A Wealth of Blame for Zhanaozen

by Casey_Michel on 9/18/2012

Kommersant/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Protesters outside Zhanaozen make their voices heard (Kommersant/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Last October, Zhanar Saktaganova was strolling a sidewalk in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan. It was dark, late. Zhanar, only 29, had just come from sitting with the nearby oil workers, the ones striking for the previous five months, and, after a stopover in a nearby shop, was leaving with her friend.

As two walked out of the magazin, Zhanar realized she and her friend had an audience.

“When we exited a shop, I immediately noticed the guy,” she said. “He was standing at the corner of the next apartment building: building number 61. I wanted to tell Aizhangul that there was a suspicious guy, a young guy, thin, but thought to myself, okay, [never mind].”

Zhanar ignored the man. She wasn’t alone, after all. So she and Aizhangul Amirova kept walking, strolling, giggling along the dark walkway.

“We started talking and laughing and then all of a sudden: bam.”

A blast, and a sudden stick, right outside her kidney. She’s been shot. The man fled, back into the dark. As unidentifiable as before.

Zhanar was hurt, but not fatally: it was a rubber bullet, sent straight to her lumbar. She’d survive. The man didn’t resurface, and police were contacted. It took two days for the officers to take a statement, but, when the women were questioned, one of the officers accused them – the talking, laughing women; the laid-off electrician and her activist friend – of shooting one another, a theory only slightly more preposterous than the claimed events.

It’s been nearly a year since the shooting’s occurred. No one’s been detained. No one has been arrested – aside, that is, from Amirova, picked up in January on charges of “inciting social hatred.” The young, thin man remains free, a nameless assailant in a town in which his kind seem to have multiplied and metastisized over the last 18 months.

Such is one of the scenes detailed in Human Rights Watch’s new, 153-page text, ’Striking Oil, Striking Workers,’ released last week. The report documents the events leading up to and following the Zhanaozen riot of last December.* Zhanar is treated to but two paragraphs in the entire piece, but her experience, dramatic as it is, is as edifying as any tale found within the report.

*Yes, fine, I culled a few extenuating details on Zhanar’s attack from outside sourcing. But the impetus for the search, and for rehashing this woman’s story, arose from HRW. You’ll have to begrudge me for looking a bit further into her experience.

Zhanar’s story is direct in its compactness. It serves as one of the most tangible instances of state-oil tagteaming to occur pre-riot: a moment of unexpected attack, with only the slightest attempt at restitution by an incredulous police force. Zhanar’s story sits as something of a summation for HRW’s entire, remarkable effort, and it serves as one of the most damning microcosms that comes to light as you pore over the document.

And the report it, truly, damning. It stands, as far as I can tell, as one of the most complete reprobations that’s ever been written about post-independent Kazakhstan. It’s one excoriation after another – entity after entity, paragraph after paragraph – and carries a breadth that is, from a research stance, somewhat breathtaking. It zooms, widening, narrowing as the events unfurl. It digs up stories and crimes that you’d long-forgotten. It’s got drama and melancholy and all those details that most articles forgo and forget.

It’s some well-written shit.

Indeed, the report is likely as holistic as anything that’ll be written about Zhanaozen’s riots. It covers ground well-tread – Astana’s culpability in Zhanaozen; the continued backslide of Tony Blair’s legacy – but it also fleshes out material hitherto unexamined* – the atrocious dealings of the oil companies; the churlish intimacy of the government and union leadership. That latter pair is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire report. Because while HRW’s report can (and does) drone about international labor law, and where it can make your eyes gloss with the juxtaposition of assembly regulation in Kazakhstan’s national code, the report also offers some of the most accessible writing to date on the web of élite that brought about the workers’ grievances.

*Among the notes of interest I couldn’t otherwise slot into this piece: The UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that poverty in Mangystau oblast is approximately 63.2 percent, over forty points higher than government estimates; trade unions within Kazakhstan began following mining strikes in the late ’80s; and HRW felt it necessary to define the term ‘yurt’ for its readership. Suppose I’d have presumed that if you’re gnawing on a 153-page document on Kazakhstan, you likely know what a yurt is, but, hey, guess you never know.

While President Nazarbayev is necessarily flogged for his role in the matter – the man’s power aren’t merely provincial, after all – perhaps no one comes out looking worse than Erbosyn Kosarkhanov, the former head of the Karazhanbas union. After Kosarkhanov unilaterally signed an agreement with KarazhanbasMunai – excluding noted lawyer union Natalia Sokolova – the Karzhanbas union opted to remove Kosarkhanov from his post. And yet, rosy with company leadership, Kosarkhanov saw no reason to depart his well-paid position. Nor did KarazhanbasMunai.

As such, the vote to remove Kosarkhanov was ignored. Police, prosecutors – no one wanted to touch it. And while the two sides tightened their positions, the first flares of potential violence arose:

On the evening of January 30, a group of approximately 20-40 men, one of whom was armed with a gun, beat and threatened deputy union chairman Aslanbek Aidarbaev, as well as Tlekbai Dosmugambetov and Kuanish Sisenbaev, both of whom were active members of Karazhanbas union. An eyewitness of the attack told Human Rights Watch that one of the men pointed a gun at Tlekbai Dosmagambetov and that Kosarkhanov himself punched Sisenbaev and threatened the men, saying they should not meddle in the arbitration process.

