Kazakhstan: Brutal repression in imperialism’s interests

Workers pay the price for crony capitalism

Recent revelations of how former British prime minister Tony Blair advised the Kazakhstan president to ‘spin’ the December 2011 massacre of up to 70 oil workers in Zhanaozen, in the western province of Mangistau, Kazakhstan, has again brought attention to the brutal character of the regime

. The fallout from this bloody repression continues.

While there has been nothing on the scale of the Zhanaozen massacre since, the Kazakhstan regime has, if anything, become more repressive. Activities by independent trade unions or activists who call for strikes have been criminalised. The “distribution of false rumours” (calling for a strike) is punishable by up to twelve years in prison. The charge of “inciting social disorder”, which was used against the oil workers, has been strengthened. Any gathering of opponents to the regime of president Nursultan Nazarbayev is attacked by state forces. Activists face jail terms for public order offences. Independent trade unionists and social activists face daily harassment, ranging from being followed by state forces to being threatened with violence, beaten up and detained on fabricated charges.

Even rich oligarchs, like Mukhtar Ablyazov, who oppose Nazarbayev, claim they face intimidation and have been forced into exile. Ablyazov is wanted by the regime (and by Russian and Ukrainian authorities) in relation to the disappearance of $6 billion from the BTA bank of which he was chairman from 2005-09.

Ablyazov has been detained by police in France, pending a challenge by his lawyers to an extradition order served on him there. He claims that he is innocent, that the charges are fabricated to silence a political opponent, and that he will not get a fair hearing if he returns from exile. The fact that the Kazakhstan authorities, in collusion with Italian officials, effectively kidnapped his wife and daughter and flew them back to Kazakhstan suggests that he is probably correct!

The media in Kazakhstan is heavily censored. Only officially accepted opposition parties are allowed to take part in elections. Nazarbayev’s political party, Nur-Otan (Light of Fatherland), usually gets more than 80% of the total vote. There are two other ‘opposition parties’ with seats: Ak Zhol (Democratic Party of Kazakhstan Bright Path), formed following a split in the liberal opposition by those who want to work with Nazarbayev; and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, a pro-Nazarbayev group set up in opposition to the main Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), which was at least anti-Nazarbayev.

Despite an international outcry from the legal profession, lawyers who are associated with opposition to the regime are imprisoned on fabricated charges. Well-known cultural figures like the poet Aron Atabek are also incarcerated. The Kazakhstan regime uses old Stalinist prison camps in remote parts of the country to try to intimidate and break opposition elements. Vadim Kuramshin, an award-winning lawyer, has been imprisoned in Karaganda province. This area became infamous in the 1960s and 1970s as the centre of the network of gulags featured in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Rosa Tuletayava, one of the leaders of the Zhanaozen oil workers, has also been moved to a jail that is virtually inaccessible to her family.

Nazarbayev showed no remorse in relation to the Zhanaozen massacre when he chose the first anniversary, 16 December 2012, to launch his ‘forward plan’: ‘Kazakhstan 2050’. It contains several priorities, including, “Introducing a ‘zero tolerance’ principle towards disorder”. Ironically, this subheading is in the section titled, ‘Further Strengthening of the Statehood and Development of the Kazakhstan Democracy’.

Nazarbayev supports democracy as long as there is no serious opposition. He allows people to vote as long as they vote for him, his candidates and policies. He is a dictator in all but name. On the list of most corrupt countries in the world, Kazakhstan comes 140th out of 177! This corruption extends to all areas of life. Laws which on paper protect society from abuse are ignored if it suits the interests of Nazarbayev and his extended family. For example, it is alleged that building regulations were ignored to allow his son-in-law to build a new shopping mall in the country’s main city, Almaty.

A potentially more serious example concerns the Eurasian National Resources Company. It holds mining interests in Kazakhstan and Africa, and is controlled by Alexander Maskievitch, a long-term friend of Nazarbayev. It is now the subject of a serious fraud investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police. The Independent newspaper in Britain reported: “Kazakh government involvement in the UK machinations has led some observers in the central Asian state to speculate that the Nazarbayev family have equity interests in the company”. The regime survives by a combination of brutal repression and the international support of imperialism, in particular through giant oil and gas companies making vast profits in the area.

