Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


53