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Zhanaozen: worker organisation and repression

by Gabriel Levy

Oil workers in western Kazakhstan in 2011 mounted one of the largest-scale strike movements in post-Soviet history, and then suffered one of the most brutal massacres in post-Soviet history – in Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011, when security forces killed at least 16 people and wounded at least 64.
The workers’ revolt inspired such paranoia in the Kazakh elite that, after suppressing it, the government went on to mobilise the courts and police in an unprecedented clampdown on trade union activists, the political opposition and journalists. By the end of 2012 many of the modest democratic gains made over the previous two decades had been reversed. Oil workers and their supporters remain in jail, many on blatantly political charges, many on the basis of “evidence” obtained with the use of torture. The leaders of “democratic” western nations that consume much of Kazakhstan’s oil have maintained a deafening silence.
In this article I summarise the story of the 2011 strikes and the repression that followed, and comment on the wider context. The article was first published by Spil’ne [Commons], a Ukrainian journal, here. <> and here

The oil fields of western Kazakhstan, where the 2011 strike wave erupted, are the most significant source of the Kazakh elite’s wealth, and an important source of supplies for the international oil market. Kazakhstan is the second-largest oil producer after Russia among former Soviet countries: its output is nearly twice that of Azerbaijan’s, and not much less than Norway’s.  The state oil company Kazmunaigaz operates the largest oilfield, Tengiz, together with American and Russian companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil and Lukoil). The huge Kashagan field, offshore in the North Caspian sea, is being developed jointly by Kazmunaingaz and big European and American companies. Chinese oil corporations play a  significant part in onshore projects, and their influence has grown since an oil pipeline to China was completed in 2006.
Oil is Kazakhstan’s largest source of export revenues and the most significant contributor to its national economy. Since prices started rising in the early 2000s, the wealth of the Kazakh elite has swelled and the new Kazakh capital, Astana (formerly Tselinograd), has filled up with skyscrapers and BMWs. Across the country, average living standards have risen. But Mangistau, always a poor region with little economic activity outside the oil sector, has stayed poor. Although Mangistau produces more oil than any other Kazakh region, in 2008 UN researchers estimated that it had more people living below the poverty line than any other region, and that in terms of UN development indicators had only reached the Kazakh national average.  Anger at this social injustice has certainly been one of the main causes of rising militancy in the Kazakh oilfield.

The oil workers’ strikes

There were scattered strikes across the oilfield throughout the 2000s; in Mangistau, there were significant strikes for two years’ running before the revolt of 2011. In 2009, 2000 drillers at Burgylau, a drilling company based in Zhanaozen, organised a sit-down strike and hunger strike, around demands on pay, working conditions and for nationalisation of the company. They formed a new trade union, independent of the “yellow” union inherited from Soviet times, which also recruited members in other companies.
In March 2010, between 6000 and 10,000 workers staged a 19-day stoppage at Ozenmunaigaz, a subsidiary of Kazmunaigaz Exploration & Production, the upstream division of Kazmunaigaz that is controlled by the state and has a 39% shareholding listed on the London stock exchange. The dispute ended with the company making substantial concessions. Management proposals to reform the wages system (by consolidating into the basic wage premiums such as regional weighting payments and bonuses for dangerous working conditions, which workers believed would reduce incomes) were scrapped. A manager who had tried to impose them was sacked. The workers also demanded the dismissal of their trade union representative, who they accused of failing to represent their interests.

