Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Zhanaozen Violence Is Symptomatic of Larger Issue of Labor Unrest

The outbreak of violence between striking oil workers and police in the Caspian town of Zhanaozen reflects a larger issue of labor unrest and wealth disparity. Zhanaozen is neither a new Arab Spring nor is it the beginning of a widespread pro-democracy uprising in Kazakhstan. Labor unrest represents the most significant domestic hurdle to political stability.

The timeline of Zhanaozen events I compiled for Central Asia Newswire last week reveals how the December 16th  violence was an unfortunate explosion to a labor dispute in the works for several months. Violent clashes between striking workers and police broke out in Zhanaozen a few months earlier. On October 27, 2011, RFE/RL reported a striking worker was shot by a rubber-bullet from Zhanaozen police forces.

Labor unrest in the oil-rich Western Kazakhstan is a recurring narrative, particularly over the past ten years.

In August 2005, oil workers for Aktobemunaigaz protested against the new corporate structure after he Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) acquired a 60% stake in the company.

In 2010, KazMunaiGaz employees went on strike to protest potential pay cuts, demand new executive management and request a new chairman of the trade union.

In May 2011, workers at Karazhanbasmunai, another Kazakh-Chinese joint venture, went on strike to demand better wages and official recognition of their trade union. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), one striking Karazhanbasmunai employee cited the success of strikes in Zhanaozen, where the wages for Ozenmunaigaz employees increased after massive protests. One Karazhanbasmunai protester was claimed to receive half the compensation of his counterpart at Ozenmunaigaz.

The IWPR article details additional labor strikes against Ersai Caspian Contractor and Aktobemunaigaz. Employee compensation, working conditions, labor-management relations and the legality of trade unions are recurring issues in workers’ strikes against oil companies in Western Kazakhstan.

For a newly independent state developing its economy and government like Kazakhstan, labor issues in the extractive industries sector are to be expected – it is a phase of history. Many countries have faced similar issues. In 1892, workers at the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania staged a lockout and strike against the company’s leadership. The workers demanded improved wages and official recognition of their union. Eventually, the strike resulted in a violent standoff between the workers and the Pinkertons, a private fighting force. As Kazakhstan’s economy develops, the Nazarbayev regime must work with oil companies to mitigate labor issues in the extractive industries sector, particularly in Western Kazakhstan. For all economic sectors, employees’ rights, benefits and wages should be the top priority to policymakers in Kazakhstan.

To give credit where credit is due, the Kazakhstan government has taken considerable actions to accept accountability in the aftermath of Zhanaozen. The government has invited the United Nations to participate in an investigation into the Zhanaozen events. After receiving criticism that the regime is cracking down on Internet access, they permitted bloggers to tour Zhanaozen (granted, the government organized the trip and selected the bloggers). Additionally, President Nazarbayev reshuffled the executive management of Samruk-Kazyna, firing son-in-law Timur Kulibayev as head of the $78 billion sovereign wealth fund. According to Tengriz News, Kulibayev’s petition to resign cited the events in Zhanaozen as a primary reason for his departure. First Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeyev will replace Kulibayev as head of Samruk-Kazyna. In The Oil and the Glory, Steve Levine makes an excellent point that this is not the first time President Nazarbayev has fired Timur Kulibayev. Rather, Kulibayev’s career is a series of fires and re-hires from positions in finance, energy and infrastructure firms. Still, the timing of the Zhanaozen events following the Arab Spring and in the middle of the Moscow riots, Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence and before a parliamentary election, render the ousting of Kulibayev particularly notable.

When compared to Al-Assad’s repression of protesters in Syria or Karimov’s ousting of NGOs following the Andijan violence in 2005, President Nazarbayev has taken significant steps to maximize transparency and accountability. Moving forward, the Nazarbayev regime must ensure free and transparent parliamentary elections in January that produce multi-party representation in the Mazhilis and a thorough investigation with the UN into the Zhanaozen events.

The December 16th clashes in Zhanaozen are an extreme situation of a labor dispute. As illustrated by the 1892 Homestead strikes, the Zhanaozen events are tragic, but they are not unprecedented in the context of world history. The Nazarbayev regime must follow through on its commitment to transparency and accountability during the investigation into the events. Above all, the regime must make workers’ rights, entitlements and salaries in all sectors of the economy, a domestic policy priority.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What to Make of Zhanozen....


The Twittersphere has been busier than ever raging on about the events in Zhanaozen! On December 16, violent clashes occurred between oil workers and police forces during celebrations in honor of Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence. While there are various versions of the Zhenaozen events and few people know with certainty what occurred, what is clear is that the riots themselves and the reaction of the government and civil society groups indicates the political fault lines that will materialize during the eventual transition of the presidency.

