Fifteen people were killed in violent clashes over the weekend, as rioting spread to a second town in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich Mangistau province. One person was killed and 11 wounded when police attacked demonstrators blocking a passenger train in the town of Shetpe.
The incident follows Friday’s killing of at least 14 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen which prompted some analysts to suggest that the violence portends a potentially turbulent transition in the authoritarian Central Asian state.
“The protests exposed the main weakness of the political system that [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev has crafted in 20 years of his rule — it works as long as the leader is strong and relatively young,” said analyst Lilit Gevorgyan. “At the time of transition, all the achievements born out of political and economic stability can be wiped away if political turmoil follows.”
The unrest is a symptom of the dearth of democracy, observers suggest.
“People want to be heard, but there are no mechanisms which would allow people to be heard…This results in such brutal methods,” Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym said. “Zhanaozen actually threatened the unity of our nation.”
“In general, there is a need to slacken the reins. Public mechanisms are needed. There are things which should be discussed in parliament,” he said. “There must be modernization of society, of the political system.”
Others contend that underlying socio-economic grievances over the distribution of oil revenues are feeding a “sense of injustice” in western regions.
“The west feels abandoned,” said Kate Mallinson, a central Asia expert at the GPW political risk consultancy. “So much oil money has gone to build the glittering new capital in Astana and other prestigious projects.”
Kyrgyzstan-based opposition channel K-Plus claimed Sunday that the violence was sparked when police drove a bus into a crowd of protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen to disperse their sit-in. It claimed about 70 people were killed and 500 wounded.
The authorities are adopting a heavy-handed approach to the unrest, according to the Associated Press:
Rights activists will likely also be concerned by what appeared to heavy-handed treatment of detainees at Zhanaozen’s main police station Sunday evening. Journalists at the station reported hearing screams coming from what appeared to be interrogation rooms, while a number of men with bloodied faces were lined up in a row in the corridors with their faces against the wall.
Many protesters suspect that the true toll may be higher than the official tally, Reuters reports:
One oil worker, who declined to be named, said he had just visited a blood donor centre in Aktau. “It is working round-the-clock. If only 10 people were killed, why is it working round-the-clock?” he told Reuters.
About 200 people attended a protest in solidarity with the strikers in Almaty, the commercial capital, said Andrei A. Grishen, the editor of a newsletter published by the Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
The Kazakh authorities are responsible for the violence, said opposition leader and former Senator Zauresh Battalova.
“Instead of taking care of human rights, [instead of] addressing the people’s problems in a legal way, [the authorities] used force, sent in troops, which shows that our authorities are not capable of working in a legal way,” Battalova told RFE/RL.
“It shows that our authorities fully ignore the principle of the rule of law and operate using force only. This kind of authority cannot run a country that proclaims itself a secular country based on law.”
The striking oil workers (right) recently added political demands, including the right to form independent labor unions and political parties, to their list of grievances.
Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center suggests that “Nazarbayev is in a very precarious situation. I think he has been losing so far, and should he suppress the current outbursts with force, something similar is likely to erupt.”
News of the suppression of the riots has spread on social network sites, as has happened during recent protests in Russia against alleged election fraud and in the Arab world. The picture has been different in the traditional media in a throwback to Soviet times, when Nazarbayev was a Communist Party boss.
The main state channel, Khabar, ran a feature film about Nazarbayev’s life and interviews with him. Singers sang songs with lyrics written by him, and video clips lionised him as “the founder of new Kazakhstan”. Internet, mobile communication and telephone landlines were cut off from Zhanaozen. Communication has been patchy elsewhere across the sprawling nation.
“This manner of behavior — by blocking social networks and jamming information — has shown to the entire world that the authorities have actually lost,” Malashenko said