The 2011 strike wave began in mid-May with three linked industrial disputes:
■ On 9 May protests began at Karazhanbasmunai, a joint venture owned by Kazmunaigaz and CITIC, a Chinese holding company: workers refused to eat meals. The immediate spark was a trade union election: workers voted to dump a “yellow” official supported by managers, but Karazhanbasmunai refused to recognise the election results. On 17 May 4500 workers walked out, demanding pay parity with workers at Ozenmunaigaz, who had improved their rates as a result of the action in 2010.
■ On 11 May, Kazakh workers employed by Ersai Caspian Contractor, a joint venture owned by ENI, the Italian-based multinational oil company, and ERC Holdings of Kazakhstan, joined the protests. They demanded pay parity with foreign employees doing the same jobs, who they said were paid twice as much. The company refused to negotiate with the strikers and retaliated with sackings. Ten workers went on hunger strike.
■ On 16 May, some employees of Ozenmunaigaz joined the action, demonstrating together against poor pay and working conditions. Management sacked workers in retaliation; a hunger strike began, and in solidarity with that action, most of the Ozenmunaigaz workforce – including transport drivers and those conducting well servicing and well workover operations – walked out on strike. They demanded pay rises to make up for rapid inflation since their increase last year and the slashing of bonus payments.

The strikers’ demands were varied. The principal concern at Ozenmunaigaz was for a recalculation of coefficients (i.e. regional weighting, industry premia, etc) on which pay is calculated, Kazakhstan’s main business newspaper reported. Other demands reported by the Association of Human Rights for Central Asia included: the right for independent trade unions to function; revision of collective agreements “on the principle of equality of parties”; a 100% wage increase to bring workers’ living standards up to minima; and for wages and conditions to meet International Labour Organisation standards.

The strike soon turned into a battle royal between the oilfield workers on one hand and the companies, courts and authorities on the other. Local judges soon ruled all three strikes unlawful, but the action intensified. Hundreds of strikers were dismissed. Labour movement networks reported that local authority employees were instructed to work as strikebreakers, and threatened with the sack if they refused.  By the end of June, police had begun to arrest activists, beginning with Akzhimat Aminov, who acted as legal advisor to Ozenmunaigaz workers: he was given a suspended prison sentence and would be rounded up again after the strike movement was defeated.

Strikers took to assembling in the central square of Aktau, the Caspian port at which the western Kazakh oil industry is based. In Zhanaozen, the inland oil town where Ozenmunaigaz is based, a tent city was set up. On 5 June, a crowd of workers met in Aktau, intending to march to the regional authority headquarters, and were dispersed violently by police. On 8 July the tent city at Zhanaozen was broken up by baton-wielding police – to which about 60 workers responded by pouring petrol on themselves and threatening to set themselves alight. Another thousand demonstrators were encircled by police outside the Ozenmunaigaz headquarters. In the days that followed, there were repeated confrontations between police and a crowd of several thousand.
The strikers remained a physical presence in the centre of Zhanaozen throughout the summer and autumn. It took the 16 December massacre to remove them.

