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Keeping an eye on Mangystau Province

Written by on Sunday, 18 December 2011
Kazakhstan, Politics and Society
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Not only is Internet in my part of Belgium about as reliable as the Internet in Dushanbe, but December and January are the academic busy season here, so it’s difficult to juggle all the papers I need to write with my duties covering Central Asia. Such is life as a full-time graduate student/full-time editor, I suppose, but this business going down in western Kazakhstan really needs to be mentioned.

To review: on 16 December (and you can watch the K+ report above), oil workers stormed a New Year’s/Independence Day celebration that was being set up in the central square of Zhanaozen, where they have been engaging in a sit-in for the past six months demanding higher pay and better working conditions. At some point, parts of the city were set on fire, and the Kazakh military was called in to restore order, resulting in at least 12 dead (numbers on the injured vary wildly). Nazarbayev declared a 20-day state of emergency in the city on Saturday, replete with full shut down of mobile phone and Internet services. Associated Press has a photograph of a riot police officer that seems much more like a swat officer to me:

And then yesterday, apparently there was a kind of support riot northwest of Zhanoazen, in the town of Shetpe. Events there could not be verified independently and three Russian journalists deployed to cover events in Zhanaozen were arrested on Sunday. Protesters blocked the rail, halting a morning passenger train carrying 300 people from Mangyshlak to Aktobe. According to the BBC, most of the protesters dispersed after a warning shot, but a group of 50 allegedly began rioting, setting a freight locomotive on fire.


What are the odds of this becoming a bigger revolt? Until Shetpe, I would have said small; now I think there’s a possibility for the western oblasts to ignite. However, I don’t think it will spread to the rest of the nation (although one would be prudent to keep an eye on Shymkent and Taraz). Certainly, the terrain, both geographic and informational, make a “Kazakh Spring” very unlikely. Adding to that is the general sense of upward movement perceived by the working and middle-classes of Almaty and Astana, no doubt buttressed by the neo-patrimonial system that’s at the core of Kazakh development. It’s also my understanding that the largely ethnic Russian oblasts in the north are keeping their head low for the moment, despite the official downgrading of their language in the official media.

Nevertheless, my friend Rayhan, the BBC’s correspondent in Almaty, reports that this is the deadliest unrest to have hit Kazakhstan since its independence. She writes,

The unrest, which began as Kazakhstan was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union, is unprecedented.

Many here are finding it difficult to believe that such unrest could be taking place in their country. Comments on pro-government web sites are talking about an evil plot from the West and drawing parallels with recent protests in Russia. After all, some say, we are not Kyrgyzstan — a poor central Asian neighbor which has been through two revolutions in the past six years.

Kazakhstan prides itself as the regional leader, the most successful and stable country in Central Asia. But the recent violence underlines deep-rooted problems in Kazakh society: lack of democracy, lack of free media, and lack of governmental accountability. Very few media outlets in Kazakhstan have been following the strike in Zhanaozen, the country’s longest running industrial dispute.

I would say that in a very general way, I’m an optimist about Kazakhstan’s future. Nevertheless, Rayhan points out some of the key problems that continue to consternate me; alongside these I would add the fracturing that appears to exist beneath the surface between different parts of government and society (as revealed in the plight of the Peace Corps), the unknown fate of the country’s huge ethnic Russian minority, and the (probably unresolvable) debate between concerning material progress versus spiritual progress that is often overlooked in the media but is very real and multifaceted on the ground between everyday people.

Our man for Kazakhstan, Asqat Yerkimbay, has been keeping tabs on the situation. For those of you who can read Kazakh, I suggest you check him out. And I’ll be keeping an eye on the situation, as well, even if it means having to skip an exam like I had to back when Kyrgyzstan exploded in 2010…

Update, 19/12/2011: Simon Ostrovsky reports via his Twitter account:

“Shetpe and #Zhanaozen rammed with riot police, locals nowhere to be seen. Hundreds on main square in Aktau facing down as many police.”

Update, 20/12/2011: RFE/RL has a photo-essay of the police occupation in Zhanaozen. Interestingly, one of the protest banners reads, “Kazakhs wake up!”

Meanwhile, a small debate is going on over at the Registan in the comments sections of Joshua Foust’s post on the crisis. Two readers are claiming that, in fact, the oil workers are quite highly paid relative to the rest of the population. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or even whether that’s relevant (or moreover, whether what we’re seeing is a “revolt of rising expectations”), much less who these readers really are (their English is really good, although it does have some slight Russianisms), but their points are perhaps worth taking into consideration.

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