The Kazakh government has unleashed ferocious repression against the uprising that exploded last week.
Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Dozens” died, according to media reports, but on 7 January president Kasym-Jomart Tokaev let slip that “hundreds” had been killed. Tokaev also said he gave the order to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests.
There are no accurate figures, because the government has cut off internet access for almost the whole country and imposed an information blockade.
The internal affairs ministry has said that more than 4400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them.
It’s difficult, in the midst of this nightmare, to try to analyse the wave of protest and its consequences. Anyway, here are four points, based on what I can see from a distance.
1. The uprising began as a working-class revolt against inequality and political repression.
The protests started in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, an oil-producing city with a long history of struggle for union organisation. They were sparked by a doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, used for home heating and transport, to 120 tenge (about £0.21) per litre from 60 tenge. (See note.)
But this economic demand was very rapidly joined to political demands.
On Tuesday 4 January, before the internet was blocked, the human rights activist Galym Ageleuov wrote on social media:
The Zhanaozen people’s demands, that could well be taken up in Aktau [the largest city in the Mangystau region] tomorrow, are:
1. Gas for 50 tenge.
2. The resignation of the government.
3. [Former president Nursultan] Nazarbayev to get out of political life.
4. The release of political prisoners (Erzhan Elshibayev and others).
5. The return of the stolen money. [Surely a reference to the Kazakh elite’s ill-gotten gains.]
In making these demands, working people in Zhanaozen no doubt had in mind their own recent history. In 2011, the city was the scene of the most significant workers’ struggle of the post-Soviet period – an eight-month strike by oil workers, that ended with a police massacre in which at least 16 died and 60 were wounded.
After that strike, the state used repression on the one hand, and substantial regional investment and pay rises in the state-owned oil companies on the other, to fashion a new social compromise. But the effect of the pandemic on the oil industry has effectively wrecked that arrangement.Read the rest of this entry »