Neglected Kazakh oil region reflects on mutiny

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 16, 2012 12:39 PM
Neglected Kazakh oil region reflects on mutiny

By Dmitry Solovyov

AKTAU, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Alexander Pyastlov spends most of his time among heaps of paper in his cramped, Soviet-built apartment. The retired engineer is proud of his one-man mission: to defend the oil workers fired in the prelude to Kazakhstan's deadliest unrest in decades.

The 72-year-old Aktau resident spent his working life in a uranium-processing plant. He never trained as a lawyer, but complains no legal professional is willing to take on the cases of the forgotten oilmen of this western Kazakh province.

Forgotten, that is, until a protest simmering for seven months in the nearby town of Zhanaozen erupted into clashes with riot police that killed at least 16 people exactly a month ago.

Police used live rounds on crowds that set local government and oil company headquarters ablaze, sabotaging a concert that was supposed to celebrate 20 years of independence. Residents told of relatives being beaten and grabbed from the streets.

For a fleeting moment, outside observers began to draw parallels with Arab spring revolutions.

Was Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of Kazakhstan since before independence in 1991, revered in fairy tales and with his very own public holiday, about to become the next authoritarian leader toppled by a popular insurrection?

In Mangistau, residents pin blame on the police, the oil companies, local and national government, the ruling party in the distant, glitzy capital and their unequal distribution of oil wealth. No-one seems ready to blame the president.

"If oil company bosses had respected his orders, this would never have occurred," said Pyastlov. "Kazakhstan is a good country. If something doesn't work properly, it's often because the president's orders are not implemented."

Nazarbayev is genuinely popular among most of Kazakhstan's 16.7 million people, even though public shows of affection are orchestrated. When a few hundred oil workers protested in Aktau last month, several thousand metal workers held pro-Nazarbayev rallies elsewhere.

A local human rights worker in Aktau, Alexander Mukha, said the protests in Mangistau region were "purely a labor dispute."

"Most of the population didn't support the oilmen," he said. "Nazarbayev's authority is indisputable here."

Nazarbayev said after a weekend parliamentary election nearly 70 percent of voters in Zhanaozen had cast their ballots for Nur Otan.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said on Monday, however, the elections limited the number of genuine opposition parties and restricted candidate eligibility. Media, it said, were shackled by self-censorship. No Kazakh election has ever been declared free and fair by the OSCE.

However deep his popularity runs, 71-year-old Nazarbayev, who has no obvious successor, is not greatly tolerant of personal criticism.

SHATTERED TRUST

Disdain for authority runs deep among the rebellious citizens of Mangistau, a low-lying semi-arid region that washes the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea.

In June 1989, when the Soviet Union still existed, fighting in Zhanaozen pitted ethnic Kazakhs against settlers from the Caucasus region across the sea. At least five died before the Kremlin sent elite troops to stop the killing.

This time around, Nazarbayev, a Soviet-era Communist Party boss, sent his own troops in to restore calm to the mutinous town of 90,000 people about 150 km (95 miles) inland from Aktau.

A state of emergency remains in place. Weekend voters cast their ballots in a school next to a burnt-out electronics store. On the streets, black-clad police carried Kalashnikov rifles and cars snaked through the slush between concrete roadblocks.

It took Nazarbayev nearly a week to arrive in Zhanaozen after the violence. He summarily fired officials, including his son-in-law and the heads of two state-run oil companies, and ordered that work be found for nearly 2,000 redundant oilmen.

Alik Aidarbayev, the new chief executive of oil company KazMunaiGas Exploration Production, said more than 1,700 workers had already been offered jobs at two new affiliated firms created especially for them in Aktau and Zhanaozen.

It will be extremely difficult, however, to restore shattered trust among the Zhanaozen workers whose red-and-blue overalls became symbolic of the protests.

Injustice burns within many who lost loved ones, or whose pleas for work found little support beyond the town's fortified boundaries. On polling day, most people were afraid to speak to reporters whose movements were controlled by officials.

"They threw a humiliating job at me. I still don't know what my wages will be," said one who did, a former employee of Uzenmunaigas, the local unit of KazMunaiGas EP in Zhanaozen.

Too scared of repercussions to identify himself by name, the man in his 20s said he had been detained and beaten by police on the day of the riot. His two friends nodded, declining to speak.

"People are afraid to go out on the streets after 7 o' clock in the evening," he said. "Our problems have not been resolved."

Foreign journalists were obliged by the authorities to leave Zhanaozen after voting had finished.

'WE TREASURE WHAT WE HAVE'

The tough methods of a leader known to many as "Papa" find favour with many across a mainly Muslim country four times the size of Texas. Stability and peace between more than 130 ethnic groups settled on Kazakh soil is the mantra of his popularity.

Especially when your frame of reference is Central Asia, a region where the authoritarian rule of many nearby states is harsher. Neither do Kazakhs envy the exception, Kyrgyzstan, and its recent history of revolution and ethnic bloodshed.

"In Kazakhstan, life is better and wages are higher than in its neighbors," said Matlyuba Kapparova, a 28-year-old teacher and a postgraduate student who moved to Aktau from Uzbekistan.

"We aren't rich yet, but thanks a lot for what we have already. Please don't rock our boat."

Aigul, 48, moved to wealthier Aktau from the southern city of Shymkent. Despite her hopes of a more prosperous life, she ekes out a living by selling Chinese-made socks at a market.

Poor as she is, she is proud of Kazakhstan's fast economic growth. Per capita GDP rivals that of Turkey or Mexico and is more than 10 times higher than across the border in Kyrgyzstan.

"We live better than the others in the region," she said. "As for ordinary people, not much changes really: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

"The main thing is that Nazarbayev has a strong team. Those who went on strike protested against their bosses, not him."

WEAK OPPOSITION

Western monitors say voters were offered little choice in the weekend election, with genuine opposition excluded from an election that broke the one-party monopoly of Nur Otan.

"And what about the opposition?" said Mukha, the head of the Mangistau branch of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. "I can neither see nor hear it. The population is very conservative here."

He criticized opposition leaders, most of whom are based nearly 3,000 km (1,875 miles) away in the commercial capital Almaty, for only paying attention to the region when the strike by oil workers began.

"In a civil society, opposition parties work all the time. In Kazakhstan, they only become active before elections."

Back in his squalid apartment block, where the courtyards reek of garbage, Pyastlov switches on his computer and prepares more complaints to send to the local courts. He says he has managed a handful of victories in proving sackings were illegal.

"This was purely a labor dispute, not even a strike, because the workers acted spontaneously," he said. "They weren't organized and they didn't even have a proper strike committee. Despair pushes them to come to me to seek justice."

Won't the opposition help?

"I wouldn't advise workers to listen to the opposition, which tries to use any fault for its selfish goals. There's no real opposition in Kazakhstan; just one, unending squeal."

(Writing by Robin Paxton)