Kazakhstan: In defence of the oil workers

Union bureaucracy and ’left’ groups attack CWI’s solidarity with strikers

With unbelievable brutality, the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan attempted to break the spirit of oil workers in Zhanaozen and Aktau, using troops, police, live bullets, mass detentions, curfews and torture. Even the regime admits that 16 people were killed and many more wounded in December. The reality is that dozens were killed, hundreds wounded and many more remain in police detention or in hiding from state persecution.

A street protest by the Zhanaozen oil workers on 16 December was an entirely peaceful affair. Video footage from various sources, including the police, shows the oil workers and their supporters in a central square, with no weapons, and not not even waving sticks or staves. It shows that when some verbal disputes with the police started to get heated, more experienced workers acted to calm down the situation.

The oil workers had already demonstrated heroic restraint during their seven month strike. Their elected representatives were arrested and faced violence. Their lawyer, Natalia Sokolova, was sentenced to 6 years in prison. Oil workers’ homes were burnt down, and a striker and the daughter of another striker were both murdered. Thousands of oil workers were sacked. Despite all these provocations, the oil workers have done everything possible to maintain disciplined and non-violent protests.

Yet the oil workers’ employer, with the backing of the regime, consistently refused meaningful negotiations with the workers. On several occasions, the state prepared for a violent confrontation, but held back for fear of provoking a wider conflict throughout the country and, undoubtedly, in part because of the growing solidarity for the strikers from other countries.

Violence and palace coup – two sides of same coin

But on 16 December, troops and police were drafted into the region during the days beforehand. They were issued with weapons with live rounds. Apart from in Astana, the capital, plans to officially celebrate the 20th anniversary of an independent Kazakhstan (due on 16 December) were wound down across the country.

It appears that the armed attack on the oil workers’ demonstration in Zhanaozen was part of a wider plan organised by a part of the ruling elite. The violence that escalated out of control following the police shootings was used as an excuse to demote key figures in the ruling regime, including the removal of Nazarbayev’s middle son-in-law , Timur Kulibayev, as President of ‘KazMunaiGaz’ and from the national fund, ‘Samruk-Kazyn’. This, and rumours that the head of the KNB (secret police) may be replaced by figures more loyal to the Massimov-Musin group, indicate that, in effect, a palace coup has been conducted within the ruling elite.

Troops in Zhanaozen

Attacks on oil strikers

Yet, again and again, the oil-workers and their supporters are blamed for the events of the 16th December. These charges, in various forms, made by spokesmen of the regime are being echoed by the mass media, trade union bureaucracy and by some ’left’ groups, acting as apologists for the Nazarbayev regime.

The regime claims that the “major cause of mass disturbances lies in the actions of a group of hooligans, who took advantage of the long-standing labour dispute between the dismissed employees and the leadership of the “Ozenmunaigaz” company.” (Statement issued by the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Austria 23 December 2011)

The Kazakh Ambassador to the US, Erlan Idrissov, claimed on 21 December 2011, that “Police tried to behave as responsibly as possible to protect the lives of civilians … Initially, in the [Zhanaozen] square, only the police leader had a weapon… Only when vandalism started and the threat to peaceful lives began – after the burning of the akimat [local government] building – then police had to resort to necessary means to restore order.”

According to a statement made by the Askhat Daulbayev, Prosecutor General of the Republic of Kazakhstan, on 16 December, the disturbances were caused when “a group of hooligans (in the Square) began beating up civilians and smashing cars parked near the square”. The statement continues: “As a result of the disturbances, the mayor’s office, a hotel and the “Ozenmunaigaz” company building were burned down…”

These statements, in reaction to the world-wide protests that took place, are clearly intended to mislead international opinion about the events in Zhanaozen. The Prosecutor General’s claim, on 16 December, that the buildings were burnt down “as a result of the disturbances” had been changed over the next couple of days by the authorities to give the impression that the burning of the buildings preceded police actions.

