Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan. Eighth anniversary of the massacre of the oil-workers. 

By Rob Jones, Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa – CWI in Russia

On December 16th eight years ago, the international labour movement was shocked by news of the brutal massacre of dozens of striking oil-workers in the city of Zhanaozen, in West Kazakhstan. It was the culmination of a strike by several hundred, mainly young, Kazakhs which had lasted for eight months. During this time, they refused to react to provocations by the employer and state, which had left strikers dead and their lawyer, Natalia Sokolova in prison.   

The strike started partly over wages, but in particular, it was to demand the right to form independent trade unions to represent their interests. The strikers held a more or less continuous mass meeting during the strike in the city’s main square. In July, it was even addressed by a delegation from the CWI, including the then Member of the European Parliament and formerly of the Socialist Party Ireland, Paul Murphy. 

16th December 2011 was to be a national celebration to mark 20 years of Kazakhstan Independence. The Nazarbayev regime had celebrations planned across the country, but suddenly it began winding them down across the country. This was in response to the decision by the oil workers to organise a peaceful rally in the city centre, during which they intended to read out a declaration and call for an extension of the strike. This never happened however, as the police and riot troops brutally attacked the unarmed gathering leaving dozens dead, many wounded and hundreds arrested. 

International press agencies initially presented the massacre as a reaction by the state forces to hooligans and rioters. Even when the news of what had really happened started to spread, they refused initially to report “unconfirmed reports”. This did not stop them however publishing the official government statements. The information blockade was broken by the CWI. Although the CWI site in Kazakhstan was immediately blocked by the regime, the Russian site carried up-to-the minute reports and regularly crashed because of the high number of visitors, including international media outlets. 

The massacre – from one of the original reports (published on 17th December 2011)

“At eleven o’clock, workers, their families and other residents from the city had gathered in the main square for a peaceful demonstration demanding negotiations and the release of the strikers’ lawyer Natalia Sokolova. Whilst they were preparing for a peaceful demonstration (during the eight months of the dispute, they have always insisted that there should be no violence), the state was preparing for a conflict. They drafted in police and riot troops. Suddenly a police car drove into the crowd at high speed. This naturally provoked a reaction from the protesters, who attacked the car. 

This clear provocation against the workers was followed within a short space of time by attacks on the City Akimat (Mayor’s office) and the head office of “Ozenmunaigaz”. These were destroyed in flames either by protesters angry at the attacks or, as many workers believe, by provocateurs trying to implicate that the workers were involved in a senseless rampage. 

By 12.45 the city was in turmoil as the riot police and internal troops, which had been massed on the edge of the city in preceding days, entered the fray using live bullets to fire into the crowd, further increasing the anger as workers saw their comrades fall, either dead or wounded. 

One women interviewed on the TV Channel K+ explained that she saw how people were running up to the police, thinking they had weapons with rubber bullets just for dramatic reasons. The police started shooting, hitting people in the arms and legs, before she saw how one man was hit in the head. She saw three killed outright, three more wounded died on the way to the hospital. She saw a mother and a little girl shot in the head. It is clear that the official version of 11 killed is a real underestimate. Reports from the city bear witness that hospitals cannot cope with the numbers of wounded. Emergency blood transfusion centres have been set up. Estimates of the number killed range from 50 to 150. 

Despite such brutality, with the riot police using tear gas and light grenades against them, the workers held their own in the square, at one stage moving to disarm the police and troops. Within a short time, they had taken control of the city, at which stage the police were joined by 1,500 marines and armoured equipment. As the troops began to take back the city, work at all the oil drilling stations around the city ceased, with a strike spreading through the region. Pockets of fighting continued through the night.”

The immediate response of the CWI in publicising these events electrified the world and forced the regime onto the defensive. In Antwerp, the trade union at the oil refinery live-streamed the reports on its website, in Sweden, the miners’ union immediately condemned the brutal attack on the oil workers and called for international solidarity.  Pickets were immediately organised at embassies throughout the world, from New York to Tel Aviv, whilst workers followed the reports with anger.

