Lack Of Rescue Facilities In Floods Cost Lives In A District Of Atyrau Province That Is Richer Than Rest Of Kazakhstan – OpEd


In his recent article entitled “Kazakhstan: Independent Kazakh YouTube Bloggers Inflicted A Crushing Defeat On Mme Balayeva’s Information Ministry”, this author shared his following observations about what had been going on in the Kazakh information field during recent flood peaks in Kazakhstan: “The recent sharp rise in popularity of blogs and social networks amid severe flooding in several areas in Kazakhstan has provided an impetus for serious consideration of what has been happening lately in the Kazakh information field. A number of the Kazakh bloggers who have been covering those events and publishing their videos on platforms like Telegram, TikTok, and YouTube, have been not only the main newsmakers but also the obvious and indisputable leaders of public opinion throughout the period from late March through the first ten days of April. The Kazakh state and pro-government media outlets, which are contracted by the State through the Ministry of Culture and Information headed by Mme Aida Balayeva to promote State information policy at the Republic and local levels have then been hardly noticeable for much of the general public. Those days, there has been plenty of criticism leveled at the Kazakh President and his administration. The gravity of the situation is such that there has been talk that Kasym-Jomart Tokayev is suffering a PR defeat.

The latter, a PR defeat, if the case, probably might be attributed to the weakening or even missing inverse relationship between society and the government. The media and social networks in Kazakhstan should, ideally, serve as a platform for communication between society and the powers that be – it is a tool for getting their feedback. 

But in this sense, official Astana seems to be putting their trust merely in the State and pro-government Kazakh media and bloggers. The latter ones, as far as can be judged, largely follow the classic models of Soviet propaganda before the perestroika period. That is, they mainly display the achievements of the country and speak negatively about those who criticize the ruling regime and its policies, and, sometimes, about, say, striking oil workers in Western Kazakhstan, demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. 

Here’s how Miras Nurmukhanbetov, а Kazakh journalist, described one such case a year ago: “In short, those ‘opinion leaders’ focus on several aspects. These are ‘dependency attitude’ [i.e.  ‘parasitic attitude’, ‘parasitic way of life’, or ‘parasitism’], ‘repatriates’, ‘already high salaries’ and so on, with a direct or indirect conclusion that ‘it is beneficial for someone to rock the boat’… But it is obvious that those opinion leaders to a greater extent promote the latent position of official bodies and the no less official KazMunayGas [national oil and gas company]. The authorities, for obvious reasons, cannot voice it, so as not to worsen their already shaky image. However, they believe that they were able to form a negative opinion about the strikes among at least part of society. By and large, the formula ‘divide and conquer’ is again set in motion, dividing Kazakhs into ‘ours’, who are supposedly objective and earn their bread (with caviar), and into ‘troublemakers’ who strive to stand out from others.

Here it must be emphasized that part of the audience of those public opinion leaders needs this to calm down and find excuses for themselves because almost all of them have nothing to do with Mangystau province and the oil-producing West [Western Kazakhstan] as a whole. This has always been the case, and it has been repeated after almost any socio-political excesses. But in this case, we are witnessing a real escalation of the situation, when such bloggers, as conductors of the authorities’ opinions, ‘appoint’ those to blame instead of looking for ways for dialogue”.

 The fact of leaving the representatives of Western Kazakhstan’s native population on the political, economic, and social sidelines often has been and is being counterbalanced through negative, even pejorative labeling of West Kazakhs in the framework of all-Kazakh popular stereotypes. Not only that, such stereotypes about Western Kazakhstan’s natives have already been massively transferred to the area of Russia’s public opinion. A certain political technology in action probably might be hiding behind all that. Here is what a Russian traveler and author, in his piece entitled “Junior Zhuz of Kazakhstan. Wild West” and published on, said on this matter: “These are deadly places; there has never been real power, and our time is no exception. The Junior Zhuz has the largest set of gopniks [small/local gangs, the hooligans], the most corrupt cops, the worst hotels, food, and roads, and the most unfriendly people. Kazakhs from Chimkent [where mainly the Senior Zhuz and Middle Zhuz Kazakhs live], who gave me a lift in the Aral Sea area [where the territory, held by the Junior Zhuz, or West Kazakhs, begins] directly said: “Barbarians live here!”. It turns out that this Russian man, yet before he entered the territory of Western Kazakhstan was overfed with horror stories about West Kazakhs, being circulated among other Kazakhs. 

