Kazakhstan: “We are not begging – we are demanding our rights!”

Working class beginning to lose fear

Paul Murphy MEP and Tanja Niemeier, staff member of the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), visited Kazakhstan from July 15 – July 21. This visit followed a trip to the country by Joe Higgins in 2010 and was endorsed by the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. The visit did not resemble the kind of delegations of official European Parliament delegations. While we met with representatives of the government and the management of Kazakhstan’s national oil giant, KazMunaiGas, the main purpose of our visit was to meet with civil society campaigners, prisoners’ rights activists and representatives of the young independent trade union movement in a country that this year is celebrating its 20th year of independence from the former Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan is a huge country, covering the size of Western Europe but with a population of only 15 million people. Its futuristic and extremely expensive capital, Astana, was built with the money that the authoritarian regime, based around the powerful president Nazarbayev, sucks out of its relatively poor population. Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources – oil, gas and coal in particular. According to British Petroleum, Kazakhstan has 3% of the world’s proved oil reserves and 1 % of its gas reserves. This makes the country  one of the most  important players in international trade  relations  with the counties of Central Asia. The poor workers, human and social rights record of Kazakhstan’s one-party parliament and the close ties between the economy and the elite around the Nazarbayev regime do not stand in the way when it comes to Western powers economic engagement and lucrative oil deals.  The main international players exploiting Kazakhstan’s natural resources are Chevron, Exxon Mobil, the Russian Lukoil, French Total and the Italian Eni. There is also a growing influence of Chinese and Turkish capital in Kazakhstan.

Our visit brought us to the mining area of Karaganda, where Arcelor Mittal, the Indian European multinational coal and steel giant is operating, to Aktau and Zhanaozen, in the Mangistau Oblast in the west of Kazakhstan where an important oil workers’ strike is entering its third month and to its former capital, Almaty, near the Kyrgiz and Chinese border, where most of the opposition parties and press are based.

The visit has been highly educational and inspring. It  acted as an  eye opener when it comes to the extreme level of intimidation and repression against anyone who dares to speak out against the injustice and the neglect for workers’ rights in this country. We have been impressed by the bravery and determination of those who dare to speak out and refuse to be intimidated by the regime. We have witnessed a growing level of discontent and  determination to fight back and the emergence of a working class movement that is starting to lose its fear of the powerful political and economic elite.

Karaganda

The mining area is a 4 hour drive away from the capital city of Astana. We met about forty mine workers, male and female, who had just returned from a funeral of a fellow worker who died at the age of 54. The workers associated his early death with the extreme working conditions in the mines and explained to us that this co-worker should have long ago been able to retire and enjoy his pension. Under the Soviet system, the retirement age was 50 for dangerous work. Now, given the lack of social entitlements and labour rights, workers are forced to work long hours and continue working beyond the age of 50 despite the extreme hardship they face. The workers present at the meeting reported to us that intimidation in the form of anonymous text messages and phone calls were used to prevent them from meeting with our delegation. Free vodka was given out at a funeral by the local authorities which some of the workers clearly interpreted as an attempt of keeping people away from meeting with us.

The workers are highly aware of the exploitation they face. They see the luxurious life style of the owner, Lakshmi Mittal, while they receive poverty wages. Their justified demands for health and safety regulations in the mines, where regular gas explosions occur, are completely ignored.

The lack of proper health and safety regulations and of proper insurance and compensation rights in case of work-related accidents are obviously a major concern to the workforce  and their families. Those  concerns are directly related to the lack  of genuine trade union representation in the mining industry. Like in  many former  countries of the Soviet Union, the  trade unions are a remnant of  the Stalinist past. Rather than representing the interests of the workers, those  ’yellow’ trade unions  collaborate with the employers and are doing their utmost to prevent  independent working class representation. 

The ’Miners Families’,  an organsation that has  been  primarily set up to assist workers and their families to gain compensation rights  and better insurance, has  taken on the task  of functioning as an independent workers’ representative organisation. Their activists suffer from intimidation and physical threat.  One of the leaders of the Miners Families showed us pictures of his  garage and car which had been blown up to scare him off from carrying on his work in defending the miners’ interests.

The miners are aware of the importance of the oil workers’ strike in the Mangistau Oblast in the west of Kazakhstan.  A victory of  the workers there will undoubtedly increase their confidence and will  have repercussions in other sectors  of the extractive industry as well.   

Mangistau Oblast

The Mangistau Oblast is situated in the west of Kazakhstan, on the Caspian Sea. It is the country’s main oil and gas reserve. A large part of the GDP is generated in this region, without any major impact on the living standards of the workers in this area.