But the regime’s claims already lead to serious questions:

  • If what happened in Zhanaozen was rioting caused by alleged hooligans, why were the ‘usual means’ of policing, such as rubber bullets and water cannons, not deployed? Why was live ammunition used?
  • If the police were protecting the alleged hooligans from beating people up in the square, why did they shoot live bullets into the very crowd they were supposedly “protecting”?
  • If the police action was in response to rioting, why did the Kazakhstan Ambassador to the US feel it necessary to spend a significant part of his statement attacking the striking oil workers?
  • If this was simply a riot, why has the government banned demonstrations, public assembly and strikes and forbidden the use of copy machines, TV, radio, video, audio and PA speakers? It is strange rioters who publish leaflets and organize press conferences.

Videos and eye witnesses reveal this was an unprovoked attack

The truth is that the massacre in Zhanaozen was not a legitimate response by the police to hooliganism or rioting but a pre-determined attack on the oil-workers in an attempt to break their strike. There are now several video films circulating that demonstrate that the square before the attack was occupied by peaceful and unarmed protesters, and that the police/troops marching to the square, shooting into the crowd from afar. In one particularly distressing video, in scenes reminiscent of those from the July Days in 1917 Petrograd (when the army fired on and killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators at the city’s Nevsky Prospect), the protesters are shown fleeing across the Square as they are shot in the back, and those injured and on the ground are brutally beaten by the state’s thugs.

So revealing are these films, even Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General has been forced to react. On the 27 December, he announced a criminal investigation into “deaths caused by the police as a result of a shoot to kill order”. There can, of course, be no confidence that the investigation will be conducted in a rigorous and open way. But it is telling that if any police officers are found guilty of killing people, they face only 5-10 years in prison, while the oil workers’ lawyer, who has done no more than peacefully defend the strikers, has already been sentenced to 6 years on trumped up charges.

Further confirmation of the shoot-to-kill policy was provided by no less than the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, K. Kazymov, in an interview conducted on 16 December, in which he admitted that he gave the order to open fire on the crowds. He tried to justify this by claiming the protesters “were armed with automatic weapons, and so were we”. He confirmed that the police would continue to shoot Kazakh citizens, if ‘necessary’. His interview has appeared on the internet, with the scenes of the crowd running in panic from his police, where it is clear that they are unarmed and are being shot in the back.

Nazarbayev claims ‘foreign influences’ and ‘criminals’

In the light of this, the claim by Nursultan Nazarbayev, made to the leadership of his administration, that “organized criminal groups connected to foreign forces” bear responsibility for the Zhanaozen events, is particularly cynical.

Many in Kazakhstan believe that the biggest organized criminal group in the country is the Nazarbayev clan itself and the battalion of marines used in the violent attack are US-trained and equipped with US weapons. Photographs are still appearing of US-made Hummer armoured cars manning police checkpoints in Aktau and Zhanaozen.

But Nazarbayev’s claim is aimed at diverting attention away from the role of the police, the Minister of Internal Affairs, special troops and of those within his own circle who planned this massacre, by blaming figures such as Mukhtar Ablazov, Rakhat Aliyev and Bulat Abilov.

These oligarchs, all former members of the ruling clique, will undoubtedly attempt to exploit opposition to the current regime to build support for their own pro-capitalist policies. But they are all opposed to the idea that the oil workers should establish their own united, independent trade union and political party under the control of the workers themselves.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev & US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

The oil workers were disciplined and peaceful

The idea that the oil workers were somehow being manipulated by some outside secret force is an insult to their determination and discipline. The decision to organize the peaceful protest on 16 December was taken openly at a mass meeting in the Square. The decision was announced publicly and the oil workers even announced to the authorities that they intended to organize such a protest and warned that there was the danger of provocations organized by sections of the special forces.

The public way in which the oil-workers’ protest on 16 December was planned allowed Campaign Kazakhstan and the CWI to organize pickets outside Kazakh embassies and commercial interests linked to Kazakhstan in a number of other countries on that day. Their character changed from solidarity to protest when news of the police massacre emerged.

