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One Picture Of Poverty In Kazakhstan's Oil-Rich West

The town of Zhetybai in southwestern Kazakhstan has been ravaged by unemployment for a number of years.
The town of Zhetybai in southwestern Kazakhstan has been ravaged by unemployment for a number of years.

ZHETYBAI, Kazakhstan -- In Mangystau, a province that remains impoverished in many ways despite producing about a quarter of Kazakhstan's oil, Daulet Kalniyazov's complaint is a familiar one.

"Can we really live next to such wealth and see nothing from it?" he asked as his fellow roadblocking denizens cheered and applauded their approval.

"That's what makes us angry…. We all want to see this New Kazakhstan that [President Qasym-Zhomart] Toqaev is creating. But nothing has changed. Those who speak the truth are persecuted."

RFE/RL Kazakh Service reporters arrived in the town of Zhetybai at night on March 29, the third day of a desperate protest for jobs in the settlement of some 20,000 people.

They found demonstrators cooking on an open fire, with the only other source of illumination coming from the lamps that gave the pump jacks pumping nearby oil wells an eerie glow.

Zhetybai grew as a settlement in the 1960s, when Soviet authorities began large-scale drilling in the province.

Protests over a lack of jobs started in 2014, a year that saw global energy prices enter a tailspin, precipitating crises for major hydrocarbon exporters like Kazakhstan.

Zhetybai protesters block a road.
Zhetybai protesters block a road.

The following year Kazakhstan's national bank withdrew support for the tenge currency, allowing its value to plunge in a move that battered local purchasing power.

In 2022, with Kazakhstan ravaged by inflation, it was Mangystau that saw the sharp end, recording year-on-year food inflation of 31.6 percent compared to a national figure of 25.3 percent, according to official statistics.

Locals in Zhetybai say that in addition to not seeing any benefits from the national oil industry, they are experiencing its worst side effects, with a spoiled environment taking its toll on local health.

"About 600 young people under the age of 40 are registered with disabilities…. About 200 teenagers are registered as having serious health problems. My own child has a heart defect," vented protester Zhumagul Omarova.

"I am here for the youth of Zhetybai!"

Oil derrick pumps in Zhetybai
Oil derrick pumps in Zhetybai

The next day, residents showed RFE/RL oil seepage in several locations in the area that they believe is driving health problems in the town.

"Here it is -- our black gold. It finds its way into the air. At the moment it is stable. But in the summer [when temperatures in Mangystau can soar past 40 degrees Celsius,] it rises up and there is a smell," one resident said as he turned up thick, dark tar from the ground with a stick.

Life At The Sharp End

Mangystau has long been a problem province for the government.

That was underlined last week when dozens of recently unemployed oil-sector workers from the town of Zhanaozen brought their protest cross-country to the Energy Ministry in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. After camping outside the ministry overnight, they were roughly detained on April 11 and sent home by train the next day as their representatives held talks with officials.

While in Zhetybai, an hour away from Zhanaozen by car, RFE/RL correspondents witnessed tense arguments between the deputy district chief of the Qaraqiyan district to which Zhetybai belongs, district councillors, and local residents.

Protesters argue with district representatives in Zhetybai, Mangystau Province.
Protesters argue with district representatives in Zhetybai, Mangystau Province.

Deputy district chief Manarbek Tolegenov told RFE/RL that the population had shown no interest in police and fire-fighting vacancies, and had insisted people be given oil-sector jobs.

"Why don't you talk about what happened with Ekostandart then?" resident Amangeldi Turganbaev asked Tolegonov, referring to a construction company that had hired more than 30 people from the town, apparently at the prompting of local authorities.

"They didn't pay our salaries in full, they didn't pay our mandatory pension contributions!" the man said angrily.

"Ekostandart is a different topic!" Tolegonov replied.

Asylbek Zholdybaev, a company director who waded into the protest promising jobs paying up to 350,000 tenge (nearly $780) a month for bulldozer and machine operators, was likewise challenged by the protesters.