Yet part of what he said is true: in Western Kazakhstan, there are the most unhealthy environments and the least social opportunities available to the people. The following passage in last year’s article entitled ‘Laid-off Oil Workers Detained After Overnight Protest in Astana’ by Catherine Putz, managing editor of the Diplomat magazine, sheds light on this matter: “The Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, is “one of the poorest in the country,” Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova told The Diplomat. “In 2015 the poverty rate there was 22 times higher than the country average”. This is even though the Mangystau province has been and still is one of the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan, with the second being the Atyrau province. That is this is all rooted in problems of poverty, inequality, and injustice, which have been mounting for decades.

Kazakhstan’s revenues from Western Kazakhstan’s oil and gas fields feed the national budget and are being used for supporting the subsidy-dependent provinces, which are composed of the country’s all other regions: Central, Eastern, Northern, and Southern Kazakhstan. At the same time, people in the oil-producing region itself are increasingly getting bogged down by social, economic, and environmental problems, exacerbated by persistent drought and water scarcity. Not without reason are the richest provinces of the Republic of Kazakhstan, with an average per capita GDP, comparable to that of some EU Member States, have been now called by Russian experts ‘the destitute West’ of Kazakhstan.

It should seem astonishing for West Kazakhs to be called by Russian experts ‘destitute’, and ‘Barbarians’ by Chimkent Kazakhs in conditions when, say, in 2008 per capita income in the Mangystau province of Western Kazakhstan was 10 times higher than in the South Kazakhstan province, which then included Chimkent.

It is clear that people there mostly can’t be happy with such a state of things. That seems to be the reason there are often demonstrations and strikes over there. The question is how to respond to them and other emergencies. Well here’s the problem. The thing is that in assessing the situation in emergency cases, such as natural disasters and mass protests of residents, or, say oil workers against some decisions, or actions by the authorities, or the employers in some places, the Kazakh ruling regime seems to come from the way how these events are covered by the State and pro-government Kazakh media and bloggers. 

Such covering is kind of an official view of events. Yet the point is that in emergency cases, such as natural disasters, the State, and pro-government Kazakh media are usually more active in talking about the steps and measures being taken by the government and the local authorities to address their consequences, and they are much less active in talking about their disastrous impact on people directly involved. Whereas in cases like mass protests of residents and strikes of oil workers, pro-government Kazakh bloggers start playing the primary role which means “appointing’ those to blame instead of looking for ways for dialogue”, and some of the pro-government Kazakh media relays their statements referring to their blogs.

In the present conditions in Kazakhstan, such a practice seems to be doing a disservice to official Astana. Here is one case indicative of this. Many people in Western Kazakhstan were in great confusion because of the floods affecting three of the region’s four provinces and were even scared in anticipation of more floods because of the breakthrough of dams in Russia. Plus, there was an oil workers’ strike. It had been going on for four months by then. 

One of those oil workers said in a video entitled “Kulsary City has been fully flooded”, released on 7 April 2024, the following:“Tokayev, you left for China and are traveling around this country. Does this mean Chinese are your close kin?! You’ve been a guest there at a time when your people, Kazakhs, are drowning in water and being doomed to death. All of you in power, leave your posts!”. Another oil worker commented: “People are helping each other. We are not seeing any help coming from the [Kazakh] government”. Meanwhile, President Tokayev had also been to Uzbekistan.

