Kazakhstan: The fight goes on

Workers’ leaders will not be cowed by persecution

Following her recent visit to Kazakhstan, to meet workers in struggle and activists from opposition ‘Kazakhstan 2012’, Elizabeth Clarke (CWI) discusses the increasingly explosive social situation in the central Asian country.


Hardly a day goes by in Kazakhstan without a protest, a court case, a press conference or a planning meeting involving the leaders of the resistance movement against the Nazarbayev dictatorship. A worried regime resorts time and again to repression; the movement fights back on every issue.

On 24 June, four women were in court for leading an illegal protest. On 25 June, journalists at the state news agency, denied pay for months on end announced a strike. On June 26, when a street demonstration in Almaty, the capital city, in support of Karaganda’s miners, was banned, a meeting was held and press statements made. On all such occasions, ‘Kazakhstan 2012’ issues a press release in support; sometimes they hold a press conference. Kazakhstan 2012 is the increasingly well-known movement that unites workers and communities in struggle across the length and breadth of this vast country. Its target is to remove from power the apparently all-powerful president, Nazarbayev, in or before the year the next election is due. (See articles on socialistworld.net by Peter Taaffe from March 2010, when Kazakhstan 2012 held its founding conference).

‘Nagli’ Nazarbayev

There is a Russian word – nagli – which describes a brazen, open way of doing something obviously wrong, if not criminal, without the slightest indication of a guilty conscience. In just such a manner, Nursultan Nazarbayev boasts of tremendous progress being made in the Kazakh economy. This may be the case for the super-rich, making huge personal fortunes from the mineral extracting industries, but not for the mass of the population living in increasing poverty.

Nazarbayev’s billions and those of his family are squandered on $75 million villas abroad and mass functions at home (like his daughter’s $5 million birthday party). Undoubtedly, much of it is stashed away in foreign banks. His son-in-law is vice president of the Kazakhstan KNB (KGB, Kazakhstan-style) His regime is utterly corrupt and one of the most repressive in the region. What is he afraid of?

He is in league with some of the most notorious robber barons in the business and banking world. Of course he wants to protect his position. Even his feint in the direction of not accepting the ‘Leader of the Nation for Life’ status was bogus. Like many in his position, with a lot to hide, he does not want to be removed.

In a (very expensive) six page advertising supplement of the International Herald Tribune on 2 June, he writes: “First we set the example of how to become politically and economically stable…For investors, our country has become a reliable bridgehead into the Caspian region and Central Asia… “As OSCE chair, we will “Address problems in our region”. He speaks of a fast-growing GDP, low public debt levels and falling unemployment. Tell that to the millions without any stable employment or income in Kazakhstan, facing mounting prices on essential goods and with massive housing debts resulting from the ‘credit crunch’ crisis.

Debts and the fight-back

In the early years of this century, workers and middle class people, including small, close-to-the-margin businesses and traders, were bombarded with offers of what amounted to sub-prime loans and mortgages. Now, since the credit bubble burst, their dreams have turned to nightmares. They find themselves owing ten times more than they borrowed in the first place!

In mid-June this year, leaders of Kazakhstan 2012 took two visitors from the CWI – Igor Yasin and myself – 700 kilometres west of Almaty, to the city of Shimkent, to meet men and women of the movement there who are feeling the full force of the debt crisis and the oppressive regime of Nazarbayev.

Angry women regaled us with tales of what they called their ’folly’. “But why should we be taken to court to pay up, or told to get out of our houses, some of which we have not even finished building, when the bankers have had massive hand-outs from the government?”

In a warm and lively meeting, events in Europe were touched on and the women identified immediately with the plight of the Greek workers, told to pay for the crisis that is not of their making. The Greek government, like them, has to pay bankers massive interest rates, when these swindlers have borrowed the capital at knock-down prices. The activists here (and in Almaty) also readily identified with the mass, organised struggle in Britain of two decades ago, when 18 million people refused to pay the poll tax, forced it to be scrapped and brought down an ’iron lady’ prime minister, Thatcher.

They spoke of their own fight for justice and a different life. “For a while, some of our women, who could not cope, were taking their own lives. There were said to be 1,000 people in one town suffering from a kind of depression known as ’mortgagee syndrome’. Then we organised and began to get victories. Now we fight every case to the end and will not give up.”

These women fighters want to finish with dictatorship and all the corruption and cruelty at the top. “The massive road-building project – ’The Golden Highway’ – of Nazarbayev will cost a fortune and will wreck our environment!” they exclaim. They want Joe Higgins (Socialist Party, Ireland, MEP) to come and sort things out!

“The old system was better than today’s ‘market-place’. We had free schooling, free medicine and hospitals, stable prices, low cost flats and controlled prices of basic goods. Of course we had Stalin then. It would be better if we had all that without dictatorship!” So why not? One woman simply said, “Lenin got it right. We need revolution!”.

A medical worker building an independent union pleaded with the visiting speakers, including Ainur and Esenbek, to give an idea of how to take the struggle further than just the mass movement and the trade unions. Igor from Moscow explained clearly the need for a party, the aspirations of the CWI and Socialist Resistance (Kazakhstan), the struggle for socialism internationally and the importance of newspapers, like Solidarity (Socialist Resistance) and Socialist Alternative (CWI, Russia).

