A delicate sense of calm has been restored in the oilfields of western Kazakhstan after a riot late last month, involving hundreds of Kazakhstani and Turkish oil workers, embarrassed Kazakhstani leaders and focused attention on long-simmering social tension in this energy-rich Central Asian state.
The rioting October 20-21 reportedly was sparked by an incident in which Turkish workers at a construction site at the Tengiz oilfield one of the largest in the world accused a Kazakhstani colleague of trying to cut into the lunch line. Nasty words gave way to fisticuffs, and the situation rapidly spun out of control as other workers joined in the mayhem. The ensuing brawl involved roughly 400 workers. Nearly 200 were injured in the clash, most of them Turks.
Todd Levy, the general manager of the Tengizchevroil joint venture, which is developing the oilfield, told Kazakhstani Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov on November 1 that a total of 196 workers from the Senimdi Kurylys Construction Co. had been injured, only three of them non-Turks. Channel 31 TV showed gruesome pictures of Turkish workers covered in blood, one with his back cut to shreds and another with a severely damaged ankle. Of those receiving medical treatment, 11 were seriously injured, according to Askat Bekenov, mayor of Atyrau Region's Zhylyoyskii District. He went on to tell a television interviewer that "no political hue should be attached to this hooliganism."
Authorities continued to characterize the brawl as a random act of hooliganism, playing down the notion that the brawl had deeper political and social undertones. "The first, surface reason for the conflict was run-of-the-mill," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev told a press briefing in late October. "At the same time, we have expressed the hope that the working group set up to investigate the circumstances of the incident will provide full information."
Ashykbayev was obliquely acknowledging widely-voiced concern that the riot was sparked by discontent among Kazakhstani workers, who are said to be unhappy at being paid less and treated differently than foreign staff at the site. Economy Minister Aslan Musin acknowledged in parliament on November 2 that there were large discrepancies in the salaries paid to foreign and local workers, but he nevertheless insisted that the brawl was nothing more than a "run-of-the-mill fight," Kazakhstan Today reported.
In the aftermath of the brawl, Channel 31 interviewed several Kazakhstani workers at the oilfield, where riot police were deployed to maintain order. Anger resonated in their voices as they aired their grievances. "We have become slaves on our land," said one. "We do what the Turks say, but you can't please them. They constantly threaten to fire us. If you are three minutes late, you lose your job."
"We work better and they earn more," added another.
Coming shortly after President Nursultan Nazarbayev publicly slammed state company bosses for paying themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, this focus on low pay at the oilfields was the source of embarrassment to the government. The sight of hundreds of brawling oil workers is not conducive to the modern, forward-looking, dynamic image the country is trying to project as it pushes ahead with its drive to join the world's 50 most competitive countries. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Epokha newspaper reported that the Kazakhstani workers at the field earned around USD $250-320 per month. "In addition, they have constantly had to listen to taunting and mockery from the Turks," it added. Many Kazakh media reports took up the thread of Kazakh workers being treated as second-class citizens. "Hundreds of Kazakh workers
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.