Fearful of potential repercussions, none of the three union members immediately reported the incident to the police. However, on February 14, 2011, Sisenbaev filed a complaint of assault with the police in which he stated: “The people who beat me [on January 30, 2011 were]: Erbosyn Kosarkhanov and his driver, Kashkynbaev, and one other person whom I didn’t know (neznakomets).” Police responded by conducting a preliminary investigation, but declined to open a full criminal investigation.

Ignoring constituents, bashing the vocal, offering little more than disdain and double-speak – Kosarkhanov, per this report, comes across as treasonous as anyone you’ll find in Big Labor. The man’s got as much gall as any local boss – when’s the last time a Teamster actually used his fists? – but there’s no one in these 153 pages looking as backward, as unsightly, as Kosarkhanov. He may not be embodiment of the corruption endemic in Kazakhstan’s carbon industry, but you have to imagine he’s not far off.

But the report doesn’t focus solely on Kosarkhanov’s aggressions. There’s plenty of meat for anti-Astana voices, as well as any anti-police organizations floating about. There are, as well, relatively lengthy (and over-detailed) sections lambasting the oil companies in question. The companies, which have seen combined losses of at least $365 million through the work stoppages, are portrayed as the precise caricature of Big Oil: employing broad thuggery at all levels of involvement, tethered ever-symbiotically to the politicians pocketing their favors. In but one of the dozens of transgressions cited:

[KarazhanbasMunai Deputy Director Kairbek] Eleusinov met with [union members] and sharply and aggressively said that “these people” need to be removed from the panel. [He said that] they don’t have the right to participate, and gave various explanations and reasons. We started to unpack the law, explaining who participates is the decision of the labor collective…. Instead of discussing this, Eleusinov called company security and the police to intervene … and we were forced to leave.

The companies in question are portrayed as mouthbreathing capitalists, uninterested in workers’ rights or any attempts at good-faith negotiation. They’re pegged as responsible as any party for the conflagration of Dec. 16. And while they may not have employed the security forces that opened fire on the protesters, it was their intransigence, HRW claims, that allowed the situation to fester. It was their inaction that forced the police’s overreach.

Interestingly, the events of Dec. 16 – the ultimate unknown remaining through the entire saga: what the fuck happened that day? – stays relatively untouched. Mentions of video, passing reference to government statistics, and minor sketches of the victims are all HRW offers in the report. Such dearth of material is likely due to Astana’s unwillingness to revisit any hour of that cold, fiery day, but it’s a bit of a letdown nonetheless. Grainy cell shots are all the certainty we know of, and, barring some unforeseen document declassification, are all we’ll likely find.

Still, just because the report goes without does not lessen its impact. To wit, you’ll note that Mukhtar Ablyazov, Nazarbayev’s putative archenemy, is not mentioned once within the report. Meanwhile, Vladimir Kozlov – Ablyazov’s mole, says Astana – is mentioned only as a victim of the post-riot sweeps. Thus, as Kozlov’s court case begins its denouement, it is worth noting once more that the only one fingering external forces as last year’s casus belli is, of course, Astana.

The report runs for some hours, fleshing new findings, leaving no transgression unspoken. It’s … daunting, and enlightening, reading this research. And it’s only likely that the connection rings because I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn, but the authorities’ pre- and post-Zhanaoezen actions, as the report details, are only a few shades off from those earliest days in The Gulag Archipelago. Two-minute trials. Truncheons and goon squads. Vote-rigging – or vote-ignoring – ad nauseum. All those ingredients that the West continually notes in Moscow, now flourishing just south.

Now, simply because there are the slightest shades of similarity between Krylenko‘s hearings and Astana’s current back-slide is, by no mean, any kind of predictor. Indeed, it may serve as something of a reminder as to the current state of affairs, vis-à-vis ninety years ago. Sufficient pressures, sufficient levers, now exist, levers with which Solzhenistyn and Stalin and the Solovetsky Islands never had to deal. Levers that can, ideally, keep any archipelago a memory.

Nazarbayev, after all, is loathe to see his international reputation take any hit. As such, when he reads,

Kazakhstan’s stated commitments to social and political reform ring hollow in the face of serious and ongoing human rights abuses in the country.

… there may yet be a bit of hope HRW’s report can cast some pall over Astana. Nine months on, that hope – among the strikers; among Kozlov; among Zhanar – lingers. So long as HRW forces such research onto the public, the levers hang, and the strikers can remain a bit more public, for a bit more time. The blame’s been spread. Let’s see what comes next.

Update: As pointed out over at The Conway Bulletin, Nazarbayev’s foreign ministry has displayed a bit of uncharacteristic contrition following the report, releasing the following statement:
The company management and authorities systematically failed to address the concerns of the oil workers. The dispute was allowed to fester, creating an environment which enabled a small group of individuals to turn what had been a long-running, relatively peaceful protest into a violent riot.
The comments mirror Nazarbayev’s initial public reaction to the riots, feigning ignorance of the situation while slamming the corporations. But this newest statement – admitting, yes, that something had gone wrong – still comes at the problem obliquely, pointing to “company management and authorities” as the reasons for the chaos. It’s a start, but it’s not much.

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This post was written by...

– author of 28 posts on Registan.net.

Casey Michel is a current graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focused on Russian, East Europe, and Eurasian political development, and a former Peace Corps Kazakhstan Volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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