While he was making these visits, a number of the Kazakh independent bloggers who had been covering the biggest flood in Kulsary Town and Zhyloy district of Atyrau province and publishing their videos on platforms like Telegram, TikTok, and YouTube, succeeded in arousing a public uproar. That is what the author wrote about in his article entitled “Kazakhstan: Independent Kazakh YouTube Bloggers Inflicted A Crushing Defeat On Mme Balayeva’s Information Ministry”.

It was thanks to them that this water disaster in Atyrau province became the focus of the Kazakh public opinion and invoked great concerns of the whole of Kazakhstani society. But instead of gratitude, they heard a warning from the Kazakh President about the possibility of taking measures against them for ‘pumping out [information] hysteria around the flooding’. Tokayev stated, in particular, the following: “The media and individual citizens who call themselves bloggers must understand that whipping up hysteria around a natural disaster and sweeping accusations harm the consolidation of society and create the illusion of a loss of control over the situation by government agencies, which is disinformation. Such actions give rise to social depression with all its obvious consequences for the reputation of our people. Therefore, in order to avoid this kind of undesirable phenomena, the authorities will take legal measures against persons leading attacks on the security of our State”.  

But some of the independent bloggers continue doing their work, and the Kazakh public might only say thanks to them for helping people in different parts of the country get the truth about what happened, say, in Kulsary during the flood straight from the horse’s mouth. Below is just one of the real-life examples. 

In a video by BaiMedia entitled “Diana Nurzhauova: My father and brother would have been alive if actions had been taken somewhat earlier”, it is said that four people died in Kulsary during the flood; of these, two were 48-year-old Bolatbek Ermekbayev and 29-year-old Asylkhan Nurzhauov, father and son. They put on rubber suits and went to inspect their flooded house and never came back. Their bodies were found nine days later, in water at a depth of one and a half meters. It turned out that they drowned a kilometer from home. Diana Nurzhauova had been searching for her father and brother. According to her, a missing complaint was lodged on April 6. “Until April 8, neither a boat nor any other means were given for the search. When we turned to the fire station to ask for a car, people there said that they had no gas, no necessary technical means such as flashlights, loudspeakers. After we appeared on television, search operations were carried out”, Diana Nurzhauova said. A group was assigned to implement the search. Raya Onaybayeva,  Bolatbek Ermekbayev’s relative, added: “But these people were not prepared for the search. They had no search facilities”.

The situation described above is pretty strange on its own. It seems to be even weirder when you take in that here, we speak of a district, on the territory of which, over one-third of the budget revenues of the Kazakh state were generated in, say, 2018. And that is no exaggeration. Over a third or more than 35% of the Kazakh republican budget revenues planned for 2018 (without transfers) for 5 trillion 528.4 billion tenge fell to share of the Tengizchevroil LLP (TCO) alone. That’s easy to verify if one wants to. The TCO operates a license that includes the unique, supergiant Tengiz field and the adjacent, smaller but still significant, Korolevskoye field. Both fields are in the Zhyloy district territory, the center of which is Kulsary, a town, which recently has been badly hit by the devastating water-floods. In 2023, the TCO produced 28.9 million metric tons of oil. That is more than the peak figures of Kazakhstan as a whole in the Soviet years and just a little less than what Azerbaijan produced in 2023, 30.2 million metric tons of crude and gas condensate.

At the end of March, 150 people were evacuated by a military helicopter from flooded settlements in the Kostanay province. In a similar situation in Kulsary,  no helicopter could have been found for searching Bolatbek Ermekbayev and Asylkhan Nurzhauov. 

The Zhyloy district definitely is the richest district in Kazakhstan. Being just a part of the Atyrau province, it potentially is richer than any province of Kazakhstan, except maybe the Atyrau province itself. And it potentially is richer than many individual post-Soviet States. But this all has seemingly been of little use to Kulsary during the recent flooding disaster.

     This is the way things are.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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