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Kazakhstan: Longtime Strike Bursts into Violence; State of Emergency Declared

As Kazakhstan was preparing for the pompous celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the country's independence, the seven month-long strike of employees sacked from the national oil company's subsidiary in West Kazakhstan was evolving into brutal clashes with police forces, apparently, with the help of unidentified provocateurs.

The strike began in spring 2011, following demands for higher salaries and better working conditions in several oilfields in the Mangistau province. The government chose to stay away from the labor conflict, regarding it as an argument between the company and its employees. Eventually some of the demands were met and most workers returned to work. Ozenmunaigaz (OMG), located in Zhana Ozen, a town of nearly 100,000 inhabitants, remained the only restless company: its non-oil workers were not satisfied with сoncessions and demanded a pay raise.

The local court ruling arrived, declaring the demands baseless and the strike illegal. Observers commented that the strike leaders were misled by the ambiguous instructions for the salary incease and demanded more than was meant by the legislation. Workers from the town, where OMG is almost the only employer of substance, were fired and the leader of the unregistered labor union jailed. A strike of workers in a tent camp in the township's main square began.

The strike of nearly a thousand fired workers has been gradually aggravating the crime situation in the town, making its implications hardly trackable. On December 14, two days before Independence observances, the “Respublika” newspaper published a call for a rally in Zhanaozen, signed by an anonymous “group of Mangistau province residents”. The letter from the Zhanaozen residents was unprecedented, in that it madepolitical demands; the article was titled “Down with Nazarbayev” [president of Kazakhstan]. Leaflets disseminated around town summoned strikers to a rally on the main square on December 16, Independence Day.

On the eve of the date, according to the strike's official Twiter account, @zhanaozen [ru] the authorities were urging the strikers to clear the square for celebrations. The strikers refused to remove tents and, fearing a forced clean-up under the cover of night, mobilized their comrades. The morning of December 16 nothing happened – the tent camp of strikers was untouched, and the celebrations – a parade and a concert – began.

It is still unclear what happened next, but many eyewitnesses and journalists of “Respublika” newspaper and “K+” satellite TV channel, which became virtually the only news sources from Zhanaozen for the next two days, claimed that further disorder was incited by a group of provocateurs. Both media outlets are funded by M. Ablyazov, a former banker with a vast network of business and political interests in Kazkahstan. In any case, the peaceful rally and festivities ended with violent clashes (video). Men with sticks and “Molotov cocktails” attacked the civilians, and induced strikers to destroy the concert stage, burn the cars and storm the administrative buildings.

In the absence of updates from state-owned news sources, which were overwhelmed by the state anniversary, social media, especially Twitter, Facebook and Youtube with videos from “K+”, quickly emerged as the main tool to deliver information, as well as deliberate misinformation, about the clashes. The #zhanaozen hashtag on Twitter on December 16-17 was filled with sensational, and frequently anonymous, tweets about “civil war in Zhanaozen”, “mass killings” and galloping numbers of alleged victims. Uncertainty only increased with the blocking of Twitter and a number of Russian and Kyrgyz news sites the evening of December 16. The national telecom operator denied the fact filtering. The websites are still accessible with circumvention tools.

Many bloggers suspiciously pointed to [ru] a well-used anti-government information campaign on the Internet, aimed at manipulation of public opinion, especially on Independence Day, as well as the state media focus on this four-day weekend of glorifying the president, who retains power since the country became independent in 1991. The rhetoric of campaign, they thought [ru], probably was meant to draw parallels with the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan. The campaign engaged several little-known NGOs and bloggers in Russia, Ukraine and Europe, as well as Irish Socialist MEP Paul Murphy, who was quick to describe the event in the Eur0pean Parliament as a “massacre”. Murphy visited Zhanaozen once earlier this year; the visit was extensively covered by “K+” and “Respublika”.

Official reaction came the evening of December 16 with a press briefing from General Prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev, who admitted the death of 10, and more wounded in clashes with police, who used weapons against  the “hooligans” who burnt police cars, several buildings of the local government administration, a private hotel and the Ozenmunaygaz office, and looted shops and ATM machines. The lack of information provoked unease in the neighboring town of Shetpe and Aktau, the provincial capital. Pete Leonard, an Associated Press reporter in Kazkahstan, tweeting from nearby Aktau, the regional capital, quoted Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition “Alga” party, talking about a “real risk of a provocation” from “drunken young men milling in the crowd holding rocks – not evidently associated with demonstrating oil workers“.

On Sunday December 18, the blockage of Twitter was lifted after president Nazarbayev ordered an investigation into the Zhanaozen violence, and enacted a state of emergency through January 5, or until final settlement of the situation. He expressed condolences to the families of people killed and sought to clearly divide the issue of labor conflict and “bandits, who took advantage of the situation”. Interestingly, the day before that, minister of interior Kalmukhanbet Kassymov named the strikers as organizers of protests when he reported on the stabilization of the situation in Zhanaozen, after detaining 70. The authorities thereby met – albeit somewhat late – some of the public's demands for information, but failed to declare national mourning and to include representatives of civil society in the government's Special Commission for Investigation. The government is inviting journalists and OSCE officers [ru] to visit Zhanaozen in an apparent attempt to show its transparency, but it remains unclear who was actually killed [ru] or the precise circumstances of their death.

The heated propaganda and counter-propaganda debates continue on the Facebook group Zhanaozen [ru], and more updates directly from the site can be found at Twitter hashtag #zhanaozen. Within the debates, observers and commenters are presenting various versions, from a provocation by exiled Kazakh oligarchs to a conspiracy [ru] of foreign states, or both [ru]. Global Voices will keep an eye on the developments.

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