Huge billboards depicting Kazakhstan’s President Nazerbayev are displayed on the road between the newly built capital city, Astana, and the mining area Karaganda, 200 kilometers south of Astana. They show the President surrounded by happy looking people. The billboards seem to portray the image of a widely popular “leader of the nation”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In June 2010, a law was passed that essentially turns Nazerbayev into ‘President for life’. The same law forbids any criticism of the President and members of his family. It is disgraceful that this law was passed while Kazakhstan is chair of the OSCE (The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), an international organisation that claims to defend and monitor democratic rights. However, according to OSCE sources, no official criticism of this law was made by any of the 56 member states of the OSCE.
Nazerbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for the past 20 years and receives Stalinist-style election results of 91%, which subsequently leaves Nazerbayev ‘s party as the only party in the parliament. These results were not only questioned by the opposition but also by international monitoring organisations. The regime means that the opposition works under a very difficult climate.
As part of a delegation by the European United Left (GUE/NGL), Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP, and I, visited Kazakhstan to meet with independent trade union activists, human rights defenders, journalists, ex-prisoners and political activists and people from the social movements.
Vadim Kuramshin, a well respected lawyer and human rights activist, was arrested two days before our first meeting in Karaganda, where he had planned to give us evidence of the humiliating conditions prisoners face in Kazakhstan. In August, for example, self-inflicted mass cuttings of wrists and stomachs took place in a prison in the Karaganda region in protest against the barbarous conditions in prisons, which inmates endure every day.
The prisons in Kazakhstan are overcrowded - you can end up in prison for three years if you are charged for having stolen a mobile phone. The authorities are obviously frightened that the truth travels around the world and that is why Vadim Kuramshin was arrested.
“I know that my life will change from now on. I know that I will be followed and threatened by state authorities but I am not afraid any more. I want justice for all those who are still in prison and for the families that are worried about their children” says Aleksander, a young ex-prisoner from Shimkent, who has travelled thousands of kilometers to be able to talk to us and break the wall of silence.
It is the first time that Aleksander speaks publically about what has happened to him and many other prisoners that were humiliated and broken in some of the most brutal prisons of Kazakhstan. Attempted rape and permanent beatings for refusing to lick the spit of the officials off the floor are just two examples that were given by Aleksander and other ex-prisoners and relatives.
“Another 30 ex-prisoners wanted to come and meet with you“, says Dauriya, a young woman who fights for justice in the prisons, but many of them received phone calls that warned them not to go, and that “things” would either happen to them or their families if they met with Joe Higgins.
“If this government does not even grant the basic democratic and workers’ rights to its population, then it is not surprising that they treat prisoners in this disgraceful way”, reports an activist from ‘Kazakhstan 2012’, a political movement that tries to unite the different protest and social movements across the country.
Building independent unions
One of the priorities for Kazakhstan 2012 is the building of independent trade unions that can effectively defend the interests of working class and poor people in the country. Most of the official trade unions are remnants of the old Stalinist state unions and are in the pockets of the government; others are company-based and very often controlled, if not set up, by management .
Families of miners, scientific researchers, medical workers, oil workers, railway workers – some of whom spent 44 hours on the train to meet with us, spoke about the lack of health and safety rules that cause explosions in the mines and leaves workers injured or dead.
Scientific workers, researchers with a PhD, people who have detected the huge oil and gas reserves that are, to a large part, handed over to big foreign multinationals, receive US$300 a month plus US$100 in bonuses, while ‘candidate scientists’ receive just US$200 per month.
Despite the repressive character of the Kazakhstan regime, we have met dedicated fighters that want to see change in the country and who are determined not to bow in front of the authorities.
“If necessary, we will build barricades to defend our homes against the bulldozers”, says one of the inhabitants of the shanty town Bakai, on the the outskirts of Almaty city, who is also a university lecturer in history.
There is a widespread understanding of the corruption of the regime and the fact that the huge wealth of the country is handed over to big multinational companies while people live in dire economic circumstances.
It seems that it would not take much to spark a major movement across the country. “We will need to fight until we become bosses in or own home again”, said another activist from Kazakhstan 2012, who thanked Joe Higgins for coming and listening to the working people of the country.