The battle for new unions

Throughout the strike wave, workers faced a battle to break through obstacles placed in their way by official trade union structures. Officials of the oil industry workers’ union, affiliated to the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (FPRK), repeatedly lined up with bosses and the security services to destroy workers’ organisation. The FPRK, like similar federations in other former Soviet countries, descended directly from the old “official” trade unions, who in Soviet times were quasi-state structures that worked with managers to discipline workers and with the security services to punish them. In two decades of post-Soviet labour struggles, its methods had not changed much.
The oilfield had a history of attempts to establish independent union organisation before 2011. An independent union, Karakiya, had been set up at Ersai Caspian Contractor in 2009. The Burgylai strike of the same year had attempted to spread independent union organisation. In the 2010 dispute at Ozenmunaigaz, workers had demanded the removal of collaborationist officials, although no attempts to set up new organisations were reported.
At Karazhanbasmunai, a fierce battle with “yellow” union officials was one of the causes of the 2011 strike. In November 2010, a mediation commission had been set up to discuss pay and conditions at the company, and a general union meeting nominated three representatives to participate in it. But in January 2011 union official Erbosyn Kosarkhanov unilaterally agreed with managers that one of those nominated for the commission, lawyer Natalia Sokolova, would be excluded. Activists, including deputy union chairman Aslanbek Aidarbaev, protested at this bureaucratic stitch-up. In response, a group of more than 20 men, one armed with a gun, threatened Aidarbaev and two other activists and warned them “not to interfere”.
In April 2011 the three shifts at Karazhanbasmunai held meetings which all voted to remove Kosarkhanov. More than 2000 workers signed a letter confirming the decision. The company, official union and police then joined forces against the workers who had dared to vote for honest representation. They were denied use of the assembly halls in which union meetings had always been held. Kosarkhanov and his cronies refused to hand over union property and office space to those elected to replace them. The police refused to investigate a case against Kosarkhanov’s illegal retention of union property, while starting an investigation into Sokolova under the witch-hunting charge of “inciting social discord”.
At Munaifildservis, a small oilfield service company based in Zhanaozen, the battle to turf out collaborationist union bosses ended on 4 August 2011 with the death of worker activist Zhaksylyk Turbaev. Workers had called a meeting to discuss replacing a “yellow” union official, and had nominated Turbaev, a 28-year-old drill operator, to replace him. When they left for the meeting hall, Turbaev was told by managers to remain behind. He was then murdered by unidentified assailants.
At Ersai Caspian Contractor, strike organisation was enhanced by the prior existence of an independent union, Karakiya. Its organiser, Nurbek Kushakbaev, had fought and won legal proceedings in 2010 to defend his right to enter the workplace. To deal with this union that actually sided with its members when they went on strike, the bosses needed the courts’ help: in June, a judge temporarily imprisoned all five members of a strike committee set up by the union and declared the union closed for six months, for backing illegal industrial action.
As far as I can tell, observing events from outside, the workers at Ozenmunaigaz, by far the largest company involved in the strike wave, clashed with “yellow” union officials in both 2010 and 2011 – but made no breakthrough in setting up new types of organisation. Some activists believe that an important lesson of the strike wave is that the difficulties in developing workers’ own independent forms of organisation, be they strike committees, new unions or others – in the face of the united forces of the “old” unions, management, the courts and the police – were not overcome.
There is no doubt about the importance that the strikers’ enemies attached to the question of workers’ organisation. They concentrated huge resources on intimidating, blackmailing and silencing activists who attempted to organise workers and articulate their demands. As the summer of 2011 wore on, and the tent city refused to move, the wheels of repression started to move. Natalia Sokolova, the lawyer who worked with the Karazhanbasmunai strikers, was sentenced to six years in jail; a leading activist at Karazhanbasmunai, Kuanysh Sisinbaev, was sentenced to 200 hours’ community service under the same statute. Zhanbolat Mamay, a 23-year-old activist in an opposition political group, Rukh Pen Til, was arrested as he returned from Moscow, where he had gone to address activists’ meetings, and sentenced to 10 days’ administrative detention.
In an echo of Stalinist repression in the 1930s, Sokolova later agreed to “recant” her non-existent “crimes” on television, in exchange for a reduction of her sentence. There would be other cases in which the authorities would use threats against detainees, and their families, in exchange for humiliating “confessions”, or denunciations of others.