Crony capitalism

Nazarbayev likes to present himself as a great patriot. Indeed, Kazakhstan 2050 includes the aspiration that it will be one of the top 30 countries by 2050. This is a supreme irony since Nazarbayev has presided over the wholesale sell-off of oil, gas and mineral reserves to foreign companies. He has used his position as head of state to accumulate a massive fortune for himself and his family. This personal wealth has been ‘patriotically’ deposited in banks in southeast Asia! Kazakhstan was one of the first of the former Stalinist states to fully open itself up for imperialist interests. Western and Chinese big business needed little encouragement to ‘cooperate’ in exploiting and profiting from its rich natural resources.

Foreign capital has brought wealth into the country. In fact, Kazakhstan’s GDP was reportedly growing at 10% until the global crisis of 2008-09. Since then, growth has slowed to 5% per annum. With Russia on the verge of a new recession, it is likely that Kazakhstan’s economy will slow down further. Most of the oil, gas and mineral sector is still part-owned by the state which, in turn, is controlled by Nazarbayev and his cronies. From time to time, the state sells off its interests in these companies to giant multinationals like Chevron.

A victim of the 2011 Zhanaozen massacre of oil workers

This liberalisation has massively distorted both the economy and the life of the workers in it. The old state-owned system within the USSR meant that Kazakhstan was effectively under the control of the one-party regime based in Moscow. This meant that production was ultimately geared towards maintaining the interests of the Russian-based bureaucracy, which dominated the whole of the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev was the first native Kazakh to hold the post of general secretary of the CPK. Previous post holders had all been Russian.

Because of the state ownership and planning, and despite the bureaucratic methods by which the CPK ran Kazakhstan, the country did develop from a predominantly backward agricultural economy to one which had a relatively balanced industrial base. Manufacturing and construction existed alongside mining and drilling for gas and oil. Agriculture remained important but became mechanised. Though still lagging behind the advanced capitalist states in the west, infrastructure was developed.

Democratic control by the workers, crucial to a healthy workers’ state, was stifled by the Russian and Kazakh bureaucracies. All opposition was rooted out. But the economic development of the country brought certain social gains for the working class and poor farmers. Health, education and housing were readily and cheaply available. Despite the lack of democracy and choice under the old system, many older Kazakhstan workers now look back with some nostalgia on the ‘Soviet’ past.

Workers pay the price

Since the move to a market economy, Kazakhstan has been opened up to multinational vultures. From a relatively developed ‘mixed’ economy, it is now based on the export of primary goods, providing oil, gas and minerals for western imperialism and China. Reports estimate that oil and gas account for more than 80% of Kazakhstan’s GDP. This compares with about 20% in 1990. Alongside this, the privatisation of land and the breakup of collective farms saw the displacement and impoverishment of hundreds of thousands of land-labourers who migrated to the towns in search of work.

The social impact has been dramatic. Many workers have been forced out of their traditional family homes to move to the oil and gas fields. This has created a housing crisis. Shantytowns have grown up in some areas, including on the outskirts of Almaty. It was one such settlement, Shanyrak, where huge battles took place in 2006 against the bulldozers and armed forces sent in to clear the land for private development.

Some of the vast wealth in Kazakhstan has trickled down to a small middle class comprised mostly of managers in the gas and oil industries. This is unlikely to be sustained or substantial enough to create a meaningful social layer between the ruling elite and the working class. Certain groups of workers have also seen modest increases in pay but most are materially worse off than they were before the re-establishment of capitalism.

The recent fall in world commodity prices has exposed the dependence of Kazakhstan’s economy on the export of raw materials. In February, the Kazakhstan authorities were forced to devalue the tenge currency by 8%. Further devaluations, totalling an 18% reduction, are an indication of the relative weakness of the economy. They were aimed at maintaining the level of exports. However, the impact on workers in the country has been dramatic.

Yerbolat Dossayev, minister for economy and budget planning, urged people to remain calm when the devaluation took place. He claimed: “Over 80% of the basic goods are produced in our country. The prices for these goods will not be increased”. But Kazakh banks and finance houses warned that there could be inflation. In Almaty, many shops closed to re-price their goods, and a number of spontaneous street protests took place. The devaluation has boosted the share prices of giant firms like the mining company, Kazakhmys, but at the expense of workers’ living standards. Working-class people with mortgages, already having difficulty repaying them, were also hit.