According to official reports by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, D.C., a group of “hooligans” attacked a peaceful celebration in the center of Zhenaozen, attacking police forces, destroying a yurt and setting on fire a police bus and beating up innocent civilians. Then, according to an official statement by the Ambassador, “in response to the demands of the police to stop their illegal actions, the group of hooligans attacked police officers seeking to seize their weapons. Yet, the police officers did not allow that to happen.” This is not an entirely inaccurate account of the events. To the credit of the Embassy of Kazakhstan, they are regularly updating their timeline of events and issuing statements by the Ambassador. Ambassador Idrissov is even hosting a press conference today in Washington, D.C. to answer questions on Zhenaozen from reporters. 

According to Human Rights Watch, on the morning of December 16th, between 100 to 150 strikers gathered peacefully on Zhanaozen’s central square, where celebrations were scheduled to occur (and where they have been on strike for several months). Around noon, a group of young men stormed the stage and unleashed the chaos that has since been reported by the Kazakh government and international media sources. Police forces responded with force. Some reports claim that the police used tear gas and fired directly at unarmed civilians. The government shut down the internet and mobile towers, prohibiting individuals from tweeting, texting, emailing or Youtube-ing details of the events to the outside world (even though all of the above eventually occurred). As of December 21st, official figures report that there were fifteen casualties, 110 wounded and forty-six buildings burned. Other sources indicate that there were upwards of seventy casualties and 700 to 800 wounded.

Zhanaozen was not a random occurrence. For over six months, approximately 1,000 employees of Ozenmunaigaz have been on strike, demanding higher salaries and improved working conditions. Astana viewed the dispute as a conflict between the company and its employees. Unfortunately, failure to resolve the dispute culminated in the events on December 16th.

Zhanaozen is now under a state of emergency until January 5th, ten days before the parliamentary elections. The deadline for the nomination of candidates was December 5th and the deadline for submission of party lists was December 15th. The official campaign period began on December 16th and ends on midnight, January 13th. Thus, for most of the campaign period, Zhanoazen is under a state of emergency. It will be particularly interesting to see the results of the elections in Magistrau province. A sweeping Nur-Otan victory will provoke suspicion and potentially protests, as few will judge the results as credible. While I do not know the candidates and party representatives from Magistrau, in light of recent events and Western Kazakhstan’s reputation as a more religious and politically conservative region, Nur-Otan will likely not perform will in this region. It is worth following the campaign period in this region and how government authorities, Ozenmunaigaz officials, workers and civil society organizations behave during the pre-election periods and how the votes reflect the desires of the people.

So, what to make of all of this?

First, while we do not yet know for sure, the group of 20 to 30 young men who stormed the stage were probably not acting on behalf of the 1,000 oil workers on strike. They were young, adrenaline-driven men who reached a boiling point and attacked. They appeared to have organized within themselves. Having lost family members and living under a state of emergency, most civilians are stressed by the events and did not want a violent clash to occur on a national holiday. It is not fair to associate the group of young men who attacked the stage with the entire labor movement. If the clashes at Zhenaozen were reflective of the entire body of oil workers, then we would have seen more civilians take up arms. At the same time, the wealth inequality between the politically well-connected titans of extractive industry and the Kazakh middle and lower classes is massive and growing. Wages for government employees and all workers need to appreciate to keep up with inflation.

Second, given that the men stormed the stage, thereby provoking violence, it is only natural for the police to respond in self-defense with force. By definition, the police are responsible for maintaining public order and enforcing the law. However, what appears to have occurred at Zhenaozen is a disproportionate and over-aggressive use of force by the police against innocent civilians. Videos of the riots on Youtube show the police shooting at innocent civilians running in the opposite direction. Currently, 10,000 troops are stationed in the city. As of December 19, over 700 people have been arrested by Kazakhstan police forces, with more arrests likely to continue in the coming days.  

Third, the government of Kazakhstan must take responsibility for the events at Zhenaozen by acting with transparency in the international diplomatic arena, and ensuring a free and fair election, and electoral processes, in January. The government’s crackdown on Internet and mobile telephone use is directly out of the authoritarian toolbox. Prohibiting the entry of foreign reporters in Zhenaozen and confiscating the laptops and phones of those who enter further discredit the regime. At the same time, the government claims to maintain transparency by sending out press releases. In order to demonstrate the regime’s true commitment to establishing a multiparty democracy where citizens can freely and peacefully organize, the regime must carry out free, transparent and credible elections. A sweeping Nur-Otan victory will only provoke more resistance from disgruntled Kazakhs. Manufacturing the election results will also discredit the regime’s commitment to political pluralism and transparency. Nazarbayev must prove now that he is ready to oversee the devolution of power and allocate increased legislative autonomy to the Mazhilis and Senate while enabling the Kazakh polity to elect their representatives.