Politicisation of the strikers

As the strike progressed in the run-up to December, the strikers themselves became more politicised. As is common in the former Soviet countries, the workforce had been pushed en-masse to join the ruling party – Nur Otan. The same ruling party, however, was behind continuous attacks intended to undermine the strike. When in April, Natalia Sokolova was arrested and jailed the strikers resigned en-masse. 

Every-time there was a new upsurge in support for the strike, new propaganda attacks were directed against the strikers – at one time, they were accused of being tools of foreign agents, or of the oligarchs, at others that the strikers were not genuine Kazakhs but “Oralman” – Kazakhs who had lived abroad for many years and recently returned. The most poisonous attacks were made by right- wing nationalists close to Nazarbayev’s administration who at key points proposed reducing the rights of Russian speakers – although the vast majority of strikers were Kazakh speakers, these were seen as attempts to divide the working class on ethnic lines. The strikers refused to succumb to the attempts to undermine their strike. 

By June, 6 months before the massacre, the oil-workers were already drawing wider conclusions. They issued a set of demands reaffirming their demand for the right to form independent trade unions but now added demands for a 60% increase in pay for doctors and teachers in the city due to its poor ecology and the return into state ownership, that is nationalization, of those enterprises that had been hived off from the parent company. As the year moved on, they generalized the demand on ownership to call for the nationalization of the oil sector. 

At the rally in December, which ended with the massacre, the oil-workers leaders were preparing to read a declaration calling for the extension of the strike to other regions of Kazakhstan, for workers to boycott the upcoming Presidential election and for independent trade unions to be formed and linked up to form a new workers’ party. This call, of course, was never made.    

Role of the trade unions

This movement put the trade unions under a severe test – apart from the new oil-workers union itself, they failed. The trigger for the strike was the attempt by the members of the trade union at Karazhanbasmunai, in Aktau, to remove the union President from office by the votes of the membership. He had collaborated with management to prevent meaningful negotiations over wages and conditions. He sent groups of armed thugs into the oil field to beat up his opponents. The Union was part of the “Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan”, that had long ceased to exist as a genuine trade union organization. In 2009, it had signed an agreement with the government to stop all strikes, protests and demonstrations by workers, to allow the regime to ‘maintain stability’.

In June of that year, the international and Russian trade unions stepped in – not to support the strikers but on the side of the employers and the trade union bureaucrats. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, through Kirill Buketov a bureaucrat working for the International Union of Foodworkers in Geneva sent a questionnaire to the oil workers. Ironically they had to do this through the CWI as they had no direct contact. 

They then attacked the oil-workers saying that the workers only had the right to change their trade union leaders once every 5 years; were wrong to argue that by law they were entitled to pay for working in dangerous and remote conditions; had not sufficient evidence to back up the claims of the use of thugs and lacked their own trade union with elected and legitimate leaders.

This statement echoes the arguments of the employers and government and is particularly disgraceful given that the workers, from the very beginning, elected their representatives for the conduct of negotiations and these representatives then met with severe repression – Natalia Sokolova was been jailed for 6 years, Akzhanat Aminov received a two year suspended sentence and a third has had his house burnt to the ground! 

Slanders following the massacre

Not surprising were the attacks made by the regime itself. The “major cause of mass disturbances lies in the actions of a group of hooligans” was the claim of the Kazakhstan Embassy in Vienna. President Nazarbayev blamed “organized criminal groups connected to foreign forces” – ironic considering that it was his riot troops, who had been trained by the US and were carrying US made weapons. 

Unbelievably and scandalously however, a whole wave of trade union bureaucrats and even left groups weighed in. The International Federation repeated its slanderous accusations, summed up by the statement by Boris Kravchenko President of the Confederation of Labour of Russia (KTR), who attempted to blame the CWI for the Zhanaozen massacre: “We believe that responsibility for these events, for the blood of the oil workers is fully that of the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan. However, this responsibility should be completely shared with those political speculators, self-appointed ’committees’ and ’internationals’ who use the social protest for their own interests, rewriting the protesters’ demands into ’political’ demands, their provocative actions, pushing the authorities to use violent measures”. This is particularly rich, seeing as representatives of the CWI had discussed with the oil-workers’ committee before 12th December how best to ensure that the whole protest would remain peaceful. 