The working conditions are hard to imagine for anyone coming from Western Europe. The summer sees extremely hot weather, with temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade, while the winter knows temperatres that go beyond – 25 degrees centrigade. Camels and wild horses were crossing our way from the main regional city Aktau to the centre of the oil workers’ strike in Zhanaozen, which is entering its third month. Never ending trails of oil barrels on tracks, ready to be transported out of the region, are lined up next to the sandy street through the desert.

A more detailed article on the strike will be published on  socialistworld.net  shortly but it is no exaggeration to say that this dispute is one of the most important disputes that has engulfed the ex-Soviet Union countries since the collapse of Stalinism.

Muktar, one of the leaders of the strike, explains to us the Mangistau region’s history. Not only does the region comprise the tribal traditions of the Adai people, it was also engaged in resistance against the forced collectivisation of land in the Stalinist era. Many opponents of the Stalinist regime were imprisoned in the Stalinist Gulags in the region, forced to build the tracks that  transport the  oil to its international destinations. The Left, anti-Stalinist  sentiments  of the prisoners of the Gulags have left a mark  on the consciousness of the local population.

A  welcoming committee  of 30 striking workers escorted us to the square of Zhanaozen, where striking workers hold their daily meetings. Our visit had been awaited. It is the first visit by a public representative. More than two month into the strike, no official representative of the Kazakhstan government has shown up and listened to the demands of the striking workers.

Up to 16,000 workers from several companies were involved in strike  actions , at one point, during the strike. Fighter jets have been  used to fly over the square and scare people, people have been threatened by the company and a news blockade had been successfully implemented. The trade union lawyers have  been imprisoned and the strike declared illegal. The riot police were used to clear the square. Despite all this, the strike is solid and workers are determined to continue their actions until their main demands are met.

The visit of Paul Murphy assisted in breaking the news blockade and in re-enforcing the confidence of the striking workers. The setting up of an international solidarity campaign and the setting up of a solidarity fund that can assist the workers’ families, who have not received any wages and strike pay, is crucial in keeping up the morale of the workers.

The regime and KazMunaiGaz are nervous and frightened. Despite all attempts to minimise and deny  the importance of the strike, it is clear that it has sent shock waves through the political and economic elite of the country. Management stressed the fact that the strike is affecting output and profits of the company and that it is their obligation to satisfy the demands of the shareholders of KazMunaiGas. They insisted that the strike was illegal, according to the Kazakh Labour Code, a code that is particularly restrictive when it comes to the extractive industry and other sectors vital for the state. This has been criticised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But it is  also the potentially wider impact of  the strike that scares the establishment. The events in North Africa and the Middle East have acted as a warning to all authoritarian regimes and dictatorships across the world. The events have shown that working class people and the oppressed will not accept oppression and humiliation forever. At a certain point they will rise and fight back. The oil workers strike in Mangistau Oblast potentially represents a turning point in the working class struggle in Kazakhstan. A victory for the oil workers can spark off wider resistance in Kazakh society and can mark the beginning of the downfall of the Nazarbayev regime.

Undermining our visit

It is in this context that the attempts by the Kazakh government to undermine and discredit our visit needs to be seen. Paul Murphy’s visit and his unconditional support for the striking oil workers has been widely reported in the Kazakh media, including the media that is not necessarily closely linked to the political opposition.

That is why the government, with probable support from the Kazakh Embassy in Belgium, tried to portray our visit in the media as an entirely private affair and through this trying to undermine the authority of the visit and the determination of the striking workers.

(see further reports on this website).

The true meaning of internationalism and the real meaning of diplomatic language

During several meetings with senior management of the company and government officials, including the governor of the region, they clearly originally expected diplomatic niceties and a ’neutral’ position from our delegation. They were surprised to find that we clearly represented the interests of the workers and challenged the arguments that they made. Caring a lot about its international reputation, the representatives of the Kazakh government and the oil giant KazMunaiGas used disguised diplomatic language to complain about our interference with internal affairs.

While they officially thanked  us for taking  an interest in the fate and situation of the Kazakh people, they made it quite clear that it is not  our business to intervene in what they believe  are internal matters which have to be resolved within Kazakhstan law and by the Kazakh authorities. Paul Murphy  made it quite clear that he sees himself as a workers’ representative  and  that there is no artificial boundary between workers’ interests in Ireland, Greece, Kazakhstan or elsewhere. An injury to one is an injury to all workers. This is the true meaning of  internationalism. It holds particular importance in the case of Kazakhstan where major multinational, including European, corporations are complicit in exploiting the natural resources of Kazakhstan and by doing so, providing a life line for the authoritarian, dictatorial regime of Nazarbayev.