State repression

The 16 December massacre that ended the strike wave was triggered by the Kazakh state’s vulgar celebrations of 20 years of “independence” from the Soviet Union. In circumstances that remain unclear, an altercation took place between some oil workers and officials who were decorating the town square in preparation for the celebrations. There was some rioting and the headquarters of Ozenmunaigaz, some shopping centres, and other buildings were attacked.
The police reacted swiftly. Without making any attempt to detain anyone, or to use non-lethal weapons (e.g. water cannon or tear gas), police opened fire on an unarmed crowd indiscriminately, with automatic weapons. They continued to fire on retreating demonstrators, shooting some of them in the back. As the crowd retreated, police with long night-sticks beat people who lay wounded or unconscious on the ground. Although the Kazakh government denied access to the area for months afterwards to human rights organisations and other NGOs, residents broke through the wall of secrecy and deceit: films of the massacre were posted on Youtube.
The Akimat (mayor) of Zhanaozen subsequently told journalists that 16 people had been killed and 64 wounded. The shutdown of the area for weeks afterwards made it impossible for NGOs to check on claims that the death toll may have been higher. Police also opened fire on demonstrators at nearby Shetpe, resulting in one death.
The Zhanaozen massacre was followed by a police round-up of oil workers and their supporters. In June 2012, 37 residents of Zhanaozen went on trial, under such catch-all laws as those forbidding “mass unrest”, “incitement of social, national or religious enmity” and “deliberate destruction or causation of damage to someone else’s property”. Seventeen of them were sentenced to prison terms of between three and five years; others received suspended or non-custodial sentences.
Activists and others who had publicly championed the oil workers’ cause received the heaviest punishments. Roza Tuletaeva, a 46-year-old mother of three and the main spokesperson for the striking oil workers, was sentenced to seven years. Other activists who received heavy sentences included a strike leader, Maksat Dosmagamebetov (six years); Tanatar Kaliev, one of the first workers to denounce police torture to the court (four years); Talgat Saktaganov, who had travelled to put the oil workers’ case to European parliamentarians (four years); Naryn Dzharilgasinov (six years); and Kanat Zhusipbaev (six years).
The Zhanaozen verdicts followed those handed down on 21 May in the village of Shetpe, where four activists received between four and seven years. Another six were amnestied, one acquitted and one given a suspended sentence.
A horrifying characteristic of these trials is that many defendants, and a large number of witnesses, were tortured by investigating officers. This barbaric practice stands out among a host of other breaches of elementary legal principles (e.g. defendants had no access to lawyers; there was widespread use of anonymous witnesses; and journalistic coverage of the trials was systematically obstructed). Cases mentioned in a report published by the Open Dialog foundation include: Maksat Dosmagambetov (beaten and humiliated); Esengeldy Abdrakhmanov (tuberculosis left untreated, repeatedly jumped on, repeatedly stripped and doused with cold water); Tanatar Kaliyev, whose testimony obtained while being ill-treated was used to convict others, although he later revoked it (beaten, his family threatened, wounds left untreated); Shabdal Utkilov (strangled and suffocated); and Roza Tuletaeva (suspended by her hair, suffocated, beaten with an iron rod).
In October 2012, leading Kazakh human rights campaigner Galym Ageleuov read out at a session of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw details of torture used against 11 witnesses and 20 defendants. The reaction by “democratic” western European states – corporations in all of which buy volumes of oil from Kazakhstan – was muted. But the first witness that Ageleuov quoted, 20-year-old Aleksandr Bozhenko – who confessed that, after being beaten by investigating officers, he had falsely implicated people he knew – was killed by unknown assailants in Zhanaozen ten days later.

The government response
The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, followed up on the massacre in two ways. First, he sought to blame subordinates for the crisis in the oilfield, and reshuffle officials, as a means of restoring order. Second, he sanctioned much wider repression against the political opposition and the media.
The blame game began with one of Nazarbayev’s closest colleagues, his son-in-law Timur Kulibaev, who was sacked from one of his posts as a manager at the state holding company Samruk-Kazyna. Nazarbayev called for the reinstatement of strikers and it was estimated that by April 2012 more than 2000 of them had got their jobs back.
Furthermore, the courts have punished senior police officers involved in the massacre. On 28 May 2012 five of them received sentences of between five and seven years for “abuse of power or official authority, resulting in serious consequences, with the use of weapons”. Sentences of confiscation of property were overturned on appeal. Three senior officials of Kazmunaigaz, who embezzled funds designated for development programmes in Zhanaozen, were also jailed on corruption charges.
It would be a mistake to think that the authorities were even-handed, though. Clearly, the number of police officers who opened fire with automatic weapons on unarmed protesters was greater than five. Given their crimes, convictions for “exceeding power or official authority” are amazingly lenient. And as campaigners have pointed out, no police officer has been prosecuted under the Kazakh law that forbids “murder committed in excess of measures necessary to apprehend the offender” by the police.
In any case, the reshuffle of power in the oilfield was overshadowed by a big government offensive against the political opposition, starting with those who had dared to speak out in support of the oil workers. After a series of arrests, a show trial of three political activists – Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the opposition group Alga!, Serik Sapargali and Akzhanat Aminov (who had already been arrested during the 2011 strike) – was held in Aktau. In October 2012, Kozlov was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, on political charges (“incitement of social discord”, etc) directly related to their support for the striking oil workers. Sapargali and Akimov were sentenced to shorter terms of probation.  Another prominent oppositionist, the theatre director Bolat Atabaev, was detained but then released without charge.
After the trials came an unprecedented clampdown on the media. In November and December 2012, prosecutors sought to close down the eight newspapers and 23 websites – including key independent news outlets such as Respublika and Vremya –  effectively ending open, independent reporting from inside Kazakhstan. Legal cases were also brought against Twitter, Facebook and other social media used by activists. In many cases extremism charges have been brought against journalists – often in respect of their coverage of events in the oilfield. Journalists’ organisations warn that, unlike libel charges that have often been used in the past, extremism charges carry potentially heavy penalties for individuals.


