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Qishloq Ovozi

It didn't matter to residents what the "doctors" were saying.

School was in session on November 28 in the northwestern Kazakh village of Berezovka when "almost simultaneously" 19 children between the ages of 10 and 15 and three teachers "lost consciousness." Ambulances came. The medics knew the symptoms. They had been picking up people the day before for the same reason.

Officials initially treated the incident as a mystery, and later offered questionable reasons for what they admitted seemed to be some sort of poisoning.

The approximately 1,400 residents of Berezovka had no doubt about the cause. They had been complaining for years about the nearby oil field.

By the evening of November 28, there were 31 people being treated for the "mystery" illness. On December 4, ambulances were called to take away six more schoolchildren for medical treatment; one of those children was going for the second time in a week.

Officials initially said three causes were possible: food poisoning; a leak in one of the still-ubiquitous gas canisters in use across the former Soviet Union; or it could have something to do with processing facilities at the Karachaganak oil and gas field several kilometers away.

On November 29, the provincial administration's press service said "doctors," whose names weren't given, reported four children were still under observation; one had anemia and another epilepsy.

It didn't matter to residents what the "doctors" were saying. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported that people in Berezovka collected signatures demanding resettlement. They handed over the petition to officials on December 9. This is the fourth time residents have petitioned authorities for resettlement.

On December 4, the same day the last group of six ill children was picked up at school by ambulances, the prosecutor for West Kazakhstan Province, Serik Karamanov, said, "It has been established that at 14:19 on November 27 at the gas-processing complex of KPO B.V. [Karachaganak Petroleum Operating], there occurred a discharge of condensate for a period of two minutes," some 8.5 kilometers from Berezovka.

The prosecutor's office sent a request to the proper authorities to obtain information about the level of illness and mortality of residents of the Berezovka area in the past 10 years.

Such information is not difficult to find. A local organization called Zhasil Dala (Green Steppe) has been collecting this sort of information for years. Zhasil Dala has also led several campaigns demanding the government resettle Berezovka residents.

There is also the Washington-based NGO Crude Accountability (CA), which has been following the situation in Berezovka for more than a decade. CA filed a complaint on behalf of Berezovka residents in 2004, claiming the Karachaganak field was affecting the health of the villagers.

In August 2013, CA posted a 38-minute video titled "Five Kilometers Of Indifference":

"Five kilometers" refers to the "safe" distance that inhabited areas need to be from oil and gas fields. The film looked at life in Berezovka; the kind of toxins released into the air, ground, and water; local efforts to convince officials to help; and the relationship the people of Berezovka have with officials from the government and the consortium running Karachaganak.

The CA film notes that the NGO prepared independent reports about the health hazards in Berezovka and handed them over to the Kazakh government and KPO. According to CA, the reports were eventually rejected because the methodologies used for the research were not accredited in Kazakhstan.

The government and KPO funded their own report, which cleared Berezovka of having any adverse effects due to the Karachaganak field. In 2012, KPO installed towers to monitor air quality and provide early warning to Berezovka residents in case of an accident at the field.

Provincial prosecutor Karamanov said one of the two stations for environmental monitoring for Berezovka was turned off for repairs when the November 27 toxic discharge occurred.

The Karachaganak field is important for Kazakhstan, especially in light of the most recent delay at the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan's sector of the Caspian Sea.

Karachaganak is a major field. It contains more than 1.2 billion tons of oil condensate and more than 1.3 trillion cubic meters of gas. The gas in particular is a potential health hazard, as it contains far-higher-than-normal amounts of hydrogen sulfide, which acts as a nerve agent and can cause respiratory failure.

The partners in the consortium are BG Group and Italy's Eni, each with a 29.25 percent stake; U.S. company Chevron with an 18 percent stake; Russia's LUKoil with a 13 percent stake; and Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz (KMG) with a 10 percent stake. They have a contract for the field that runs through 2038.

KMG picked up its shares in Karachaganak fairly recently, acquiring its stake in late 2011 after what some regarded as strong-arm tactics. Kazakhstan had no presence in the lucrative project, admittedly due to unfavorable contracts Kazakh officials signed at the end of the 1990s. KMG gained its shares after Kazakh authorities launched investigations into KPO's finances and environmental practices that could have seen the consortium pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.

The environmental fines stemmed from several years of complaints over practices for sulfur storage and disposal. The people of Berezovka say the sulfourous smell of rotten eggs is near constant in the village.

The cases against KPO were dropped and instead, KMG -- and by extension the Kazakh government -- received the shares they wanted in Karachaganak.

