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Qishloq Ovozi

Several transportation companies working for oil companies went on strike, including some 130 workers at Munayspetssnabkompani.

There have been several big labor strikes in Kazakhstan this summer and with the 10th anniversary of the tragic events in the city of Zhanaozen approaching, Kazakh authorities must be wondering about the potential for unrest.

Most of the strikes were in the oil-rich Mangystau Province in western Kazakhstan, but it was not only oil workers who stopped working.

Higher pay was the common demand, which included in some cases a “13th month” -- or extra month -- of wages; partial or full payment to sanatoriums for employees working in areas with toxic fumes; reimbursement for COVID-19 tests; and more milk.

But there are deeper problems that fuel these disputes, chief among them the presence of foreign workers and the perception among many Kazakh workers that these foreigners have better salaries, that local managers are compensated far better than workers, and that the workers' trade unions are constantly under pressure from Kazakh officials.

Another Strike In Zhanaozen

Some 600 employees of the KEZBI company -- which repairs and maintains oil wells -- went on strike in Zhanaozen on June 30.

It is often very hazardous work. In November 2013, 28 people from KEZBI were hospitalized after being poisoned at a work site. Two of them died.

KEZBI has been operating in Kazakhstan since 1992 and currently employs some 1,200 people, which means that half of the workforce was on strike on June 30.

December 16 marks the 10th anniversary of the day police opened fire on protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen. At least 16 people were killed.
December 16 marks the 10th anniversary of the day police opened fire on protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen. At least 16 people were killed.

Workers had warned KEZBI management on June 21 that they would stop working if their demands -- which included doubling their salaries, extra pay for working on holidays, and access to sanitoriums -- were not met.

A week later, the management partially met the workers’ demands, agreeing to raise salaries by 50 percent, give bonuses when work was completed, and providing stipends of 146,000 tenge (about $340) for employees to go to sanatoriums.

The sale of oil from Mangystau Province has helped fill state coffers, build the new Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), and enrich a small group of people. But little of the wealth was used to improve life in western Kazakhstan.

Mangystau is mainly made up of the Kyzyl-Kum Desert, which is scorching hot in the summer and bitterly cold in winter.

The province is also one of the most expensive places to live in Kazakhstan. Almost everything needed to survive, including water, needs to be brought to the towns, many of which were built exclusively for oil industry workers.

Related Firms United With Oil Workers

Wages for many are insufficient to meet the rising cost of basic goods, so it was predictable that labor strikes would break out somewhere.

But it was perhaps less predictable that workers from so many different companies would follow the lead of this summer’s early strikes.

Workers in Zhanaozen at the Oilfield equipment and service company and at Aqtau Oil Service Company announced they were on strike on July 21 and wanted higher pay and food to be made available at the work sites.

One week later, in the town of Karazhanbas, 174 workers at Industrial Service Resources, which assembles equipment and does repairs at oil wells, declared they were on strike until their wages were doubled, they received a 13th month of pay, and that no more pressure would be put on their trade union.

In the town of Karazhanbas, 174 workers at Industrial Service Resources, which assembles equipment and does repairs at oil wells, declared they were on strike in late July.
In the town of Karazhanbas, 174 workers at Industrial Service Resources, which assembles equipment and does repairs at oil wells, declared they were on strike in late July.

More than 30 of the 150 workers at Zhanaozen-based Batysgeofizservice, a company providing geophysical research for oil wells, announced they were on strike on July 19, demanding a 50 percent increase in pay and 30 vacation days per year.

Several transportation companies working for oil companies also went on strike, including some 130 workers at Munayspetssnabkompani, which transports goods for Ozenmunaygaz and Ozenmunayservis, who stopped working on July 15. They demanded that their pay be doubled, as their monthly salaries of some 110,000 tenge (about $258) were too low.

Some drivers said management had already threatened to fire them and find replacements if they did not return to work.

About 200 drivers at Kunan Holding went on strike on July 19, demanding their wages be doubled, despite management having agreed to give them a 20 percent raise on July 15.

Striking drivers at Kunan Holding on July 19.
Striking drivers at Kunan Holding on July 19.

Workers at KMG-Security also went on strike on July 13. The firm provides security at oil fields in Mangystau belonging to Ozenmunaygaz.

Workers said new employees receive 57,000 to 60,000 tenge (about $130 to $137) per month, and that even people with 20 years of experience were only being paid 80,000 tenge (about $187).

