We were driving along a road, not knowing where we were going, on the outskirts of Almaty, to attend a historic conference of the ‘Kazakhstan 2012’. The destination had to be kept secret, until the last minute, to prevent the police and also the political police, the KNB, from blockading the venue. Participants were told to meet at a certain place where transport was ready to take them on to the conference venue.
By the time we got there, some police had already turned up. Not enough, however, to block the venue. We turned down a dirt track and were led through a gate and past a two-metre high metal fence. We found ourselves in a yard full of about 300 people, holding placards and erecting banners, and getting ready for the start of the meeting. There were men and women, the latter predominant, and young and old, with a mix of nationalities – Kazaks and Russians, Koreans and Uzbeks – all united together to voice their hatred for the Nazarbayev regime and preparing to announce the foundation of a new political movement to challenge it.
A large placard at the back read, “Change the politicians or they will change you!”. On the wall behind the speakers, stood a CWI banner and a portrait of Che Guevara. Even freezing rain, coming down from the mountains, could not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. They stood under umbrellas, making sure everyone was protected. By the time the conference started, the police and KNB had turned up in force but as we were in a private yard they could not touch us. To save them the bother of having to plant listening devices, speakers kindly used load-hailers to address the audience. The venue was great, if need be, the neighbours on each side had agreed their yards could also be used. The first speaker opened the meeting by holding up a placard which asked, “Who’s covering up the crimes of the bankers?” As she turned the placard around we saw the word “NAN” - President Nazarbayev’s initials. “That’s why we call him NAN bread,” said one woman.
This was the second important conference that we, Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) and Rob Jones from the Russian CWI, attended in one week. Following our attendance at the court which saw Aimur Kurmanov found not guilty of trumped up charges (see last week’s report on socialistworld.net), the Conference of Socialist Resistance, the Kazakhstan CWI, was held in the Almaty. The court victory was particularly sweet, as the KNB had tried to jail Ainur for two weeks precisely to prevent him participating in these two conferences.
Although some delegates were unable to attend due to problems of getting off work, more were prevented from travelling to the city because of the widespread flooding that has hit the country in the past week. Nevertheless, there were lively discussions on the political and economic situation facing Kazakhstan, in the context of the world economic crisis, and also on the programme and tactics of the CWI in Kazakhstan.
Even the flooding is an indication of the rottenness of this regime. In the Soviet-era, a complex system of dams was constructed to both provide water to this huge country and to prevent the spring thaw flooding the flatlands. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no maintenance has been conducted on the dams, and, even worse, they have been privatized. Now the owners, in an attempt to make the maximum profits, overfill the reservoirs to have more water to sell, leading to the dams collapsing. In a least one case, a whole village was swept away, with bodies being taken 20 kilometers. The latest information we heard, as we left the country, was that dozens, if not hundreds, of people had died as a result of the floods. Protests were already been held in the flooded areas, blaming the regime for allowing the situation to develop, and protesting that promised aid was not arriving, having been siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats.
Kazakhstan 2012 is an initiative driven by the CWI, aimed at uniting the different social protest movements and independent trade unions that have sprung up in the last two years, around a political programme. At its founding conference, it called, amongst many other demands, for the nationalization of the banking and construction sectors, for militant campaigning to achieve full democratic rights for the population of Kazakhstan, and for the capitalist system to be replaced with socialism. Now it is developing into a new stage, with the agreement of the participants to form a political organization to fight the current regime.
What is striking in Kazakhstan is that the crisis has affected every section of society, including impoverishing large sections of the former middle classes. Amongst the protesters were groups representing people who had lost their savings when banks and pyramids-scams collapsed or who had taken out mortgages when the economy was growing but have found themselves unable to keep up the payments. We spoke to Gulaisha Musiltaeva, who explained that a typical mortgage in her city of Chimkent would be for $100,000 over ten years at 25%. A typical wage would be about $4-500 a month!
When she and her husband lost their jobs, they tried to renegotiate their payments but the bank was not interested. Now the banks are not even interested in repossession, as they would not be able to resell the property. Gulaisha is now the leader of the campaign, ‘In Defense of People’s Homes’. She said that people are getting very angry at the banks, because they are just seen as vultures. Her neighbour had taken out a $5,000 loan and now has to pay back $25,000!
It is for this reason that Kazakhstan 2012 calls for an end to the seizure of homes of those who can not pay their loans, demanding that the state takes responsibility for problem loans, and for the nationalization of the banks and building sector under workers’ control and management.
One of the speakers was Vadim Kuramshin from the northern city of Petropavlosk. He is a campaigner for human and prisoner rights. He recently completed a three year prison sentence, during which he was brutally treated and tortured by the guards until the other prisoners began a hunger strike in his defence. He was incarcerated for “slander” after authoring an article about the local political elite and privatization of the former state farms. His article, apart from exposing the brutality of Kazakhstan’s prisons, demonstrates the almost complete absence of human rights in the country, as well as the fact that increasingly all the wealth and resources are being blatantly robbed by the ruling elite grouped around the President. Everyone we spoke to was bitter that the European governments had agreed to Kazakhstan becoming President of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the organization supposed to protect democracy and human rights. “They’ve sold our democracy for oil,” was the general sentiment.
