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Qishloq Ovozi

Many Kazakh oil workers say the authorities have been taking away their rights.

On the morning of January 11, oil worker Meyrambek Kuantaev climbed up a construction crane at the Kalamkas oil field in Kazakhstan's western Mangistau Province and stayed there for about 24 hours.

He was protesting. So are others, though they are not climbing on cranes.

There is a showdown going on in Kazakhstan, and it was inevitable.

One week before Kuantaev scaled the crane in Kalamkas, an economic court in the southern city of Shymkent ordered the Confederation of Independent Labor Unions of Kazakhstan closed.

The government has been slowly squeezing independent unions since an oil worker strike in western Kazakhstan in 2011. That protest lasted more than half the year and resulted in one of the bloodiest events in Kazakhstan’s history. Independent trade unions, as would be expected, sided with the oil workers during the months of the strike.

In 2014, restrictive laws were passed that limited the rights of workers and trade unions.

Union registration regulations were among those changes.

On December 5, 2016, the Justice Ministry filed a case against the confederation for failure to provide all necessary documentation for registration within the prescribed time.

Lawyers for the confederation said the Shymkent court rejected motions to postpone the start of the trial until the defense could prepare its case, and also denied the defense the opportunity to questions witnesses.

According to a January 10 statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW), when the trial opened on January 4, “The court did not allow the confederation to present its case and ruled the same day.”

In Aqtau, the Mangistau provincial capital, dozens of workers from the Oil Construction Company (OCC), part of the oil-services sector, went on a hunger strike on December 5 to protest the court decision. They have vowed to stay at the OCC office and continue their protest until January 15.

Some of the workers told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, that their union had fulfilled all the regulations to be registered but they had filed a notice with city authorities that they would conduct a demonstration on January 15 to show solidarity with the confederation.

However, while protests are going on, or being planned, authorities have opened a criminal case against confederation President Larisa Kharkova, charging her with embezzling from the confederation. Police allegedly threatened to find more charges against her unless she resigned as confederation president.

On January 11, Kharkova told Azattyq that authorities had searched her home and confiscated her computer, and searched the confederation’s office and the union organization’s accounting office.

Kharkova also told Azattyq the OCC protest in Aqtau was a "personal, not a labor-union action of protest."

Ever since the violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011, authorities have been careful in dealing with the oil workers. Kazakhstan scaled back oil production as oil prices dropped but rather than lay off workers, companies moved many of the workers to part-time.

Authorities even tolerated strikes and demonstrations in mid-2016 when workers first started to protest against state moves to bring independent unions into line.

Late last year, layoffs started and according to the labor minister, would affect nearly 20 percent of the workers in the oil sector. Authorities have assured benefits would be available to those who lose their jobs, and held out the possibility that once the massive offshore Kashagan field, which started operation in October 2016, started full production many of workers laid off would be rehired.

But from the oil workers' perspective, authorities have been chipping away at their rights, and the latest example is that they are losing the independent unions that represent them.

This is particularly true for the oil services workers. Many of those installing or maintaining equipment, or transporting oil, have long felt they were being treated as “second-class” workers. One common complain they have is that the government gives out contracts for various tasks and every time this happens a new company comes in to manage projects, often with new regulations or par scales for the oil service employees.

Workers in the oil services sector say independent unions are their best hope for receiving fair conditions for performing work for new contractors. Some of these workers are old enough to remember the situation in the 1990s when there were no independent trade unions and the government-sponsored unions that existed readily acquiesced to state demands and terms.

These protests under way are the first for 2017 but likely not the last.

Based on material from Azattyq and with help from Azattyq’s Yerzhan Karabek. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Relations between Ashgabat and Tehran have soured somewhat since this picture was taken of Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) shaking hands with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in the Iranian capital in November 2015.

The Turkmen government has been proudly proclaiming its UN-recognized status as a neutral country for more than 20 years now. Ashgabat's policy of "positive neutrality" is, since September 2016, even part of the country's constitution.

But the policy is not always positive for Turkmenistan, and the current gas spat with neighbor Iran might be a case in point.

Turkmenistan has either greatly reduced or suspended entirely -- depending on which country you believe -- supplies of gas to Iran.

Each side has its own version of the problem. I'll mention their claims later; that is not so much the issue in this article.

The audience they are trying to reach to tell their respective sides of the story, and in Turkmenistan's case those being kept in the dark, is the focus of this work.

First, some necessary background.

Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was the architect of the policy of neutrality in the early 1990s. The policy was never articulated very clearly, and to this day it remains vague; but essentially it meant Turkmenistan would not take sides in anyone else's conflicts; nor would it join any alliances, excepting multinational economic organizations, but would act as a mediator or at least offer its territory as a neutral venue for feuding parties to meet and try to resolve their problems.