In the film "Five Miles Of Indifference," Svetlana Anosova, a resident of Berezovka, a member of Zhasil Dala, and someone familiar with the village's health problems, says, "We drink contaminated water, breathe contaminated air, and eat contaminated food."

-- Bruce Pannier, based partially on material from Azattyq correspondent Sanat Urnaliev and with help from Azattyq director Torokul Doorov (@Torokul)

Follow Azattyq in Kazakh: @AzattyqRadiosy or in Russian: @Radio_azattyq
A Chinese worker of the Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the Kazakh stretch of the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-China pipeline. (file photo)

With the announcement of its new $16.3 billion Silk Road plan, China has again demonstrated it has the greatest economic influence in Central Asia at the moment. This trend is likely to continue for some years since Russia’s economic situation puts Moscow in a position where it cannot hope to spend freely in Central Asia any time soon.

But Chinese economic influence in Central Asia should not be confused with political or military dominance. Beijing profits most from the relationship it already has with Central Asia.

I wrote something about China and Central Asia earlier and I made the point in that article that China’s main interest in Central Asia is energy resources. China is seeking energy resources all around the world to help drive its economic growth.

Until recently, some 80 percent of China’s oil and gas imports came by tanker through the Malacca Straits. Beijing worries that if tensions broke out, an unfriendly power could block the straits. Central Asia is a neighbor, so it is not that strange that China is funding the development of Central Asian oil and gas fields and the construction of oil and gas pipelines to bring these fuels to China.

The deals China has with the Central Asian countries are similar to the deals China has with neighboring Burma, where Chinese companies have been developing oil and gas fields. There is a gas pipeline to China operating already and a parallel oil pipeline should start work in the coming months.

China signed the deals with the military government, but Burma’s political future is now unclear. And Burma is not the only neighbor causing concerns for Beijing.

China’s neighbors also include unpredictable North Korea, Laos, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Other neighbors Vietnam, Russia, and India are all countries with which China has been involved in military conflicts since 1960. Nepal and Bhutan are under suspicion because of their Buddhist ties to Tibet.

That leaves only Mongolia and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, specifically) as neighbors China can consider friendly. Admittedly, much of that friendship is based on Chinese investment.

China has never interfered in Central Asia’s internal politics, never voiced an opinion on inter-regional disputes like borders or water rights, and never, publicly, had anything but praise for Central Asian leaders. It is in China’s interest that the situation remains as it is now.

Security is another area where some believe China will be exerting its influence in Central Asia in the future.

This thought seems based on China’s problems with the Muslim Uyghurs who live in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the fear of an expansion of jihadism.

Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule goes back more than 1,000 years and has surfaced every time China was able to claim the region. The Uyghur movement is essentially a nationalist movement. Uyghurs are fighting for their homeland and the preservation of their culture, not for religion, although Islam is part of their culture.

Uyghurs have made news this year for carrying out several attacks in XUAR, mainly on Han Chinese. Such attacks and unrest have been happening in XUAR for decades already, though not so frequently as in 2014. Uyghurs have been reported among militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Afghanistan and that led to speculation the Uyghurs are training for jihad in XUAR. But many of the attacks this year were committed by people with knives and axes.

However, it is not surprising that some Uyghurs are seeking help from jihadist groups. Who else would help a Muslim group in China?

If the security situation across the border in Central Asia were to deteriorate drastically due to Islamic extremists, might not China feel compelled to intervene?

Some speculate Beijing would use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, as the vehicle for sending in military forces.

If China did so, it would require reorienting its current military posturing, which is facing east where the threat of the United States and its allies Japan, South Korea, and Beijing’s goal of Taiwan are located.

More importantly, the first Chinese soldier who steps foot on Central Asian soil to engage in hostilities changes China’s conflict with the Uyghurs into a battle easily portrayed as being with the Islamic world.

China would become embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war. Historically, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought well outside Chinese borders, taking huge losses in Korea and Vietnam. Even during the brief hostilities with the Soviet Union on the Ussuri River, Chinese losses were several times higher than those of Soviet troops.

The PLA has no experience fighting in a guerrilla war and is, in fact, designed for large-scale, open warfare.

And China would also have to consider its projects and investments all around the world, any one of which could suddenly be targeted by Islamic terrorists.

So while China might quietly try to manipulate events in Central Asia, there is nothing to be gained from openly becoming involved in Central Asia’s politics or its problems. But there is a lot to lose.

-- Bruce Pannier

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.