We were told about the lack of democracy in the Kazakhstan. Increasingly it is becoming like a dynasty. Nazarbayev has been the leader of Kazakhstan since 1986, when he headed the Republican Communist Party. He shows no sign of stepping down in 2012, the date of the next election, after which he could be elected for a further 7 years. Sycophants suggest he should be appointed as President for Life. He shares rule with his children. They, in turn, have direct control of the wealth of the country, which they ruthlessly exploit. His second daughter, Dinara, and her husband, Timur Kulibaev, between them have over $2 billion stashed away. They are among the only five people in the Forbes Richest persons list from Kazakhstan.Dynasties, of course, also have their black sheep. Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, Rahat Aliev, who calls Nazurbayev "Godfather-in-law", is in exile in Austria. But during our short stay we heard a long stream of stories of various city mayors, government ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen who accumulated all the money they could get their hands on before fleeing, voluntarily or under threat, abroad, to London, Geneva and Vienna. It is believed that Nazarbayev has sent over a billion dollars out of the country.
The only party in Parliament is NAN’s own “Nur Otan” - “The Bright Homeland Party”. There are a number of pro-capitalist opposition parties, but there are mainly backed by oligarchs and other members of the ruling elite, who have been pushed out of the ruling circle and are not only not widely supported, but also often face repression. Kazakhstan is thus a police state, with a very thin fig leaf of a one-party parliament.
Anyone who tries to organize working people to defend their rights faces harassment and repression. Journalists in the country are playing a particularly heroic role. During our visit, two journalists from Canal 31 station, who were trying to film the eviction of a single mother from her home, were beaten by bailiffs. Igor Larra was beaten in West Kazakhstan after he attempted to visit striking oilworkers. Kazakhstan 2012 has put the struggle for democratic rights at the centre of its programme.
The previous week’s victory of the oil workers’ strike in West Kazakhstan set the backdrop to the two conferences. The workers of KazMunayGas, which when it was privatized was taken over by NAN’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, demanded that the industry be nationalized under workers’ control. Although they did not achieve this goal, they did receive considerable pay concessions and a promise of no retribution, signed by the Head of the regional KNB.
The comrades of Socialism Resistance in Almaty had made big efforts to help the oil workers break through the regime’s information blockade. This worried the regime, and as mentioned above, in an attempt to disrupt this week’s conferences, the police and KNB, before our arrival, tried to detain Ainur Kurmanov. For two days, twenty police and KNB agents surrounded the office of Talmus, where Ainur works, in an attempt to catch him. Eventually comrades managed to smuggle Ainur out in disguise.
The question of trade union struggle is at the centre of the work of Kazakhstan 2012. Socialist Resistance comrades were the initiators of the formation of a new federation of independent trade unions in February.
We spoke to Yesinbek Ukteshbayev, who lead a two month campaign to save the Almatinskii Wagon Building Factory. The factory was illegally privatized and the new management preceeded to strip this important workplace of its assets. While the new manager lived in elite flats and drove luxury cars, the workers suffered cuts in pay and holiday entitlements. The strike had to be prepared in underground conditions, but the workers proved to be 100% solid behind the strike for nationalization of the factory, under workers’ control and nationalization. By taking radical and decisive action, the workers won considerable concessions.
The demand for nationalization figures strongly in the programme of Kazakhstan 2012. It has been a central demand of campaigns organized not only by the oil workers and at the wagon factory, but also has been taken up by small businessmen at the markets (the nationalization of the bazaars) and by the debtors and mortgage protesters (nationalization of the banks and construction companies).
Renat, a young comrade from Socialist Resistance, addressed the meeting and got warm applause when he took the question further. The economic crisis was a crisis of capitalism, he said, and therefore it demanded the end of capitalism and its replacement with socialism.
Peter Taaffe, speaking on behalf of the CWI, also got warm applause when he expressed the solidarity of the CWI, explaining that the struggle in Kazakhstan was part of the international struggle and that it was necessary for the formation of mass parties of the working class to co-ordinate and organize the struggle for socialism. Peter’s call for a new workers’ party for Kazakhstan was met with loud ‘Das’ (Yes!), especially from the many working class women present.
“Change the politicians or they will change you!” read the main banner of the conference. This theme was developed at the end of the conference by Ainur Kurmanov, who read out the declaration of Kazakhstan 2012, which explained that there was no party in Kazakhstan that fought for the interests of working people. What was needed, Ainur said was for activists of the social movements, trade unions and protest groups to organize together, to establish the base for the creation, in the near future, of an independent political party, with a clear programme for the transformation of the country in the interests of working people, where the wealth of the country, its produce, minerals, oil and gas, will be used not by oligarchs but by all. This means that Kazakhstan 2012 sets itself the task of establishing a political party, fighting for the day to day demands of working people and youth, and to fight for socialism.
Without exception, the participants of the meeting voted in support. On this historic note, the conference ended.
A short video can be viewed on: