A report prepared by the global watchdog group Human Rights Watch suggests hardline tactics employed by officials in Kazakhstan prepared the ground for confrontation in the western city of Zhanaozen in late 2011. The finding contradicts official claims that outside actors and political malcontents were responsible for causing the deadly rioting.
“The oil workers have faced serious violations of their rights by both their employers and the government of Kazakhstan,” said Mihra Rittmann, HRW’s Central Asia researcher who penned the report. “It’s shocking that workers should have to endure mass firings and being thrown in prison in retaliation for participating in a peaceful strike.”
The report asserts that Kazakhstan’s treatment of strikers violated the country’s international rights commitments and International Labor Organization standards, as well as its own national legislation. It details allegations of harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of union leaders and strikers involved in actions at three separate companies: OzenMunayGaz, Karazhanbasmunay and ERSAI Caspian Contractor. The companies have argued that they acted in line with Kazakhstani legislation and endeavored to negotiate settlements with strikers.
Separate strikes over issues including take-home pay, working conditions and union representation erupted at the companies in May 2011 after months of tension. The action at ERSAI Caspian Contractor was broken, but strikes at the other two firms continued until over 2,000 strikers were dismissed last summer after a court ruled the strikes illegal.
Labor disputes had long been simmering in western Kazakhstan’s energy sector. The report documents attacks on union activists beginning nearly a year before December’s Zhanaozen violence, including beatings by unknown assailants; the vandalizing of activists’ homes; and an incident in which a female oil worker was hit in the face by a rubber bullet while walking home.
Two killings in Zhanaozen in August 2011 raised tension among striking workers to the boiling point, the report contends. Oil worker Zhaksylyk Turbayev was murdered by unidentified assailants the day he was to stand in an election for union chairman, and Zhansaule Karabalayeva, the 18-year-old daughter of a striker, was also killed, a crime for which two men were later imprisoned. Investigators say neither murder was strike-related.
As the stand-off worsened, strikers were hauled through the courts and fined or jailed for short terms for participating in illegal strikes, sometimes without legal representation. “The judge asked this question: ‘Were you there?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ … For two words, in two minutes, they fined me,” one striker identified under the pseudonym Taraz T. said.
In prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the Zhanaozen events, Astana has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to a fair and transparent judicial process. “[W]e appreciate that there are difficult lessons for government at all levels – local, regional and national – to learn from Zhanaozen,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Altay Abibullayev said in response to the HRW report. He added that Astana has “welcomed and actively encouraged” NGO involvement “in examining the tragic incident.”
Seventeen civilians and six police officers have already been criminally convicted and jailed over the unrest.
Nevertheless, HRW said it was “seriously concerned that the authorities seized upon the tragic outbreak of violence on December 16 as a pretext for retaliating against workers who had actively exercised their legitimate right to strike.”
Several prominent strike leaders are among those who have been jailed. Another, Akzhanat Aminov, is currently standing trial alongside two other defendants (opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and political activist Serik Sapargaly) accused of fomenting the violence at the instigation of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive oligarch and political foe of Nazarbayev’s.
“The dispute was allowed to fester, creating an environment which enabled a small group of individuals to turn what had been a long-running, relatively peaceful protest into a violent riot,” said Abibullayev, the Foreign Ministry representative. He added that Astana has “worked hard to resolve underlying issues in Zhanaozen, investing heavily in the area to create new jobs and overhaul infrastructure.”
The impact of the HRW report on citizens in Kazakhstan may be limited, some rights observers believe. Underscored by the trial of Aminov, Kozlov and Sapargaly, officials in Astana have pushed hard to establish a narrative in which “third forces” were responsible for the violent clashes in and around Zhanaozen. This version of events is mostly accepted by a politically-apathetic public within Kazakhstan.
“I do not think there will be any effect from this Human Rights Watch report in Kazakhstan,” prominent rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis told EurasiaNet.org. He added that previous reports issued by international organizations on other issues had elicited “no reaction from the government” and public opinion had only “superficial” knowledge about the Zhanaozen turmoil. [Editor’s Note: Zhovtis is a board member of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices].
Internationally, the HRW findings could be more damaging. HRW urged the international community (particularly the United States and European Union), and foreign companies operating in Kazakhstan to “take steps to make sure that the workers’ human rights are respected and to avoid involvement in abuses.”
“It’s risky to partner with a government that intimidates, harasses and jails workers who stand up for their rights,” Rittmann said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.