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Kazakhstan: Workers' Protest Reveals Flaws In Privatization

Prague, 14 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The success of a group of workers in Kazakhstan in finally gaining months of back pay appears to call into question the country's privatization effort.

Exasperated by their inability to collect their pay for the last 10 months or more, some 1,500 workers from the privatized Achisay Polymetal Plant in Kentau City, Southern Kazakhstan, chose a spectacular way to protest. They decided last month to walk the 900 kilometers to the Kazakh capital Almaty to press their demands.

Police stopped the marchers at the Turkistan Arys canal, only about 100 kilometers from their starting point. The workers did not disperse, but despite the increasingly cold weather they set up a camp on the outskirts of Turkistan City. And they won. The Kazakh government stepped in and made available some $2 million for the payment of their salary arrears. The private owner of the plant was not involved in the deal.

So the spell was finally broken -- a group of Kazakh workers had been successful in obtaining payment of the money their company owed them. But it was the government which footed the bill, not the private owner. A precedent has been set for the tens of thousands of workers who have gone without pay in the country, sometimes for years.

During the last three years all the main industrial facilities of Kazakhstan have been sold, or are being sold, to foreign interests. That move was officially justified by the government as "the only way to overcome economic disaster in the country". But the "panacea" has started to look like a new plague. In the badly-handled privatization process, many enterprises have evidently come under the control of unfit or unscrupulous businessmen.

Among the privatized concerns was the Kentau Achisay Polymetal Plant, once an important Soviet-era iron ore developing factory. It was sold to a foreign company called River International, which despite its Western-sounding name, appears to be Russian-run.

The new owner failed to improve the situation in the Achisay plant, and wage payments fell behind. Workers could not get their salaries for almost a year, and came up with the idea of a protest march to the capital. Local trade union leaders Sultan Jabanov and Gennadiy Nikitin focused and organized the protest action, arranging among other things for the camp by the canal to be provisioned by local people and organizations. This represents one of the most significant actions so far by the new Kazakh trade unions, which emerged about five years ago.

After the government's decision to allocate state money to cover River International's debts, a protest action started in Janatas City, where 200 workers of the Phosphorus Producing Chemical Plant went on hunger strike, demanding their salaries for the last two years. The story is basically the same as in Kentau. The Kazakh government had sold the plant's shares to a foreign Company called IBA Trading. Again this very western sounding company is led by a person whose name sounds very Russian. His whereabouts are unknown currently. On November 4, 24 representatives of the Janatas plant picketed Kazakh parliament's building in Almaty, demanding that their plight be discussed in Parliament. IBA Trading owes the workers of Janatas about $9 million.

Plants in industrial regions of Kazakhstan like Oskemen, in the east, and Qaraghandy in Central Kazakhstan, are expected to stage Kentau-like actions in the near future, having seen what can be achieved if they are disciplined and well organized.

Demonstrators both in Kentau and Janatas told RFE/RL that they were not putting forward any political demands, only economic ones. They did say however that after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, the economic situation of the ordinary workers declined, and they expressed frustration with the fruits of independence. Many of the demonstrators openly accused President Nursultan Nazarbayev of being responsible for the worsening situation.