"[Asylbek], I worked as a welder for your company…. You paid 110,000 tenge for 15-day [stints] and dismissed [the workers] within a year. What you are saying is a lie! Ordinary workers got 70,000 tenge, nobody got 350,000 tenge, not even skilled workers!"

On the fifth day of the protest, during which Zhetybai was briefly engulfed by a dust storm, RFE/RL reporters visited the spartan, half-furnished homes of protesters, and heard further tales of employment promises turned sour.

Aigerim Ordabaeva said she would like Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to see how residents live in Zhetybai.
Aigerim Ordabaeva said she would like Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to see how residents live in Zhetybai.

Qairat Suiyesinov, whose gas was turned off for nonpayment in December, said he had been offered well-paid work last year.

"Knowing that the enterprise would become bankrupt, they hired 50 people. We worked for two months and then struggled to get our salaries. Half of the money was never paid out," he said, sniffling while holding back tears.

"If President Toqaev would come here, I would invite him into our home so that he could see how we all live," said Suiyesinov's wife, Aigerim Ordabaeva, of a dwelling where electricity was only working in some rooms. "We live in a dead end."

Problems With 'Destructive Potential'

Toqaev last visited Mangystau Province ahead of his reelection in November.

A few months earlier, he issued a stark warning that "finding work for everybody in the oil and gas sector is impossible."

During his trip, he pledged 29 new projects that would be completed between 2023 and 2026 and which he said would create around 3,000 jobs. That is unlikely to make a big difference in a province of more than 700,000 people where the population is growing steadily.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (file photo)

Community leaders from Zhetybai announced the end of their demonstration on the evening of April 1, citing what they said was "progress" in talks with the government.

The leaders who spoke to RFE/RL did not disclose what guarantees they had received in exchange for ending a demonstration that had seen a number of demonstrators resort to going on a hunger strike, and Mangystau's provincial government did not provide details of the talks when requested.

"If the aforementioned authorities do not fulfill our demands and deceive the townspeople, we will gather again to raise our problems," protest leader Kanat Koishubaev promised.

Dust storms are common in Mangystau Province
Dust storms are common in Mangystau Province

The demonstration of Zhanaozen oil workers that began just a few days after the Zhetybai protest concluded proved even more alarming for the government.

In 2011, Zhanaozen was the site of a labor strike that the government used lethal force to disperse, leaving at least 16 dead.

It was also the starting point in January 2022 for peaceful protests against an overnight spike in the cost of liquefied petroleum gas in Mangystau, which later unraveled into violent clashes in cities across the country that caused at least 238 mostly civilian deaths.

But the April 11 detentions of the protesters outside the ministry left many questioning whether the government has learned anything from these events.

Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliev complained that the demonstrators were being manipulated by their former employer, a company which had lost a tender.

At the same time a wave of Facebook posts similar in style and argument echoed Satkaliev's position, with social media users adding unproven accusations that the workers had rejected positions worth 700,000 tenge, also claiming that many of the protesters were ethnic Kazakhs born in neighboring countries.

Oil workers from Zhanaozen hold a picket in front of the Kazakh Energy Ministry in Astana on April 11.
Oil workers from Zhanaozen hold a picket in front of the Kazakh Energy Ministry in Astana on April 11.

One Facebook user told RFE/RL in an interview that they had received money for writing such a post but refused to name the source of the commission.

A radio journalist wrote on Facebook that he had refused an offer of 100,000 tenge to write a negative post about the protesters.

According to Mangystau Governor Nurlan Nogaev, there have been 134 labor conflicts in the province since the start of 2022, of which 117 can be classed as "solved."

But political analyst Dosym Satpaev told RFE/RL that the water-scarce region, whose oil resources make it a "donor" to the state budget, is likely to haunt Kazakhstan's regime for some time to come unless the government can tackle systemic problems there.

"Ecology, employment, inflation -- this is a giant mass of problems which are not addressed from year to year with a destructive potential that is only growing," he said.

"The problems of Zhanaozen are the problems of the whole country," the analyst added.

Written by Chris Rickleton based on a video report by Saniya Toiken, Yerzhan Amirkhanov, Chris Rickleton, and Petr Trotsenko

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