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Situation Remains Tense In Western Kazakhstan After Deadly Clashes

Kazakh police arrest people protesting in the country's main city, Almaty, over the events in Zhanaozen on December 17.
Kazakh police arrest people protesting in the country's main city, Almaty, over the events in Zhanaozen on December 17.

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Video Emergency Imposed In Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's president has issued a decree enforcing a state of emergency and a curfew in Zhanaozen, a western Kazakh town where at least 11 people were shot dead amid a protest by striking oil workers on December 16.
Hundreds of people have gathered in the capital of Kazakhstan's western province of Manghystau to support sacked and striking oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen, where at least 13 people have been killed and another 86 wounded in clashes between workers and police.

RFE/RL's correspondent reported from the city, Aqtau, that police with rubber truncheons, shields, and guns were monitoring the people gathered on the central square (see video here).

Meanwhile, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office announced on December 18 that "hooligans" clashed the previous day with police at the Shetpe railway station in the Manghystau region.

According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, one 25-year-old man was killed and about a dozen people were wounded in that clash.

A local man, who gave his name only as Bauyrzhan, told RFE/RL by phone on December 17 that dozens of local people blocked the Mangyshlaq-Aqtobe railway at the Shetpe station, protesting the shooting of demonstrators in Zhanaozen. At around 6 p.m. local time on December 17, security forces arrived at the Shetpe station to disperse the protesters, and at around 8 p.m. the clashes took place.

"The protesters blocking the railway refused to leave the area and the clashes started. I am now in the hospital. One 25-year-old young man was shot in the head and died. Eight men were wounded and the number of the wounded is increasing," Bauyrzhan said.

Follow the story in Kazakh and Russian from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

The deputy chief of the Manghystau regional clinic in Aqtau, Nurlan Muqanov, told RFE/RL on December 18 that in total, 38 patients with gunshot wounds had been brought to his hospital since the clashes with police erupted on December 16.

One of those hospitalized died from his wounds, but Muqanov declined to give more details of that case. According to Muqanov, three of those hospitalized are from Shetpe station, others are from Zhanaozen.

A spokesman for the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, Nurdaulet Suindikov, said on December 19 that the casualty toll from the clashes between police and striking workers was 13 dead and 86 injured.

Zhanaozen Cut Off

Journalists who arrived in the regional capital, Aqtau, on December 18 were not allowed to travel to Zhanaozen, where additional security troops and armored vehicles were sent on December 16-17.

Protesters kick a fallen holiday tree in Zhanaozen on December 16.Protesters kick a fallen holiday tree in Zhanaozen on December 16.
Protesters kick a fallen holiday tree in Zhanaozen on December 16.
Protesters kick a fallen holiday tree in Zhanaozen on December 16.
Telephone connections with Zhanaozen, including by mobile phone, have been cut off since December 16.

RFE/RL's correspondent reported from Shetpe that a group of domestic and international journalists was stopped by security forces and riot-police units upon their arrival at the railway station. He said that a Kazakh blogger, Murat Tungyshbaev, was beaten up by security forces without any explanation.

Kazis Toguzbaev said Tungyshbaev was knocked down, and the riot police "put a pistol to his temple, to his head. But other journalists interfered and it's possible to say that they have freed him."

Telephone connection with Shetpe has been disrupted since Toguzbaev's report and it wasn't possible to get more information regarding the current situation there.

Kazakhstan's Prosecutor-General's Office has announced that the situation is under control in Shetpe.

State Of Emergency

On December 17, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev issued a decree imposing a state of emergency and a curfew in Zhanaozen. In a statement, Nazarbaev accused "hooligans" of organizing mass disorder and said police had to open fire "to protect themselves and local citizens and preserve order."

The clashes in Zhanaozen on December 16 started after the town authorities began celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence on the central square, where oil workers have been protesting since May to demand a salary raise, equal rights with foreign workers, and the right of independent labor unions to organize in the region.

The angry protesters set fire to a concert stage and the New Year's tree on Zhanaozen's central square. Also, buildings of the town administration, a hotel, and the offices of the OzenMunaiGaz oil company were burned down.

Nazarbaev's decree imposes the security measures from December 17 to January 5. The presidential decree was accompanied by an official announcement that the situation in Zhanaozen was fully under control.