Geopolitical pressures

It is not just falling commodity prices and devaluation that threaten the stability of Kazakhstan’s economy and the regime which profits from it. Increasingly, Nazarbayev is caught between contradictory international pressures. Historically, the Kazakh regime has been linked to Russia. This has continued into the post-Stalinist era. Russian remains, with Kazakh, an official language of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has cemented these links by taking Kazakhstan into a customs union – the Eurasian Economic Union (EES) – with Russia and Belarus. Officially an economic agreement, Russian president Vladimir Putin undoubtedly sees this as a potential political or even military bloc.

The problem for Nazarbayev is that, if Kazakhstan backs Russia against the EU or US imperialism in the conflict over Ukraine, for example, it risks sanctions and the loss of investment from western imperialism. This could cripple the economy and destabilise the regime. Up to now this has appeared unlikely, given Nazarbayev’s craven attitude towards the west, not to mention the huge investments which the west has in Kazakhstan. But it cannot be ruled out completely.

Alexander Lukhashenko, president of Belarus, was initially enthusiastic, stating at the EES signing ceremony that it would gradually turn into a foundation for political, military and humanitarian cooperation. As Russia started to flex its military muscle in relation to Ukraine, however, Lukashenko and Nazarbayev distanced themselves from the Kremlin. This course of action was dictated, in part, by fear of economic sanctions from the west. However, both Lukashenko and Nazarbayev have seen the growth of Russian intervention in the former Stalinist states and fear more overt Russian intervention in their own countries.

At the beginning of September, Putin even denied the legitimacy of Kazakhstan’s independence from Russia, stating: “There has never been a country called Kazakhstan… it is purely the product of the current president”. This is an open threat to Nazarbayev that Russia could intervene if Kazakhstan attempted to distance itself too much from Moscow, particularly in the north where there is a concentration of ethnic Russians.

The Kazakhstan government is in a contradictory situation over Ukraine and has so far managed to remain silent about it. But, as the tension has escalated with Russian forces directly involved, raising the possibility of some form of de facto partition in southeast Ukraine, Kazakhstan could be put on the spot and have to choose which side it supports. How the situation in Ukraine impacts on surrounding countries is not easily predictable. The situation remains very fluid. But Putin’s remarks about Kazakhstan are an indication that there can be other areas of dispute in the area of the ex-Soviet Union.

China initially adopted a neutral position in relation to Ukraine but, by ignoring western imperialism’s sanctions, is in effect supporting Russia. There are other parts of the world, for example Africa and the Middle East, where Russia and China could find themselves in conflict with each other. These tensions can also cause problems for Kazakhstan in the future.

China has a border with eastern Kazakhstan and is the largest single export market for the Kazakh economy. The gradual slowing down of the Chinese economy will affect its need for commodities and its imports of raw materials. At the same time, growing unrest among the Chinese working class could find its reflection within Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh language is part of the Turkic group. Certainly, in the oil-rich south-western areas of Kazakhstan there is an affinity with Turkey, and the Islamic religion is more obviously visible. Many Turks work in the Kazakh oil fields, and the demonstrations earlier this year against the Erdoğan regime in Turkey over the tragic mining disaster at Soma will have resonated with workers in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s official religion is Islam although, at present, there are few open signs of right-wing political Islam in the country. Periodically, the KNB (secret police) ‘uncover’ a plot linked to Islamic extremism. However, it has been reported that hundreds of native Kazakh Islamists have gone to fight in Syria on behalf of the anti-Assad forces, while Bashar al-Assad’s main superpower ally is Russia. There are even unconfirmed reports that prisoners have been released from Kazakh jails with the unofficial support of the regime to go and fight in Syria.

Particularly in the south, there appears to be a growth in support for Islam, and an increase in attacks on police stations and other government buildings. It is not clear whether these are organised by agents provocateurs to give the state grounds for further repression. If the state is using Islamic fundamentalism in this way, it is a very dangerous strategy which could easily backfire. While an unlikely development, the growth of right-wing political Islam could not be entirely ruled out in Kazakhstan, particularly if the working class is unable to mount a challenge to the dictatorship.

