Kazakhstan: ‘Labour Start’ editor makes outrageous claims against oil workers and CWI

Worldwide solidarity campaign means the Kazakhstan regime can no longer deny 16 December massacre

Yet another attack has been made against the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in relation to the strike of oil workers in Zhanaozen, in West Kazakhstan. In a remarkably badly informed article, Eric Lee, Founder and Editor of ‘Labour Start’, which describes itself as an ‘online news service for the international trade union movement’, reports that “members of the international trade union movement accuse one of the left groups of manipulating the strikers and led them into a hopeless confrontation”. He goes on, in a statement circulated on the Russian language ‘Unions today’ site and on some German language blogs, although not, it seems, in English, to make outrageous and false claims (The main English language Labour Start website chooses not to make the same baseless, scandalous allegations but just posts a general call for solidarity with the oil workers)

For simplicity’s sake, these will just be answered as they are made.

According to Eric Lee, “activists of the Kazakh, Russian and international trade union movement criticize the CWI. They manipulated the strikers, provoked them from outside and this led to the tragic events, during which buildings were burnt down and violence was used on both sides.”

This has already been answered elsewhere (“In defense of the oil workers”) but to refute these baseless claims we will explain the position of the oil workers and the CWI again. Following the collapse of the government-initiated negotiations in November, during which the “activists of the Kazakh trade union movement” (specifically Sergei Belkin, who has signed a ‘no strike’ agreement with the authoritarian Kazakh government) were wheeled in by the government side to play a strike breaking role, strike activists warned and were very concerned that some of the youth in the city could, in desperation, turn to violence. It was therefore decided to cut across this mood by organizing a peaceful show of strength with a peaceful demonstration and strike on the 16th December. Members of the CWI who discussed with the organisers of these protests fully shared their concerns and much discussion took place over how to ensure that the demonstration would be peaceful. The appeal by the oil workers for a peaceful demonstration on the 16th December can be read in English here.

Police shot unarmed, peaceful crowd

Anyone watching the video footage from 16 December will clearly see that workers had indeed gathered in the square and were not armed – were not carrying sticks, stones, knives or weapons of any kind. Many eyewitnesses however tell how police shot into the unarmed and peaceful crowd killing and injuring not only strikers but many onlookers. In one video, a group of men are seen wrecking the stage for a concert by throwing the loudspeakers off. Strikers however say that these were probably state provocateurs, as the men had not been seen in the square during the seven month strike and they were all dressed in apparently new company jackets. But even the breaking of a couple of loudspeakers and the wrecking of a New Year fir tree is not a justification for shooting live rounds into peaceful protesters.

By claiming violence was used by both sides, without pointing out that one side was armed with no more than a few sticks and stones picked off the streets after they were brutally attacked, while the other side had automatic rifles, tear gas, armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and hundreds of US trained and equipped marines, Eric Lee is joining in the attempts to divert the blame for the events away from the Kazakhstan authorities. Incidentally, Eric Lee has on other occasions advocated the use of brutal, military methods against peaceful populations. In 2006, during Israel’s war against Gaza, Lee argued that the left should fully support the use, by Israel’s military, of “of all its power to defend the country and decisively defeat its enemies”.

Ludicrous allegations

According to Eric Lee, “the small group of left adventurists have joined up with the Kazakh oligarchs who are opposed to the current regime to lead the workers’ movement to inevitable defeat”.

Anyone who knows the CWI in Kazakhstan and the broad Socialist Movement Kazakhstan will find this allegation ludicrous. The CWI has been consistent in opposing the rule of the oligarchs – both pro and anti Nazarbayev oligarchs, arguing that the natural wealth of the country should be re-nationalized under workers’ control and management and that the workers need to establish their own independent trade unions and mass workers party in opposition to the policies of the oligarchs. This allegation is actually just a crude amalgam of that currently being used by the Nazarbayev regime against the oil strikers. To avoid taking full responsibility for the shootings, the regime is trying to create a smoke screen by saying the workers were provoked by the oligarch-sponsored Alga Party. But Alga were not involved in planning this peaceful protest.