KMG-Security personnel demanded that their pay be increased to 150,000 tenge (about $351) monthly.

The security workers at Karazhanbas announced their support for the KMG-Security workers on July 16 and ceased working, saying their salaries were barely enough to make ends meet. They also wanted their monthly wages raised to 150,000 tenge ($351).

Food services also joined in the series of strikes.

In Zhanaozen, dozens of workers at Caspian Catering Service went on strike on July 27, followed by workers at KMG EP Catering three days later.

Female employees at the Caspian food catering service in Karazhanbas stopped working on August 4, demanding monthly wages be increased to 220,000 tenge (about $515).

Lenin's Milk

Workers at NBKS, a company that provides cleaning and janitorial services at Ozenmunaygaz facilities, went on strike on July 21, calling for their salaries to be doubled, extra pay for working on holidays, extra money to go to health sanitoriums, special benefits for mothers who were working there, hot meals to be included when they work, and for milk to be provided to them.

According to Kazakh law, at least half a liter of milk must be provided daily to workers in sectors where they are exposed to toxic chemicals, poisonous fumes, or radiation.

That practice dates back to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, who issued a decree in 1918 that employers must provide milk for workers at the Putilov machine and metallurgy plant (later renamed the Kirov plant) to prevent workers from going hungry. It was later expanded to include workers in hazardous industries, such as the oil sector.

Other Industries Join

There were also numerous strikes outside the oil industry and its support companies.

Forty-five ambulance drivers in Zhanaozen went on strike on July 15 demanding their wages be doubled.

Striking ambulance drivers in Zhanaozen.
Striking ambulance drivers in Zhanaozen.

Workers at Tazalyk-S in Zhanaozen announced they were on strike on July 19. The company is responsible for cleaning Zhanaozen’s streets and public areas.

Workers wanted their salaries doubled and regular provision of essential items for their work -- special equipment, gloves, soap, and more milk. The workers said they had been making these same demands since 2020.

Workers at Ozenenergoservis said on July 25 they refused to work unless their salaries were doubled. Ozenenergoservis provides power to Zhanaozen. The workers threatened to cut electricity to the whole town, except hospitals, maternity hospitals, and essential facilities in the town, if their demands were not met.

And the strikes were not only in Mangystau Province.

On July 12, workers from Almatymetrokurylys, the company building the Almaty subway, refused to go to work until their salaries -- which they said were between 50,000 to 90,000 tenge -- were doubled, they received a 13th month of pay, and they received their milk.

Bus drivers in Aqtobe went on strike on August 19, demanding the payment of wage arrears. The company made the payments on August 21 and the bus drivers returned to work.

Nearly all the strikes were eventually resolved, though not all.

At least three labor strikes were still ongoing as of early September, the longest a strike at the Zhetibay site in Mangystau Province by some 500 employees of West Oil Software, who stopped working on August 23.

As a recent report from The Diplomat noted, there were more labor strikes in Kazakhstan in the first six months of 2021 than there were combined for the period 2018-2020.

December 16 will mark the 10th anniversary of the day police opened fire on protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen. At least 16 people were killed.

Then, as now, Ozenmunaygaz was at the center of the labor problems.

Kazakhstan had never seen anything like it in all its years of independence. Perhaps Zhanaozen is why companies have been more receptive to the demands of workers, who usually don’t get all they want but do have some of their demands met.

An exchange of words during the KEZBI strike shows how tense the situation can get.

One of that company's striking workers recounted to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, that deputies from the provincial "maslikhat" or council, came to speak with the strikers on July 4. The deputies were from the Ak Zhol party and the ruling Nur-Otan party.

One of them, Maksat Makishev, addressed the workers by saying: “We are deputies who you elected.” To which the striking workers replied, “You were named to your posts; the people did not elect you.”

The partial success of this unprecedented number of strikes in Kazakhstan guarantees that more will be coming, while companies are claiming to striking workers that their finances are often beyond their control as they await the results of tenders or the approval of new state budgets.

It definitely looks like workers and management in the many companies that make up Mangystau’s oil industry are once again on a collision course.

Based on material from Azattyq correspondent Saniyash Toiken and Azattyq digital editor Mukhtar Senggirbay.
The presidents of the five countries of Central Asia: (from left to right) Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Japarov, Kazakhstan's Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, Uzbekistan's Shavkat Mirziyoev, Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon gather in Awaza, Turkmenistan, for a summit on August 6.

