Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov’s first trip to Washington couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for his country. But for his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expected on February 1, he comes bearing good news: Prominent human rights advocate Yevgeniy Zhovtis is about to be released from prison.
Zhovtis will be free in 15 days under a prisoner amnesty marking Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence, his NGO announced on Twitter. He will have served nearly two and a half years of a four-year prison sentence that he received in 2009 following a controversial vehicular manslaughter trial.
His supporters believe the case was used to silence a respected rights advocate. If so it didn’t work: Zhovtis, who is a lawyer, used his time behind bars advising prisoners on their legal battles, and continued to lobby for human rights from his prison cell.
A strike has broken out in western Kazakhstan at a local subcontractor for American energy giant Chevron, Radio Free Europe reports. News of fresh unrest is sure to cause disquiet in Astana, coming six weeks after a long-standing industrial dispute in the western energy hub of Zhanaozen descended into fatal violence.
Radio Free Europe said that around 200 workers employed in Atyrau Region by two companies affiliated to the Senimdi Kurylys firm, which carries out construction work for the Tengizchevroil oilfield operator (50 percent owned by Chevron), had downed tools on January 25, demanding salaries be almost doubled from 80,000-90,000 tenge ($540-$600) to 150,000 tenge ($1,000). EurasiaNet.org could not reach Senimdi Kurylys for comment.
Tengiz is the largest oilfield in Kazakhstan.
On January 29 Radio Free Europe reported that managers had offered a 25-percent raise, but workers continued to demand that pay be doubled. The report quoted unidentified activists as saying that management had ordered strikers to leave their company-provided hostels if they were not going to return to work.
This labor dispute in the Zhylyoy district of Atyrau Region near the Caspian Sea is over 1,000 kilometers north of Zhanaozen by road, but the row echoes the strike that broke out in that town last May, which also centered on pay.
Performance artist and activist Kanat Ibragimov whips-up the crowd at an opposition rally in downtown Almaty on January 28.
More leaders of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered opposition were imprisoned after holding an unsanctioned protest rally in Almaty today.
OSDP party co-leader Bolat Abilov received an 18-day sentence, and 15-day terms were handed to deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov and the party’s Almaty boss Amirbek Togusov.
“We have just left court and are on our way to prison,” Kosanov told EurasiaNet.org by telephone late on January 28.
OSDP had organized the morning rally to protest against the results of the January 15 parliamentary election, won with a landslide by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s party. OSDP won 1.7 percent of the vote, leaving them outside parliament after they failed to clear the electoral threshold. Opposition leaders and international observers said the vote was rigged. Astana denies electoral fraud.
At the rally, leaders protested over the election results and demanded a fair investigation into the shooting of protestors in Zhanaozen on December 16. Authorities have announced that five police officers will be prosecuted over the deaths.
Kosanov linked the leaders’ imprisonment to their public discussion of Zhanaozen at the protest, for which they did not have the legal permission required under Kazakh law.
“Today we brought up what is the most painful subject for the authorities—Zhanaozen,” Kosanov said, accusing Astana of seeking “to create an atmosphere of fear” to intimidate the public.
Where does the buck stop over last month’s deadly violence in and around Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan? The answer is: Pretty low.
A handful of police officers face trial for shooting protestors, while oil executives and local officials face corruption charges. Yet no one very senior will be in the dock, while the courts will be jammed with protestors charged over the violence – outnumbering the police facing trial by over 10 times. Opposition activists being blamed for incitement face long prison sentences.
A total of five police officers face charges. The most senior is the deputy regional police chief, identified as Utegaliyev, held responsible for failing to “prevent the illegal actions of subordinates,” Prosecutor-General Askhat Daulbayev said late January 25, releasing the investigation’s preliminary results.
Three officers face charges of exceeding their authority and causing fatalities, including Zhanaozen’s deputy police chief, Bagdayev.
The investigation says 15 people died in Zhanaozen-related unrest: 14 in Zhanaozen, plus one shot dead by police in Shetpe when protests spread. Officials say two other deaths in Zhanaozen were “not linked to the mass unrest;” previously they had said one person died in a fire set by looters and another was shot dead by a resident of Zhanaozen in a related incident. Sixty-four civilians sustained firearms injuries; 35 police sustained bodily injuries.
As the shooting of unarmed protestors by Kazakh security forces in Zhanaozen remains unexplained nearly six weeks after the violence, one young Kazakh poet has penned an emotional verse about the tragedy.
The buck for the killings should stop somewhere, Bauyrzhan Khaliolla suggests in the poem – perhaps with the ruling party, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan, freshly re-elected with a landslide in a vote international observers deemed rigged?