Working-class opposition

International factors may destabilise the Nazarbayev regime, but it falls to the working class to remove him from power. When they move into action workers will quickly realise that the way forward is not to replace Nazarbayev and his cronies with another oligarch like Ablyazov. Rather, the task before Kazakhstan’s working class is the establishment of a democratic workers’ state which would use the oil, gas and mineral wealth to create a real paradise on this earth for working people. The struggle for a workers’ state or genuine socialism in Kazakhstan could be the impetus for similar developments in Russia, Turkey, China and elsewhere.

It would be wrong to underestimate the difficulties which the working class face. The brutal dictatorship makes basic organisation very difficult. All manner of obstacles, however, have not stopped some heroic struggles taking place. Against all the odds, and new anti-union laws, independent trade unions do exist. Strikes happen and have been successful. While, unsurprisingly after Zhanaozen, oil workers have been less militant, in 2012 copper miners in central Kazakhstan occupied the mines and won pay rises of 100%! More recently, they were campaigning for the renationalisation of the mines.

The threats and state intimidation have not stopped social movements over housing continuing in Astana, Almaty, Shimkent and elsewhere. Local demonstrations, which are officially illegal, have included protests to defend people from eviction. On a number of occasions, activists have been arrested, charged, fined and even jailed for a few weeks. Some have gone on hunger strike in protest. It is a sign of Nazarbayev’s weakness that he has not been able to totally destroy the workers’ opposition. Nevertheless, the constant threat of jailings and physical attacks make taking part in protests extremely dangerous.

Revolution and counter-revolution walk side by side in Kazakhstan. The lack of social reserves for the regime means that any spark – a strike, economic emergency or political clash – can lead to a protest which could quickly escalate into a mass movement, like those seen in recent years in Egypt and elsewhere. Such a movement could isolate and force out the regime.

It is unlikely that Nazarbayev would hand over the reins of power without a struggle. If he did, it would probably be to one of his family. At 73 years old, rumours abound that his health is declining. He cannot go on forever. Any dictatorship faces a potential crisis when a change of leadership takes place. The regime appears to be preparing for an election. One reason for this could be to try and clear out any unreliable elements from office that could make a handover to a new ‘Nazarbayev’ difficult. However long Nazarbayev lives, a key task, in very difficult conditions, is to prepare a political cadre which can develop workers’ organisations and opposition movements into a united fighting force that can bring down the dictatorship.

Campaign Kazakhstan

Socialists in Britain and across the world cannot substitute themselves for the Kazakhstan workers but we can play an important role in assisting them. Campaign Kazakhstan was established precisely to organise support for workers in Kazakhstan and to try and isolate the regime of Nazarbayev abroad.

We need to continue to expose the brutality of the regime. We need to highlight the terrible conditions in Kazakhstan’s prisons and to campaign for the release of political prisoners like Vadim Kuramshin and Rosa Tuletayeva. Assistance in this can be as simple as signing an online petition or writing a letter of protest to the Kazakhstan embassy.

We need to challenge those outside Kazakhstan who support the Nazarbayev regime, including Tony and Cherie Blair. Tony Blair has been paid around £9 million to advise Nazarbayev on how to appear to be a democrat. Cherie’s law firm has received fees of $1,000 an hour for its services!

We also need to expose the multinational companies which implicitly condone repression and murder. When Austria’s campaign held a protest at a football match involving Kazakhstan’s national team in Vienna, it had a huge impact in Kazakhstan and lifted the spirits of activists.

Campaign Kazakhstan protest outside ’Tony Blair Associates’ offices, London

We need more trade union branches and other organisations to affiliate and donate money to Campaign Kazakhstan. Money raised has gone predominantly to help victims of oppression in Kazakhstan itself. Can you take a simple resolution to your trade union branch asking for affiliation and support?

I was privileged to visit Zhanaozen last year. The importance of international solidarity is best expressed through the appreciation voiced by one of the activists I met. He had survived for twelve hours on the square after the killing spree by government forces. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness. His left leg is now four inches shorter as a result of his bullet wound injuries. He had not worked since the massacre. I was able to give him a donation from our campaign to help him with his medical and living expenses. He thanked me for the money but added that, even more important was the knowledge that workers in other countries were standing in solidarity.

Campaign Kazakhstan needs you to build support for us. Help us continue to campaign in solidarity with workers throughout Kazakhstan.

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