By Nate Schenkkan
Officials in Kazakhstan are trying to listen to disgruntled residents of Zhanaozen, the scene of violent clashes last December that left at least 17 dead. The problem is, goodwill ambassadors from Astana are not saying the things that seething citizens want to hear.
The difficulties surrounding the healing process were on display February 10, when, on a bitterly cold morning, over 450 people gathered at a center-city venue in Zhanaozen to meet with two visiting members of Kazakhstan’s parliament. One of the MPs, Kamal Burkhanov of the governing Nur Otan Party, opened the discussion with a 40-minute speech that extolled the virtues of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s economic development programs. Then, one by one, residents took a turn at the microphone, many using the opportunity to excoriate the visitors for ignoring the town’s plight.
Before the Zhanaozen tragedy on December 16, such an encounter would have been inconceivable, said residents. For seven months leading up to that day, over a thousand oil workers had maintained a strike for higher wages on Zhanaozen’s central square, persisting through the summer even after they were fired by affiliates of state energy company KazMunaiGaz (KMG). On December 16, the workers clashed with police on the square during an event marking Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. A crowd rampaged, burning commercial and government buildings and looting stores. In response, police opened fire. While the official death toll stands at 17, residents suspect the number is much higher.
Now, the government wants to emphasize a narrative of recovery. On December 22, Nazarbayev announced that 3 billion tenge (about $20 million) would be spent to restore the city. Little of that investment is visible at the moment, except at the local mayor’s building, which was burned to a shell December 16. The building is now nearly restored, thanks to a Stakhanovite effort requiring 270 workers and nearly $2 million, according to the contractor in charge of the restoration, Askar Kirillbaev. Standing in the finished lobby, Kirillbaev told EurasiaNet.org that work would be completed by March 1.
In the town’s main square, where disgruntled citizens and police initially clashed, workers are laying cobblestones, using jackhammers to break up the frozen soil. Next door to the mayor’s office, however, the Aru-Ana Hotel and the offices of local KMG affiliate OzenMunaiGaz, also gutted December 16, stand untouched: the burned-out structures are now hidden behind new billboards with patriotic slogans.
Local authorities are under increasing pressure from distant Astana. The mayor, Orak Sarbopeyev, has been detained on embezzlement charges. But that threatens to further antagonize locals, who describe Sarbopeyev as a relatively popular figure who had improved the city’s decrepit infrastructure, and who had a reputation for living modestly. The mayor has denied all charges against him. Related embezzlement cases have also been opened against several directors of OzenMunaiGaz, as well as the former mayor.
Riot police continue to patrol the town. On a recent afternoon, one hundred of them gathered on the main square with German shepherds at heel, before deploying across the city in groups of three. Many residents remain wary of speaking with reporters or giving their names. Meanwhile, relatives of oil workers describe harassment by state security forces.
To a visitor, the roots of discontent are readily visible. Despite frequent reports that workers’ pay in Zhanaozen is above the national average, little of the money appears to have trickled down to the city itself. Most of the 120,000 residents live in crumbling low-rise apartment blocks dating to the 1960s. In the frigid winters, traffic slows to a crawl as residents navigate the few paved roads. In the summer, residents complain, taps run dry.
Popular anger over conditions was on vivid display during the February 10 meeting. Although apparently conceived as a way to project a message of outreach and restoration – residents said teachers and government employees were invited to pack the crowd, and state TV was present to record it – the event quickly turned into a repudiation of authority that is seldom seen in Kazakhstan. One young woman in a shiny blue jacket trembled with tears as she pled for the deputies to bring jobs to Zhanaozen. Dozens of residents strode to the podium to place written requests for assistance in the deputies’ hands.
The December violence, and the lack of closure surrounding those tragic events, has created another source of discontent. One woman came forward to describe how her husband disappeared December 17, his body found a week later in the basement of a residential building. She demanded the authorities investigate his death, the cause of which the coroner said could not be determined. The loudest applause came when another resident demanded the resignation of the local prosecutor. “We have innocent people sitting in prisons,” she said, as the crowd clapped. “First fix that, then decide what to build.”
To each request, Nur Otan’s Burkhanov replied that he was only a deputy, and could not fulfill such demands. Residents, he said, should address their complaints to the president. As the event extended into its third hour, many of those in attendance filed out shaking their heads, until only about 40 remained. One of the last to speak was Tamara Yergazeva, the wife of a striking oil worker shot in the legs on December 16 and currently imprisoned in the regional capital Aktau.
As Deputy Burkhanov repeated his inability to act, Yergazeva shouted at him, “If you can’t do anything, why did you come? What are you doing here?”
Nate Schenkkan is a Bishkek-based journalist.