Campaign Kazakhstan was set up in Britain and Europe to support the workers’ movement in Kazakhstan and oppose the repressive measures of the Nazarbayev regime. Mick Whale, Secretary of the campaign, visited Kazakhstan on two occasions. Mick’s second visit included a visit to Zhanaozen, where he met survivors of the 2011 massacre of oil workers by state forces. He was able to deliver financial aid raised by trade unionists and socialists in Britain to victimised and injured oil workers and their families.
Below, Mick discusses the explosive developments taking place in Kazakhstan.
Whether it is pictures of workers on the streets facing down the state forces, the sight of police officers taking off their riot gear and joining the protesters or seeing demonstrators pulling down a statue of the hated former President Nazarbayev, workers around the world will be inspired by the heroic uprising of Kazakh workers against the ruling elite. Dictators around the world should tremble; their time will come!
This magnificent struggle of workers throughout Kazakhstan makes a wonderful start to the new year. While the present revolt may have appeared to drop from a clear blue sky, in reality, it follows a series of strikes over the recent period, particularly in the Mangistau Province in the southwest of the country. Mangistau is the centre of oil production in the country and also where the town of Zhanaozen is situated. Ten years ago, oil workers there were on strike against Kazakh oil being privatised and sold off to Chinese firms, and were brutally gunned down by state forces in the town square. Official reports say that 14 workers were killed but workers I spoke to in the town believe it was closer to 80.
It is no accident, therefore, that it was oil workers in Zhanaozen, walking out on strike against a doubling of LPG prices, that sparked off this year’s massive revolt. They were supported by their families and the wider community. Mangistau is an area of high unemployment and the price hikes were a devastating attack on the livelihoods of all. They follow a period of general price rises and rising unemployment. Within hours, protests in other cities around the country had started, making it a national revolt.
The argument that the demonstrations have all been stirred up by terrorists and outside agitators is a ridiculous piece of propaganda to try and save face by the regime and a sign of how desperate the regime is.
While price rises and growing austerity were the catalysts for the demonstrations, the general discontent with the corrupt government of Nazarbayev and his puppet replacement – Kassym-jomart Tokayev – stretches back more than three decades and is reflected in the demonstrators’ demands. The majority of Kazakh workers have seen a general fall in their living standards, exacerbated by quite severe Covid restrictions, while the ruling elite has seen its wealth grow and grow.
Nazarbayev – corrupt dictator
Much of this wealth has been accrued through the privatisation of Kazakh national assets sold off to western or Chinese companies. In the past, when Kazakhstan was part of the ‘Soviet Union’, the oil and gas industry was state-owned. It is true, of course, that the ruling clique creamed wealth from the nationalised economy to support their lavish lifestyles. Notwithstanding this, a significant amount of the wealth created was used to improve the state of the economy, as a whole. Since the state-owned planned economies of the soviet states have been transformed into capitalist based economies, Nazarbayev and his friends have sold the state’s wealth to feather their own nests. No less than 70 per cent of oil and gas has been sold off in the past 25 years.
Nursultan Nazarbayev was the leader of the ‘Communist’ Party and head of state when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union. He retained his control of Kazakhstan after the break-up of the USSR at the end of 1991 and oversaw the introduction of a market economy in the 1990s. The privileged position he enjoyed under Stalinism continued, and his family and friends were the main beneficiaries of his rule. Most of Nazarbayev’s family have stashed money and resources in the west, including in banks and properties in the UK. His daughter and grandson own £80 million worth of property just in London.
It says a lot about the regime in Kazakhstan that they paid (Sir) Tony Blair’s consultancy firm, ‘Tony Blair Associates’, $13 million to provide advice on how to “look respectable” to the western ‘democracies’. His lawyer wife, Cherie Blair, gave her support, too. Another friend of the regime is Prince Andrew, who would often spend time on holiday ‘hunting, fishing and socialising’ in Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev stepped down as president in 2019. However, he still has the unofficial title of “father of the nation”. His successor, Tokayev, has been a puppet of Nazarbayev who still retained considerable power behind the scenes. That is why the protestors have been demanding that “The old man [Nazarbayev] must go!”.
When local politicians in Mangistau tried to argue with the strikers that they were democratically elected, the strikers gave them short shrift. Elections in Kazakhstan are among the most corrupt in the world. Nazarbayev, in the tradition of the old Stalinist rulers, won some elections with nearly 100 per cent of the vote! Only friends of the regime are allowed to stand in elections to give an appearance of democracy. Not only are genuine opposition parties banned, but free trade unions also find it very difficult to organise, and activists are regularly harassed and attacked. It is a tribute to the organisers of free trade unions like ‘Amanat’ that they exist at all.