It was all smiles and handshakes at Turkmenistan’s Caspian resort area of Awaza on August 6 when leaders of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asian gathered for a summit. But it has taken some 30 years to reach that point.

As Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan mark their 30th anniversaries of independence, they almost certainly have better regional ties than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The meeting in Awaza was the third recent Central Asia summit. Although a proposed summit in 2020 was cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were similar meetings in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in 2018 and in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 2019.

Before that, it had been nearly 20 years since the presidents of all five countries gathered together in a forum of their own without the presence of other foreign leaders.

That fact hints at how turbulent their ties have been during the course of 30 years.

Unity should have been easy, or at least, easier than it has proven to be.

When the Belovezha Accords were signed on December 8, 1991 -- formally ending the existence of the Soviet Union and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- none of the signatories were leaders of Central Asian former Soviet republics.

Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev was invited but did not attend. Technically, Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic for eight days because there was no formal declaration of independence from Kazakhstan until December 16.

The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all met in Ashgabat -- then called Ashkhabad -- on December 13, 1991 and agreed to join the CIS. But in truth, they had little choice.

Central Asian leaders meeting in Ashgabat on December 13, 1991
Central Asian leaders meeting in Ashgabat on December 13, 1991

They were not heroes of a revolution. They had not been lobbying for independence. Most of them had, at best, sat on fence while the attempted Kremlin coup of August 1991 unfolded in Moscow and set the stage for the demise of the Soviet Union.

All five were Kremlin appointees. Making matters worse, the Kremlin-appointed leader of Tajikistan, Qahhor Makhamov, had been chased from office for supporting the coup.

Rahmon Nabiev, who attended the meeting in Ashgabat, was already Tajikistan's third president since independence.

And suddenly, instead of carrying out Kremlin orders as they had under the Soviet system, Central Asia's leaders had to govern their countries without any guidance from Moscow.

Pledges of cooperation made in Ashgabat in late 1991 quickly fell apart as the new realities of governing set in -- the need to bring in revenue as well as the necessity to import vital food and energy supplies.

Under the Soviet unified energy grid, Uzbekistan had supplied natural gas to Kyrgyzstan, to Tajikistan, and to southern Kazakhstan. But suddenly, Tashkent wanted money for its gas and none of those countries had the funds.

All were using the Russian ruble as their currency during the first years of independence. But hyperinflation was constantly driving down the value of the ruble.

That created a situation where money earned in rubles had to be spent immediately. That made it nearly impossible to meet budget goals.

When Kyrgyzstan became the first of the five to introduce its own national currency in May 1993, its Central Asian neighbors were angered and feared they would become dumping zones for Russian rubles.

Uzbekistan turned off the natural gas supply to Kyrgyzstan in retaliation, a tactic Tashkent would also use against Tajikistan. Officially, supply cuts were the result of unpaid bills.

But the timing of the cuts too often coincided with policy moves in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that Uzbekistan found objectionable.

All the Central Asian states experienced economic crises for most of the 1990s with shortages of basic goods, heating, and electricity.

That led to a competition among them to attract foreign investors. Every Central Asian state was anxious to sell whatever commodities it possessed in the hope of bringing in fresh revenue and turning their economies around.

WATCH: The Coup That Killed The U.S.S.R.

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Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992. For the first time, there were border problems.

Uzbekistan closed its border with Tajikistan -- a step no one had considered before. Not long after, Uzbekistan started setting up checkpoints at all its borders with its newly independent neighbors in Central Asia.

Each of those states did the same, in turn, thereby creating an added expense to already meager state budgets and slowing the transit of goods.

Economic Union

There also were attempts at cooperation in the early years of independence.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan agreed to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force that Russia established for Tajikistan. Their mission was to guard the Afghan border -- allowing Tajikistan’s government forces to focus on fighting their battlefield opponents.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan also formed an economic union in 1994. The presidents of the three countries -- Nazarbaev, Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov -- met often in the early years of independence to sign “eternal” friendship treaties and map out a future all could share.

However, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov chose a different course. Not long after independence, his country became increasingly separate from the rest of Central Asia. Niyazov did not show any interest in joining any Central Asian organizations.

After 1995, when the United Nations recognized Turkmenistan as a neutral state, Niyazov withdrew cooperation with the other Central Asian countries almost entirely.