From my own standpoint – that of a socialist internationalist from western Europe who has long had contact with labour and social movements in former Soviet countries – I would like to suggest three sets of conclusions: about working class organisation, about Kazakhstan’s place in the world economy, and about international solidarity.
1. About working class organisation. The 2011 strike wave was in some respects a high point of workers’ struggle in the post-Soviet space. It was an action embracing many thousands of workers and their families that continued for many months, and hit at the post-Soviet elite where it hurt most: on the oilfields that are central to the whole system of power and money in the region. In its scale, and the way that embraced whole communities, the strike was perhaps comparable to the British miners’ strike of 1984-85, during which 140,000 mineworkers and their families were on strike, most of them for a full year; other workers mobilised in a solidarity campaign; and the strikers and members of their communities fought repeated pitched battles with the police, resulting in thousands of arrests and injuries, nine deaths, and hundreds of jailings.
The analogy is limited, though, for two types of reasons. Firstly, the issues being fought over were very different. In the 1980s, the British ruling class had decided that the best way to deal with the mineworkers and their communities was to end the reliance on coal, and consequently on the mineworkers and their labour, which had been a feature of the British capitalist economy since the 19th century.
After the mineworkers’ strikes of 1972 (which achieved big concessions on living standards and working conditions) and 1974 (which helped to bring down the Conservative government of the time), the British elite worked out a strategy to source energy for the economy elsewhere – mainly nuclear power, oil, gas, and imported coal – so that pits could be shut down and the mineworkers’ industrial strength be broken. Once the plan to close most of Britain’s coal mines began to be implemented, the 1984 strike erupted in response. Mineworkers and their families understood that not only their material well-being, but their way of life and the coherence of their communities was in danger. All this is quite different from what happened in western Kazakhstan in 2011. There, workers were struggling to establish their industrial strength in an expanding industry, the importance of which to world energy markets is growing. In this respect there is probably a closer analogy with British mineworkers’ struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than with 1984-85.
The second set of issues that differentiate Kazakhstan 2011 from Britain 1984 concern the traditions of organisation and political expression with which workers and their communities entered into these struggles. In Britain, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had in the early 20th century been, along with the railway, transport and other unions,  a building block of the Labour Party, formed prior to the first world war to represent the working class in parliament. The NUM and reformist social democracy were always close to each other: very often, mineworkers’ union leaders went on to become Labour members of parliament. But at workplace level strong traditions of workers’ organisation persisted, and came to the fore in the strikes of the 1970s. In 1981, the traditional social democratic leadership of the NUM was replaced in an election by a group headed by Arthur Scargill, a “left” leader with links both to workplace militants and to the Communist party. Scargill’s proto-stalinist background and politics is a complicated issue that for now I will leave to one side.
For the purposes of this article, it is relevant that, when struggles mounted against pit closures from 1982 onwards, culminating in the 1984-85 strike, workers adopted methods of struggle far wider than those customarily used by unions – community mobilisation, appeals for solidarity action by other workers, physical confrontation with the police and strikebreakers, etc – and the union apparatus did not stand in their way. The union also defied an array of laws brought in since the 1970s, designed to constrain union struggle and force unions more effectively to discipline their members. So the 1984-85 dispute turned into a confrontation with the state that transcended the boundaries within which labour struggles were usually confined. All this was reflected in the outcome of the conflict: although many pits were closed and the social fabric of communities badly shaken, it was far from a straightforward defeat. The experience of the strike recreated traditions of solidarity and organisation that have permeated mining communities and beyond.
