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Qishloq Ovozi

UzGazOil gas stations are now Uzbekneftegaz gas stations.

A group of workers in Uzbekistan has faced its state-owned employer and made demands.

That is something unheard of in Uzbekistan for many years. It would practically have been treason when Islam Karimov was president of Uzbekistan.

But Karimov died in September, and new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev has been talking a lot about the responsibility of authorities to the people.

Seems someone believed him.

That someone is a group of employees at UzGazOil gas stations. Actually, they are now employees of Uzbekneftegaz gas stations, since in February the company rebranded. (Or, more appropriately, translated the company’s name into Uzbek. Uzbekneftegaz, in Uzbek, means "Uzbek oil and gas.")

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, spoke to some of the workers who were at this unusual meeting with company officials on April 20 in Tashkent.

Rebranding was at the heart of the matter, since many gas-station employees were reportedly under the impression the new name would mean the company’s management would be changed and they would finally be paid on time.

Nothing of the sort.

One of the complaints made at the meeting with Uzbekneftegaz officials was that wages -- at least full wages -- had not been paid since the company changed its name.

"I haven’t received my salary for two months already," one employee told Ozodlik. "I went to the accountant, but instead of giving me my salary, which should have been 1 million soms" -- or about $125 -- "they gave me only 300,000 soms."

This source said he soon discovered he was not the only employee with this problem, and others from Uzbekneftegaz confirmed to Ozodlik that they have had similar problems.

So he went to the April 20 meeting, along with many other Uzbekneftegaz employees.

"The hall was filled with people," he said. "[At the meeting] there were those who had not received their salaries and those who were dismissed and not paid any severance."

Another complaint by Uzbekneftegaz employees was that some of their co-workers had reportedly been dismissed without grounds since the company rebranded.

According to this Uzbekneftegaz employee, the company’s director, Batyr Turaev, attended, along with two other company officials. There are two videos, purportedly from the meeting.

One shows a man saying he has eight children and that he was unfairly fired. "Why didn't they give me severance pay?" he asks, adding. "How can I feed my children now?"

Workers in the hall shouted out their support:

In Rare Flare-Up, Uzbek Workers Lay Into Management (1)
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The other video shows a man believed to be Uzbekneftegaz chief Turaev trying to calm the workers:

In Rare Flare-Up, Uzbek Workers Lay Into Management (2)
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While workers at the meeting in Tashkent appeared able to voice their complaints to management, there was no indication that any of their demands would be met.

However, there has also been no word so far that any of the employees who complained at the meeting were punished or threatened in any way, as would almost surely have been the case when Karimov was Uzbekistan’s president.

Another Uzbekneftegaz employee who was at the meeting said that he, too, had earlier approached officials demanding his unpaid salary. This employee said officials at Uzbekneftegaz told him -- before the meeting, and in an implied threat -- that he would be put on a list compiled by the National Security Service (SNB).

He said that to head off other employees from demanding unpaid wages, management would call some employees and tell them, "People from the SNB were asking about you."

Again, so far, there is no indication the SNB has actually become involved in the Uzbekneftegaz labor dispute. Comments about the SNB from management seem to be playing on fears from earlier days that the powerful security agency could step in and quiet the situation.

After the Tashkent meeting, a rumor circulated that Turaev had been dismissed.

Ozodlik contacted Uzbekneftegaz and was told, "Batyr Turaev has not gone anywhere. He comes to work every day."

Turaev is an interesting figure.

Once, a company called Zeromax that was registered in Switzerland owned the gas stations of UzGazOil. For many years, Zeromax was virtually the only Western company to get contracts in Uzbekistan’s gas-and-oil sector, a situation some attributed to the company’s alleged links to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the late President Karimov, who was then spending a lot of time in Switzerland.

Zeromax’s fortunes started to wane and the company’s stake in UzGazOil gas stations was given over to the Uzbek government in 2010.

In 2012, a former employee of Zeromax was named director-general of UzGazOil.

That person was Batyr Turaev.

Returning to the Uzbekneftegaz gas-station employees and their grievances, some of the workers told Ozodlik that they had sent their complaints to the Uzbek government’s virtual-office website and were waiting for a response.

They also said that airing their problems so publicly was fully in accordance with Mirziyaev’s statements that, in this Year Of Dialogue With The People, which the country declared for 2017, officials were obliged to resolve the problems of the people.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Kazakh riot police in Almaty detain demonstrators during a protest against proposed land reforms, in May 2016.

It has been a year since protests broke out in Kazakhstan. The events of April and May 2016 were a shock to many inside and outside the country who had come to believe that such massive demonstrations of discontent were no longer possible there.

The first anniversary of the April 24 protest has just passed without much attention being paid to it.

What has happened in the year that has gone by since Kazakhstan saw the biggest protests in the country's 25-year history? Were the concerns of protesters allayed? Or was it something else? Or was it a combination of factors?

