President Nursultan Nazarbayev has imposed a state of emergency on the troubled western town of Zhanaozen, scene of violent clashes between protestors and police during December 16 Independence Day celebrations in which 11 people died.
Under the 20-day state of emergency, rallies, protests, and strikes are prohibited; freedom of movement within the oil town of Zhanaozen, and into and out of it, is restricted.
Although a government investigation commission has just begun work, Nazarbayev absolved the police and blamed the “criminal actions” of protestors for the violence.
Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov earlier said the clashes were provoked by former staff members of the OzenMunayGaz company who were dismissed over the summer for striking.
However, the president expressed doubt about that version, saying that “the oil workers’ industrial dispute must not be mixed up with the actions of bandit elements which wanted to use the situation for their criminal designs.”
Yerlan Idrisov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, denied that the Zhanaozen protestors were peaceful. “The government regrets any loss of life and injury that was caused during the incident,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “But when demonstrators go beyond their right of peaceful protest and start attacking onlookers and the police, the government has no choice but to react and to protect public safety.”
Activists and opposition leaders who turned out in Almaty on December 17 to mark an anniversary that has unfortunate symbolic parallels with the Zhanaozen protest – the 1986 Zheltoksan (December) uprising against Soviet rule – expressed outrage over the deaths.
Laying wreaths on Republic Square, where the Zheltoksan demonstration against Soviet authorities began a quarter-century ago, they noted similarities between the two protests.
“It was 25 years ago that young people went out onto the square to protest against the Soviet Union, for independence, for freedom, for justice,” Bolat Abilov, opposition OSDP Azat party co-leader, told EurasiaNet.org. “Military force was also used; they were also shot; they were also dispersed; they were also arrested.”
Activist Zhasaral Kuanyshalin said responsibility for the recent violence lay at the very top and Nazarbayev “should answer before a court, before history, before the people.”
Comparing Nazarbayev to overthrown Middle Eastern dictators Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, Kuanyshalin told EurasiaNet.org: “He has joined their ranks. He has besmeared himself with blood.”
But the chances of the Arab Spring spreading to Central Asia look slim: The event on Republic Square drew only around 200 people.
With cellphones cut off in Zhanaozen and access to the town restricted, sparse information was filtering out.
Kasymov insisted everything was under control: “The protests have been suppressed; the situation in the town is calm; there is no one on the square.” He said 70 arrests had been made.
Eighty-six people were injured in the violence, the prosecutor’s office said, including six law-enforcement officers, one of whom is in a coma.
Amid concerns about ongoing tensions, Human Rights Watch weighed with a statement urging Astana to “strictly observe human rights norms” and not to use “excessive force” in the aftermath of the protest.