Concessions and repression
Events have moved very quickly. Despite claiming that price rises are out of his control and simply a product of market forces, Tokayev was forced to backtrack immediately and lower prices back to December rates. Rather than pacifying the workers, this concession seems to have only encouraged the demonstrations. Tokayev’s next response was to sack the entire government, though he remained nominally in charge.
Alongside concessionary measures has come brutal repression. Reports from Kazakhstan are not completely reliable but it seems that hundreds of workers and young protesters have been killed by the police and army, including Russian forces.
Notwithstanding the bloody oppression, particularly in Mangistau and Almaty – the biggest city in Kazakhstan – in many areas, the police and army have been driven back. Some of them have returned to their barracks, refusing to continue with the bloody repression, and some have even joined the demonstrations. Tokayev’s call for military support from Putin is a further indication of the weakness of the regime and the potential that exists to completely change society if the uprising were to be coordinated with a clear programme of demands.
At the moment, it is not easy to see exactly how things will develop. The latest reports seem to suggest that Putin’s military intervention and Tolayev’s announcement of a “shoot to kill” policy might have set the protests back. However, even if the movement takes a pause, it is possible things could erupt again.
None of the underlying issues has been resolved and the workers will have gained experience and confidence through their actions. They will also be absorbing lessons from what has happened, so far.
Reports are being pushed in the British media that looters are taking advantage of the situation. There may be an element of truth in this. If the movement seems to lack a clear way forward, it would be surprising, given the desperation many Kazakhs face, if some form of looting did not take place. However, this is nothing in comparison with the looting of Kazakh assets by Nazarbayev and his family. It is simply a useful justification for Tokayev’s shoot to kill policy.
Tokayev and Nazarbayev will be considering their next moves, undoubtedly in discussion with Putin. Some western commentators are claiming that Putin will be strengthened by Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. This could be true in the short term. Putting down the uprising will act as a warning to others, including NATO and China. It will reassert Russia’s domination over the former Stalinist states in central Asia and elsewhere.
However, there is no guarantee that Russian intervention will result in a quick resolution to the situation. Russia could find itself embroiled in propping up Kazakhstan for a significant period which could limit its ability to intervene elsewhere. Russia has already had to prop up the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. It faces instability on many fronts. The tension in Eastern Ukraine continues.
None of the other Central Asian states that were formally part of the Soviet Union is stable. It is not unlikely that similar uprisings and protests could take place in countries such as Kyrgistan and Turkmenistan. And, most importantly, there are opposition movements within Russia itself that Putin is acutely aware of. While a Russian presence on the ground might cow opposition in the short term, it is likely to provoke further resentment in the long term. As the Financial Times editorial on 7th January put it:
“Russia’s intervention may prevent the arrival of a new, unfriendly, government in its sphere of influence, in contrast to the revolutions in Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2003. But, as in Belarus, if the Tokayev regime survives, a crackdown on the opposition is likely to follow. Discontent will only be driven underground to fester”.
At the same time, neither Nazarbayev nor Tokayev will relish continued Russian intervention. The geopolitics of the area means that, although Russia, for reasons of national prestige, wants to keep Kazakhstan as an ally, Kazakhstan’s “forward Plan” is reliant on maintaining good relations with China and western countries and companies. Many of the privatisation deals that the ruling elite carry out are with firms in countries potentially unfriendly to Russia. Business as usual may not be possible with Russian forces on the ground.
Despite the problems that repression bring it is likely that there will be a brutal crackdown on activists and a further restriction on basic rights. With the blame already being put on “outside agitators”, it is possible that attacks may also be made on minority groupings. In the past period, there have been some attacks on Moslems by still relatively small far-right groups. In the East of Kazakhstan, Chinese traders have also been attacked.
An important task in the workers’ movement will be to maintain unity against these attacks should they develop, and the workers’ movement outside Kazakhstan must campaign against any repression, should it develop.
Another possibility would be regime change at the top. However, it will not be easy to manoeuvre an “alternative” liberalising oligarch into power either. The main Kazakh “opposition” oligarch Muhtar Ablyazov, who is currently a political refugee in France, has hardly been heard throughout the recent events. He is a bitter opponent of Nazarbayev and if some deal could be brokered, possibly by Putin, his appointment would perhaps, falsely, raise expectations of workers in the possibility of a new ‘clean’ government and then lead to further demonstrations and protests.
