Solidarity with the oil workers of Kazakhstan in the face of state repression

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

On 16 December last year in Kazakhstan, in Zhanaozen, a town with a population of 90,000 about 150km from the Caspian Sea, the forces of order carried out a real massacre by opening fire with automatic weapons on a rally of 16,000 oil workers and town dwellers who had come to show their solidarity. The workers had been protesting against lay-offs and the non-payment of back wages. There were at least ten deaths, according to the official figures, but in fact there were probably many more, perhaps up to 70 killed and 700-800 wounded.

The struggles in the oil sector go back to the strike at the beginning of May 2011 by the workers employed by KarajanbasMounai, from where it spread to a number of other oil extraction and refining plants in the region: Ersaï Kaspian Kontraktor, KazMounaiGaz, Jondeou, Krouz, Bourgylaou and AktobeMounaïGaz in the neighbouring Aktobe region, with workers demanding wage increases and improvements in safety because of the frequency of accidents at work. The UzenMounaiGaz factory was out on strike for three months. In December, the decision to organise a festival in honour of the twentieth anniversary of independence in the central square of Zhanaozen, which had been occupied by strikers since July, was a real provocation and was clearly seen to be one. Meanwhile the democratic opposition to the regime tried to manipulate this movement of the working class for its own ends: “On 14 December, two days before the independence celebrations, the paper Respublika published an appeal to demonstrate in Zhanaozen, signed by an anonymous group, ‘a group of residents from the province of Mangistau’. For the first time, the Zhanaozen appeal put forward political demands, and the article’s title was ‘Down with (president) Nazarbayev!’ Leaflets distributed in the town called for demonstrators to rally in the town square on 16 December, Independence Day”. Armed police and troops were stationed on surrounding rooftops and armoured vehicles waited for the signs of disorder. Certain demonstrators in the square (who some strikers believed were agents provocateurs) tore down the festival decorations. Police vehicles drove into the crowd, angering the demonstrators, who overturned and burned one of them. They then set fire to the town hall and the HQ of the UzenMounaiGaz company. This was the pretext for mass arrests (130) and the use of arms by the police. The workers had fallen into a trap set up from start to finish by the state authorities and aimed at breaking their movement, which had by then been going on for several months.

A state of emergency and a curfew were imposed straight away and lasted till 5 January. Despite the cutting off of communications (internet and mobile phones) and the blackout by state TV, this violent repression provoked solidarity movements throughout the oil producing region of Mangistau, on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea. On 17 December, all the oil fields had been shut down. Although Zhanaozen was encircled by armoured cars and Interior Ministry troops sent in, clashes between strikers and soldiers supported by planes and armoured cars continued. In the neighbouring area of Shetpe, hundreds of demonstrators blocked and derailed a train carrying materials for use in the repression. A thousand people demonstrated in Aktau, the main city in the region with a population of 160,000, defying a large contingent of security forces, protesting against the violence and carrying banners proclaiming “Don’t fire on the people! Withdraw the army!” On Monday 19 December, for the third consecutive day, several thousand oil workers demonstrated and confronted the police on the grand square of Aktau, calling for an end to the violence and the withdrawal of troops from Zhanaozen. Their slogans included “We want the soldiers to go. They have killed people here”, “Find those guilty of killing demonstrators”, and “Nazarbayev resign”.

The great powers tacitly approve the repression

The Kazakh bourgeoisie has done everything possible to force the workers back into passivity, throwing all kinds of slanders at them (“criminals”, “foreign agents”, etc) while also offering the carrot, with Prime Minister Massimov promising to re-employ all the oil workers who had lost their jobs, and Nazarbayev promising financial aid to the 1800 laid-off strikers in Zhanaozen. Savage repression continued: arbitrary arrests and the torture of prisoners. The president even made use of the conflicts inside the ruling class: on 22 December he announced the sacking of the regional governor and of bosses from the giant state enterprise KazMounaiGaz, including his son-in-law T Koulibayev, and from several of its subsidiaries who employed strikers, presenting all these steps as concessions to the workers. The Kazakh bourgeoisie seems to have broken the militancy of the workers, who for the moment are no longer able to organise collective public actions.

