Spring is in full swing, but the signs of regeneration are slow in coming to Zhanaozen, the city in Kazakhstan that was the scene of deadly violence last December.
In February the government pledged $29 million for Zhanaozen’s redevelopment over the next three years. But coming up on four months after the violence, the town center remains blighted by the gutted remains of the OzenMunayGaz (OMG) oil company building. Nearby stands the charred skeleton of the Sholpan supermarket, with its forlorn “welcome” sign. Further along are some trashed sales kiosks in no state to re-open for business.
A billboard in the center of town features President Nursultan Nazarbayev and a slogan promising “socioeconomic rejuvenation.” As a backdrop, it has a cityscape of Astana, Kazakhstan’s glitzy capital, which was built as a monument to the country’s energy wealth. Both the slogan and the scene are jarring to the eye. Astana’s bedazzling skyscrapers and landscaped lawns are a far cry from the drab tenement houses lining Zhanaozen’s dusty, monochrome streets.
Kazakhstani officials have blamed local ringleaders and outside forces for causing a labor dispute involving oil workers to erupt in wide-scale rioting. Authorities have also quietly acknowledged that socioeconomic imbalances fuelled local discontent. Yet, despite such admissions, authorities don’t seem in a hurry to repair the physical damage done during the December troubles.
“They promised to do a lot but they haven’t done anything yet,” Venera Popova, a pensioner known here for her outspoken views, complained to EurasiaNet.org. On a late March day she was huddled in a dressing gown warding off the chill in her living room in one of Zhanaozen’s ubiquitous, pre-fabricated apartment blocks.
It is not strictly true that nothing has been done: the municipal government building, torched in the riot, is up and running again, the turquoise Kazakh flag flying proudly atop it. The restoration of the government HQ is a potent symbol in a town where many residents seem to have lost faith in local and national leaders alike.
“We extract oil, and look what kind of a dilapidated town we live in,” said Popova, echoing a sentiment common in Zhanaozen, which was built during the Soviet era to service an oilfield now in decline.
The regional government in Aktau referred a query on restoration plans to Zhanaozen’s municipal authorities, who proved difficult to reach by telephone.
The oil sector remains the town’s main employer, and new life is being breathed into it with the creation of two new production units, one each in Zhanaozen and Aktau, to employ most of the approximately 2,000 workers dismissed last year by state energy firm KazMunayGaz over a strike a court ruled illegal.
By mid-March, 2,010 jobs had been offered. Work has yet to start at the units, but they are already paying salaries. One retired oil worker, speaking in late March on condition of anonymity, said that his son, a dismissed striker, was receiving a monthly wage of 130,000 tenge ($890), well above the national average of 92,000 tenge.
Such payments are seen by some locals as tacit recognition that mistakes were made in the handling of the strike. This was acknowledged immediately after the violence, when Nazarbayev ordered the dismissals of oil company executives and fired his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev from his position overseeing state oil firms.
But as some former oil workers get new jobs, others are on trial. In Aktau 37 people are facing unrest-related charges, including 18 dismissed OMG employees. Eight have been singled out as alleged ringleaders and could receive up to 10 years in prison for organizing mass unrest.
There is much sympathy in Zhanaozen and Aktau for the defendants, widely seen as scapegoats for a situation that was bungled. Inhabitants question why protestors are on trial before police who fired live rounds on them (five officers face charges).
In a show of solidarity, several small entrepreneurs whose property was damaged have appeared in court to renounce their right to compensation claims against the accused.
While the physical scars of the violence in Zhanaozen are obvious, the psychological scars are less so – but this remains a deeply traumatized town.
Mayra Tursynaliyeva is one of many whose lives have been shattered by the turmoil: her husband Zhalgas Shalgynbayev, an oil worker not involved in the strike, is under arrest accused of a murder committed during the violence. He denies the charge.
Speaking in an apartment inside another pre-fab building, Tursynaliyeva weeps as she recounts how she sought access to her husband for 38 days before being granted a visit.
When she visited, she says, he complained of not being able to stand straight or breathe properly. Shalgynbayev later filed a complaint alleging he had been beaten and had cellophane taped around his head to force a confession. The complaint was dismissed. Allegations of police brutality are rife, but only one case – a death in custody over which one officer faces a negligence charge – has been officially acknowledged.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.