On 16 December, worker activists across the former Soviet Union and western Europe will mark the second anniversary of the police massacre of oil workers at Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan, with protests. The massacre put an end to a seven-month strike movement demanding better pay and conditions and the right to organise independent unions. (Details about a protest in London here.)
The Kazakh government admits that 16 were killed and 60 injured in the
Zhanaozen massacre. But activists in Kazakhstan believe the numbers were much higher.
In this interview, TATIANA M., an activist in an independent trade union in another part of Kazakhstan, talks about Roza Tuletaeva, the woman oil worker activist serving one of the longest sentences, and how solidarity can be rebuilt.
GL. Is it correct to say that the issue of forming independent union organisations was central to the oil workers’ movement?
TM. Yes, certainly. Quite a few independent unions sprang up in the oilfield during the strike. They weren’t pushed from the outside, they just took shape among the oil workers. “Negotiators” appeared: people from the independent union organisations, informal leaders, who commanded respect among the workers. They were able to negotiate with the employers on workers’ behalf. And they used that practice to great effect. The oil workers had begun to use this type of “negotiators” back in 2008, and they won some significant concessions – increases in pay and improvements in conditions.
GL. Roza Tuletaeva, the activist now serving a five-year jail sentence, was involved with this movement, wasn’t she?
TM. Yes, Roza was one of these “negotiators”, an informal leader. People trusted her; workers followed her lead; she had an influence on the whole process. Whatever anyone thought of her, they had to listen to what she said, because she had that influence. No doubt that’s why they put her on trial and put her in jail.
GL. Is it unusual to see a woman activist taking the lead in such a male-dominated industry?
TM. No, it’s not that unusual in western Kazakhstan. In other regions of Kazakhstan, the activists tend to be men: it’s less common to see women in leading positions. But in the western areas, where most people are from the Junior Zhuz [the Junior Horde, one of the three historic groups of clans among Kazakh people], it’s quite common to see women taking the lead. The people there are traditionally combative, freedom-loving, conscious of their rights … perhaps it’s fair to say that, by their nature, they are more active. And the role played by women in those communities is very significant.
The women in the oilfield took a very clear stand during the strike for their rights. When their husbands, sons and brothers were being beaten and arrested, the women went out to the meetings and demonstrations. They organised protest actions, especially where they considered that the men in the community had been illegally detained by the security forces.
GL. Were these women who themselves work in the oil industry, or the wives and partners of oil workers?
TM. Both. Certainly, workers’ wives and partners participated. But women who are themselves workers were also active. The oil companies are the only employers in that area. Whole families work in those companies. People find work where they can – and in western Kazakhstan, that means in the oil industry. The communities over there are very close-knit: when something happens, they feel they are all in it together and they fight for their rights together.
Now it’s difficult – difficult in the current circumstances for those close-knit communities to trust outsiders, to let outsiders in. They need to trust those outsiders. And then they will start to work together. And I think women can
do this most effectively. Women activists will be the ones who can rebuild the relationship between the oil workers and the rest of the movement, who can make contact with the people in Zhanaozen.
GL. Could you explain the difference between the independent unions and the “yellow” (pro-government) unions?
TM. There are three trade union federations in Kazakhstan. The Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan is the old [Soviet] trade union centre. It has continued in independent Kazakhstan, without changing its function in industrial relations the slightest bit. Then there is our Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, which has started to organise again following the protest movement of recent years. And there is the Confederation of Labour [another independent union grouping], and some other smaller independent union groups. The independent unions have faced constant attacks from the Federation of Trade Unions.
In western Kazakhstan, in the oil field, there are more than 30,000 members of unions affiliated to the Federation in 90 different enterprises. In recent years, independent unions, standing on their own two feet, had emerged there too. But under the workplace agreements [with the oil companies], only those unions affiliated to the Federation are recognised.
When the oil workers’ protest movement began [in 2011], people began to take unlawful strike action. … Under the law, you understand, to organise any type of protest or action in Kazakhstan, you have to get permission. With that permission, a strike or action is legal. If we don’t get permission, the action is considered unlawful. So it’s very difficult to organise anything.
When the oil workers started moving, they did so unlawfully. The Federation did not take any part. The leader of the Federation, [Siyazbek] Mukashev, gave the oil workers no support. He denounced them, cursed them, called them all the names under the sun. He said that they had no right to go on strike that they would have to answer for their own actions. In short, he stood on the side of the government. He made no effort even to organise negotiations or get the sides in the dispute talking to each other. He simply took the side of the employers. That was it.
After the [massacre of demonstrators at Zhanaozen on] 16th December , the Federation’s leaders had not a word of criticism for the government or the security forces. They simply condemned the workers. The part the Federation played was just horrible. It can’t be called a trade union, siding with the state in this way.
GL. What about the new trade union law that has been drafted?
TM. The draft law envisages having just one trade union federation in Kazakhstan. Having a large number of different unions as we do now makes things difficult for the government. To protect itself, the government wants to have one unitary structure, part of the vertical power system, a structure subordinate to the state. As far as they are concerned, there shouldn’t be any other unions.
GL. Could I ask you again about the events on 16 December 2011? How did the workers’ movement as a whole react?
TM. People were terrified. There was horror – horror, that the security forces had just opened fire on people. Of course we didn’t know exactly what had happened. [Kazakhstan is about the size of western Europe and many of the larger towns are thousands of kilometres from the oil field.] Straight away all contact was cut: mobile phones stopped working in Zhanaozen, and the internet; they didn’t allow journalists in; there were no broadcasts from over there. Almost all the news was reaching us via the state TV channels. So we didn’t know exactly what was going on. We didn’t know how many people had been killed or wounded.
GL. And now, two years later?
TM. We know that security forces, particular regiments, were sent over there from every region, to put down the strike. But we still don’t know what happened in the town itself.
GL. And what about the number of victims? Is the picture any clearer?
TM. All we have for sure is what the government has said. Many people believe there were a much greater number of victims, that many died.
GL. My impression, looking from the outside, is that much of the limited press freedom that existed until last year has been taken away in the year since the massacre.
TM. That’s right. There is no free press to speak of now. There’s Respublika [The Republic], an independent newspaper, which tries to keep going … but everywhere they are closing newspapers. It’s very very difficult for people to keep themselves informed about what’s going on.
There’s a direct connection between what’s happened with the press and what happened at Zhanaozen. For seven months those workers were on strike. No-one in government was prepared to conduct any dialogue with them. No-one from the government went down there, none of them were interested in trying to resolve the situation. And at the same time, the opposition press was writing about what was going on, what the strikers’ demands were, reminding people about the conflict there. And of course the state wanted to find someone to blame [and the opposition press were a good target]. So after the crackdown on the workers there was a crackdown on the politicians who had supported them, and on the press.
GL. On 10 December, which is Roza Tuletaeva’s birthday, and also International Human Rights Day, independent unions will be launching a campaign to demand her release, and the release of the other jailed Zhanaozen activists. And on 16 December our international day of protest will draw attention to these cases. Hopefully that will help activists in Kazakhstan.