On the charred side of a building in the troubled town of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan’s energy-rich west hangs a poster of a smiling President Nursultan Nazarbayev above a slogan: “Congratulations on the Independence Holiday!”
The independence celebration on December 16 was intended to showcase this oil-rich state’s achievements over the past two decades. Instead, when the party in this bleak energy town turned horribly violent, it exposed cracks in a system that Nazarbayev has built and personifies.
When EurasiaNet.org’s correspondent visited Zhanaozen on December 20 on a trip organized by local authorities, it was teeming with black-clad riot police. A tank guarded the approach, with security forces monitoring movements under a state of emergency imposed until January 5 – a date just 10 days before Kazakhstan is due to vote in a parliamentary election.
If it goes ahead, the parliamentary vote will undoubtedly be tense here, amid the ruins of buildings, including the OzenMunayGaz (OMG) firm’s headquarters and the town hall, gutted by fires and looted by rioters.
OMG has been at the center of a dispute that began in May and which involves energy-sector workers who, at one point, went on strike over pay. They turned Zhanaozen’s main square into the focal point of their continuing protest, and that’s where violence broke out on the morning of December 16.
Zhanaozen’s hospital is crammed with the injured, most of whom – 75 out of 99 admitted on December 16 – sustained gunshot wounds. The official injury toll stands at 110; the death toll is 14 in Zhanaozen, plus one shot when protests spread to nearby Shetpe.
Officials have blamed ricocheting bullets, saying police fired into the air and at the ground in self-defense after an aggressive crowd attacked. Destruction in Zhanaozen, estimated at $13.5 million, indicates that an angry mob was on the rampage. However, a video posted on YouTube on December 20 by user saule540 presents a stark challenge to the official version: it shows riot police advancing on unarmed protestors (some throwing rocks) then opening fire, leaving one demonstrator prone on the ground. Another hops away injured; officers beat a third with truncheons.
Survivors interviewed by EurasiaNet.org at Zhanaozen hospital denied taking part in the protests. Officials were not present during the interviews, allowing victims to speak freely, though some declined to talk fearing retribution.
Bekmurat Turashev, an oil-sector employee not involved in the labor dispute, sustained three gunshot wounds when passing the square, he said. Another resident, Toktan Bergaliyev, was shot toward evening when he went outside to smoke.
Locals are still reeling from the turmoil. “It’s chaos,” said a young man called Beknur, who was shot en route to the mosque to pray. “You can’t shoot people, kill everyone in turn.”
Some patients said their injuries were inflicted by police: an elderly man nursing bruises said he was beaten for not carrying ID, and a young man with two black eyes whispered that the “riot police did it,” before hastily retreating, eyeing two officers in the corridor interrogating the injured as part of the investigation into the violence.
The Interior Ministry referred queries about detainee abuse to the prosecutor’s office. Representatives of the prosecutor’s office could not be reached for comment.
Locals remained apprehensive about police brutality. “People are afraid of the riot police. … They have weapons and we have nothing,” Guldan Agiyeva said with a sob as she visited her son, another shooting victim.
In his only statement to date, Nazarbayev has absolved police from blame. He hinted at third forces operating in Zhanaozen, urging people not to confuse the energy industry protest with “the actions of bandit elements which wanted to use the situation for their criminal designs.”
Talk of a provocation by external forces has been aired in the state-controlled media, and the Internet is rife with speculation about the possible roles of sworn enemies of Nazarbayev who are living abroad, including the president’s disgraced former-son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev (who is believed to be living in Malta and could not be reached for comment), as well as and London-based oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Locksley Ryan of RLF Partnership, which represents Ablyazov, dismissed allegations of his client’s involvement. “Ablyazov is not provoking the disturbances and he has not been financing the strikers,” he told EurasiaNet.org by telephone, adding that Ablyazov is “horrified by the violence.”
Speculation in the Russian press that Western states are seeking to foment an Arab Spring in Central Asia is dismissed by observers in Kazakhstan, who contend that the disaffection is homegrown. “It is precisely inside Kazakhstan that a time bomb was planted, in connection with the rise in social aggression and protest moods,” Dosym Satpayev, head of the Almaty-based Assessment Risk Group, told the Russian newspaper Vzglyad.
Disaffection in energy-rich western regions of Kazakhstan is fuelled by a perception that local people do not benefit sufficiently from the petro-dollars that drive Kazakhstani economic growth.
Observers see little chance of unrest spreading. Even in the oil city of Aktau, just 150 kilometers from Zhanaozen, a solidarity protest had dwindled to about 60 people on December 21.
As Astana picks up the pieces following Kazakhstan’s worst violence since independence, officials might reflect on how they could have defused tension in Zhanaozen and thus prevented the violence. “If the government had addressed the oil workers concerns, or at the very least given a greater indication that they were interested in their plight, it seems very unlikely that the unrest in western Kazakhstan would have occurred,” Alice Mummery, a Kazakhstan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told EurasiaNet.org.
The violence comes as an unwelcome shock to Nazarbayev, who paints a rosy image of his country as a bastion of stability, a magnet for foreign investment, and a booming economy whose fruits benefit ordinary citizens. “Nazarbayev has been keen to improve his, and Kazakhstan's, international image in recent years, and will be concerned that the deadly clashes in Zhanaozen bring about image damage,” Mummery says.
Nazarbayev’s legacy may be heavily influenced by how Kazakhstan’s government addresses the aftermath of the Zhanaozen violence, in particular whether an official investigation delivers credible results.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.