Eric Lee of the trade union resource “Labour Start” alleged that the CWI  “manipulated the strikers, provoked them from outside and this led to the tragic events, during which buildings were burnt down and violence was used on both sides.” Another lie. 

The “Russian Socialist Movement” then linked to the Mandelite USFI helped deflect criticism from the regime by crudely repeating the regime’s lies about their actions being a response to provocations by the Kazakhstan oligarch in exile Mukhtar Ablyazov. 

Some lefts today still think this approach is acceptable – they repeat the accusations by Kazakh government experts that the latest strikes by oil workers are “being used by a third party, i.e. mafia-type business interests fighting against Chinese involvement”. A pretty strange allegation considering that a significant number of the strikes are against Chinese owned companies. 

By doing so, they reduce the role of the self-disciplined and politically conscious oil-workers to mere pawns in the games of Kazakh oligarchs and give credence to age old tricks of dictators who blame foreign influences for all their problems.

Those parties that have come out of the former Stalinist parties are even worse. “Rabkor” an online resource close to the Russian communist parties criticized the oil workers just 2 days after the massacre: “It is impossible not to talk of a number of tactical mistakes made by the protesters during their campaign. As long as the main slogans of the protesters were for better wages, for the observation of labour law, against the worsening of conditions, they were in a strong position. Within the bounds of a labour dispute, the authorities had their hands tied, as any pressure would be purely illegitimate. The problem was complicated when under the influence of the CWI the workers took up political demands, including nationalization of the company”.

The Ukrainian Communist Party however revealed the true nature of the former Stalinists in this region by taking the “conspiracy theory approach” often found in their ranks to the logical conclusion by accusing Natalia Sokolova of being an agent of the US State department and the oil workers of being responsible for “the attempts of the US to destabilize the politico-economic situation”. They continued: “The leadership of Kazakhstan acted harshly, courageously and adequately. They were harsh in introducing a state of emergency and the riot police held no ceremonies when dealing with the well-armed fighters behind the oil workers. They showed courage when the President, Nazarbayev, visited the city of Zhanaozen and personally spoke to the local residents. They were adequate in their response by acting firmly, but explained to the gentlemen from the EU that anything happening in Zhanaozen was an internal affair for the Kazakhs to deal with”. 

The Aftermath

The brutal massacre set the workers and social protest movement back by several years. Many oil-workers served long sentences, many others remain blacklisted. However, the oil-workers are beginning to flex their muscles again. At the companies “M-TekhServis” and “Vostok Neft and Service” workers have struck to demand equal pay with foreign specialists, mainly from China, who they have to work with. In other companies, such as “AktauKranTekhServis” and “Mobile Servis Group” the demands were for a 100% and 50% pay-rise respectively. Again the demand for nationalization is being raised.  

The regime is responding in its usual fashion, arresting leaders and closing down trade unions. Yerlan Baltabai, leader of the trade union “Dignified labour” has been imprisoned for seven years. Yerzhan Yelshibaev, organizer of an unemployed union, which helps many of those who were involved in the 2011 strike has been sent to jail for 5 years. These moves however will not hold the oil-workers back for long. 

  • We therefore demand the immediate release of Yerlan Baltabai, Yerzhan Yelshibaev and all other political prisoners in Kazakhstan;
  • No to the state sponsored trade unions, all trade unions should be independent, workers should have the right to choose which trade union they belong to and to elect their leaders;
  • Full support to the oil-workers when they take strike action, for equal pay with foreign specialists and a living wage for all who work in the oil-regions;
  • For the nationalization without compensation of the oil and gas sector, and other natural resources including land and their management as part of a democratic planned economy by the workers themselves;
  • For an end to the authoritarian regime, for a mass workers party based on the independent trade unions and social movements, for a democratic socialist Kazakhstan as part of a voluntary federation of socialist republics of Euro-Asia.