‘A life and death struggle’

Last week two trade union leaders - from Kazakhstan visited Stockholm. They had travelled to Europe, along with Ainur Kurmanov, co-president of the broad-based ’Socialist Movement Kazakhstan’, to speak at the OSCE conference on Human Rights in Warsaw and at a meeting in the European parliament. They were drawing attention in particular to the four and a half month long oil workers’ strike at two oil companies in western Kazakhstan - KarazhanbasMunai and OzenMunaiGaz -. (See reports and appeals on this site)

Esenbek Ukteshbayev, president of the all-Kazakhstan independent trade union federation, ‘Janartu’, and Mukhtar Umbetov, an oil-workers’ leader from Aqtau visited Sweden last week. During their one day mission in Sweden, they met international ombudsmen of both the LO (Swedish TUC) and IF Metall (the main union in Swedish industry). Both promised to do whatever they can to broaden international support further.

The two workers’ leaders were also interviewed by ‘Daily Work’ - a joint trade union magazine for the three unions - IF Metall, Livs (for food workers) and Pappers (for workers in the paper and pulp industry). In the evening they spoke at a public meeting in Farsta, organised by Rättvisepartet Socialisterna - the Swedish CWI section.

Esenbek Ukteshbayev described the Kazakh oil workers’ strike as the largest and longest in Kazakhstan since the miners’ strike in the early 1990s. If the oil workers win it will become an inspiration to all workers, not only in Kazakhstan but across Central Asia. This is probably why the regime has chosen to take a hard line, and not to go along with the implementation of an agreement already made.

Regime scared for its future

It was fear of social explosion in the entire region, given the widespread suppressed discontent, that explains why Nazarbayev was quick to bring forward the presidential election planned for by 2012 to March this year. This was also in the light of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that had overthrown dictators!

From 19 to 27 September this year, there has been one of the largest ever joint military exercises between the nine states within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This involved the armies of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus. A statement by Russian army Chief, General Nikolai Makarov, quoted in the press, says that the main task was to train a joint force to move against any potential risks from upheavals like those in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Kazakh regime also wants to demonstrate a firm response to workers´ protests in order to impress investors from China, which has emerged as the most important new trade partner next to Russia. KarazhanbasMunai, run by a Chinese manager, is a joint venture between the state-owned

Chinese investment company CITIC and KazmunaiGaz, which is controlled by a state-owned holding company, that also owns OzenMunaiGaz.

The holding company, Samruk-Kazyna, which controls the Kazakh oil industry is headed by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev. The 70 year old Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, wants to see this man as his future successor. Kulibayev is also a board member of the Russian oil giant, Gazprom.

The oil-workers’ strike began as an economic struggle, aimed at getting Kazakh oil-workers treated on an equal basis with foreign workers. Now, because of the harsh repression against the strikers, it has evolved into a political showdown with President Nazarbayev’s increasingly repressive dictatorship.

Attempts to behead the movement

A framed prosecution, that could lead to lengthy prison terms, is currently being prepared against the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan´s joint presidents - Ainur Kurmanov and Esenbek Ukteshbayev. While in Sweden, Esenbek took the opportunity to appeal for urgent support if the two, as he fears, are arrested on their return to Kazakhstan.

Along with Mukhtar, he pointed to the information blackout against the strike by Kazakhstan’s official media. This was finally broken by the efforts of Irish Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy. He received considerable attention for his visits to the oil-workers’ strike, talking to the strikers and then meeting both the region’s governor as well as heads of the oil companies.

Many of the initially more than 10,000 strikers have been forced back to work but the battle has carried on by and for the 2,500 workers who have been illegally sacked. Most of them are the sole breadwinner in their families, in total responsible for upwards of 15,000 people.

Hundreds of strikers and their families are participating in a permanent occupation of the central square of the oil town Zhanaozen -day and night.According to Mukhtar, they have great support from the local population. Even many of those who have been forced back to work come to the square every day to give assistance.

"This is now a fight that amounts to life or death," said Mukhtar Umbetov. On October 3rd, one of the strikers, 30-year-old electrician Abai Abenov, tragically took his own life. Earlier in August one of the strikers, Zhaqsylyq Turbaev, who was a candidate for union president, was murdered in the workplace. 18-year-old Saule Qarabalaeva, daughter of a senior oil worker, was found dead – abducted and raped before she too was murdered.

What next?

According to Mukhtar Umbetov the strikers want nothing more than to break the total impasse that exists in negotiations. Without a resolution of the dispute, the risk of precisely the social explosions that the regime fears, will increase. To resume meaningful negotiations, however, requires that at least two of the workers’ demands must be won - the repeal of the conviction of Natalia Sokolova, the workers’ lawyer and the re-employment of the 2,500 oil-workers who have been sacked.

These, as well as the demand that oil workers be allowed to organise themselves freely, are addressed to President Nazarbayev and the oil companies. Hopefully now they will be supported by the LO and IF Metall in Sweden, who will also give humanitarian assistance for the sacked oil workers and their families.

According to the Kazakh workers´ leaders, similar demands have now already been voiced by the Oil workers’ International Federation, ICM, and the International Metalworkers’ Federation – the IMF. The solidarity portal, ‘Labor Start’, has also launched an ‘Act Now’ campaign for the striking oil workers in Kazakhstan.

After the visit of Esen and Mukhtar, the LO’s international ombudsman, Leif Isaksson, expressed himself very positively in favour of work to increase the international support further. He has also contacted the department of Human and Trade Union rights within the international trade union federation, the ITUC. They said that a letter has already been sent to Nazarbayev stressing the ITUC´s concern about the situation.

"I will still press on for a broad campaign and the issue has gone to the ITUC’s vice chairman who visited Kazakhstan," he announced. Hopefully also the interview in ‘Daily Work’ will signify a breakthrough for union support work in Sweden.

At the public meeting on Thursday, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna promised to do its very best to increase Swedish support, while more than 4,400 Swedish krone (650 dollars) was collected to help in the fight against repression in Kazakhstan.

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