OPINION PIECE FROM ERLAN IDRISSOV, FOREIGN MINISTER OF THE REPUBLIC OF KAZAKHSTAN
It is now exactly a year since the violence in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan cast a dark shadow over the national celebrations to mark our 20th anniversary as an independent country. A long-running industrial dispute between oil workers and their company erupted into riots and confrontation with the police. The result was that 16 people died and many more were injured.
The violence and deaths, unknown throughout our brief history, shocked Kazakhstan’s friends around the world. But the impact was even greater within our own borders. In a region where instability and violence are all-too-familiar, we had prided ourselves on being a stable and harmonious society in which all had shared in our growing prosperity and progress. The unrest at Zhanaozen forced us out of any complacency and made us examine carefully what might have gone wrong.
For while criminal behaviour was certainly the spark which provoked the deaths and destruction, the unrest also exposed long-standing problems which had not been tackled. No country – and certainly none as young as Kazakhstan – can expect to get everything right. It is, however, how you react to these challenges which shows the direction you are taking as a society.
Our response has been two-fold. A special public commission carried out a three-month investigation into the disturbances. Criminal cases were brought against those responsible for deliberately inflaming the dispute and causing the initial violence. But prosecutions were also brought against those responsible for the over-reaction by the police and against senior officials in local government and the oil company for failures and abuse of authority. Jail sentences have been handed out to those found guilty.
At every stage of the investigation and subsequent trials, we strived to meet the highest international standards. We had nothing to hide. NGOs were allowed to visit those held in detention to check on their treatment. The trials themselves were open and transparent. Foreign media and observers were invited to attend.
Each case was carried out in full accordance with Kazakh law. But there are always ways that the legal process can be improved. We are keen to continue our dialogue with those who have concerns.
It was also quickly clear that our security forces lacked the preparation, training and equipment to manage riotous behaviour. We urgently carried out a review of procedures and are determined to learn from best practice internationally about how disturbances can be controlled in a way which minimises damage and injury.
But secondly, it has also been vital for the country’s long-term future that we responded effectively to the deep-rooted concerns which the unrest highlighted. This demanded that the authorities at local, regional and national level, move quickly to improve quality of life and expand opportunities for local people.
Emergency funds were immediately provided to repair the damage caused by the riots to buildings and businesses. The families of both victims and prisoners have received special financial support.
Longer-term, new investment has been made in homes, kindergartens and hospitals with hundreds of new permanent posts created for doctors and teachers. Over 5,000 new jobs have been created in 2012 alone thanks to a determined effort including $64 million in new loans for businesses to diversify the local economy. There has been a major shake-up, too, of local government so that it is more responsive to the concerns and priorities of the local community.
But it also became clear that the problems exposed were not restricted to Zhanaozen or the Mangistau region but were more widespread. They were, in particular, common in those towns dependent on a single industry or company. This has required major reforms across wide policy areas.
Over the last year, the Government has put in place new policies and investment to improve the fortunes of those living in so-called mono-towns and regions. Employment laws have been strengthened – on the recommendation of the International Labour Organisation – to improve protections for workers and enable disputes to be fairly settled. New steps have been announced to bring health and safety at work up to international standards.
Companies have also been told they must live up to their wider responsibilities. In Zhanaozen, employers found jobs for all the 2,000 workers who had been sacked in the original dispute. Pay and conditions have been improved, production facilities modernised while the national oil company has also made major new investments in facilities for its staff and local people.
But across the country, we want to see better dialogue between management and workers and for wages to be paid promptly and in full. We are also determined that there must be a new emphasis on businesses ploughing back more of their profits into the communities where they operate.
The Government must also play its full role. Over $8 billion is being spent in creating jobs and supporting businesses in 20 single-industry towns through the nationwide ‘Map of Industrialisation’ and the “Business Road Map – 2020” programmes. After a lengthy review, we will soon announce a major overhaul of our regional development policy. This will see a major drive and new investment to improve skills, diversify local economies and support the creation of small businesses and entrepreneurship.
We are also determined to decentralise decision-making to a local level whenever we can. The Government understands that it is local people who are best equipped to find the right solutions to their problems. This demands that we accelerate democratic and political reform.
As President Nazabayev said last year, the tragic events in Zhanaozen were a trial for our whole country. We know there is more to do to repair the damage and improve the stability of our society. But, on our 21st anniversary as an independent country, we believe that our response over the last year shows a growing maturity and underlines our determination to keep learning and improving our country.