In the week following the massacre, protests were held across Europe, including in London, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Stockholm, Dublin, Athens and further afield in New York, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv. Member of the European Parliament, Paul Murphy, called for EU talks with the Kazakhstan government to be broken off and he organized a letter of protest signed by over 40 MEPs. Press releases were issued in a number of countries and press conferences organized in Moscow and Almaty. [To see reports of the protests visit our archive of Kazakhstan articles on socialistworld.net here]

Breaking the press blockade

The policy of the EU, OSCE and US is dictated by the interests these bodies have in exploiting Kazakhstan’s oil and gas resources. They initially either ignored or gave an equivocal response to the shootings. To some degree, this was reflected in the editorial policies of a large section of the world’s media. In the early hours after the massacre, for example, Moscow-based international reporters refused to carry reports confirming the bloodbath “without independent confirmation” while carrying the regime’s statements. United Press International, for example, on 16 December, blamed the oil workers and “hooligans” for the violence, three times in a 150-word article.

The campaign waged by the CWI and Campaign Kazakhstan helped to defeat the regime’s attempts to cover up the scale of the massacre. Eventually, the overwhelming weight of eye witness accounts, video footage and accounts of journalists that managed to reach the city, began to change the balance of reports.

An injury to one is an injury to all

Just as rapidly rank and file trade unionists responded to the crisis. In Antwerp, Belgium, for example, a trade union at an oil refinery carried live reports from the CWI on its web site, so that workers could see the horror of events for themselves. Although the Kazakhstan CWI site was immediately blocked by the regime following the police shootings, the Russian CWI site kept crashing because it was simply overloaded with visitors, including many of the world’s media.

In Sweden, Gruvtolvan, the trade union for the mining industry in Kiruna unequivocally condemned “the violence against the workers…when police and military attacked a demonstration in the city Zhanaozen”. They called for the Swedish trade union movement to actively support the Kazakh oil workers under the motto, "A victory for workers anywhere is a victory for the workers everywhere!" and accompanied the call with a large donation for the strikers.

If a genuine and independent national trade union organization had been in existence in Kazakhstan, on the 16 December, it would have immediately called meetings and protest and strikes throughout the country in response to the massacre in Zhanaozen.

An International and independent commission of inquiry is needed

Unfortunately, while rank and file trade unionists across the globe reacted immediately, a section of the international trade union bureaucracy adopted the approach of “shame on both your houses”. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued a statement on the 16 December by General Secretary Sharan Burrow: “an extreme situation of tension and despair has provoked unrest, panic and chaos. Violence must stop immediately, and all the parties must recognise that the only way for the conflict resolution is open dialogue and negotiation. The government must move immediately to start that process.”

Ignoring the regime’s responsibility for the massacre, this statement reflects the position of many other bodies, such as Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement on 22 December. This statement detailed several cases of severe torture being carried out by the forces of the Kazakhstan government in Zhanaozen. It then, unbelievably, draws the conclusion that the “Kazakhstan authorities should conduct an immediate investigation….” Clearly this would ignore the actions of the Interior Ministry and at best find a few scapegoats to let off a bit of the anger.

The CWI believes there needs to be an international commission of inquiry established that is completely independent of the government and state structures and of the oil and gas interests, to investigate the real causes and persons responsible for this massacre.

“Lefts” and trade union bureaucrats stab oil workers in the back

But if the ITUC failed to clearly condemn the actions of the Nazarbayev regime, at least it did not directly attack the oil-workers. Unbelievably, on the 17th and 18th December, statements appeared on Russian language websites controlled by trade union and left groups, which, while condemning the violence, then launched into attacks on the oil workers, their demands and tactics, often repeating the anti-striker arguments of the employers and governments.

The Russian Socialist Movement (USFI), for example (which has no relation to the Kazakhstan Socialist Movement) helped to divert attention from the responsibility of the Nazarbayev government for the massacre by crudely repeating the regime’s lies about it being a response to provocations by the Kazakhstan oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. By doing so, they reduce the role of the self-disciplined and politically conscious oil-workers to mere pawns in the games of Kazakh oligarchs and give credence to age old tricks of dictators who blame foreign influences (Ablyazov lives in London) for all their problems.

