Mass privatisations started in 1994 and it took them four years to privatise allmost all main industries, oil and gas. More than 300 mines were taken over by transnational corporations from the West, more than 90 per cent of the natural resources, most metal factories etc.
Developments in Kazakhstan has for the last decade been marked by mass privatisations and drastic cuts in living standards but also militant workers’ struggle. In the last year, the situation has become more acute since the establishment of US military bases in the country.
So reports Ionur Kurmanov in this interview from the Eighth World Congress of the CWI in November. He is a well-known workers’ leader in Kazakhstan and was jailed for his struggle for five months in the mid 90s.
Ionur Kurmanov was jalied after leading the biggest protest so far against president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s capitalist policies, with 5,000 workers on strike for seven months. Ionur Kurmanov’s claimed ’crime’ was to have insulted the president. The CWI organised an international solidarity campaign which led to his release. Ionur was then elected chairman of the trade union at the Metallist factory in Uralsk. He has since then been the victim of physical violence several times as well attempts to sack him, at the same time as he has organised new strikes and struggle.
What role do the mass privatisations play in Kazakhstan?
The third biggest tractor producer in the whole Soviet Union was in Kazakhstan. The factory, with 50,000 workers, was sold to a Turkish company which looted the factory and closed it down. Similarly, a factory for special steel with relatively modern equipment was taken over by av US-Israeli company. In October 2002 the workers occupied the factory to stop closure and looting.
Ionur Kurmanov tell us that the new owners usually continue production a couple of years, as long as there is raw material and the machinery is working. The wages are less than $200 a month.
How are workers treated?
Exploitation has increased heavily. In the mines the working day is 12 hours. Most mineworkers can only stand it for six years, and many die young. Untrained Kazakh youth get jobs without any security or health rules. In many cases no wage is paid, or its paid after months of delay.
The second biggest gas field in the world, Karakheganak, is placed in Kazakhstan. British Gas is heading a consortium of companies to exploit the gas. A Palestinian-Italian construction company is in charge of construction.
They too use untrained youth, plus workers from Malaysia. The companies consciously choose not to buy anything locally, everything is imported. In this way, the Kazakh economy does not benefit from this exploitation.
When the Prime Minister came to Karakheganak, 10,000 workers went on strike. A 6 mile long demonstration demanded trade union rights with real contracts and improved conditions.
What happens with all those who lose their job?
Most become street sellers. They are used by small businesses and forced to work seven days a week without any security. In one town the brother of the mayor has his own chain of shops and controls everything. The police are used against workers who do not "behave" as they should. In one local bread factory, 15 workers were beaten by the police.
Others have moved to Russia as a way to survive.
What about the resistance of the workers?
Since the end of the 90s we have seen significant resistance. In Zhambul, a city with a chemical industry, workers in 1996 formed a strike committee which in practice ran the city for a couple of weeks. Two years later the workers fought street battles with the police. The government then intervened with the army and arrested the leaders.
In 1997 the Workers’ Movement, with our comrades in the leadership, forced the government to reduce energy prices after an occupation of the mayors office in the then capital Alma Ata. The strike was to stop a Belgian company from taking over the energy company. Prices were cut by 50 per cent in Alma Ata and 20 per cent in the rest of the country.
Who do the workers blame for the crisis?
The foreign companies and president Nazarbayev are seen as equal guilty. The struggle is over wages and working conditions, but also over the policies of the government. Demands for renationalisation and some kind of planning are common.
How are the ruling layers enriching themselves when everything is sold out?
They own shares in big "national strategic companies" which are privatised. For example Kazakh Oil, where Nazarbayevs son-in-law has big interests. Smaller companies for the local market they have just taken over themselves.
Now, the US are establishing military bases in Kazakhstan? How is this seen?
In Kazakhstan there are strong anti-American feelings going back generations. The military bases are strengthening this mood, because the bases are seen as a support for the president. The bourgeois liberal opposition are losing support, because they themselves are US-financed.
In a recent analysis, the CIA pointed out two dangers. First, Islamic fundamentalism, which gets growing support because of the US wars. The islamists also have a tradition of armed guerilla struggle. Second, social explosions in the industrial regions because of the discontent in the working class.
The US troops will be stationed at two bases close to the oil fields, at a cost of $2 billion. Additionally, the Kazakhstan government receives $100 million in direct grants from the US, plus military equipment for two brigades covering the Caspian sea.
Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (RS), Socialist Justice Party, is the CWI section in Sweden.
The article was first published on 19 December in Offensiv, the weekly paper of RS.