Ten people have died in an Independence Day clash between protestors and police in the town of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan’s energy-rich west, the General-Prosecutor's Office has confirmed.
The fatal confrontation is sending shockwaves through Kazakhstan, where major protests are rare, and bringing to mind unfortunate parallels as the country prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the violent suppression of the Zheltoksan (December) uprising by Soviet security forces in 1986.
“According to preliminary information, as a result of mass unrest 10 people died, and there are injured, including police officers,” the prosecutor’s office said, indicating that the death toll may rise further. It blamed the unrest on the “criminal actions” of a “group of people engaging in hooliganism.”
That comment sparked further comparisons with the Zheltoksan uprising in the then capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, Alma-Ata (now Almaty): it was initially blamed by Soviet authorities on hooligans, before being recognized – after independence – as a harbinger of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.
Today’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was prime minister of Soviet Kazakhstan at the time when the Zheltoksan protest was brutally suppressed. Twenty-five years on, protestors in Zhanaozen rioted and set fire to the local government headquarters and the administration building of the OzenMunayGaz company that has been at the center of an energy sector protest ongoing since May, the prosecutor’s office said.
That industrial dispute, which centers on take-home pay and working conditions, has led to the dismissals of at least 2,000 staff, who have used Zhanaozen’s main square (the site of this Independence Day violence) as a focal point for protest over the last seven months.
The official admission of fatalities marked an about-face from an earlier statement in which the prosecutor’s office claimed that two police officers had been injured. EurasiaNet.org could not reach law-enforcement bodies for further comment.
The incident casts a shadow over festivities marking Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, billed by Astana as a celebration of the country’s successes – and tacitly viewed as a way to foster a feel-good mood ahead of parliamentary elections on January 15.
Activists are planning to hold an unsanctioned protest over the Zhanaozen violence in Almaty on December 17. They hope – if security forces do not prevent them – to rally at Republic Square, the site of the 1986 Zheltoksan uprising.