News analysis by Myles G. Smith (CACIANALYST/UNIVERSAL)
AKTAU - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 -
The ongoing trials of those indicted for crimes related to labor strikes in the western Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen appear unlikely to answer questions about the country’s domestic security policy, or prevent repeat incidents.
While President Nazarbayev has declared that the striking workers were acting within their rights, and his ambassador to the U.S. insists that the trials will vindicate Kazakhstan’s progress towards the rule of law, the proceedings appear to demonstrate otherwise. Prosecutors have cast a wide net that entangles striking workers, local activists, opposition politicians, and vague foreign instigators in the plot to destabilize social order in the country.
BACKGROUND: Labor strikes at a state-owned oil producing facility began in Zhanaozen and dragged on for months before security forces dispersed strikers from the town center on Kazakhstan’s twentieth Independence Day, December 16, 2011. Officials maintain that 16 were killed in Zhanaozen and one later in the nearby town of Shetpe. Police claim that 35 officers were injured.
Requests for high-level mediation of the dispute had long gone unanswered by the government in faraway Astana. OzenMunaiGaz, the regional subsidiary of the state oil company, KazMunaiGaz (KMG), maintained that the strikers had been legally dismissed, while strikers insisted that they were still entitled to their jobs.
Timur Kulibayev, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and head of the state investment fund that oversees KazMunaiGaz, roundly criticized the “illegal” strikes, which he claimed would cost over $300 million in lost revenues.
Though accounts vary, tensions appear to have escalated as the authorities prepared Independence Day celebrations in the town square, perhaps after forcibly removing some yurt encampments set up by the labor activists. It remains unclear whether city officials acted on their own volition, or on orders from superiors, to rid the square of a potential distraction ahead of the milestone holiday. The inflexible positions of the two sides made a clash almost unavoidable.
The Prosecutor General’s initial report on its criminal findings, released January 25, made clear who the government would find culpable. Its first sentence implicated the strikers: “Fired workers ... with the help of troublemaking youth created mass disturbances accompanied by pogroms, robberies, arsons, and violence toward the peaceful population and members of the police.”
At least 48 civilians were indicted for inciting the violence, mostly fired strikers and a few local political activists. Police in Almaty rounded up opposition party leaders, including the prominent Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov, who are slated to be tried this summer for “fomenting social discord” in Zhanaozen. Prosecutors have also implicated foreign elements, vaguely accusing foreign media and rights activists of stirring up the violence.
Prosecutors have charged five officers for using excessive force, seemingly in fulfillment of Nazarbayev’s pledge to punish overzealous officers. One other officer is charged with negligence in the death of a detainee while in custody. None of these indictments rise above the level of the regional deputy police chief.
By late May, all of the officers and protesters had been tried and convicted. The officers, who denied their guilt but implicated no superiors, were sentenced to five to seven years each. Attorneys for the defense contended that hearsay evidence, doctored witness accounts, and evidence extracted via torture were used against their clients. Foreign correspondents, human rights groups, and videos circulating online corroborated some of their claims.
But the presiding judges absurdly referred their complaints to the same office prosecuting the case. Four protesters received sentences of four to seven years, one a suspended sentence, and six were convicted and amnestied. Thirty-seven more await sentencing.
IMPLICATIONS: Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Erlan Idrissov, has consistently spoken for the government on the Zhanaozen issue, writing in The National Interest in April of his utmost confidence in his country’s carriage of justice.
He wrote that Kazakhstan “will spend as long as is necessary to ensure that the facts are brought to light and that those responsible—either in government or outside of it—are punished for their wrongdoing.” He also criticized those who “diminish these sincere efforts to make things right,” and “spread misinformation and distorted the facts.” He further claimed that such “whining” had distracted from the investigation, and warned that “any attempt to disrupt the proceedings will not—and should not—be tolerated.”
Kazakhstan’s handling of the Zhanaozen crisis should be viewed in the context of several challenges to its domestic stability and the legitimacy of its leadership. Several attacks on security forces by assassins, gunmen, and suicide bombers appeared to herald the start of an insurgency in 2010-11. These incidents, the first serious domestic security challenge in the country’s 20-year history, seemed to catch the authorities off-guard.
Kazakhstan’s volatile neighborhood has provided ample examples of the consequences of mishandling social unrest. In 2005 and 2010, two successive Kyrgyz presidents fell after disorder in faraway regions quickly led to the general de-legitimization of the state among the public, and the ejection and persecution of the leadership by its rivals and the street.
Uzbekistan’s infamous crackdown against insurgents and civilians alike in Andijan in 2005 left that country an isolated and fractious tinderbox. Even Russia’s leadership is contending with a dangerous phase of internal dissent that has tarnished Putin’s legacy and may endanger his entire leadership circle.
Quietly, Kazakh authorities appear to have acknowledged some of the mistakes in handling the Zhanaozen crisis. Kulibayev, who rose to his key position following Nazarbayev’s 2011 reelection, was dismissed for mishandling the strike. Some saw Kulibayev as being groomed for the presidency, and his dismissal has opened the succession field wide, even as the 71-year old Nazarbayev’s health comes increasingly into question.
More significantly for the people of Zhanaozen, Astana announced a $29 million rebuilding plan for their city in the spring, as well as new drilling that will reemploy many of the fired strikers. While much of the rebuilding has not yet begun, re-hiring at increased salaries should placate some of the ill-feelings held by the citizenry, especially considering the accusations that the government continues to levy against some of their cohorts.
Zhanaozen’s mayor at the time of the crackdown is also due to stand trial for embezzling $680,000 in development funds, which also is likely to be popular.
Meanwhile, in the central steppe city of Zhezkazgan, almost 300 copper miners from the partially state-owned Kazakhmys began a sit-in on May 4, demanding higher take-home pay. This dispute seems to have been resolved amicably and without incident after a pay increase for the miners. Both the quick resolution and the willingness of the workers to risk a violent response suggest that while the authorities are more willing to encourage compromise, the workers are still willing to seek concessions through defiance.
As the investigations and trials have focused almost exclusively on the culpability of a few labor and political activists, there seems to be little chance the trial will answer any lingering questions about the internal workings of Kazakhstan’s leadership.
On whose orders did police move to clear the city square of protesters? What were their rules of engagement? What was Kulibayev’s role in responding to the strikes? Answers to such questions would help observers understand the verticality of decision-making and the mentality of those decision-makers in Kazakhstan today, as the post-Nazarbayev era approaches.
CONCLUSIONS: While Kazakhstan has touted its efforts to impose fair justice in Zhanaozen, most of its actions are typical of elites attempting to insulate themselves from blame and responsibility.
As in several other incidents of killings of civilians in post-Soviet Central Asia, the authorities encourage citizens to grieve over the “tragic events,” and to move on. Their vague phraseology suggests such killings are unavoidable, perhaps even inevitable. Conflicting statements and accusations regarding the right of citizens to strike and protest, as well as the role of shadowy outside instigators, permeates the government from the regional prosecutors to the president himself.
Responses to crises marred by contradiction and decisiveness make repeat incidents, such as the Zhezkazgan strike, all the more likely, at least until Kazakhstan has a grip on its socioeconomic problems, and citizens have reliable, secure outlets to voice their dissent.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Myles G. Smith is an analyst and consultant based in Central Asia.
(This article was first published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (www.cacianalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.)