Eric Lee claims that “the strike of the oil workers began in May of last year. To begin with they demanded increased pay , but not long ago they added the nationalization of the oil sector to their demands.”

The oil workers in West Kazakhstan first raised the demands for nationalization in 2009.

Eric Lee says that according to the "International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), the workers did not have any elected representatives who could conduct negotiations with the administration of the company and state”.

This has been answered in our article, ‘Defense of the oil workers’: “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! 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”.

The position of the IUF

In June of 2011, Kirill Buketov, a representative of the IUF in Geneva, sent a whole series of bureaucratic questions to the strikers (the IUF chose to do so through the CWI, even though Buketov had been given all the contact details for the oil workers). The answers to this long questionnaire required 60 pages. In July, Kirill Buketov sent a letter with his conclusions. These were that:

1: The workers only had the right to change their trade union leaders once every 5 years;

2: The workers were wrong to argue that by law they were entitled to pay for working in dangerous and remote conditions;

3: There was not sufficient evidence to back up the claims of the use of thugs;

4: The workers lacked their own trade union with elected and legitimate leaders.

The formulations used by Kirill Buketov mirrored almost, word for word, the arguments used by the employers against the strikers. The employer’s arguments were listed and answered in full detail by Paul Murphy MEP in his reply to Mr Bobrov, a member of the Kazakhstan Parliament (see here).

According to Eric Lee, the lack of unelected representatives “allowed groups from outside, such as the CWI, to take a leading position for themselves and speak in the name of the workers”.

Of course, why should the workers not ask the CWI to represent them, if they had wanted and democratically decided? But anyway this is not what happened. On the contrary, the position of the CWI throughout the strike has been that sanctions (including arrest and imprisonment) should be removed from those people who were elected by the workers as their representatives and that the management should start immediate and meaningful negotiations with the elected representatives of the workers.

Eric Lee goes further and alleges that “Paul Murphy from Ireland and a deputy in the European Parliament flew to the region, met with the strikers and conducted a press conference. The critics of the CWI say that Murphy raised the hopes of the strikers and led them to think that all they need is his support, and not their own organization”.

This is, of course, an utter lie. Throughout his visit, Paul Murphy and the other members of his delegation stressed to the workers that they could only spread solidarity support and raise the issue with other trade unions internationally, and that the strike could only be won through the organization of the workers themselves and their ability to receive solidarity support from other workers in Kazakhstan. Indeed, Paul’s press conference can be viewed here. He clearly states that the “main task for these workers [in Kazakhstan] is to build strong, independent fighting trade unions.”

One member of the delegation was Ainur Kurmanov, a member of the CWI from Kazakhstan. His speech to the strikers can be seen in full here. He said:

“Thanks to the fact that your representatives flew to Moscow, the international press blockade has been broken. … Your fight is not just your fight, but that of the workers of all Kazakhstan. You are ahead of the whole working class in the country. If you manage to hold on now, defend your leaders, your rights, you can say that the working class for the first time in Kazakhstan has stood up in defense of its rights. This is not just a strike for wages, but for your organization, your trade union because you have the right, and only you have the right to set up your trade union. The trade union should belong to the workers, not the employers and authorities. The current trade union federation [the former soviet pro Nazarbayev trade union] has declared that your strike is illegal. But have they been anywhere near here? They are spreading disinformation in the international movement about your strike. They say that you are all extremists, not workers, that there are only two hundred of you. Do you need that sort of trade union? No. You need trade unions controlled by the rank and file …. You will succeed only if you are solid and organized!”

CWI supports oil workers’ rights

It is quite clear from these videos that the CWI has spent the whole strike supporting the right of the workers to select their own representatives and control their own trade unions.