A benefit of this policy, in theory, was that by courting good ties with all, neutrality would be a shield for the country, since no outside party would have any reason to be upset or angry with Turkmenistan.

That's what the Turkmen government has told its people for more than 20 years.

Now to the current Turkmen-Iran dispute.

'Inflated' Prices

Starting in the last days of December, Iranian news agencies including Mehr, IRNA, ISNA, Fars, Shana, and Press TV, cited various government officials and representatives of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) explaining the problems with Turkmenistan.

The general picture these officials and the media painted was that Turkmenistan was demanding payment for gas supplies in 2007-08, when Ashgabat used a freezing winter in northern Iran to demand nine times the previous price for gas. In any case, the price Turkmenistan was now demanding was incorrect and inflated.

On New Year's Eve, Iranian news agencies reported an 11th-hour deal was reached and there would be no cutoff, a new five-year agreement had been reached, and the issue of the debt would be discussed and resolved in the coming months.

Hours later, Iranian media reported Turkmenistan had "suddenly" suspended gas supplies to Iran.

Iran's Tasnim news agency interviewed NIGC spokesman Majod Bourjarzadeh, who said Turkmenistan had "reneged on the promise" and cut off gas supplies and that Turkmen officials "had gone on New Year' holidays" and could not be reached.

'Unreliable Partner'

The new Iranian media narrative has followed Bourjarzadeh's lead, and reports now have officials calling Turkmenistan an "unreliable partner" and generally blaming Ashgabat for the entire situation.

Turkmenistan did not respond until January 3, when the Foreign Ministry released a statement on its website calling reports in Iranian media "misleading" and saying the NIGC had "not made sufficient effort since 2013 to pay off its debt."

The ministry also claimed that during 2016 "the Iranian side was officially repeatedly informed of the adverse situation...and possible cuts in Turkmen natural gas supplies." The Turkmen statement says Ashgabat was forced to "limit" supplies, not halt them. There is no mention of the amount of Iran's debt.

The NIGC's response that same day, widely cited by Iranian media, said Turkmenistan had "time and again" violated the terms of gas agreement but had still been "compensated" by Iran. The NIGC also vowed to take the matter to international arbitration.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry responded once more on January 4, surprising many by revealing, at least according to the ministry, that Iran signed a "take or pay" contract for gas, that "the NIGC hasn't taken large volumes of the Turkmen gas for several years," and "at the same time, the company didn't pay any financial compensation to Turkmenistan."

So Turkmenistan is essentially demanding payment for gas Iran never received but said it would buy.

Tehran's version of the dispute with Turkmenistan is being disseminated by Iranian state media to the public.

But the government in "neutral" Turkmenistan can't tell its people because such a narrative runs contrary to the philosophy of positive neutrality. Turkmenistan's state media (the only media in the country) have not mentioned the problems with Iran. The statements from the Foreign Ministry, posted on the ministry's website, are unlikely to seen by Turkmenistan's citizens, who have limited opportunities to access the Internet and are unlikely to use such possibilities as exist to check their government's websites.

Caged In

Turkmen authorities have been telling the country's citizens for two decades that neutrality would make everyone their friend. Having to admit publicly that there has been a rift with a neighbor and partner Turkmen media has praised since the early 1990s would be difficult to explain.

Turkmen authorities have caged themselves in. Positive neutrality might be a means to avoid making enemies, but clearly it cannot resolve problems in which Turkmenistan itself is involved.

This is not the first example either. Neutrality failed to resolve a gas dispute with Russia in 2008 and 2009, and today Russia does not purchase any gas from Turkmenistan.

Neutrality has not prevented security problems across the border in northern Afghanistan from affecting the situation in Turkmenistan, one example being the sudden and unprecedented need to build up the military and spend state funds on massive amounts of new equipment.

But neutrality does make it impossible for the government to tell the people bad news that involves Turkmenistan, and this situation with Iran is just the latest example.

Iranian media have reported that power is being rerouted to alleviate the situation in northeastern Iran. Some officials go so far as to say that Iran can totally compensate for the power being lost due to the "suspension" of Turkmen gas supplies. This episode has given new impetus to projects already under way to provide northeastern Iran with domestic sources of power, ending forever the need to buy gas from Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan has only two customers for its gas: Iran and China.

And Turkmenistan might have just lost Iran as a customer, but that can't be explained by neutrality, so the Turkmen government can't tell its people about it.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and my colleague and Iranian specialist Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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. Content will draw 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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