Authorities ridiculed

In Almaty, too, there are fearless women involved in almost daily protests demanding the annulment of their debts and the right to keep their homes. Women are less likely to get imprisoned than men, but they can be taken to court and fined.

On 9 June, an unstoppable force of over 100 women stormed the headquarters of the ruling party, Nur Otan. (Identical protests were held in two other cities at the same time). They got press and TV coverage for their noisy and colourful demonstration, with pictures all over the front page of the newspaper, Vremya. They promised to return in a week if they got no satisfactory reply, and they did return!

The following week, on yet another demo, they set out to ridicule the authorities, dangling noodles from their fingers and their ears – a traditional manner of pouring scorn on liars. They shouted their usual demands, for dropping all debts, through a megaphone. Four of their number got arrested and charged with unlawful behaviour.

When they were brought up in court, making fun of the whole procedure, they pretended to be unable to hear the charges being made against them and unable to speak in response! The officials shook with rage and handed down totally arbitrary fines from something like $30 to $3.

The women fighters make light of their struggle and seem actually to enjoy it, but every day they are risking their homes, their livelihoods, their liberty and their health. They are proud of their achievements and have no intention of giving up the struggle.

Revenge of the authorities

On 15 June, Esenbek Ukteshbayev, one of the leaders of the movement, was once again in an Almaty court. Just weeks before, he had been sentenced to five days in prison merely for organising a May Day demonstration. Like his co-leader, Ainur Kurmanov, already in jail at that time, he went on a protest hunger strike. (See details of solidarity campaign by CWI on socialistworld.net).

This time, with his wife, Baxeut, Esen was suing the authorities for harassment – obviously politically-motivated. After hosting the founding conference of Kazakhstan 2012 in their courtyard, under the noses of the secret police, they had been pestered by Water Board officials about non-payment of bills and attempts to use water illegally. They sent employees to the house with a tractor and told Baxeut they had orders to “Cut off the water or be sacked!”.

Baxeut, told them: “If you cut off the water, I’ll take you to court and you will be sacked anyway!”. They said: “If everything is legal, let us cut it off, and after a week, you’ll get it back on.”

“And if everything is legal, why should I sit even a week without water?…Tell your bosses to ask their overlords how, if they are sending people to jail for striking, do we get enough money to pay anything? We can’t sleep with worry about jobs, interest rates, prison sentences for strikers and protesters and now this! I will lie under the tractor before you get way with this! We’ll get the mass media involved. We cannot pay for the country’s crisis; we will not pay!”

The officials came back with water-diviners and tried, a few times, all unsuccessful, to get neighbours to say where the water pipes enter the premises. Strangely enough, the court hearing has been delayed already twice. What are they afraid of?

Esenbek has the habit of saying that the attacks of the regime and its agents are like mosquito bites. They only spur the targets of their aggression into more activity!

Miners and independent unions

Where is the ‘progress’ that Nazarbayev talks of for the miners of Schakhtinsk, Karaganda? There are eight mines in the area, plus an enrichment works and repair shops employing a total of 25,000 workers. The miners work with worn-out, 40 year-old machinery and treacherous levels of methane gas. If they do not fulfil their individual ‘plan’, they lose 70% of their income!

Under Stalin, Karaganda was the site of a notorious concentration camp, where tens of thousands of political prisoners were used as slave labour in the pits. Under a foreign owner, Lakshmi Mittal, who invests little or nothing in the industry, conditions today are still horrific. The 10 ‘golden rules’ of safety are all broken. The pumps to take the gas out of the mine-shafts do not work most of the time.

The authorities in the town, and the ‘official’ union, allow the Indian oligarch to, as many workers claim, literally get away with murder: to break the law, to play off injured workers and retirees against the workforce, to close the eight hospitals attached to the pits.

At the beginning of June this year, anger was reaching boiling point. Up to 400 miners met to discuss the setting up of a new independent union, inviting leaders of ‘Kazakhstan 2012’ and other independent trade unionists to participate.

They also invited representatives of the local council, of the ‘official’ trade union and of the tame ‘independent’ union set up by management (in the manner of those set up in the Russian factories prior to the revolution of 1905). A certain Sergei Belkin from the pseudo union ’For Valued Work’, who allegedly constantly lies to the workers, declined the invitation, because ’extremists’ were coming from Almaty!

When the local authority refused the use of the community hall – the “House of Miners” – the meeting went ahead in a derelict nursery school with the help of local women workers who support the movement.

Natalya Tamilova, founder of the ‘Miners’ Families’ organisation, is one of the prime movers of the new union. The authorities cut off the supply of electricity, water and telephone to her flat and want to make her homeless. They even sent a rodent control officer to try and gain entry to her flat and evict her! “The rats are us!”, said one of the workers’ leaders.

Natalya is the widow of a miner killed in an explosion in 2006. She set up an ‘Association of Widows’ then, and now the ‘Miners’ Families’ organisation which is laying the basis for a new, independent miners’ union. She will not be ‘dissuaded’ by any tactics of the state or the management, to give up the struggle for the rights of miners and their families.

