Kazakhstan this week canceled, then re-authorised elections in a remote oil town where recent riots stemming from an oil workers strike left at least 16 dead and more than 40 buildings burned.
Since the riots on Dec. 16, Zhanaozen, located east of the Caspian Sea, has been under a state of emergency, and arrests of strike leaders have continued. A diplomat and several journalists and human rights activists told IPS they were admitted into the town of 120,000 only with close police escorts, and were severely restricted over who they could speak with.
They reported that almost all traces of the shootings had been obliterated and that repairs were under way at the burned-out city hall on the main square and the adjacent headquarters of UzenMunaiGaz, a state- owned oil company where the strike unfolded.
Last week, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree that extended the state of emergency, which was due to expire Jan. 5, to the end of the month, prompting the electoral commission to deny its citizens the opportunity to vote for a new parliament. The current one is entirely composed of members of a coalition led the president’s Nur Otan party.
Though the government says the town is functioning normally, the vote cannot be held during the state of emergency, according to Central Election Commission Chairman Kuandyk Turgankulov.
"There are only 50,000 voters in the city," he said. "With high voter turnout expected across Kazakhstan, there will be no tangible effect on the outcome of the vote." As for the possible infringement of voters rights, he said that "the Constitutional Council doesn’t think it would be the case."
Aidos Sarym, a political commentator, said that fear of an embarrassing electoral rout was the likely reason for the cancellation. "I don’t think a lot of people would have voted for the government party," he said, noting that the strikers’ cause had resonated with other inhabitants of the desert city plagued by water and power outages and high unemployment.
But four days later, in an unusual move, a presidential decree reversed the decision, ruling that the vote could take place in Zhanaozen after all. "The president took into account the concerns of Zhanaozen’s residents that their electoral rights were limited by the Constitutional Council’s decision," the statement said. "His only aim is to give the residents of Zhanaozen the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote and be elected to government and local councils."
Zhanaozen’s population soared from 55,000 in 1999 to 120,000 in 2009 as work around the oilfield expanded, but social services like housing, schools and hospitals have not followed, according to local reports.
Despite spectacular growth over the past decade, Kazakhstan’s expenditures on health and education are half those of comparable post-communist countries, and institutionalised corruption means that only part of these expenditures reach their intended beneficiaries, several studies have shown.
While opinion polls show that Nazarbayev, who has ruled this oil-rich country five times the size of France since 1989, remains broadly popular, Western monitors have reported abuses in all previous elections, where results often exceed 90 percent support for government candidates.
Until now, none of these elections have triggered the kind of mass protests recently seen in neighbouring Russia or in the Arab world.
But Bulat Abilov, a leader of the opposition Social democratic Party, has pledged to organise just such protests if the vote is less than transparent. After he led a small group of protesters in observing a minute of silence for the victims of Zhanaozen at the central Republic Square in Almaty, the economic capital, he said the demonstrations would take place "right here."
Nearly 10,000 Workers at OzenMunaiGaz and nearby KarazhambasMunaiGaz, two major units of the state exploration and production company, KMG EP, went on strike in May after they were told that a promised reinstatement of a Soviet-era cost of living allowance coefficient would only apply to a small part of their salary. Production dropped dramatically.
By July, most of the workers had returned to their jobs without raises, and production went back to normal. Some 2,000 remaining strikers were fired and replaced. During the fall, they were offered jobs with various contractors, but turned them down because they paid less than their original jobs.
The strike resulted in the loss of 1.1 million tons of oil, worth about 700 million dollars, KMG EP has said. The company reports about 1 billion dollars a year in profits.
Since July, several hundred strikers held a vigil in the Zhanaozen central square, sleeping there without tents until November, witnesses said.
On Dec. 16, government workers put up a stage and started playing loud pop music to celebrate Kazakhstan’s 20 years of independence from the Soviet Union, while police tried to clear the square of strikers. They sparked a riot that, according to the government, resulted in the burning down of 46 buildings. Several videos on Youtube show police firing thousands of round of ammunition, with one plainclothes man caught firing a handgun at unarmed, retreating demonstrators.
The government said 16 people were killed and over 100 injured, but has not released their names. A strike leader who asked not to be identified said that in addition to the 16, 30 more bodies bearing wounds from bullets or beatings were returned to their families with death certificates saying they had died of accidents or natural causes.
Meanwhile, the company has announced that after being ordered by the President to rehire the 2,000 fired workers, it was creating two subsidiaries to do so. The company did not set a timeline, but a spokeswoman said the salaries would be "around their former level." If confirmed, this would be a significant reversal in policy for the company, which maintains that the strike was illegal and that the 2,000 workers were fired legally.
This article was originally published by IPS News.