The workers’ movement should have no faith whatsoever in Ablyazov or any other self-appointed “leader”. Ablyazov made his millions from being the head of the Kazakh electricity network. He would continue to defend the liberalisation of the Kazakhstan economy, including the sale of more state assets to foreign firms, at the expense of the workers in Kazakhstan.
There is also a possibility of a “palace coup”. It has been reported that Karim Masimov, the former head of Kazakhstan’s domestic security agency, has been arrested for treason. The Nazarbayev regime has previously appeared monolithic, but it is clear that the monolith has been shaken to the core by the worker’s uprising. It is possible that there are other members and former members of the government who might be plotting to take power. However, the workers’ movement will not be taken in by such moves at the top that would simply replace one dictator with another.
The worker’s movement has instinctively developed a number of demands, but these, as far as we know, are not presented in a clear political programme being taken up across the country. Without a workers’ party, it is difficult for the different demonstrations, spread over a country the size of western Europe, to properly co-ordinate efforts. One of the first measures that the state took was to close the internet and telephone networks.
However difficult it is, a key task facing the demonstrators is to try and link up the different cities to develop a common programme and way forward. This can only be done through the creation of a network of committees based in every city and workplace. If, as looks likely at the time of writing, repressive measures are imposed, this becomes a key lesson to learn for next time.
The movement has also raised general democratic demands. These include free and fair elections, the release of all political prisoners, free independent trade unions, no victimisation of activists at work and protection of their families.
After the massacre at Zhanaozen, one of the problems the workers who were injured faced was not being able to work. They were victimised by the state and it was only a magnificent solidarity campaign carried out by wives and partners of the oil workers (reminiscent of the work carried out by the miner’s wives in the British Miner’s strike 1984-1985) that put food on the table. In today’s events, we do not know how many have been injured or have lost a family wage earner.
Marxists in Kazakhstan are fighting for a socialist programme that can point towards the socialist transformation of society. The terrible poverty that most Kazakhs face is the product of a neo-liberal economy run as a dictatorship. Some workers on the protests are already raising the demand for nationalisation. A nationalised economy, run democratically by elected workers’ and consumers’ committees at the local, regional and national levels, could ensure a comfortable life for all.
Given the great difficulties facing workers in Kazakhstan in the months to come, the international labour and trade union movement has a responsibility to assist where it can.
In the past, Campaign Kazakhstan has provided financial and campaigning assistance to workers in struggle in Kazakhstan. Already this week, a lobby of the Kazakhstan embassy in London was organised. We have encouraged workers to let the ambassador know their opposition to the repressive measures being taken by the regime. We know that dozens of protests have already been sent in. (See Letter from Coventry Trades Council below.)
We will continue to organise protests against any Kazakhstan companies and finance concerns etc. in this country and encourage British trade unions to ensure that pension funds dis-invest from Kazakhstan.
We cannot be completely sure of the immediate direction events will take in Kazakhstan but we can be sure that nothing will be the same as before.
Victory to the heroic Kazakh workers!
For a socialist Kazakhstan as part of a socialist confederation of Central Asia!
06 January 2022
Dear Ambassador Idrissov,
Coventry Trades Union Council represents 20,000 workers in our city in the UK.
We are writing to you to protest the brutal repression of demonstrators throughout Kazakhstan and the state of emergency in Almaty and Mangistau. It is a fundamental human right to be able to demonstrate. Kazakhstan is again revealing itself as an old fashioned dictatorship rather than a modern democracy.
We reject the “official” view of the demonstrations as being led by “extremists, terrorists and radicals”, which is put forward on your website. The demonstrators are ordinary working-class people, men, women and young people who have seen their standards of living cut, while the privileged elite and oligarchs at the top of Kazakh society enjoy a lavish lifestyle. They recognise that Nazarbayev and his family and friends have corruptly run the country at the expense of the workers for the last thirty years. Tokayev is nothing but a puppet of Nazarbayev. That is why many demonstrators have been shouting “Down with the old Man”.
The use of tear gas and other methods of repression must stop immediately. We also oppose outside intervention from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including Russia, or from China. As trade unionists, we will be taking these issues up with UK companies that invest and work in Kazakhstan.
We urge you to end the repression now. This needs to be accompanied by a commitment to allow freedom of association and the recognition of genuinely free and independent trade unions and political parties, including those that challenge the ruling elite in Kazakhstan.
Coventry TUC Executive Committee