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Socialism Today 160 - July/August 2012

Clampdown Kazakhstan

AUTHORITIES IN Kazakhstan are implementing a brutal crackdown on workers and civil rights activists. Show trials, deaths in detention and in suspicious circumstances, spurious arrests and questioning, and military mobilisations for peaceful protests. These are the actions of a brutal dictatorship in fear of an eruption from below, and of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev becoming the next Mubarak or Ben Ali.

Takhir Mukhamedzyanov, miners’ union leader and member of Socialist Movement Kazakhstan, was found dead in his house on 5 June. The cause of death is unknown, but it follows on from anonymous threats that he would be ‘got rid of’. In 2010, Takhir’s garage and car were blown up, after being searched and documents taken. A fortnight after that, the police and others took Takhir and attempted to inject him with an unknown substance. Takhir worked with members of the CWI. He was also involved in the Zhanartu union, and in building links between the miners and others in struggle, including oil workers.

Vadim Kuramshin, human rights activist and lawyer, is currently on trial for bribery despite clear evidence to the contrary. Vadim has provided witnesses who have made clear that he was protesting against bribery rather than accepting it. Police witnesses seemed to develop sudden, severe memory loss. Video ‘evidence’ was so clearly tampered with that the judge immediately postponed the hearings to give the state time to come up with a better story!

Bolat Atabayev, famous Kazakh theatre director who has supported workers’ struggles, was arrested for ‘inciting social discord’. He was taken on a 3,000km journey to be tried. Bolat is diabetic, and his family were denied the chance to give him the insulin supplies he would need to make this journey.

These actions against prominent figures are replicated with vicious attacks on union leaders and community activists locally, with waves of arrests. Roza Tuletaeva, a leading figure in last year’s oil strikes, was sentenced to seven years, and reported in court the beatings and near-suffocation that she suffered during interrogation. One 51-year-old activist committed suicide after questioning.

This is the regime’s vicious revenge following the heroic Zhanaozen oil workers’ strike in 2011. For seven months thousands of workers took strike action, demanding increased pay, despite huge state repression. The struggle became a fight for the basic right to organise in a union, against corruption, and for the nationalisation of the massive oil reserves in western Kazakhstan. Eventually, the regime seized on a peaceful protest rally organised by the workers to launch an attack, firing live rounds into the crowd and killing over 70.

The government’s official inquiry confirmed the massive corruption, with former mayors and state-owned KazMunaiGaz officials sentenced for stealing millions of pounds. An international outcry forced the government to sentence some of the local police, but the orders to shoot came directly from the Ministry of the Interior.

These token official moves have not solved the systemic corruption or police brutality. International couriers, DHL, working in tandem with big oil, are currently conducting an internal review into bribes to Kazakh customs officials. It is estimated that the Kazakh customs authority took $150 million in bribes in 2007 alone.

Opposition parties such as Alga are also facing harassment. Alga is the latest political representation of the oligarchs who split from Nazarbayev in 2001. While socialists support their democratic right to organise, it is clear that a Kazakhstan run by Alga would be little different. Leading member, Mukhtar Ablyazov, is currently in hiding in Britain, avoiding charges of embezzling $5 billion from Kazakh BTA bank. While the lengths to which the regime is pursuing the case are clearly politically motivated, the charges are serious.

But events in Zhanaozen have not quashed workers’ struggle. Several ‘days of discontent’ have been organised this year, and workers’ leaders say that the intimidation of activists is to try and prevent the next social explosion. But workers in particular are determined to continue the fight. The Telegraph reports that, in the wake of the Zhanaozen massacre, "a series of wage disputes have since been resolved quickly with little or no media attention". This includes the dispute at the Kazakhmys-owned Annensky mine, which was victorious after other miners took solidarity action.

Kazakhstan is completely dominated by the clique around Nazarbayev. Forbes earlier this year published its first Kazakstan rich-list. Top of the list is Kazakhmys owner, Vladimir Kim, with a fortune of £2.2 billion. He is a close confidant of Nazarbayev. The president’s grandson, daughter Dinara Kulibayeva, and her husband Timur Kulibayev, all feature. The Kulibayev’s have wealth estimated at £810 million each. Timur Kulibayev is the head of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, which ultimately employed those striking in Zhanaozen.

Nazarbayev was re-elected in 2011, with a reported 95% of the vote. This vote, and those which gave overwhelming backing to parliamentary parties linked to him, were widely fraudulent. In reality, parliament, the police and the courts are used as tools to extend the power of the Nazarbayev clique. A recent law was passed giving the state’s sovereign wealth fund 51% ownership of all new oil pipelines, worth billions of pounds.

This has been helped by Tony Blair and some of his former Downing Street associates. Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer (27 May) that Blair has been paid $13 million for advising the regime. He is not alone, however. Ex-BAE Systems head, Sir Richard Evans, now works alongside Timur Kulibayev at the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund, employing none other than Blair’s former spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, to write his speeches.

On 27 May, Blair’s office responded to Cohen’s article. It did not deny payment from the Kazakh regime. In fact, it did not mention it at all! Instead, it justified the links between Blair and Nazarbayev: "Despite being sandwiched between the giants of Russia and China", the statement reads, "he [Narzarbayev] has remained a good ally of the west, vital to the effort in Afghanistan. Therefore, the work we are doing is precisely to boost the reform programme which is already underway and is consistent with the demands made of president Nazarbayev by the international community".

Alongside repression of workers and activists, the regime is attempting to divert struggles by stirring up ethnic and religious tensions. Ethnic Kazakhs make up 63% of the population, alongside various minorities, including Russian, Uzbek and Ukrainian. The majority of the population are Sunni Muslim, with 26% Christian. In October 2011, the regime passed a law which restricted religious freedom.

Hazing, severe bullying in the army on religious or ethnic grounds, reportedly led to one Kazakh border guard killing 14 other guards and burning down the post on the Kazakh-Chinese border in June this year. Shortly after, another set of guards stationed on the Kazakh-Chinese border deserted their post. Local press has reported stories of badly bruised and broken bodies sent home, with ‘heart failure’ cited as the cause of death.

This is a corrupt, vicious regime which forces its population to live in poverty while a tiny wealthy elite pocket the profits. But there is a powerful movement developing, and it is clear that the stage is set for mass explosions.

Ben Robinson

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