The most significant attacks however have come from the International Union of Foodworkers and the Confederation of Labour of Russia. Even before the events of December 16th, former left IUF functionaries in Geneva and Moscow were working to undermine solidarity support for the strike. For example, pressure was brought to bear on Alexei Etmanov, the best known independent trade unionist in Russia, leading him to renege on his promise to organise solidarity for the oil workers by the MPRA car workers’ union.

Alexei Etmanov

The excuse given was that the oil workers had been manipulated by representatives of the “revolutionary left” – that is the CWI. This was confirmed in an IUF statement on the 9th December 2011, which read, “With huge organizational potential, the strikers in all this time never set up their own organization, as before they do not have their own elected representatives and leadership, with the right to represent the workers in their negotiations with the management and authorities. This meant that from the start, various political groups were able to use the social energy and potential of the mass workers’ movement in their own interests. Speaking in the name of the workers and constantly rewriting the demands for the workers, they brought huge harm to the movement, took the conflict out of the field of trade union struggle and reduced to a minimum the chances of success, robbing the Zhanaozens of their strike”.

This statement echoes the arguments of the employers and government and is particularly disgraceful given that the workers, from the very beginning, elected their representatives for the conduct of negotiations and these representatives then met with severe repression – Natalia Sokolova has been jailed for 6 years, Akzhanat Aminov received a two year suspended sentence and a third has had his house burnt to the ground!

The oil workers have been fighting for the right to establish genuine trade unions

It should be remembered that the oil workers’ hunger strike started last May after the members of the trade union at Karazhanbasmunai, in Aktau, demanded the return of trade union documents and stamps from the former president of their union, after he was removed from office by the votes of the membership. Through his actions, the former union leader collaborated with management to prevent meaningful negotiations over wages and conditions. He sent groups of armed thugs into the oil field to beat up his opponents. In June, the IUF sent a whole series of bureaucratic questions to the strikers, the answers to which required of 60 pages of documents. The result of their tribulations was to declare that the workers were wrong in removing the former union leader, as they could only change their President once every 5 years!

The claim that the CWI has continuously “rewritten” the demands of the workers is absolutely ludicrous and like any slander given without any examples. From the beginning of the strike, the CWI published on its sites all the statements produced by the strikers. On 1 June 2011, after the riot police attacked hunger strikers in Zhanaozen, the strike committee in Zhanaozen made the following additional demands:

  • The moving of the Head office of the company “KazMunaiGaz” to Aktau;
  • The restoration of the autonomous status of the “OzenMunaiGaz” company;
  • The payment of extra money to the city’s doctors and teachers for working in an ecologically difficult region and the increase in their pay by 60%;
  • The return into state ownership, that is nationalization, of those enterprises that were recently part of “OzenMunaiGaz” – in particular TOO “Burylai”, TOO “KazGPZ”, TOO “Kruz”, TOO “Zhondei” and others.

By July, there had been arson attacks made against the homes of strike activists and the murder of Zhaksylyk Turbayev, when it became clear Turbayev would be elected as the new trade union chair. Trade union lawyer Natalia Sokolova and activist Akzhanat Aminov had been arrested and were facing serious charges. Thousands of strikers were sacked. During their meeting with MEP Paul Murphy, last July, the workers defined their demands in the following way:

  • The recognition of the right of the workers to elect their own representatives without interference;
  • To free Natalia Sokolova and Akzhanat Aminov;
  • To reinstate all sacked strikers on conditions equivalent to those previously accepted;
  • To drop all administrative and criminal charges against other strike activists;
  • To begin meaningful negotiations with the elected representatives of the workers on the disputed coefficients.

Natalia Sokolova with oil workers

Trade union bureaucrats support strike breakers and union splitters

In reality, it is the IUF, the Russian KTR and their “fraternal organization” in Kazakhstan, the so-called “Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan”, that were trying to hijack the strike. The CFTUK, led by Sergei Belkin, has long ceased to exist as a genuine trade union organization. In 2009, Belkin signed an agreement with the government to stop all strikes, protests and demonstrations by workers, to allow the regime to ‘maintain stability’. Last November, when the government announced it was to conduct “negotiations” in Zhanaozen, Belkin, who had been nowhere near Mangystau since the start of the hunger strike, suddenly turned up, apparently as an ‘independent expert’ to assist the government in its attempts to break the strike. The regime’s tactic was to try and split the strikers by offering some of them jobs in a newly established company, while encouraging Belkin to set up a new anti-strike trade union as part of the CFTK. Strikers, however, rejected these tactics, insisting that all workers should be re-instated to their former jobs.

