By The Jamestown Foundation
Kazakhstan has experienced an unusual wave of political violence in the oil-rich western part of the country. The deadly clashes between protestors and Kazakhstan’s security forces that left 15 dead and 110 injured took place just a month before the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 15, 2012.
Violence erupted in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen on December 16, the day the country marked 20 years of independence, leaving 14 dead and over 90 injured, according to official information. The police clashed with a crowd that disrupted the Independence Day celebrations by burning down several buildings, including the mayor’s office, the ruling Nur-Otan party quarters, and the offices of the state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas. The rioters wore jackets with the logo of KazMunaiGaz indicating they belonged to the oil workers who have been on strike since May. Many of those who lost their jobs at KazMunaiGaz subsidiary OzenMunaiGaz have protested on the main city square throughout the summer and fall.
The unrest continued on December 17 when protesters blocked the railway station in the village of Shetpe, near Zhanaozen and not far from Aktau, a key transportation hub for the Northern Distribution Network, which provides transit of non-lethal supplies for US troops in Afghanistan. One person was killed and 11 were wounded during clashes with police (Interfax, December 18).
A peaceful demonstration in support of the striking oil workers took place in Aktau on December 18. The protesters made demands to the authorities to stop the violence, restore peace in the region and resolve the labor dispute. It appears that negotiations between the protestors and the local authorities have begun (K-Plus TV, December 18).
Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced a state of emergency in Zhanaozen until January 5, 2012, during which time a curfew is imposed and public gatherings are prohibited.
The clashes in the western city of Zhanaozenare were related to the oil workers’ strike, but at this point it is not clear whether the oil workers started the violence or if their strike was exploited for political purposes. However, in the aftermath of 15 civilian deaths and over one hundred injured, some people in western Kazakhstan accuse the security forces of using lethal force against rioters and blame the authorities for failing to resolve the labor dispute at OzenMunaiGas. Disturbing videos of the police shooting at fleeing rioters and beating them up have caused deep concern among foreign governments and human rights groups. The Kazakh Ambassador to the US, Erlan Idrissov, stated that the video images were shocking and his government is investigating the events (RFE/RL, December 22). “Everyone who is guilty of starting the violence or exceeded his powers in dealing with the rioters will be held responsible,” he said in a press conference in Washington on December 22. The Kazakh Minister of Interior Kalmukhambet Kasymovhas acknowledged that the police would have to put in place better contingency planning for the deployment of nonlethal crowd control techniques (Moscow Times, December 20).
In a rare move for any of the Central Asian republics, on December 22, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor-general Ashat Daulbaev invited the United Nations to take part in investigations into the deadly clashes between security forces and protesters in the oil-rich west (RFE/RL, December 22).
In addition, President Nazarbayev said on December 22 that he would sack the head of the sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, Timur Kulibayev, who is also his son-in-law (Reuters, December 22). The heads of the state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas and its London-listed subsidiary KazMunaiGas Exploration Production were also replaced, as well as the governor of Mangystau region where the events took place (Lada - News from Aktau, December 22).
The Jamestown Foundation is closely following developments in Kazakhstan and will provide thorough analysis as more information becomes available.