Finally, I disagree with claims equating the events in Zhanaozen with the Arab Spring, but argue that there is a nascent, but burgeoning, movement in Kazakhstan pushing for political liberalization. First, the riots in Egypt and Tunisia were sparked by elections. This was an Independence Day event used pro-reform civil society organizations to make a statement. When I posted this on twitter, @KazakhSpring replied: “It's not small when it spreads to several cities. And it is not small to the families of the 15-50 dead #zhanoezen.” Clearly, there are some people in Kazakhstan who are disgruntled with the status quo and seek to use grassroots mobilization techniques to implement political change. Granted, smaller riots occurred in Almaty and Atyrau. When I wrote to my friends in Astana and Almaty inquiring about the events at Zhenaozen, most of them lacked details and only knew there were some riots and the Internet was cut off.

At the same time, do not underestimate the Zhanaozen events as an isolated incident. The English-language, anonymous website KazakhSpring.org, calls for “freedom and democracy rising in Kazakhstan.” The group “KazakhSpring” appears to be mimicking the social media tactics used in the Arab Spring and Green Revolution in Iran a year and a half earlier. As of December 21, @KazakhSpring had fourteen followers on Twitter, which is not a reliable indicator since most Kazakhs do not use Twitter. Similarly, the group created a Facebook page on December 17. As of December 21st, they have three followers. I also searched “Жанаозен” on Bkontakte.ru and found multiple users with an image of a black ribbon and the city name vertically aligned (see image below). This image appears to be more of a memorial in commemoration for love ones who died in the riots. But I caution, invoking an expression of one of my Georgetown professors, “watch this space.”




All in all, while it is extremely early to make a conclusion about the Zhenaozen events, I argue that the riots are symptomatic of divisions within the polity that stem from wealth inequality. These political fault lines will be fully exposed when Nazarbayev transitions power to a new President. For now, I send my condolences to the families of loved ones who died in Zhenaozen and hope for the best for all of Kazakhstan’s people.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kazakhstan's 20th Anniversary of Independence!

Dear Readers,

I apologize for my absence from the blogosphere this semester. One of my New Year's Resolutions is to update The Sholk Road Adventures with at least one post per week. So, in an attempt to get a jump start on my resolution and procrastinate studying for my last final exam, I am writing this post....

Alas, on December 16th, Kazakhstan will celebrate twenty years of independence. Congratulations! Kazakhstan is the preeminent political and economic country in Central Asia. The country has been blessed with relative stability and economic development. While there is always room for further reforms, particularly in the areas of corruption, economic diversification and determining succession in government, the country's leadership deserves credit for managing the transition from Soviet republic to sovereign state.

Of course, twenty years of independence merits a fabulous celebration in the new capital. Independence day is a national holiday and according to my friend who works in Astana, all government employees receive four days of vacation. There are many events throughout the city, including a concert, the opening of a new mosque and the inauguration of the Astana Arc de Triumphe. The new mosque, which I saw while it was still under construction in July, is located across the street from the Palace of Peace and Accord, just a few blocks from the Nur-Astana Mosque.

As I detailed in my previous blog post on Astana, the city is filled with new monuments, with each one more grandiose than the last. What better way to celebrate a 20th birthday than to construct another new national monument in Astana, called the "Arc of Triumph?" The Arc is somewhat ironic in that Kazakhstan did not have to fight for independence - no armies were mobilized and no blood was shed to gain nationhood (in fact at the time of independence, the country was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the Soviet Union). In fact, the last time Kazakh soldiers fought in a war was during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In comparison to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which was constructed to commemorate Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, the Astana Arc celebrates statehood. Granted, there are Arcs in New York and Rome, but the Parisian Arc commemorating military victory is undoubtedly the most well-known. While I understand why Kazakhstan would construct a new monument to commemorate twenty years of independence, I am puzzled by the choice of an Arc. Perhaps a different monument would be more tasteful, and representative of Kazakhstan's multi-vectored foreign policy.

Aesthetically, the Astana Arc strangely combines elements of classical architecture with national Kazakh symbols. The Arc bears a striking resemblance to its Parisian predecessor with its Roman archway and ivory tint. Traditional Kazakh, arabesque-like motifs line the Arch's alcoves. A statue of a soldier in a victorious pose and a replica bronze cauldron of the one in Yasawi's mausoleum in Turkestan  are set in alcoves on the front of the Arc. The soldier, with his stance in a classic contraposto pose, modern military uniform and rifle flanked on his back, asserts Kazakhstan's hard power. His aggression is so ironic, given that Kazakh people are the most benevolent and gracious people you will ever meet. Over the cauldron, hang tablets with Kazakh text. The country's coat of arms are positioned in pairs on the top, overlooking the city. While I have yet to observe the Astana Arc de Triumph in person, based on other monuments I observed in Astana and Almaty, the new Arc appears to resemble the "national monument style" that is a bizarre hybrid of European classicism with steppe accents and pre-Soviet Kazakh symbology.

To all my Kazakh friends, congratulations on twenty years of independence!