Hypocritically, the IUF and KTR, after supporting and publicizing the strike-breaking and union-splitting activities of Belkin, lectures the oil-workers. They say that the oil workers should: “decide to follow the path of establishing their own, independent trade union, which can decide a strategy of action and propose their demands at all levels, ensuring that they and their families get the necessary defense and enabling them to mobilise international support”.

Need to build genuine, independent trade unions

From the start of the strike, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) fully supported, not just in words, but with deeds, the appeal circulated in Zhanaozen and Aktau and signed by thousands of workers in November (i.e. before the IUF ’advice’) where they explain , “Our struggle demonstrates that to defeat injustice and arbitrary rule can only be done by uniting our forces. In this difficult and complicated situation, the best support and action will be to establish an independent sectoral trade union and the development of common, unified demands to the employer: the increase in wages, the improvement in conditions of life and work, the non-interference of the employer in the work of the trade union. By uniting, such a trade union will become a strong foundation for the creation of a united national independent trade union of Kazakhstan”

The CWI believes that if trade unions such as the IUF and KTR genuinely support the oil-workers, they should publicly withdraw all support to the so-called CFTK and give urgent practical and moral support to those working in Mangystau who are trying to establish a genuine, independent and united trade union in these extremely difficult circumstances. Even if the IUF and KTR refuse to do so, the CWI will continue to support and argue for the position accepted by the majority of strikers in Mangystau.

On 17 December, the President of the KTR, Boris Kravchenko, clearly attempted to blame the CWI for the Zhanaozen events: “We believe that responsibility for these events, for the blood of the oil workers is fully that of the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan. However, this responsibility should be completely shared with those political speculators, self-appointed ’committees’ and ’internationals’ who use the social protest for their own interests, rewriting the protesters’ demands into ’political’ demands, their provocative actions, pushing the authorities to use violent measures”.

Exactly what Boris Kravchenko thinks the CWI has done is not clear. We have supported the strike from its inception. We have argued for the employers to remove any barriers so that meaningful negotiations can start. We have argued that the negotiations should be conducted transparently by elected representatives of the strikers. From the beginning, we have been engaged in raising solidarity support for the strikers and assisting in breaking the media blockade. We discussed with the strikers their plans to organize a peaceful protest on the 16 December and agreed we would organize an international campaign of support for it.

Boris Kravchenko

Communists outdo even the trade union bureaucrats

An even more vicious attack on the oil workers has appeared from the Communist Party of the Ukraine. Saying nothing until the 4th January, this party finally broke its silence over the events in an article which accused Natalia Sokolova of being an agent of the US State department and the oil workers of being responsible for “the attempts of the US to destabilize the politico-economic situation”. They continued: “The leadership of Kazakhstan acted harshly, courageously and adequately. They were harsh in introducing a state of emergency and the riot police held no ceremonies when dealing with the well armed fighters behind the oil workers. They showed courage when the President, Nazarbayev, visited the city of Zhanaozen and personally spoke to the local residents. They were adequate in their response by acting firmly, but explained to the gentlemen from the EU that anything happening in Zhanaozen was an internal affair for the Kazakhs to deal with”.

The “left” attack oil workers for demanding nationalisation

On the 18 December, the left wing web-site “RabKor” carried an article by Aleksei Simoyanov of the Institute of Globalisation in Moscow. After almost seven months of silence and just 2 days after the bloody massacre, the author decided to join in the attacks on the oil workers: "It is impossible not to talk of a number of tactical mistakes made by the protesters during their campaign. As long as the main slogans of the protesters were for better wages, for the observation of labour law, against the worsening of conditions, they were in a strong position. Within the bounds of a labour dispute, the authorities had their hands tied, as any pressure would be purely illegitimate. The problem was complicated when under the influence of the CWI the workers took up political demands, including nationalization of the company”.