Mittal is hated by the workers of Karaganda and beyond. He is branded as a ‘Xishnik’ – ‘predator’ – along with the other oligarchs and multi-millionaires who have moved into Kazakhstan to bleed it of its wealth and, along with the local capitalist gangsters, to trample on the lives and livelihoods of workers. A new strike battle in Karaganda looms after an underground explosion killed another two miners and left dozens badly injured on June 24.

Earlier this year, when Russian miners took to the streets in anguished protest at the death of 66 of their workmates in the Raspadskaya mine (half-owned by the oligarch Roman Abramovitch), the miners of Karaganda sent an important message of sympathy and solidarity. They told ‘Kazakhstan 2012’ leaders of how they, as they work a seam, quite often have the grisly experience of coming across the corpses of former workmates. The management will not even interrupt work to honour the dead and remove the bodies after a disaster!

The leaders of Kazakhstan 2012, once back in Almaty (a day and night’s journey away) held a press conference about the struggle in Karaganda and drew up plans for an open-air rally to support the miners there. When this was (not unexpectedly) banned, the solidarity meeting was held in the headquarters of the Kazakhstan Communist Party. (The square where the rally was supposed to take place was still surrounded by an unprecedented number of riot police!)

At the end of the meeting, Ainur Kurmanov, of Kazakhstan 2012, and leading member of Socialist Resistance (CWI, Kazakhstan), voiced the popular demand for the immediate nationalisation (re-nationalisation) under democratic workers’ control of the mining industry in Kazakhstan. The response, as always, was extremely positive.

Other workers

Present at the same meeting was Marat Moldabekov, a scientific worker trying to build an independent union at his Institute. “At this moment”, he said, “We need independent trade unions as much as we need air to breathe.” He now has 10,000 scientific workers involved in forming a new union under the auspices of Kazakhstan 2012.

Earlier in June, in discussion with the CWI visitors, Marat had been explaining how the authorities tried every bureaucratic manoeuvre in the book to prevent him organising real representation of the workers. We were talking about important international experiences of battles for trade union democracy and how workers in Britain and elsewhere had conducted various industrial and community struggles.

Suddenly a group of teachers arrived at the door, extremely agitated. They were fed up with being pushed around (and victimised) by school administrators who are in the pockets of the regime. They wanted to set up a new union and had come to see someone they trusted to help decide what to do next!

Other independent unions are taking shape in Kazakhstan – amongst medical workers, engineers and oil-workers (some of whom, at the end of June, were planning strike action for July).

In the hothouse of workers’ dissatisfaction in Kazakhstan, and attempts to organise independently against the bosses and the regime, various advisers and ‘foundations’ from outside the country turn up offering ’assistance’ for conducting workers’ seminars etc. But each has their own agenda. European Social Democrats want nothing more than to make ‘wild’ capitalism respectable. On the left, there are ‘socialists’ who support head-on confrontation with the bosses, but without accepting the need to carry out the patient and painstaking work of building a political party – the vital tool needed for carrying the struggle through to a successful conclusion.

The struggle and the campaign continue

All the activists in the movement in Kazakhstan deeply appreciate the support and solidarity from abroad. They have plenty of ’cases’ for the European Parliamentary delegation led by Joe Higgins to look into when they visit in September – not least the sham of Kazakhstan’s presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They are clamouring for their voices to be heard across the globe.

A campaign of solidarity has to be stepped up. When activists are physically attacked and jailed, as they have been on many occasions and will be again, messages and protests are of vital importance. And they do have an effect. (See reports on socialistworld.net) But more is needed. Speaking tours in Europe and elsewhere would enable these brave fighters to tell their tales directly and gather valuable political and material support.

The movement against the Nazarbayev regime and against capitalism in Kazakhstan is gathering momentum. Kazakhstan 2012 has at least 10,000 members of the 40,000 needed to formalise a political party. They have a youth wing – ’Zhastar 2012’ – and are reaching into every corner of the country with their political and trade union campaigns.

The future will not be easy. Nazarbayev will use every trick in the book to hang on to power. He fears the kind of mass movement that overthrew Bakiyev in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan this spring. Pointing to the recent deadly pogroms against Uzbeks in that country, Nazarbayev is already trying to deflect attention from the movement against him by warning of contagion and ethnic conflict in southern parts of Kazakhstan.

Resentment against cheap Chinese labour replacing Kazakh workers and stall-holders is also a potential cause of bloody clashes, if a clear fight for jobs for all and public ownership and democratic control of market areas as well as industry is not boldly advocated.

Socialists will combat division amongst workers and poor by building a party that unites them in the struggle against dictatorship. Well before the year 2012, the new movement will be shaking the foundations of the Nazarbayev regime. Powerful though it may appear today, this dictatorship could crumble under a revolutionary movement from below. Such a movement will link up with the growing mass struggles of workers in Russia and Europe, as well as the mighty movement of the Chinese working class already rising to its feet. The courageous fight of the revolutionaries in Kazakhstan is an inspiration to socialists world-wide.

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July 2010