Tajikistan’s civil war was viewed as a possible contagion for the rest of the region.

When Emomali Rahmon emerged as Tajikistan's leader in November 1992, he was long viewed as governing a country in chaos -- even after the civil war ended in 1997.

Tajikistan was excluded from most attempts to bolster Central Asian unity.

It was only in March 1998 that Tajikistan gained admission to the Central Asian Customs Union -- a group comprised entirely of Central Asian states.

But not long after the United States and its allies announced their war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan, such purely Central Asian organizations were displaced by larger multilateral groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Terror Threat

The first post-Soviet act of terrorism in Central Asia was on February 16, 1999, when a series of bombings was carried out in Tashkent.

In the summer of that year, the presence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) extremists in southern Kyrgyzstan drove more wedges between the Central Asian states.

The Uzbek government blamed Tajikistan for allowing the IMU militants to use Tajik territory as a base -- a charge Tajik authorities denied. Uzbekistan's government also blamed Kyrgyzstan for not making a greater effort to eliminate the militants.

It was in that tense diplomatic environment that Uzbekistan began to lay land mines along its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2000, saying it was necessary to hinder infiltrations by IMU militants.

But the only reported casualties from those mines were civilians in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Civilian land-mine casualties continued to rise for many years after the IMU had ceased to be an immediate threat to Central Asia.

Tajik authorities accused Uzbekistan of supporting an attempted coup in northern Tajikistan in November 1998.

Turkmenistan refrained from publicly accusing Uzbekistan of being behind an alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002.

But Turkmen security forces did search the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat and declared Uzbek Ambassador Abdurashid Kadyrov persona non grata less than one month after the alleged attempt on Niyazov’s life.

The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Akaev in March 2005 was cheered by some as a victory for democracy.

Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in March 2005
Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in March 2005

But it was seen as an unwelcome development by other Central Asian governments. They were concerned that popular unrest might also lead to the overthrow of leaders like Nazarbaev, Niyazov, and Karimov who had been in power since the start of independence.

Subsequent ousters of Kyrgyz presidents in 2010 and 2020 have simply reinforced the concerns of other Central Asian leaders about Kyrgyzstan’s stability, and about the bad precedent Kyrgyzstan’s popular uprisings could become for their countries.

Twenty years after independence, the five Central Asian countries were already noticeably different from one another. All were a long way from the five orphan countries whose leaders had hoped at the December 1991 Ashgabat summit for their common history to foster cooperation and help all become prosperous states.

There was not much common ground left and it was perhaps not surprising that the leaders did not meet often, even for bilateral visits.

In the best cases, it was difficult to cross the borders from one country into another. In the worst cases, the borders were closed.

The death of Uzbek President Karimov in late summer 2016 proved a catalyst for improving regional relations.

Karimov had always been antagonistic toward other Central Asian leaders At various times, his undiplomatic candor in front of microphones seemed to be aimed at offending Nazarbaev, Akaev, Rahmon, Niyazov, and Kyrgyzstan’s president from 2011-2017, Almazbek Atambaev.

Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoev, has fallen short so far on many of his domestic reform plans. But his pledge to improve Uzbekistan's ties with its Central Asian neighbors is coming true.

The recent Central Asia summits are examples of the idea that Central Asian cooperation is possible again.

To be sure, problems remain. An ongoing border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is, by far, the most serious.

But even after the two countries were involved in a brief conflict at the end of April, both leaders were in Awaza.

Mirziyoev and the current Kazakh president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, have been meeting and speaking individually with Kyrgyzstan's new president, Sadyr Japarov. Tajik President Rahmon has made efforts to cool tensions along the Kyrgyz-Tajik frontier.

Turkmenistan continues to be an outlier, but the other four have cooperated during the pandemic and tried to help each other when they could.

The borders are not all totally open. But they are more open than they have been for more than 20 years. And the land mines have been cleared from Uzbekistan’s borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The recent summits have focused on connectivity that should link all of the Central Asian economies together more closely.

Kyrgyzstan is the first to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Independence Day on August 31. It is followed by Uzbekistan on September 1, Tajikistan on September 9, Turkmenistan on September 27, and Kazakhstan on December 16.

Ironically, one of the best things about Independence Day this year in the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia may be their ability to cooperate and depend upon each other more than previously possible.

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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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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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