Yet, as can be seen from the evolution of the strikers’ demands above, the oil workers were already proposing nationalization of their company from the start of the dispute. They did not need the CWI to point out to them that as long as these companies remain in the hands of private capital, linked to the ruling regime and the foreign transnationals, they could not expect to get a reasonable wage. The only change in that demand during the strike is that it has been generalized into the demand for all the oil sector to be taken back into public ownership and that this should be done under workers’ control. Workers in Kazakhstan are not alone in drawing these conclusions. In December, for example, tens of thousands of trade unionists in Liege, Belgium, marched to demand the nationalization of the Arcelor-Mittal plant in that country.

Belgian trade unionists demand nationalisation

All strikes are political to some degree or other

Simoyanov shows a deep misunderstanding of the strike. The management of the company refused to negotiate not because the workers raised the demand for nationalization but because they were not prepared to pay the workers any more wages. The logic of his article is that workers should restrict their struggles to purely economic questions, and if they go further, any pressure against them becomes “legitimate”. Following this logic, trade unions should not demand the sacking of anti-trade union managers or strike to bring down authoritarian regimes. Should trade unionists in Europe, in Greece, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere, who are demonstrating and striking in their millions against the austerity policies of their governments not also call for the removal of these governments? Or would Simoyanov also consider this demand ‘illegitimate’?

The irony is that these critics, rushing to attack the oil strikers, have actually forgotten to attack the management and ended up to the right of even Nazarbayev, who, in Aktau after the massacre complained: “The Government, as well as the ’Samruk Kazyna’ National Welfare Fund and KazMunaiGas company have failed to implement my instructions on the timely resolution of the labour dispute. Unfortunately, they proved unable to resolve the issue. There turned out to be a lot of chance people in the leadership of the company and its affiliated branches”.

Characteristic of the ‘left’ critics of the strikers, is the way in which they close their eyes to the trade union functionaries who co-operate with authoritarian regimes, usually in the guise of “social partnership”! After all, Boris Kravchenko is a member of Russian President Medvedev’s advisory council, Alexei Etmanov is a candidate for the pro-Kremlin ’Just Russia’, and Sergei Belkin has signed a ‘no-strike’ agreement with the Nazarbayev regime to help it stay in power. They are angry, not because the oil workers have taken up political demands – they did not criticize the oil workers when they joined, or rather were made to join en-masse, Nazarbayev’s ’Nur Otan’ Party. The criticisms only started when the oil workers declared that they were no longer going to support ’Nur Otan’, and issued a call for a complete boycott of this January’s fraudulent parliamentary elections. Rather than allow themselves to be dragged behind one or other of the pro-regime political parties by these trade union ’advisers’, the oil workers have called for the establishment of their own, democratic and independent workers’ party capable of representing their interests without the influence of the oligarchs.

16th December – the start of the end for Nazarbayev

The events of 16 December 2011 mark a turning point in the development of workers’ struggles across the former Soviet Union (CIS). After seven months of bitter struggle, the oil workers have learnt many bitter lessons. They have demonstrated in a peaceful and disciplined manner, rejecting provocations intended to drive them to violence. They have gone further than merely demanding higher wages from an employer that has no intention of paying more, arguing as well that companies should be nationalised, under workers’ control, so that the country’s wealth can be used for the people, rather than to enrich the oligarchs and ruling family. They have demonstrated that they can unite around them all the poor and exploited in the region, arguing for better pay for those that work in the ‘budget’ (public) sector. They have learned that there are many ‘leaders’ and ‘politicians’ prepared to pledge eternal friendship in return for votes, but who deserted the oil workers at the first signs of need. They have seen that the only true friends are workers in other cities and in other countries who have expressed genuine solidarity.

Even after the horrific attacks by the police and army on 16 December, which left many dead, wounded and in prison, the oil workers have maintained their dignity and discipline. They continue to make a clear call for workers to organise themselves into a single, unified national and independent trade union federation, and for an independent workers’ party to represent workers’ political interests. The CWI is proud to remain in full solidarity with them.

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