling itself Jund al-Khalifah has claimed credit for the attacks. Even if JaK does not threaten the existence of the state, its persistence, and the inability of authorities to snuff it out summarily, indicates that it, too, has meaningful social roots. A group like this cannot operate in a state like Kazakhstan, where Salafis are often kept under surveillance without evidence of illegal activity, without having sympathizers. Furthermore, a homegrown group like this does not emerge without a larger population of less- or non-radicalized believers who share anger at the current state of affairs.
The government response to these challenges has been, unequivocally, increased repression. As noted above, many of the striking workers were fired over the summer, a move the government claims ended their action. A prominent lawyer for the unions, Natalya Sokolova, was then arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting social discord” and “active participation in illegal gatherings.” Workers in the West were subject to intimidation and surveillance, as were human rights activists who tried to research workers’ rights violations.
Pressure is also being increased on believers. In the fall, two new religious laws were passed with impressive speed and quickly went into effect. Taken together they ban unregistered religious activity, mandate censorship of religious material, require government permission for building or opening new places of worship, and increase punishments for violations. Nazarbayev called for the laws in the context of rising extremism, leaving no doubt as to their purpose. For details on the vigor with which they are being implemented, see Forum 18’s comprehensive coverage over the last two months.
In addition, two new media laws floated before the Zhanaozen events are likely to become law in the coming weeks. One will put state broadcaster Kazakteleradio in charge of all radio and TV frequencies. The other, targeting the Internet, equates “information that prompts a negative public reaction” with “undermining national security.”
How then should we frame the Zhanaozen events? The shootings themselves – which from the first cellphone video released this morning were clearly not in self-defense – may have been the reaction of local authorities, rather than an order from the top. That cannot be definitively determined right now, so must be set aside.
The actions of the central government once news of bloodshed emerged, however, have been firmly in keeping with a move towards harder repression.
Cell and landline service was shut down not just for Zhanaozen, but also for the regional center Aktau. The government shut off Twitter for the entire country, asserting ludicrously that the outage was due to damage to buildings in Zhanaozen. Access to opposition web pages and to certain videos on YouTube was blocked. An opposition party was prevented from holding a press conference in Almaty. Journalists and opposition members were kept off of the first available flight to Aktau. And so on.
Then the government introduced a state of emergency for Zhanaozen much closer to martial law, including a curfew, control over entry and exit to the city, and the right to “limit or ban” recording devices of any kind. By the government’s own count, there are currently 10,000 members of the security services in Zhanaozen.
Residents have told journalists about their sons being picked off the streets and disappeared, and multiple reporters have seen signs that torture is being used in the sweep of the city. And of course, the number of dead remains independently unconfirmed because access to hospitals and morgues comes only under government supervision.
Some of official Astana appears embarrassed by the events, and is trying to put on a brave face by promising openness and transparency. Until these words are backed up by actions, though, they cannot be taken seriously. So far the government has been more interested in locking down and covering up than providing accountability.
Coming after the a steady tightening of constraints on religious, speech, and workers’ rights, the central government’s reaction removes any doubt that as discontent rises, the government will move towards harder and harder forms of repression.
Meanwhile a passionate minority of citizens, at a minimum, rejects the government’s narrative and its model. This will mean increased and persistent clashes over religion, workers’ rights, and income inequality.
Even without reaching the level of revolution, Zhanaozen heralds a nasty new period of conflict in Kazakhstan.
Nate Schenkkan is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek. Find him on Twitter @nateschenkkan.