Ainur Kurmanov and Esenbek Ukteshbayev were guests earlier this month of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee on Human Rights at a seminar in Oslo on the situation in Kazakhstan. As leaders of the independent union, Zhanartu, they spoke about the repression of workers’ rights, the oil-workers’ strike and the massacre at Zhanaozen on 16 December last year.
Report by Stefan Berg, Göteborg
Ainur and Esen have been forced to be outside their country since October last year because of attempts to arrest them on trumped up charges and imprison them. Their lives have also been in danger. They have more than once been subjected to physical attack outside their homes and on one occasion last year, the brake pipe on Esen’s vehicle was cut.
In September 2011, both Ainur and Esenbek were held by police for between six and ten hours. Absurd allegations were made against them that they had whipped up feelings of mass suicide amongst workers. They risked being sentenced to ten years imprisonment.
The seminar in Oslo was also addressed by Lars Myhre, who is chairman of the energy section of the trade union that covers oil-workers in Norway – called ‘Energy Industry’. This union is connected to the ICEM (International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mining and General Workers’ Unions) which has already expressed its backing for the striking oil-workers in Zhanaozen and backed the campaign of protest against the Kazakhstan dictatorship’s repression of human and trade union rights.
Esenbek described the origins of the strike which started started in May 2011. During the Summer and Autumn, protests and large demonstrations were organised, but the regime used physical attacks and violence to try and end the struggle of the workers over wages and conditions in this lucrative (for the bosses) industry. Repression against the strike leaders had been gradually getting worse. Several were injured and some deaths were reported. In August, the 28 year-old trade union activist, Zhalsylyk Turbaev was murdered at his workplace. A few weeks later Zhansaule Karabalaeva was kidnapped and found murdered. She was a local trade union leader’s daughter and only 18 years old. In addition, daily threats had been targeted against trade union activists and their houses had been set alight.
“We must be able to find ways to negotiate and secure workers’ rights,” said Esenbek. In Zhanaozen the workers have tried all possible peaceful ways of getting their case heard and their demands have been turned down. Now, the regime has shown its naked face, and after the violent events of December 16, it is they who should be condemned. The accusations that the ordinary people who were in the square were guilty must be rejected. Now the masses have begun to wake up and it is the Kazakh people who will set the agenda.
Ainur also spoke about the massacre of 16 December. “According to the workers in the area, at least 70 lives were lost and 500 people wounded. But government sources are still clinging to the figure of 15 and denying all allegations of assault and provocation by police and military. Over 1,000 people were arrested. December 16 is Kazakhstan’s ‘Freedom Day’. This year was the 20th anniversary of independence from the USSR. Permission had been given in Zhanaozen for a workers’ demonstration to be held in solidarity with the oil-workers. But the authorities built a stage in the square with a huge sound system playing loud music aimed at drowning out the speeches of the workers’ leaders. When the police tried to push the 3,000-strong demonstration to the edge of the square, trouble broke out.
“There were provocateurs among the demonstrators. The opposition in Kazakhstan believes now that the raid was planned in advance. There were armed forces in and around the town, and afterwards it emerged that the police had placed snipers on buildings around the square. The protesters who were shot were unarmed.”
People at the seminar in Oslo were very interested in knowing more about the future and what the possibilities look like for peaceful development towards reform in Kazakhstan. “Or is revolution more likely?” asked one, in perfect Russian. To explain, Ainur referred to developments in North Africa and the Arab spring. “The regime is afraid of a development like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt. President Nursultan Nazarbayev wanted to postpone the elections due last year, but was dissuaded by ‘adviser’ Tony Blair in view of the explosive and potentially revolutionary situation in his country. Instead, a rapid and rigged election was organised which gave a large majority of the votes to Nazarbayev.
“The international situation has had an impact in Kazakhstan. Tensions in the community have been building up over the past ten years. The situation resembles that of Tunisia with a very thin layer of middle class opposition, few political parties and a great potential for the workers’ movement. We see a generation now of young people who participate in strikes not only for economic but also political demands.”
Lars Myhre confirmed that the ICEM supports the struggle of the workers in Kazakhstan and that the union is prepared to support Campaign Kazakhstan’s demands for full democratic rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, the right to protest, to strike and to join independent trade unions.