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Union conference demands justice for Kazakh oil workers

Gabriel Levy reports from a meeting of independent trade unionists from the former Soviet Union in Ukraine

November 7, 2013
6 min read

The ‘justice for Kazakhstan oil workers’ campaign was the central focus of a conference of independent trade union activists, socialists and human rights campaigners from across the former Soviet Union at the weekend.

Two hundred activists decided at the meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, to unite around the campaign. They called for the release of at least ten people jailed after the Kazakh oilfield strike of 2011, and for an inquiry into a police massacre at Zhanaozen, an oil city in western Kazakhstan, in which at least 16 were killed and 60 wounded.

Demonstrations are planned on 16 December, the second anniversary of the Zhanaozen killings, in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and across western Europe. The London event, outside the Foreign Office, will highlight UK government and business links with Kazakhstan. 

The police shootings of unarmed demonstrators at Zhanaozen ended a seven-month strike by several thousand workers demanding better pay and conditions and the right to form independent unions. Most were employed by a subsidiary of Kazmunaigaz, the oil company controlled by the Kazakh government and listed on the London stock exchange.

Strike organiser Roza Tuletaeva, a mother of three, and other activists were jailed for up to seven years on the catch-all charge of ‘inciting social discord’. Kazakh human rights campaigners have collected evidence that defendants and witnesses were tortured before appearing in court.

Oleg Shein, from Astrakhan in southern Russia, opening a session on Kazakhstan at the Kyiv conference, said: ‘The independent unions in Kazakhstan face brutal repression. It’s our duty to support them.’

An inquiry is needed, ‘to establish who was shot, who was beaten, on whose orders’ in the Zhanaozen massacre, said Shein, a former parliamentary deputy and prominent independent union organiser.

A half-hour documentary by Russian film maker Yulia Mazurova, Zhanaozen: the Unknown Tragedy – which features shocking footage of police shooting demonstrators in the back and beating wounded people with night sticks – was shown.

Denis Bilunov, the film’s producer, told the audience: ‘There’s a wall of silence and we need to break through it.’ Tony Blair, who is on a six-figure contract to advise the Kazakh government, bears responsibility, he said

Bilunov added: ‘We get the feeling that if there is a massacre in Sudan or Mali, it’s on CNN – but if it’s in Kazakhstan, nobody in Europe wants to know.’

A Kazakh activist warned that the workers’ movement had been ‘subdued’ after Zhanaozen, and that new legislation is now being prepared to further tie unions’ hands. A journalist from Kazakhstan said that last year, after the trials of the oil workers and politicians who had supported them, the free media had been almost completely closed down by government action.

Mikhail Volynets of the independent trade union federation of Ukraine said that, together with the Confederation of Labour of Russia, his organisation had successfully blocked the affiliation to international labour bodies of the ‘official’ Kazakh federation of unions – which denounced the oil workers for striking and gave no support to the massacre victims

The first day of the two-day Kyiv conference was devoted to the history of independent labour organisation. A wide variety of short talks by historians covered a time scale from the 19th century to the post-Soviet period, and themes ranging from the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists, the Workers Opposition and other communist dissidents, to underground Soviet workers’ organisations of the 1960s and 1970s.

The practical part of the conference prioritised Kazakhstan but also covered other industrial and political issues. There was a warm response for Yulia Guseva of the 6th of May Committee, set up in Moscow to defend those arrested for organising last year’s pro-democracy demonstration. A session on workplace organisation included discussion of industrial action at Aerosvit, the recently bankrupted Russian airline and a campaign against casualisation of labour by Unilever, the international food producer, and other multinationals.

At a final session, the general secretaries of the Confederation of Labour of Russia, and independent union federations from Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan, spoke about linking union struggles with the defence of democratic rights.

Kirill Buketov of the International Union of Food workers, closing the conference, said that while sessions on politics and history had shown the breadth of different opinions in the movement, the conference had been completely united in supporting the Zhanaozen workers. “When we’re under attack, we stand united. That’s our strength”, he said.

In addition to the independent unions, the conference was supported by the Ukrainian left journal Spil’ne; Memorial, the Russian NGO that fights for justice for the victims of Stalin’s prison camps; the Praxis centre in Moscow; and a range of other socialist and labour movement groups. Most attendees were Russian and Ukrainian activists, with smaller delegations from Belarus, Georgia, Central Asia, the Baltic states and several western European countries.

A concert held after the conference featured Arkadii Kots, a band formed by young Russian socialists and named after the miner, activist and artist who translated the Internationale into Russian in 1902. They were arrested together on one of last year’s Moscow demonstrations, and a clip of them singing in the back of a police van as it picked up other detainees became a YouTube hit.

Join the Justice for Kazakhstan’s Oil Workers protest, 10am on Monday 16 December at the Foreign Office, Parliament Street, London SW1. More on the protest and campaign.

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