Kazakhstan: Bloody, corrupt regime carries out massive repression against workers

Conditions for mass revolt maturing

This week, 400 socialists from across Europe and all around the world are meeting in Belgium at the CWI Summer School. Ben Robinson’s report is from a well-attended commission on Kazakhstan and the struggles of the workers’ movement.



“Today, the division [between owners and workers] has become obvious. The owners number no more than 100 people… [Kazakhstan’s industrial economy] has produced a united multi-ethnic group – a highly organised working class based in big corporations. From the end of 2011, [this has] defined political and social life.

“Our economy is held up by several supports. These are the powerful raw material production enterprises. If it enters somebody’s head to completely mobilise their power, a crippling blow can be inflicted on the government and the state… [but] there is no direct contact between the working class and the political forces in Kazakhstan.

“But there are potential leaders – there are the Kazakhstan socialists, who have been working for many years on a professional basis, and now their time is coming.”

These are not the words of the Committee for a Workers International, but unbelievably of former Kazakhstan Prime Minister Akeshan Kashegeldeen, interviewed in the Kazakhstan paper, ‘Novaya Gazeta’.

Despite massive repression, the ground is prepared for mass revolt against the bloody, corrupt regime of Nazarbayev. To the fore of this movement are the fresh young Kazakh workers who now make up the majority of the labour in Kazakhstan’s heavy industry.

Wages had been kept at the same level by employers for several years, pushing workers into poverty. A wave of suicides swept through the poor, with many deeply in debt. Even today, according to sources that support the Nazarbayev regime, ten suicides in the capital are linked to debts, while hundreds of people apply for psychiatric help. While nurses live in poverty, corrupt bureaucrats purchase holiday villas in Europe. The regime is planning to raise the retirement age to 68, which is higher than the life expectancy in Kazakhstan.

The government pumps out propaganda, employing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to advise and to represent them. But working people often tell each other that they wish they lived in the country that state TV reports on!

This has created huge dissatisfaction. The overwhelming majority of the population want to see Nazarbayev gone and twenty years of capitalism has forced a harsh understanding – either the system forces living conditions to the level of Somalia or workers change the system.

Spectacular victories against bosses

But the working class is on the offensive, scoring spectacular victories against the bosses and placing demands on the Kazakh regime.

A battle against housing repossession won $4.5bn from the government. Workers have saved factories from closure and organised militant strike action. Recently, in Kazakhmys, a copper-mining company, a 100% pay rise was won – hundreds occupied the mine while thousands took part in solidarity action outside. In the same city, workers in the energy sector took strike action and won 80% pay rise. Significantly, alongside the demands for higher pay, workers are fighting for the renationalisation of industries.

Social and industrial struggles are linking up. Those involved in the anti-repossession struggle travelled 1,500km to support the struggle against a factory closure.

In these waves of struggle, Committee for a Workers’ International members play a key role. Through Socialist Movement Kazakhstan, and the new trade union Zhanartu, the CWI is able to help these struggles organise and bring them together against the Nazarbayev regime.

This has terrified the government and led to cracks in the regime. Recent clashes at the Kazakh-Chinese border now appear to be part of a dispute between different wings of the oligarchy. It is possible that Nazarbayev could be removed after decades in power.

Nazarbayev has responded through increased repression. The 16th December 2011 was a turning point for the struggle. After seven months of strike action, oil workers organised a rally to provide a peaceful outlet for the huge anger building up. At this rally, the organisers agreed a central demand would be to broaden and deepen the fight, calling for a general strike against the Nazarbayev regime. This protest, however, was drowned in blood by the state, and the entire region was shut down. It is believed that 70 died, although in an attempt to downplay the massacre the media and Kazakh ruling class claim only 17.

Through the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan, despite the regime’s efforts, news of the massacre got out to the wider world. Campaign Kazakhstan organised immediate protests at embassies internationally, including Germany, Britain, Belgium and Poland. Although it is clear that the Kazakh state had prepared to go much further in putting down the strike, protests and international condemnation halted their actions.

Show trials of oil workers

Instead, the regime is dragging oil workers through the courts, organising a succession of ‘show trials’. To quote one defendant: “At the national security office, I was told to incriminate fifteen others. I refused. They started to beat me, I was suffocated six times, threatened with rape and photographs [of this crime would be] put on the internet. The commander put a loaded gun to my head several times and I was told I would be fed to the dogs.”

The vicious sentences imposed were met with bottles and shoes thrown in the court room.

Activists from the opposition party Alga were also rounded up. But many official Kazakh parties represent the whim of one or another oligarch. Their party ‘activists’ are paid to be so and without any real commitment. When these activists were arrested, they were turned to state witnesses against their own leadership. This has led to a collapse internally in the Alga party.

The regime used the trials and massacre as a threat to all those involved in struggle. Vadim Kuramshin, a human rights’ activist, was arrested and is being dragged through a show trial. Famous theatre director, Bolat Atabayev, was arrested and released, after coming under huge pressure to support the regime’s case against the oil workers. The government is now attempting to effectively outlaw trade union activity, to drive workers struggles even further underground.

But the effects of this repression are wearing off. The Kazakhmys copper workers’ struggle signalled a new preparedness to fight back. Despite the personal risk, victorious energy workers filmed and circulated a video explaining the role that Zhanartu played in helping their struggle.

The show trials could trigger further struggle. Yet more Zhanaozen oil workers trials are planned soon, but these could trigger mass protest, with political strike action at its heart.

A huge political vacuum

A huge political vacuum exists in Kazakhstan. The official opposition parties, sponsored by oligarchs opposed to Nazarbayev, are in a state of collapse. The working class is currently the decisive political force but there is no mass party which unites them. Socialist Movement Kazakhstan is campaigning for a new mass workers’ party, and for a constituent assembly where the workers and oppressed of Kazakhstan can come together and democratically decide how the country is organised.

But other forces are attempting to fill this space. Right-wing political Islamic groups, including those led by Nazarbayev’s relatives, are trying to make gains. A majority of workers and oppressed are Sunni Muslim but there are also significant religious minorities, including Russian Orthodox Christians.

If the workers’ movement is not sufficiently prepared, there is a danger that political Islam could make gains and that wings of the oligarchy could attempt to channel huge anger along these lines.

The CWI is determined to build a class opposition armed with genuine socialist ideas to solve the oncoming crisis. Internationally, working with others in Campaign Kazakhstan, international solidarity including protests, solidarity and financial support is vital. Inside Kazakhstan, the CWI is active and leading the fights that Zhanartu and Socialist Movement Kazakhstan are involved in. Time is running out for the Nazarbayev regime and the CWI is determined that the workers will be victorious.

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July 2012