Polina Ibrayeva is now a frail old lady with sparkling brown eyes. Seventy-three years ago, she was a three-month-old infant suddenly uprooted from the Chechen mountain village where she was born and deported thousands of kilometers east to the steppes of northern Kazakhstan.
The oil workers were shocked to see that the city would try to hold a party just yards from the spot they had occupied for months in the hope of negotiating higher salaries. The day was December 16, 2011, and authorities in the city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, disregarding the strikers, were intent on celebrating Independence Day in a cacophonous way.
Kazakhstan is flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights, a damning new report published by an international human rights watchdog alleges.
The study, “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan”, was published by Human Rights Watch on November 24, shortly ahead of the fifth anniversary of a bout of fatal violence that spiraled out of an oil strike in the town of Zhanaozen.
The report documents “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Based on interviews with 55 union leaders, labor activists and workers in nine cities—including in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan and the industrial heartland in the center and northeast—the study reveals cases of harassment and intimidation of workers by the authorities and employers to deter them from joining independent trade unions.
It cites cases of workers fired for taking industrial action — a ‘disproportionate disciplinary sanction,’ HRW says — and instances of surveillance of independent union leaders and activists by the security services.
Larisa Kharkova, president of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, recalled how on a trip to western Kazakhstan in March this year she was “surrounded in Aktau — day and night” by intelligence agents, and during her meetings with union members “we were sitting there, talking, and we could see how [the security agents] drove up and photographed us.”
Kharkova also explained how a new trade union law enacted in 2014 had “paralyzed” the work of her confederation’s members, independent labor unions which were denied re-registration under burdensome new requirements.
An oil strike that started in late September in the western Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen – the scene of fatal industrial unrest in 2011 – has ended after the company caved in to strikers’ demands.
In contrast with that industrial dispute five years ago, company officials and authorities were quick to pursue mediation, in a reflection of the sensitivities that surround signs of public discontent against a background of broader economic stagnation.
The Zhanaozen standoff ended late on October 5, after private drilling company Burgylau agreed, with mediation from the authorities, to concessions, one striker told EurasiaNet.org.
“All the demands have been meet,” said Askar, a driller speaking under a pseudonym by telephone from Zhanaozen on October 6. “We’re satisfied. We’re already back at work today.”
The 2,300 or so strikers had downed their tools for six days running in pursuit of two goals: changes to the salary calculation system that would result in a pay rise and an end to what they described as intimidation of their choice of union leader.
The company agreed to review the way salaries are calculated, Alik Aydarbayev, the regional governor, said in remarks reported by Tengri News.
Strikers had been demanding that Burgylau switch to the salary calculation system used by KazMunayGaz, the main state employer in Kazakhstan’s oil industry. The company agreed instead to install a similar system that should see salaries go up by an unspecified amount.
The company had argued that it could not afford to raise salaries, which are already around double the national average, owing to the knock-on effect of low global oil prices.
Disgruntled oil workers crowded into an apartment inside one of the prefabricated blocks that line the streets of Zhanaozen, a town at the heart of Kazakhstan’s oil country. The grievances they shouted over one another sounded familiar. Some griped about pay, others complained that their right to operate an independent trade union representation was being infringed.
Following days of uncertainty surrounding the fate of the septuagenarian strongman who ruled Uzbekistan for more than a quarter of a century, the suspense is over: Islam Karimov is dead. Uzbekistan’s government confirmed his death on September 2 after he suffered a stroke in late August.
In the village of Znamenka in northeastern Kazakhstan, adults have vivid memories of nuclear explosions rocking the steppe.
“We saw mushroom clouds — big and terrifying ones,” recalled Galina Tornoshenko, 67, shaking her head at the traumatic memory and gesturing upward at the clear blue sky. “I was small at the time, but I remember it well.”
One of Kazakhstan’s last remaining independent newspapers has been ordered to pay heavy damages in a libel case that its editor believes was designed to drive it out of business.
The ruling ordering the Tribuna/Ashyk Alan newspaper to pay nearly $15,000 in damages to a former Almaty city official was the latest in a series of lawsuits lost by independent media in Kazakhstan that critics see as a blow to freedom of speech.
“This basically means the destruction of the independent media,” Zhanbolat Mamay, the newspaper’s editor, told EurasiaNet.org after the verdict on July 12. “It is an attack on freedom of speech.”
The lawsuit was filed by Sultanbek Syzdykov, a former Almaty city hall official whom the newspaper had labeled “corrupt” because he was accused of embezzling $70,000 from funds to stage the 2011 Asian Winter Games. A criminal probe was closed after he repaid the sum.
The case was widely covered in Kazakhstan’s media at the time, but Tribuna/Ashyk Alan has now been punished for reporting on it, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz (Freedom of Speech) watchdog noted.
Denis Krivosheyev, a journalist at the bilingual Russian-Kazakh newspaper (whose name means “Platform”), wrote about it again this spring after Syzdykov was appointed to head a company belonging to city hall.
“[Syzdykov] now considers that he is not corrupt, and that we called him corrupt without grounds,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org prior to the verdict, which awarded Syzdykov a third of the $45,000 in damages he had sought.
Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency has named a Kazakh businessman as one of the mysterious “third forces” behind recent land protests that investigators claim was an attempt to mount a coup to overthrow President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tokhtar Tuleshov, an entrepreneur from southern Kazakhstan who has been under arrest on corruption charges since January, “actively took specific steps toward the forcible seizure of power,” Ruslan Karasev, a spokesman for the National Security Committee, known by its Russian acronym — KNB, said at a briefing on June 6.
The KNB has proof that “protest actions against so-called ‘land reform’ that took place in the cities of Atyrau, Astana, Almaty, Uralsk and Kyzylorda were inspired and financed by Tuleshov.”
Protests against planned land reforms hit cities around Kazakhstan in late April and May, and an attempt to hold a nationwide day of protest on May 21 ended in forcible dispersals and the arrests of over 1,000 people, according to civil society campaigners.
“[Tuleshov’s] plan of action envisioned the destabilization of the situation in the country by means of creating hotbeds of tension, organizing protest actions and mass unrest, against the background of which he planned to form a so-called alternative government and change the structure of the existing power,” Karasev said.