Guest Post: Why Zhanaozen Matters

by Joshua Foust on 12/21/2011 · 5 comments

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.

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– 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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Oldschool Boy December 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Hi Nate,

You started well with what seemed to be an weighed and argumented analysis but finished on a merely emotional note.
What you think of as “harder repression” that would indicate a “new period of conflict” is just a normal response of the government that has the USSR roots. Believe me, nobody in normal senses doubted the State’s ability to repress.
Another thing, do not forget that Kazakhstan is not Kirgizstan, it has completely different scale and way more complex geographical and social structure. Zhanaozen is not the Western Kazakhstan, it is simply a town in one of the four oblasts in Western Kazakhstan.
There are conflicts everywhere in the world, there is non-stop violence in Northern Caucasus in Russia, there is terrorist activity in Turkey. There is terrorist activity in the USA, there is killing of civilians by the US troops in Afghanistan (by thousands). There were other serious outbrakes of violence in Kazakhstan in the relatively recent past, including Zhanaozen itself. It has gone through. There are 15 million people for God’s sake! and most of them want peaceful life. The balance in the country is kept not by Nazarbayev only but by coexistense of different groups, all of them interested in keeping a strong state. You will see, when Nazarbaev is gone, people will want somebody even stronger, somebody like Putin, who would not hesitate to crash rioters and terrorists with all availabe means.

Dilshod December 21, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Very good point. If we generalise, post-Soviet societies are yet to mature, yet to learn of rule of law and the right to disagree. I do not see it coming just because of improved living standards or better laws and better politicians. I see it in few generations changing, in people learning to take fate in own hands and this is a long and hard way to go.
Whether we’ll have gov’ts accountable and responsive to its people is not a matter of outside pressure. If so, it’s wrong; it’s more about the content and place of culture and values within a given society.
Next time law enforcers will hopefully handle it better – they have to learn a lesson. IMHO “broken windows” could be justified in some instances.

Matthew December 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Nate: Thanks for this clear and helpful analysis of the situation in Kazakhstan. As a fellow outsider shocked and saddened by the events, I think I agree with pretty much everything you say. However, I can’t see the “passionate minority” that you mention in the last paragraph coalescing into a unified protest movement (though it did happen in the Middle East…). There may also be still some scope for the authorities, if they act wisely, to mitigate the conflict with the strikers (though with Jund that’s harder to see).

I think it would be helpful to understand more of the ideology / motivation and the support mechanisms of the strikers. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you, and others with good knowledge of the situation a few follow-up questions to try to better understand what’s going on. Some of these issues may be important for understanding where things stand; others may be red herrings…:

Left activism: this seems to be the first time that home-grown leftist-socialist groups in the European model have contributed significantly to the news agenda in the former Soviet Central Asia since independence, with quite significant support from members of the Left Group in the European Parliament. Their ties on the ground meant that they led the news agenda with press releases and blogs in the first hours of the Janouzen events. To what extent do the ideas of Socialist Resistance, CWI and others have real support among the energy-sector workers in Western Kazakhstan and around the country? Is this a rising trend? Or is the tie-in between the strikers and the socialists just a marriage of convenience?

Mainstream opposition groups: by contrast on the face of it the main opposition leaders (from Alga, the Social Democrats and so on) in Kazakhstan don’t seem to have established particularly strong ties with the workers (though I think they have spoken at strikers’ demonstrations earlier in the year). Is their agenda different from that of the workers? Have they missed the boat?

Nationalism: some government sources have reportedly accused the strikers of trying to stir up interethnic hatred, perhaps drawing links with the Chinese companies involved, or the Kazakh-Turkish riots a few years ago. Are the strikers against foreign control and personnel, or is their main anger at the government?

Islamists: are there any in Western Kazakhstan? Among the strikers?

Third parties: Nazarbaev sought to draw a line between the strikers and the rioters. Some strikers also said that they did not recognise the people who stormed the performance and burned down the buildings. Is this credible? If so, who would have an interest in provoking such a confrontation and means to do so? Bogeymen in Malta or England? Rogue security personnel? Criminal groups?

Oralmans: to what extent are the strikers ethnic Kazakh returnees from outside Kazakhstan? Different opinions on this issue seem to have been raised by several people over the course of the protests (from none to all of the strikers are Oralmans). Does it matter?

Any thoughts on any of these issues would be interesting…

Nate December 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I agree an organized movement seems unlikely, but I would assign more importance to the lack of political space to create one. I think if opposition parties were allowed to organize and run in elections, they would actually form a movement quite rapidly. It might not represent all the diverse strands of dissatisfaction, but it would find its legs pretty quickly I expect.

On these interesting questions you raise:
The international left is an important part of this story: my impression is they do have strong communications ties with the workers, at a minimum. I can’t say how much the workers are themselves ideologically motivated, but my impression is not that much. There are absolutely active communist and socialist movements with Kazakh membership involved in the strikes, though.

Mainstream opposition groups: they have certainly tried to latch on to the workers’ cause, which started independently of them. I’m not sure that the main problem there is a difference in issues, though, so much as it is a geographical constraint, with the opposition being primarily in Almaty, a long ways even from Aktau, much less from Zhanaozen. It seems to me a prime case of the country’s geographic dispersal putting constraints on coherent challenges to state power.

I haven’t heard nationalist/anti-foreign elements among the workers’ speeches, but stand open to correction on that.

Islamists: there are plenty in Western Kazakhstan, but I’ve seen nothing reputable suggesting they are involved with the strikers or with the Zhanaozen events.

“Third forces:” The government strongly asserts that the strikers are financed by exiled oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. At other times ties to Rakhat Aliyev have also been suggested. That seems to be what Nazarbayev has in mind when he talks about “third forces,” although he is vague enough to allow room for other conspiracy theories involving the CIA and State Department to circulate widely as well. As far as what actually happened December 16, I am going to decline to speculate until we have more credible information. All of the information that came out in those initial hours is from non-independent sources, and we still have not gotten good independent information.

Oralman: This is an important aspect, definitely. Zhanaozen and Western Kazakhstan have very high numbers of oralman. I do not know how many of the strikers are oralman, but there has been a lot of reporting in recent years about their plight in Zhanaozen in particular and one can expect they are a social group with plenty of grievances. The government clearly wants them to take some of the blame. Nazarbayev clearly referred to them in his first speech on the events, when he said, “Мы приглашали в Жанаозен соотечественников, живущих в других странах, создали для них все необходимые условия. За это они должны быть благодарны государству.” First VP Shukeev has now floated the idea of canceling the oralman program in Zhanaozen.

This appears part of a rhetorical strategy of separating the workers’ economic complaints from national and tribal ones. The government is aiming to give the impression of addressing the economic issues (today Nazarbayev in his surprise visit to Zhanaozen blamed KazMunaiGaz for not listening to its employees, and called the workers’ complaints “justified”), while emphasizing the interference of “third forces” and placing the blame on either “tribes” or oralman.

Ann Nurkayeva December 23, 2011 at 8:19 am

“I haven’t heard nationalist/anti-foreign elements among the workers’ speeches, but stand open to correction on that.”

Workers were against difference in wages between foreign employees and locals. That was one of the reasons to demand higher wages to begin with.

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