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The cost of Kazakh oil

A major strike wave in the oil fields of Kazakhstan has turned into murderous repression by the Nazarbayev government. Gabriel Levy reports

December 2, 2012
8 min read

The murder in October 2012 of 20-year-old Aleksandr Bozhenko in Zhanaozen, an oil town in Kazakhstan, is a shocking reminder of the state’s violent revenge on a community that fought back. Bozhenko played a key part in exposing police officers who tortured witnesses to produce ‘evidence’ at a trial of 37 trade union activists. Their real crime was participation in a strike wave that swept the oil field last year.

More than 10,000 oil workers participated in the strikes, which erupted in May 2011, led to a six-month ‘tent city’ demonstration in Zhanaozen’s main square – and ended with a massacre of strikers by police on 16 December 2011 in which at least 16 were killed and 60 wounded. Afterwards, the security services sealed off Zhanaozen and rounded up activists.

When they were brought to court in May this year, trade unionists including 46-year-old mother of three Roza Tuletaeva said they had been tortured in police custody. Then Aleksandr Bozhenko took the witness stand and said that he, too, had been tortured to force him to incriminate his friend Zhanat Murynbaev, who was accused of ‘participation in mass disturbances’.

‘I was beaten and forced to slander Zhanat. They broke my wrist. In the prosecutor’s office they beat me in the kidneys,’ Bozhenko told the court.

Kazakh human rights activist Galym Ageleuov told Bozhenko’s story to diplomats and politicians at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw. Two weeks later, Bozhenko was dead.

The Zhanaozen police say the killing was ‘simple hooliganism’ and that they have arrested two men who confessed to it. But as long as the authorities try to hide the truth about their witch-hunt against oil workers and the December massacre, many in Kazakhstan will disbelieve them.

Strikes and clampdown

The savage clampdown in Zhanaozen, in Mangistau region on the Caspian Sea, is the Kazakh government’s answer to the most wide-ranging strike wave in post-Soviet times. Oil is the cornerstone of Kazakhstan’s economy, accounting for most of its export revenues. But while the skyscraper-strewn city of Astana has become a booming bustle of BMW-driving managers and bureaucrats, Mangistau, where much of the oil is produced, remains the poorest region.

There was a round of strikes in the spring of 2010. And then in April 2011, workers at Ersai Caspian Contractor, an Italian-Kazakh oilfield service company, walked off the job demanding higher wages and an end to managers interfering in union activities.

In May, workers at Karazhanbasmunai, a Chinese-Kazakh joint venture, also struck, demanding higher wages and improved workplace conditions. Finally, a group of activists at Ozenmunaigaz, the largest producer in Mangistau and a subsidiary of the state-owned national oil company Kazmunaigaz, staged a hunger strike in protest at changes to the wages system that cut their take-home pay. Thousands of their colleagues struck in solidarity.

After a series of brutal physical attacks by riot police on the hunger strikers, on pickets and on strikers’ families, the workers decided to stage a tent city demonstration in Zhanaozen’s main square. On 16 December last year, the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence, workers reacted angrily to decorations being put up in the square. Disorder ensued. When the riot police arrived, they issued no warnings and made no attempt to use non-lethal weapons such as water cannon. They just opened fire with automatic weapons, continued to shoot people in the back as they ran away, and beat wounded people with sticks.

A key feature of the strikes was the oil workers’ attempts to set up new unions, or to throw out union officials who helped management. Like most workers in former Soviet countries, Kazakh oil workers are members of ‘official’ unions that worked hand-in-glove with managers in Soviet times and have changed little since.

At Ersai Caspian Contractor, workers voted to form a new, independent union – a common practice during labour disputes. The company and labour ministry refused to recognise it, and the members of its five-person committee were arrested.

At Karazhanbasmunai, activists’ accusations against union officials – that they not only helped management but physically attacked strikers – were detailed in a recent Human Rights Watch report. Mass meetings voted out union officials and elected new ones, but the old ones refused to quit.

Kazakh oil and the west

For the big oil-consuming countries in western Europe and the USA, the emergence from the Soviet Union of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (for oil) and Turkmenistan (for gas) seemed like a godsend. Here were sources of hydrocarbon fuels that were neither members of the OPEC producers’ cartel nor controlled by Russia, the world’s largest oil producer.

But things have not gone as well as the oil-hungry consumers hoped. Although a new pipeline brings oil from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean, other new export routes carry Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas to China.

Nonetheless, Kazakhstan remains a key investment destination for the west. Its largest producing project, Tengizchevroil, is owned by a consortium that includes Chevron, ExxonMobil and a Kazakh state share. The new supergiant Kashagan field in the Caspian, due to start producing next year, is owned by a consortium including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell.

Direct upstream investment is not the only link between US and UK capital and the killing fields of Zhanaozen, though. Kazmunaigaz Exploration and Production, a subsidiary of Kazmunaigaz and part-owner of Ozenmunaigaz, for whom many of the December massacre victims worked, is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Richard Evans, former chairman of British Aerospace, is chairman of Samruk-Kazyna, the state-controlled holding company that owns a big chunk of the Kazakh economy, including part of Kazmunaigaz. Other members of the British establishment also have their fingers in the pie. Lord Waverley is an adviser to the chairman of Kazmunaigaz, while former prime minister Tony Blair does consultancy work worth millions of pounds for the Kazakh government. None of them have publicly breathed a word of concern about the shootings and police torture.

Justice for the oil workers

Meanwhile, 13 Zhanaozen oil workers remain in prison, serving sentences of between two and six years. Leaders of opposition political groups who supported the oil workers were also convicted at a trial in September condemned by human rights groups as political. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Alga! Kazakhstan party, was jailed for seven years and two others for shorter terms.

Human rights activists have monitored the deteriorating situation in Kazakhstan. The Open Dialog Foundation, based in Poland, has produced excellent reports, and commissioned a report on Kozlov’s trial from the UK-based Solicitors International Human Rights Group.

It is imperative that the international workers’ movement makes louder demands for justice for the oil workers, the release of prisoners and an inquiry into police massacres and torture.

For more information about the solidarity campaign in the UK, contact gabriel.levy.mail@gmail.com


Dissident’s family demands his release

The family of Aron Atabek, a Kazakh poet, writer and opposition civil activist since Soviet times, is campaigning for his release from an 18-year jail sentence.

Atabek was convicted in 2007 of ‘orchestrating mass disorder’ after speaking up for shanty-town dwellers at Shanyrak outside Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. The city authorities, alarmed that a forthcoming change in the law that strengthened home ownership rights would afford the shanty-town more protection, ordered them to leave their homes.

Mass protests in defence of constitutional rights to a home turned into confrontations with the police. The shanty-town dwellers, fearing a violent assault by riot police, kidnapped an officer who was killed as the police moved in.

Atabek had spoken up for the shanty-town dwellers, tried to negotiate with authorities on their behalf and lobbied parliamentarians. His trumped-up conviction has been denounced by numerous campaign groups. He has vehemently refused the government’s offer of a pardon in exchange for admitting guilt.

Twenty-three other people also received heavy jail sentences.

In prison, Atabek has continued to write, detailing illegal and inhuman prison conditions. He has constantly faced restrictions on visiting rights, had manuscripts confiscated, been given spells in solitary confinement and had two years added to his sentence for refusing to wear prison uniform.

Atabek is a lifelong dissident. He took part in a student demonstration in Almaty in 1986, the violent dispersal of which helped to trigger the reform movement in Soviet Kazakhstan. He headed a ‘national patriotic’ political group that in the early post-Soviet years was suppressed by the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev – who remains president to this day.

Information and contact: www.aronatabek.com

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