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Mangistau Riot - December 2011

On 16 and 17 December 2011, public violence in Mangistau Oblast fueled by a long-running strike and other social grievances left at least 17 people dead [some estimates go as high as 70] and over 100 injured. The most significant human rights problems were severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and law enforcement and judicial abuse.

Law enforcement officers shot into crowds of rioters in Zhanaozen and the nearby village of Shetpe, leaving at least 17 people dead and over 100 injured. According to data from the Zhanaozen hospital, over 85 percent of patients had bullet wounds. Unconfirmed videos posted online by opposition-affiliated groups depicted law enforcement officials shooting into the crowds. Rioters began by disrupting an Independence Day celebration in the main square and set fire to the local government headquarters, local businesses, banks, and stores, which experienced heavy looting. A government-led investigation resulted in the arrests of four law enforcement officials, including three with supervisory responsibilities, for excessive use of force. The report also revealed formal corruption accusations against two previous Zhanaozen mayors, a KazMunayGaz subsidiary director, and a Munay Ecology Ltd. director. According to the report, authorities arrested 55 civilians for participation in the riots or looting.

A 2008 survey conducted in Kazakhstan's five major oil producing regions (Atyrau, Mangistau, West Kazakhstan, Aktubinsk, and Kyzylorda). According to Kuramnova, the survey showed that local communities are not involved in deciding which social projects should be funded; the selection and payment of contractors by local governments are not transparent; and the social projects managed or funded by oil companies are costly, inefficient, and based on incorrect assumptions about the local community's needs and priorities. The deadly violence was the culmination of months of labor unrest in Kazakhstan's remote western regions. Oil workers in Zhanaozen and a second city, Aqtau, had gone on strike May 2011 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. In May workers initiated three separate labor strikes at oil and gas companies in the Mangistau region. The workers, the majority of whom were drivers, at Karazhanbasmunay (KBM), OzenMunayGaz (OMG), and Yersay Caspian Contractors (Yersay) demanded an increase in salaries, a revised collective bargaining agreement, and fewer restrictions on the activities of independent labor unions. Starting in May, many workers began camping in the city square in an indefinite protest -- a challenge to a government that had tried and succeeded in squelching dissent. Following the resolution of the Yersay strike, the KBM and OMG strikes continued, with a dwindling number of participants estimated at 1,000. The OMG and KBM fired approximately 400 people on the legal justification that an employee can be fired if absent from work without permission for 20 days.

During the strikes police detained three strike leaders, including Natalya Sokolova, a Russian citizen and former director of human resources at KBM. On August 8, a court convicted Sokolova of inciting social discord and sentenced her to six years in prison. The OSCE characterized the punishment as harsh and cited credible reports of due process violations, including reports that the presiding judge refused to admit into evidence a video recording in support of Sokolova’s defense and denied her motions to summon witnesses.

The protest movement grew, with demonstrators furious over what they saw as a stranglehold on collective bargaining and labor rights by the government of longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev. But few predicted the conflict would erupt in deadly violence and lead to a year-long rights crackdown in a prosperous Central Asian country taking pains to sell itself as an increasingly democratic regime.

In the weeks following the clashes, officials attempted to address the problem. Nazarbaev traveled to Zhanaozen and fired a number of local officials -- including the local head of Mangistau oblast, where Zhanaozen and Aqtau are located, as well as managers from the oil companies at the heart of the strikes.

Following the December 16 to 17 incident in which authorities shot into crowds of rioters related to the ongoing strike and other social grievances, the government established temporary municipal employment for all fired workers at their former wages. Authorities claimed to have arranged permanent employment with over 20 private companies.

Authorities also arrested a handful of police officers charged with looting and opening fire on protesters. But rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) say the vast majority of prosecutions targeted protesters, as well as journalists and opposition politicians with only tenuous connections to Zhanaozen.

The most notorious case involves Vladimir Kozlov, the charismatic leader of the Algha! (Forward!) party, who was arrested in February for his alleged role in Zhanaozen. He was tried alongside Serik Sapargali and Akzhanat Aminov, civil-rights activists who had represented the rights of the striking oil workers. Following a trial in October, both Sapargali and Aminov were put on probation and released. But Kozlov was sentenced to 7 and 1/2 years in prison.

Aleksandra Zernova is a lawyer with the U.K.-based Solicitors International human rights group, which analyzed the Kozlov trial. She says none of the evidence presented during Kozlov's trial suggests the Algha! leader was in any way to blame for inciting the Zhanaozen events. "Somehow the prosecution tried to prove that Kozlov, Aminov, and Sapargali had something to do with inciting the people in Zhanaozen and that their particular actions led to the bloody events of December 16," she says. "We have thoroughly analyzed all the evidence, and we couldn't find any particular evidence to prove that."

The post-Zhanaozen years saw the progressive erosion of Nazarbaev’s image of success. While Kazakh politics has become more authoritarian, the economy had been shrinking, hit as it was by a dual crisis that involved a rapid collapse in oil production and a sharp contraction in energy revenues. Living standards were declining and the socio-economic gap between Kazakhstan’s urban centers and its rural areas is widening.

Kazakhstan doesn't seem to have learned anything from the massacre in December 2011. By tightening the screws rather than allowing for political competition or dissent, Nazarbayev and his administration on some level were admitting their own weakness and vulnerability. A confident leader would not need to resort to such tactics. All of this raised doubts as to whether Kazakhstan was as stable as its Government claimed. Kazakhstan is beginning to face a crisis of rising economic expectations that are unmet. Kazakhstan's middle class and skilled laborers had come to expect their standard of living to improve on a regular basis after a decade of rapid economic growth. The growing dynamism of Kazakhstan's society coupled with its stagnant political system could create a dangerous scenario.

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Page last modified: 21-03-2022 10:29:19 ZULU