Although I do not know the traditions of struggle in the Kazakh oil field so well, I would assume that they are far, far removed from those with which the British mining communities entered the struggle of the early 1980s. This is surely a subject worth further research, but the background is already well known. The oilfield was opened up in the late Soviet period, when the unions were closely incorporated into the state and their workplace representatives were essentially part of the enterprise management. Under this system, anyone trying to develop any type of independent workplace organisation had a good chance of being spied upon by trade union officials, the Communist Party and the KGB. Various forms of threats and discouragement might follow, always backed up with the ultimate sanctions of imprisonment or confinement in a psychiatric hospital. Workers did strive to organise under these incredibly difficult conditions, but by and large, across the Soviet Union, the bureaucratic elite suppressed these efforts successfully. And the generation of workers whose working lives began in the late Soviet period and continued into the 1990s bore the scars.
Notwithstanding the Soviet miners’ strikes of 1989-90, a historic turning point in terms of workers’ organisation, workers entered the post-Soviet period not only bereft of the sort of traditions of solidarity established in the British coalfield throughout the twentieth century, but with a legacy of fear and divisions, and a lack of experience of participatory democracy. I have always thought claims that society in Soviet times was “atomised” to be exaggerated – but nevertheless the individualisation of every social and community issue, the belief that families or individuals have to confront problems on their own without any sense of community organisation, is widespread in the post-Soviet generation. Certainly, British mineworkers who through their workplace and political organisations arranged visits to Russia and Ukraine in the early 1990s were shocked not only by the poor working conditions and, particularly, the inadequate safety standards in the pits, but also at the primitive state of workplace and community solidarity in the ruins of the “workers’ state”.
All these legacies were at work in Kazakhstan in 2011. The “yellow” unions had by and large remained yellow. The local elite resorted instinctively to the methods developed in Soviet times – arrests, denunciations, ideologically-coloured “confessions” … even police torture. As I have argued above, one of the most important aspects of the 2011 strikes were the ways in which workers sought to create new forms of organisation and overturn the obstacle presented by these yellow unions were so clearly an obstacle. Observing from distance, it is not possible to offer comment on these efforts, but the lessons for all of us, too, will hopefully become clearer over time. As I have an inherently optimistic view of the ability of workers’ and social movements to overcome repression, I expect that in future the oilfield communities of western Kazakhstan will, despite the pain and suffering of 2011, once more find ways of taking their future into their own hands. How and when this might happen I don’t know. But the fact that the industry is a rising one, its growth driven by the world market’s thirst for Kazakh oil, suggests that the conditions are there for it to happen.
2. About Kazakhstan’s place in the international economy. It is international capital that dominates the Kazakh and Azeri oilfields, which – to a much greater degree than the Russian fields – were opened up to foreign companies in the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the western elites deemed the Caspian region as vital, as it could potentially provide flows of oil to world markets, and natural gas to Europe, that were outside of the control of Russia in the north, and Iran and other OPEC countries in the south. In the 1990s, as oil output growth slowed down internationally, many of the largest capitalist countries (who were also large consumers of oil) saw the Caspian region as the best potential source of growth of non-OPEC supplies. With China’s rapid economic expansion in the 2000s, it joined the competition for central Asian oil.
