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Zhanaozen: It's More Than Just A Word

  • Bruce Pannier

The fact that so many oil workers decided to hold a brief, two-hour strike on July 28, in defiance of rules against unsanctioned demonstrations and illegal strikes, is a disquieting development for the government.

The fact that so many oil workers decided to hold a brief, two-hour strike on July 28, in defiance of rules against unsanctioned demonstrations and illegal strikes, is a disquieting development for the government.

The name means more than just an oil town in western Kazakhstan. To people in Kazakhstan, especially government officials, Zhanaozen is synonymous with civil unrest, protest, and bloodshed.

Which is why the news that hundreds of oil workers went on strike on July 28 must surely be generating concern in the halls of government in Astana. The complaints of these workers are likely to resonate widely in Kazakhstan during these hard economic times in the country.

Zhanaozen was a little-known backwater until 2011, when oil workers went on strike demanding wage increases. The workers said they were paid less than foreign employees, mainly Chinese workers, who were performing the same tasks.

The protest lasted more than six months until on December 16, Kazakhstan's Independence Day, unrest erupted at celebrations in Zhanaozen and police fired on the crowd. At least 16 people were killed in what was at the time the most violent episode in Kazakhstan's brief history as an independent country.

In the aftermath, Kazakh authorities first worked to defuse the situation, rehiring fired workers, promising better pay and benefits, and chastising and often dismissing local officials, both from the government and the oil companies, for failing to appreciate the seriousness of the situation in western Kazakhstan.

The government then moved to weaken labor unions that had played a large role in the protest, and also tightened laws on holding unsanctioned demonstrations, rallies, and protests.

So the fact that so many oil workers decided to hold a brief, two-hour strike on July 28, in defiance of rules against unsanctioned demonstrations and illegal strikes, is a disquieting development. The workers from the Burgylau company, which engages in drilling operations, are objecting to plans to reduce working hours, effectively making them part-time employees with the accompanying decrease in salaries.

The protesters also complained about 66 of their fellow workers being laid off earlier this year and demanded the dismissal of Burgylau general director Askhat Sariev, whom employees accuse of orchestrating dismissals and the reduction in work hours.

And, the protesters said they have no confidence in the union representing them and demanded their choice to lead the union, Saduakas Bekkaliev, be appointed as its head.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported that Bekkaliev was not at the protest in Zhanaozen on July 28. Some of the protesters said he was being questioned by the police, although he appeared later as the protest was winding down. Bekkaliev said a written statement of the workers' demands had been presented to the Burgylau leadership and the local government administration.

The deputy mayor of Zhanaozen, Isakhan Sagimbaev, and officials from labor unions in the Mangistau region, where Zhanaozen is located, met with the protesters. Azattyq reported they had a heated discussion with the workers, the latter accusing the officials of failing to pay sufficient attention to their plight.

The workers then boarded buses and went to work.

Kazakhstan's economy is based on oil exports. The strike in 2011 cost the government a lot of money but the price of oil back then was high enough that the authorities were able to keep the country running without much noticeable effect.

The situation now is very different and as a result, Kazakhstan has already slashed many state programs, including funding for housing and education. A strike now like the one in 2011 would have a significant effect on the country's already ailing economic situation.

The government also cannot afford to sit and watch as the situation escalates. Already this year there have been unsanctioned protests against planned land reforms. And separately, violence has broken out twice, leaving more than 30 people dead.

That said, Kazakhstan's government has tried to avoid mass layoffs, which is why workers in Burgylau are being moved to part-time shifts rather than solving the problem by cutting back on the workforce. Akylbek Nurlybaev, a representative of the Zhanaozen protesters, told Azattyq that 66 Burgylau employees were fired in the first half of 2016, but Azattyq reported there are some 2,200 employees at Burgylau.

Similar processes have been under way in many sectors in Kazakhstan, with the government opting to move people from full-time to part-time employment to prevent mass dismissals that would likely lead to further unrest.

There is little more that Kazakh authorities can do as long as world oil prices remain low but the specter of events in Zhanaozen in 2011 has now risen again and Kazakh authorities will need to neutralize it quickly in a way that does not stoke popular unrest.

Worse may be yet to come. In a separate report on July 28, Azattyq noted that Deputy Energy Minister Aset Magauov said at a meeting in Astana that 36 of the country's 60 companies involved in oil production ended 2015 in the red. Magauov said work would be cut back at about half the drilling operations at the country's oil fields this year, meaning more layoffs or reductions in work hours can be expected.

Based on reporting by Azattyq

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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