Analysis: Political domination faces challenge from Kazakhstan workers

SWITCH on Kazakhstan state television’s evening news and it almost always opens with an item testifying to the nation’s stability and economic prowess. So it was a shock when a recent edition began with the president announcing a state of emergency in a town rocked by deadly clashes between demonstrators and police

In the 20 years since independence, Kazakhstan has been one of the former Soviet Union’s success stories – avoiding the civil wars and rebellions that plagued its neighbours, promoting religious tolerance and ethnic harmony and recording impressive economic growth.

But as the country’s fortunes flowered, its political system withered. The party of president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had led the country since independence in 1991, wields a crushing domination, holding all the seats in parliament. Opposition parties are allowed, but are so repressed they are nearly invisible. Officials swat aside complaints of democratic shortcomings and the monolithic domination of the political scene by the president’s Nur Otan party, arguing that these things will take time to change. But this month’s violence in the energy-rich western Mangystau region suggests time may be running out.

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In Zhanaozen, hundreds of oil workers in May took to the main square and declared a strike over salaries.

When workers showed no sign of yielding, their employer, state-controlled Kazmunaigas Exploration Production, fired them all. Undeterred, the protesters held their ground.

After seven months of patient and peaceful demonstrations in Zhanaozen, something snapped. On 16 December, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators.

Dozens of buildings were burned down and at least 14 people were killed by police gunfire.

The next day, large crowds occupied a railway line in the village of Shetpe. According to the official account, after negotiations with authorities, a gang began throwing Molotov cocktails at train carriages and police opened fire, killing one person.

The state-nurtured illusion of universal contentedness had been shattered.

“There is a large number of problems that the authorities don’t want to deal with and solve, which is why ever more people are drawn to extremist messages,” said political analyst Dosym Satpayev.

Ominously, the notable harmony among Kazakhstan’s multiple ethnic minorities has been strained by fierce rivalry over sparse resourcesand this year has seen an unprecedented spike in radical Islamist-inspired attacks.

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Since the violence in Zhanaozen and Shetpe, crowds of protesting former oil workers have been coming out into the freezing cold in the Mangystau regional capital, Aktau. Authorities have shown some initiative in entering into dialogue but thousands of police have been dispatched to the region, raising anxiety and resentment.

“Zhanaozen was a very important moment, a turning point. The situation in Kazakhstan before and after Zhanaozen is fundamentally different,” said opposition politician Petr Svoik.

“What doesn’t bend, breaks. And that is very dangerous for Kazakhstan.”.