In Kazakhstan, even though the Nazarbayev government during the oil boom raised the Kazakh state’s stake in the big oil projects, American and western European companies remain the largest investors in oil. (Their influence has been somewhat offset by the rapid influx of Chinese investment in the last ten years – but China’s approach is different to theirs. While the western companies above all want sheer volume, above all from the supergiant Kashagan field in the Caspian sea, China needs more oil and gas fast, and has built and financed pipelines to take fuel supplies eastwards, and invested in fields that supply those pipes.)
The result of all this is that Kazakhstan has been integrated into the world capitalist economy as a dependent supplier of raw materials. The non-oil sectors of its economy are insubstantial. Oil accounts for more than half of the country’s export revenues, more than half of the government’s tax income and a giant share of its gross domestic product (GDP). And its shares in all indicators have grown throughout the 2000s. Between 2000 and 2008, “mineral products” (including copper and zinc as well as oil and gas, but not finished metal products) rose, as a proportion of total exports, from 56% to 73%, according to an economist at the government statistics agency.  More recent statistics compiled by the IMF count the share of oil and gas condensate only (without natural gas or metals) in the country’s exports rising from 54% in 2009 to 59% in 2011, and the share of tax revenues accounted for by oil and gas condensate rising from 43% in 2009 to 55% in 2011.
In other words, the Kazakh elite is heavily reliant – for its new-found wealth, for its position, and for everything else – on the oilfields. In other ways it is deeply insecure. The country’s infrastructure is more closely integrated with Russia’s than that of the other Central Asian states, and the elite has had much greater distancing itself from Russian domination than its counterparts elsewhere. Doing oil deals with western companies, and developing the relationships that go with them, has not only made the elite obscenely rich, but has helped it to take greater distance from Russia. It is well aware of its near-total dependence on oil. This surely helps to explain the extreme nervousness with which it tackled the labour movement in the oilfield, and its readiness to use brutality and torture.
The links between Kazakhstan and the big western oil consuming nations are not limited to the oil firms’ direct investments. There are much wider financial and economic ties, too: Kazakhstan’s largest state-linked companies, including Kazmunaigaz, are listed on the London stock exchange. Furthermore, western elites also seek political and strategic advantage through their relationship with Kazakhstan. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair remains on a multi-million-dollar consultancy deal with the Kazakh government; Richard Evans, former chairman of British Aerospace, remains chairman of Samruk-Kazyna … and of course neither of them has whispered a word of complaint about Zhanaozen. The regime is surely assured of continued support from western “democracies” for its efforts to control, and if necessary crush, labour and social movements – which also gives these labour and social struggles an international signficance.
3. About international solidarity.  There have been very welcome expressions of international solidarity with the Kazakh oil workers – but these have not yet turned into anything strong enough to make a significant material impact. After the Zhanaozen massacre, people all over the former USSR, and beyond, deluged the Kazakh authorities with protest letters and telegrams; Belarussian democratic trade unionists called on their country’s special forces not to participate in the repression; Russian workers collected money for the Zhanaozen victims’ families. In western European countries, there have been resolutions passed and pickets organised at Kazakh embassies. But our collective efforts have not yet caused any serious problems for the Kazakh elite or their “democratic” patrons. The killers and torturers have not yet been stripped of the sense of impunity they feel as a result of their relationship with western companies and governments. It is essential for our movement, not just in Kazakhstan but internationally, that we continue. GL.
■ For more information about actions in support of the Kazakh oil workers, see this page <> and this open facebook group. <>