According to Eric Lee, “Paul Murphy and his group played a leading role in the campaign not just against the authoritarian regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev but against the international trade union movement… for example, the international trade union federation for the oil sector ICEM was not keen to get involved in the conflict if it is permanently the subject of attack by the CWI. “

This is just laughable – members of the ICEM must feel bemused by Eric Lee’s insinuation, that the powerful ICEM is so sensitive, that it is prepared to ignore a strike by thousands of workers because of the alleged criticism of the CWI. If, of course, this was true. But the President of the ICEM was one of the first to send a serious protest to the Kazakhstan government over the way in which the strikers were being treated. You can find the ICEM mentioned about ten times on the website of the CWI in Kazakhstan in relation to the Zhenaozen strike and in not one of the instances is there any criticism of the ICEM. On the contrary, supporters of the CWI immediately translated the President’s letter and distributed it as widely as possible, precisely to demonstrate that such solidarity was beginning to happen.

Eric Lee should ask those who have given them this dis-information to prove their untrue allegations – which they will be unable to do.

The CWI did criticize the “shame on both your houses” approach used by International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary, Sharan Burrow, in his statement of 16th December. Eric Lee calls this a “balanced approach”. But the CWI does not believe it is correct for a trade union to offer the State a way out of taking responsibility when all the evidence points to a brutal and unprovoked attack by Kazakhstan police on a peaceful and unarmed protest.

Tarring reputation of oil strikers

In his willingness to try and blame the CWI for what happened in Zhanaozen, Eric Lee tries to tar the reputation of the oil strikers, who maintained a disciplined and peaceful protest throughout seven months, despite the attacks on their protests by riot police, the imprisonment of their leaders and the murder of strikers and relatives.

Lee published his libelous attack just a day before the prosecutor general of Kazakhstan published his report.

In his report, the Prosecutor tries to blame ‘hooligans’ for starting the disorder on 16th December and ignores the responsibility of the national government for the massacre (the troops and police were after all moved into the city on top level orders and the order to fire was given by the Ministry of the Interior). Nevertheless, the Prosecutor states that “in some cases use of weapons and special devices by the police was of disproportional character, reaction to the acts of the attackers was unequal to the threat thus leading to the death and injures of people” and that therefore criminal charges are to be lodged against:

  • the deputy head of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) of Mangystau province, who was in charge of the police squad;
  • the head of the anti-extremist division of the DIA of Mangystau province;
  • the first deputy head of the Office of the Internal Affairs of the town of Zhanaozen.

Further, the Head of the Temporary Detention Facility of the Office of the Internal Affairs of Zhanaozen is to be charged with the death, following torture in custody, of Kenzhebaev Bazarbai.

The Prosecutors have confirmed what the strikers have claimed from the beginning. The company accountants were fiddling the wage books, claiming to the government that they were paying one rate while the workers received lower wages. As a result, the former and current mayors are to be charged with stealing public funds. A number of senior managers at ‘KazMunaiGaz’ are also being charged with the theft of millions of euros from company accounts.

International solidarity campaign

These people are being charged for one reason only. While people such as Eric Lee and Kirill Buketov have been echoing the arguments of the employers, the strikers have maintained a firm stand. They, with the support of many trade unions and socialist activists in an international campaign co-ordinated by the CWI, and due to the Campaign Kazakhstan’s work, as well, have managed to get the truth of what has happened out into the public domain. The Kazakh regime originally expected to be able to carry out its massacre, hoping, in the week before the western world’s Christmas, that no-one would notice. But the regime was shaken by the worldwide reaction to the shootings. Within hours, pickets and protests were organized outside embassies throughout the world. When videos of the shootings, including one made by police, appeared on the internet, showed that police were shooting unarmed people in the back and then beating them on the ground, the Kazakhstan government could no longer deny the massacre. So it has had to find scapegoats. Under torture, the regime gained “confessions” from a handful of people that they “organized a riot”. But significantly, it has had to promise to take criminal action against several representatives of the company and regime on very specific charges.

Despite the outrageous and entirely false claims of Eric Lee and sections of the international union bureaucracy, rank and file trade union activists, socialists, human rights activists and workers and youth everywhere will keep up pressure on this brutal regime, to ensure that those who organized the 16th December massacre, including the Minister of the Interior, who by his own admission gave the order to shoot, are brought to justice.

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January 2012