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Despite Government Promises To Be More Responsive, Kazakhstan's Protesting Oil Workers Are All But Ignored

Oil workers protest in Astana, Kazakhstan, on April 11.
Oil workers protest in Astana, Kazakhstan, on April 11.

ALMATY -- After traveling 2,500 kilometers and spending the night outside the Energy Ministry, the unemployed oil workers, some still wearing their coveralls, were met by just three lawmakers from Kazakhstan's newly elected parliament.

The lawmakers could "hear [the protesters] out," a correspondent from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported from the scene, but "admitted that they were not in a position to help."

Having briefly listened to the men from Zhanaozen, a town in western Kazakhstan known for labor protests and a deadly government crackdown, the lawmakers left. Around an hour later, black-clad, balaclava-wearing police moved in and detained the demonstrators, triggering fresh solidarity protests back home and in the nearby city of Aktau. After spending the night in custody, on the morning of March 12, the protesters were sent home on a train under police guard.

Despite Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's promises of a new, responsive rule, with an "influential" parliament, it looked more like business as usual for Kazakhstan's authorities, who have brutally cracked down on previous protests in the past.

Oil workers from Zhanaozen sit in front of the Kazakh Energy Ministry for a second day of protests in Astana on April 11.
Oil workers from Zhanaozen sit in front of the Kazakh Energy Ministry for a second day of protests in Astana on April 11.

Before heading to the capital, the workers in the energy-rich, economically depressed Zhanaozen took to the streets on April 4, protesting outside the local town hall and demanding new, long-term jobs under the same terms as the ones provided by the company that they used to work for, which laid them off after losing a tender.

Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliev told journalists on April 11 that the workers had been offered good alternatives but were being manipulated into the protests by their former employers. While workers confirmed they had held talks with the government and with some labor representatives remaining in Astana, they said the positions being offered were poorly paid and only temporary.

Zhanaozen is not just any struggling provincial town. In 2011, it was the site of an oil workers' strike that police used deadly force to quell, leaving at least 16 people dead and dealing a serious blow to then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev's reputation.

One of the lawmakers who met with the oil workers was veteran opposition journalist and politician Yermurat Bapi, who has been accused by some opposition figures of cooperating with the government. "You can't play with Zhanaozen, the west [of Kazakhstan], and the oilmen. I think the government should understand and know that," Bapi told RFE/RL by telephone. Prior to the detentions, the new parliament had not devoted any time to debating the labor and social unrest that is again rumbling in the west.

Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliev addresses journalists on April 11.
Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliev addresses journalists on April 11.

After the protesters were arrested in Astana, rights activist Bakytzhan Toregozhina appealed to Bapi on Facebook to go to the police station and use his parliamentarian status to try to secure the release of the men. Bapi did not respond to a request from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service asking whether he had done this, although he did criticize the police detentions.

It was in Zhanaozen in January 2022 where peaceful protests over an overnight doubling of prices for liquified petroleum gas sparked wider, nationwide unrest that authorities failed to contain. At least 238 people were killed across the country during the state crackdown now known as Bloody January.

While Nazarbaev stepped down from the presidency in 2019, allowing his protege Toqaev to take the job, the older man remained a dominant force in politics until the events of January last year.

Since coming to power, President Toqaev has described his vision for governance as a "strong president, influential parliament, [and] accountable government." Earlier in his presidency, he called for a "Listening State." Then after January 2022, and in what was widely seen as an attempt to break with Nazarbaev's legacy, he declared a "New Kazakhstan," since eclipsed in presidential communiques by "Just Kazakhstan."

Scores of oil workers arrived in the Kazakh capital, Astana, from Zhanaozen on April 10.
Scores of oil workers arrived in the Kazakh capital, Astana, from Zhanaozen on April 10.

In a March 29 address to mark the first session of the new parliament, Toqaev hailed the snap elections 10 days earlier as a major achievement, noting the arrival in the bicameral body of the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, a fringe party whose credentials as regime opponents had long been doubted by political observers. He said that the task of all lawmakers was "to be on the front line every day" and to "make decisions and bear responsibility for them in front of the people."

After defeating token candidates in a November 2022 presidential election, Toqaev promised voters a more competitive political system for parliamentary elections in March. Single-mandate races were cautiously reintroduced for the national legislature's lower house, known as the Mazhilis, which allowed genuine government critics to campaign.

The end result, however, was a parliament dominated by the ruling Amanat party, just like the one before it, as international monitors flagged irregularities and losing candidates alleged vote-rigging in favor of less critical candidates.

Oil workers protest in Astana on April 11.
Oil workers protest in Astana on April 11.

Since the body began work on March 29, lawmakers have elected unopposed the previous speaker -- a close ally of Toqaev's -- and offered strong backing for the old prime minister to lead a mostly unchanged government.

While failing to address the predicament of oil workers in the west of the country, lawmakers have been pursuing a variety of other causes. One lawmaker has hinted she will pursue a tax on Kazakh women who choose to marry foreigners, while another has criticized an animal protection law as protecting animals "better than humans." A third lawmaker has been fending off calls to resign his seat after two of his sons were convicted in an embezzlement case.

Meanwhile, in western Kazakhstan, the protests -- and potential unrest -- are expected to rumble on. With most of the demonstrators shunted off home, a few representatives stayed in the capital to continue talks on employment.

Zhanaozen residents that were detained on the town's main square for protesting in solidarity with the detained workers in Astana have also been released, although workers from several companies in the area were still on strike with their own demands for the government, an RFE/RL correspondent in the region said.

Residents protest in Zhetybai, Karakya district, Mangystau region, on March 31.
Residents protest in Zhetybai, Karakya district, Mangystau region, on March 31.

In March, just before the Zhanaozen protests, unemployed residents of a village in the same province of Mangystau protested for six days in a bid to secure jobs at local oil fields.

The demonstrators in the village of Zhetybai, some of whom went on hunger strike, eventually dispersed, satisfied that talks with local authorities had yielded progress.

Critics argue that the perennial standoffs over jobs in Kazakhstan's oil industry have been made more explosive by government restrictions on trade unions, which were already stifling and grew ever tighter after the bloodshed in Zhanaozen in 2011.

This has contributed to a situation where workers are left "face to face with their problems," political analyst Dosym Satpaev said in an Instagram post on April 11, leaving them no choice but to protest.

The government's belief that it is in control in such a situation is "self-deception, because sooner or later everything ends with the effect of accumulated social steam, which, finding no way out, blows off the lid," Satpaev argued.

Written by Chris Rickleton based on reporting from Nurgul Tapaeva and Saniya Toiken from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    Nurgul Tapaeva

    Nurgul Tapaeva is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. 

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    Saniya Toiken

    Saniya Toiken is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

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