Labor Relations

Kazakh opposition leaders and activists have demanded an independent investigation into the situation. Opposition leader and former Senator Zauresh Battalova told journalists on December 17 that the Kazakh authorities were responsible for the incidents.

The striking oil workers have been camped out in Zhanaozen's main square since May.The striking oil workers have been camped out in Zhanaozen's main square since May.
The striking oil workers have been camped out in Zhanaozen's main square since May.
The striking oil workers have been camped out in Zhanaozen's main square since May.
"Instead of taking care of human rights, [instead of] addressing the people's problems in a legal way, [the authorities] used force, sent in troops, which shows that our authorities are not capable of working in a legal way," Battalova said.

"It shows that our authorities fully ignore the principle of the rule of law and operate using force only. This kind of authority cannot run a country that proclaims itself a secular country based on law."

State-run media outlets in Kazakhstan, meanwhile,  carried an open letter of Kazakh metal workers and miners to the oil workers in the Manghystau region today, urging them "not to turn into a tool in the hands of destructive forces."

The letter was signed by workers of the ArselorMittal Temirtau plant in central Kazakhstan.

Oil Workers Nervous

Also on December 18, oil workers in the town of Zhetibai in Manghystau province reportedly refused to go to work.

One of the local oil workers in Zhetibai, who gave his name only as Esbol, told RFE/RL by phone that hundreds of oil workers and local citizens gathered on the town's central square to demand investigations into the shootings in Zhanaozen.

"Not far from the square, near a local school, there is a bus with military personnel. They are just watching us," Esbol said. He added that the workers did not go to work on December 17 either.

On December 17, officials from Kazakhstan's state oil company, KazMunaiGaz, told journalists that some of its workers in Manghystau did not show up for work but said it did not affect the daily output of crude oil in the region.

KazMunaiGaz officials were not available for immediate comment regarding the strike in Zhetibai.

Written by Merhat Sharipzhan, with reporting from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and agencies
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Comment Sorting
by: Marisa from: Boston
December 18, 2011 11:26
The people of Kazakhstan should know that the outside world considers Nazarbayev a dictator worse than Putin. Yes, Putin is bad, but Nazarbayev is more like Assad who thinks he can hold the presidency for life and then pass it on to his children. I was in KZ and this is what I learned from the many people I met there. Everywhere you go in KZ, there is Nazarbayev's picture as if he is some kind of God.

by: William Courtney from: Washington DC
December 18, 2011 12:16
Unfortunately, the response of Kazakhstani authorities to unrest in the western oblast of Manghystau emphasizes force, not reconciliation. This strategy poses great risks to Kazakhstan's current leadership.

On December 16 in Zhanaozen, security forces killed at least eleven unarmed protesters and some eighty more were apparently wounded. Most were probably oil workers, who had been on strike for six months. As more information about the tragedy seeps out in the weeks and months ahead, estimates of the number of killed and wounded will likely rise. In response to the December 16 disturbances, the authorities closed access and communication to and from the city. President Nazarbayev claimed that the mayor's office, a hotel, and the office of a state oil company we're burned down. Taken together, these actions suggest that the security forces were overwhelmed and used lethal force indiscriminately and on a large scale.

The authorities blame the disturbances on "criminals" and "hooligans," but give no hint that security forces acted inappropriately. Nazarbayev offered condolences to the victims' families, but no apologies. As he himself has pointed out, "Every dead or wounded person has relatives and close ones." Most of the dead and wounded are likely to be ethnic Kazakhs. They tend have large families, embedded in wider clans in western Kazakhstan.

The authorities' haughtiness and lack of contrition will not be forgotten, or forgiven, in western Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has probably lost the support of Kazakhs in the region. His problems there will likely multiply.

Signs of this are already emerging. The government reports that on December 17 in another town in Mangyhstau region, Shetpe, security forces killed another "hooligan" and wounded a dozen more. Today in the regional capital, Aqtau, hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.

Unless the authorities show greater sensitivity, and quickly, oil rich western Kazakhstan will smolder and yield to further, unpredictable eruptions. Coming on top of extreme accumulation of wealth at senior levels of the Kazakhstani government, the diversion of enormous resources to the construction of a gaudy capital in Astana, and steadily increasing deprivations of individual freedoms in Kazakhstan, the unfolding tragedy in western Kazakhstan could become a tipping point.

by: Paris from: Prague
December 18, 2011 19:38
This is amazing how the authorities are making things even worse

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