“Hey, insidious traitors of Nur Otan, why did you open fire on innocent people?” Khaliolla asks. “For seven months, you ignored the orphaned nation, why did you get bogged down in such great guilt?”
The poet is referring to the months that an industrial dispute dragged on in Zhanaozen’s energy sector without the intervention of Nur Otan, which throughout the labor dispute was the only party represented in the rubberstamp national parliament and which also dominated Zhanaozen’s local council.
Khaliolla’s poem was broadcast on the K-Plus satellite TV station on January 19, four days after Nur Otan stormed to victory with 81 percent of the vote despite the debacle in Zhanaozen – where, to the consternation of some observers, it won 70 percent.
“Who issued the order from on high, to open fire on proud people from an assault rifle?” the poem continues. “I don’t believe that you yes-men could move without Nureke [Nazarbayev]. Will people forget this day?”
Kazakhstan's much-vaunted political modernization, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev said was launched by this month’s parliamentary election, has kicked off just a week after the vote with a raid on one of the country’s most vocal opposition parties.
Early on January 23 National Security Committee (KNB) agents stormed the Almaty headquarters of the Alga! party (which was unable to stand in the January 15 election because authorities will not register it) and the home of its leader Vladimir Kozlov.
The Guljan news website quoted Kozlov’s wife, Aliya Turusbekova, suggesting the search was linked to last month’s shooting of protestors in the western oil town of Zhanaozen, which Nazarbayev has blamed on mysterious third forces.
“We’ve been banned from speaking on the telephone,” she told the website. “The only thing I can say is that a search is underway by KNB forces, and it is linked to events in Zhanaozen.” She added that the intelligence officers were confiscating computer equipment and documents.
The homes of three other people linked to the Alga! party – accountant Guljan Lepisova, head of security Askar Tokmurzin and activist Mikhail Sizov – were also reported raided, as was that of youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay.
Kazakhstan likes to portray itself as open to dialogue with the West – but is it open to criticism?
After observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed Kazakhstan’s January 15 parliamentary vote as fraudulent, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced that in future certain “experts” voicing critical views will be banned from attending Kazakhstan’s elections.
“We are no longer going to invite to Kazakhstan experts hired by someone who criticize our elections,” Nazarbayev said on January 18.
He did not name the OSCE or any other organization or individual, but his remarks came two days after the OSCE-led observation mission issued a stinging critique of Kazakhstan’s poll, which it said “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.”
Nazarbayev, on the other hand, said the vote was “unprecedented in terms of transparency, openness and honesty.”
He pointed out that most international observers had found the vote to be free and fair, which is true – cooperative regional bodies such as the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States (a club of former Soviet countries) gave the election a ringing endorsement, right on cue.
OSDP co-leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay (right) and deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov (center) leaving a rally in Almaty where they called on Astana to annul the results of the January 15 parliamentary election.
Kazakhstan’s main opposition party has held a small rally in Almaty, calling for the results of the January 15 parliamentary election to be annulled and a new election held this August. While the opposition was standing out in the cold, authorities had blocked another critical website run by one disqualified opposition candidate.
The OSDP party was shut out of parliament after failing to clear the 7-percent electoral threshold to win seats. The ruling Nur Otan party won a landslide, but opposition leaders – backed by international observers – say the vote was rigged.
Election day “was a black day in the calendar of the whole history of Kazakhstan,” OSDP deputy leader Amirzhan Kosanov told a crowd of less than a hundred supporters gathered on Almaty’s Republic Square in a blizzard. “On that day democracy was killed, just as in Zhanaozen our peaceful citizens were killed with machine guns.”
Kosanov was referring to mid-December unrest in western Kazakhstan, when at least 17 protestors were shot dead.
The OSDP, the only genuine opposition party in an election which saw most dissident voices excluded, said the results should be annulled – a call Astana is certain not to heed.
As questions linger over the role of the security forces in and around Kazakhstan’s riot-torn western town of Zhanaozen, where 17 protestors were shot dead last month, Kazakh police who took part in quashing the protest are being showered with gifts, TV Channel 31 reports.
Officers who were dispatched 1700 kilometers from Karaganda to Zhanaozen, where an industrial dispute in the oil sector turned violent on December 16, have been given certificates of merit, gifts and financial bonuses as rewards for their role in restoring order. The report said that over 600 officers would receive bonuses for their efforts, and 27 were given watches.
The rewarded officers were not in Zhanaozen when security forces opened fire on protestors, but questions also remain over police behavior in the aftermath of the shootings.