Text of a speech by EVGENII ZHOVTIS at a round table discussion in Almaty on 13 December 2012.

People & Nature has reproduced this from the KMBPChiSZ web site, to which Evgenii submitted the speech for publication <>. It was also reproduced on the Zhanaozen oil workers site at <>. Places where the text has been shortened are marked […]. 

First lesson. Zhanaozen demonstrated in real life the need for the existence of independent trade unions.

I mean the existence of organised representatives of workers – who they trust; who can co-ordinate social action; who can carry on a dialogue, as equals, with the employers and the representatives of state power; who possess the legitimacy and competence to resolve labour conflicts.

The events at Zhanaozen higlighted the absence of such trade unions and workers’ organisations – notwithstanding the fact that Kazakhstan has ratified International Labour Organisation conventions, including the one concerning the defence of the rights of workers’ representatives, and has taken on the international obligations that are implied.

The state and employers short-sightedly assume that they are guaranteed control over the social activity of workers by the “pocket” [yellow] trade unions, that can’t be seen or heard – despite the economic crises, dismissals and problems with workers’ pay and conditions.

But when the situation hots up and conflicts arise, then these trade unions can neither speak nor act on workers’ behalf. And then informal leaders appear among workers, who are active outside the bounds of the system, with all the consequences that follow from that.

For two decades the state and employers, including foreign employers, have stubbornly resisted the formation of independent trade unions and relied on the legacy of the Soviet unions – the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan.

Zhanaozen must sound the alarm for all of them.

Second lesson. Zhanaozen showed the inability of the authorities at all levels to conduct a normal civilised dialogue.

Unfortunately, the people were never seen in our country as a subject that could take political, economic and social decision. The people were always the object of “care”, of manipulation, of control, of subjection, of brainwashing. Our relationship to power has always been multi-layered. They command, we obey.

This is not a dialogue, but a monologue by the state, with force to back it up. The result is that when conflicts arise, the state almost immediately resorts to the use of its administrative resources. Threats, sackings, pressure and so on. This is the instruments they are used to using and feel comfortable with. That’s why the police do not even employ specially-trained negotiators. They either disperse crowds or – as became clear in the Zhanaozen tragedy – just start shooting.

We can’t do without negotiations. Conflicts can not be resolved by violence. And it’s the authorities who need to learn to negotiate. The authorities at all levels. Negotiations are not easy, but there is no alternative to them. We need to learn how to reach agreement, not how to give orders and how to beat people into submission.

And what is even more tragic, as the events at Zhanaozen showed, is that the law enforcement agencies are completely unprepared – technically, organisationally, professionally – to deal with mass disturbances without just using arms to defeat them.

[…] Evgenii gave details about the requirements of international law with regard to the use of arms by security services, and discussed these in the context of the Zhanaozen events. […]

Third lesson. Society is extremely atomised. There is little solidarity, little sympathy with each other. This is not civil society, but state society. Just as in the Soviet Union, society is controlled by the state, society depends on the state, society fears the state, and society is guided by the state, directly or indirectly.

In our country there are several thousand non-government organisations, who give people support, and try to resolve social problems. But still this does not amount to civil society. Because it is not united to defend other citizens, including to defend them against the state.

For several months, several hundred people stood in the square [at Zhanaozen], fighting for their rights, and apart from a few politicians, social activists, journalists and human rights defenders, no-one was interested. Only the shock from the shootings stirred the rest of society.

Civil society means responsibility not only for oneself and one’s family, but for others. Unfortunately we don’t have such civil society.

Fourth lesson. Legal.

For some reason all our juridical and law enforcement bodies forgot that all decisions – as even our own legislation says, to say nothing of international standards – one should be guided not only by the letter of the law, but also by considerations of common sense and justice.

Just as the decision to disperse the residents of Shanyrak near Almaty  was, perhaps, based on the letter of the law, but obviously defied common sense and was clearly unjust – so the decisions by the juridical arm of the state in the course of the labour conflict at Zhanaozen were so often bereft of common sense or justice. [Shanyrak, a shanty town, was cleared in a notoriously violent police action in 2007. See part three here] And injustice is a sensation that can be felt much more strongly than legality or illegality.

All the criminal trials that have taken place as a result of Zhanaozen events have shown with crystal clarity that the law is so deeply buried beneath politics, beneath political expediency, that there’s just no point in talking about all the key principles of criminal justice (all-sidedness, objectivity, fullness of vision, presumption of innocence, the equality of sides in the adversarial system, the burden of proof on the prosecution, etc). […]

Fifth lesson. About morality and immorality.

However much we might talk about what a filthy business politics is, there are no politics, no aspects social life, no relationships between people, that can not be judged by moral criteria.

In this tragedy [at Zhanaozen], apart from the manifestation of genuinely human qulaities – courage, loyalty, and so on – there was much lying, treachery and humiliation, ungratefulness and cowardice, rottenness and playing on the basest human instincts.

I fear that this is the most extreme alarm signal for our society. We need to think seriously, before the signal becomes the diagnosis.

The events at Zhanaozen and the nearby areas – this is one of the toughest chapters in the history of independent Kazakhstan. And a great deal for the present generation, and future generations, depends on the lessons that are learned from this by the state and by society.