To look at what has happened in Kazakhstan since the spring 2016 protests, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to review the events that have occurred in Kazakhstan since April 2016.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Aigerim Toleukhanova, a journalist for the Conway Bulletin, took part in the discussion from Kazakhstan. The Majlis was joined from Washington, D.C. by Reid Standish, an associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine, who has written extensively on Central Asia. I was just back from vacation, rested and ready, so I also took part in the proceedings.

Popular Unrest

Popular unrest was sparked in April last year by the Kazakh government's plans for land reform, which included privatization and the possibility of foreigners being able to lease land. "Foreigners" were interpreted by some in Kazakhstan to mean Chinese.

According to Toleukhanova, "this anti-Chinese movement was sparked first on social media."

Some of the information posted on these sites was downright false, especially claims that Chinese would be able to buy Kazakh land. There was a provision to lease land to foreigners, but there was never any proviso allowing any foreigner to own any of Kazakhstan's land.

"A big part of the fear over this land issue [was the] idea that this land would be rented out to the Chinese government or to Chinese settlers and that Kazakhs were the ones who would lose," Standish said,

In western Kazakhstan, in cities such Atyrau and Aqtobe, where people had long felt neglected by the authorities, protests started on April 24, 2016, and continued for several days.

WATCH: Kazakhs Protest Land Privatizations

Kazakhs In Two Cities Protest Land Privatizations
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The Kazakh government then announced it was suspending plans to implement the land-reform package.

But that issue opened the gates to other grievances, as Standish pointed out.

"These protests were about land issues but they became this catch-all for a lot of other anxieties and frustrations that people have with the government of the country," he said.

WATCH: Kazakh Protests Spread

Kazakh Protests Spread As President Warns of Social Unrest
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In Toleukhanova's view, "People [were] disgusted [with] corruption and probably [the] dead political environment, fake elections, and all of these things that before they didn't pay attention to or didn't discuss, but with this land movement people became more open and more willing to discuss this."

Toleukhanova said the protests in western Kazakhstan were "a shock both for the authorities and the people."

Ineffective Media

As surprising as the protests were for the authorities, the inability of the government to use media to calm the situation was just as troubling.

"The government tried to use state media a lot to communicate with its own people," Standish said, adding that the ineffectiveness of this communication "was quite surprising for a lot of officials."

Standish explained that the government's message to people to "'go home, don't come out and protest, there are other ways to deal with this…' really didn't resonate at all with anyone."

A much larger protest was organized for May 21, mainly via social networks. Despite repeated warnings from officials not to participate, protesters took to the streets across Kazakhstan in what was arguably the biggest protest the country has ever seen.

WATCH: Kazakh Authorities Crack Down On Land Code Protests

Kazakh Security Forces Crack Down On Land Code Protests
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One year later, there are no signs that the events of spring 2016 could be repeated any time soon.

How did the situation go from critical to calm in the span of a year?

Toleukhanova said, that, after the May 2016 protest, "the government indeed did try to listen to people's voices. For example, they created a land commission. although most of the [commission members] were not from the opposition."

Standish agreed that the Kazakh government has shown "some movement, or at least [is] trying to create the appearance of movement so that people don't need to go out into the streets to express their frustrations."

Carrot And Stick

Kazakh authorities, however, have resorted not only to the carrot, but to the stick as well.

It was noted in the conversation that many of the bloggers or other people who posted messages and information about the protests were subsequently detained and some were incarcerated.

Toleukhanova explained: "After these protests, there was the creation of a new Ministry of Information and Communication, which is also, I think, a response of the government to the people, maybe to show that they're trying to communicate with [their] own people."

However, she added that this ministry is the one pushing "to change media law, [which] is becoming more restrictive to journalists."

Another big change between spring 2016 and spring 2017 is Kazakhstan's economic situation.

New Realities

The effects of the drop in oil prices on world markets hit Kazakhstan hard, as oil is one of the country's major exports. The government allowed the national currency, the tenge, to float toward the end of 2015 and by January 2016 it had lost half its value to the U.S. dollar.

Many people in Kazakhstan had taken out large loans based on the dollar rate during the previous decade, when the country's economy was thriving and often saw an annual growth in gross domestic product that was near or more than double-digits.

Protests by homeowners were already occurring in early 2016, much smaller than those in spring, but in hindsight, these were warnings of festering discontent among the population.

For the time being, it appears Kazakhstan's people have settled into the new realities of life. The economic situation has stabilized and the tenge has even strengthened a bit, largely due to slightly higher oil prices on world markets.

Land reform plans have been suspended and won't come into effect any time before Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's current term of office expires in 2020.

The immediate future does not look so gloomy anymore.

But, as Standish pointed out: "It's interesting to see that, even [after] 25 years of post-Soviet independence, this sort of push, a voice from the people, is not gone even in a country that's authoritarian like Kazakhstan.”

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Kazakhstan's Protests, One Year Later
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Direct link

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

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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.

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