As always when it comes to the proletarian class struggle, the big western media have for the most part kept silent about this episode. They are even quieter when it comes to hiding the complicity of the western bourgeoisies in the crimes committed against the exploited. The Nazarbayev clique only had its way thanks to the complicity and tacit support of the bourgeoisie from great powers like France, Germany, Russia and China, with whom it maintains very good relations. Several western states are deeply involved in key sectors of the national economy, particularly those where the strikes broke out: the extraction and transport of oil and gas. Since 2002 these have been regrouped under the state trust KazMounaiGaz. This trust heads a number of subsidiaries which have joint ventures with the global oil companies.

The major states thus have real strategic interest in the maintenance of social stability in the country and thus in the repression carried out by the regime. Russia, obsessed with its own stability, is hysterically defensive about the social and imperialist stability of its “very dear neighbour”. Chinese enterprises such as AO KarajanbasMounai, a joint venture with KazMounaiGaz and CITIC Group were directly implicated, with the workers demanding equal treatment for Chinese and native personnel. As for France, relations with Kazakhstan were closer after the election of Sarkozy: in June 2008 a strategic partnership treaty was signed by the two countries and in 2010 a Franco-Kazakh presidential commission was created. The Nazarbayev regime was, on this occasion, described as “an island of stability and tolerance” by French Interior Minister Claude Guéant.

Finally, there was Nazarbayev’s reception in Germany in February, where he signed a series of important commercial agreements “aimed at improving the security of German industry as regards the supply of raw materials”. This was not even accompanied by the usual hypocritical expressions of concern about the conditions of working people in Kazakhstan by German democracy. Angela Merkel underlined “the great interest for German companies in further investment in Kazakhstan”. In short, any example of a working class fighting to defend its interests and any revelations about the barbarity of the bourgeoisie had to be well hidden!

An expression of the world wide revival of the class struggle

Despite the difficulty in getting precise information about the events in Kazakhstan, the long series of struggles that has taken place there undoubtedly seems to be an expression of the international revival of class struggles in response to the worsening economic crisis. Having involved over 15,000 workers, this is the biggest strike ever seen in a country run by the Nazarbayev mafia clique, whose power is based on pillaging the economy and the limitless exploitation of labour power. Workers’ wages have been stagnating (in 2009 the average monthly wage was 550 euro) while the cost of living has gone up by 70% since then and the tenge, the local currency, has lost 25% of its value. The struggle of the workers of Kazakhstan shows the same characteristics as the class struggle internationally. The workers of the Soviet era have been replaced by a more combative younger generation, mainly from the provinces, which is not prepared to put up with such cruel exploitation and terrible working conditions. Women have also played a more important role in this recent movement. Finally, the movement of the oil workers testifies to the same change in the mood of the working class as elsewhere in the world, taking the concrete form of the search for and expression of solidarity against capitalist terror and repression.

The struggle of the oil workers of Kazakhstan around the issue of wages goes back several years. The workers of Zhanaozen had already gone on strike to demand their bonuses in October 2009. Those at KarajanbasMounai JSC launched a strike in December 2010 for a wage increase equivalent to those won after a strike by the workers of UzenMounaiGaz, another subsidiary of KazMounaiGaz. Between 4 and 19 March 2011, ten thousand oil workers at KazMounaiGaz went on strike and organised general assemblies, calling for the cancellation of the new method of calculating their wages, which the management wanted to impose on them by threatening lay-offs, and for a bonus for dangerous work. The town was surrounded by a police cordon. The strike was declared illegal and members of the strike committee hauled before the courts. On 9 May, a huge hunger strike began. 1400 people refused to take their mid-day and evening meals as a sign of protest. 4500 workers went on strike on 17 May, held a general assembly and elected six of their number as a delegation to carry out negotiations. The management of KazMounaiGaz and the local authorities declared the strike illegal and announced the firing of all the workers, hoping to starve them into submission. In the end this resort to massive lay-offs affected a total of 2600 strikers. Women hunger strikers were treated with particular brutality. On 26 May, 22 workers from UzenMounaiGaz came out on hunger strike in solidarity with their colleagues at KarajanbasMounai and the next day were joined by 8000 workers from various subsidiaries of KazMounaiGaz, striking for wage increases. Some of the hunger strikers continued their action, surrounded by a huge picket of 2000 workers who protected them from the police. The movement had been confronting police terror from the start. The authorities gave out leaflets declaring the strike illegal: snitches and plainclothes cops organised provocations, and there were hundreds of arrests. On 12 June, the police attacked the strikers’ wives, beating them and accusing them of taking part in an illegal meeting. In the night of 8-9 July the police attempted to attack the tent village set up by the strikers at the UzenMounaiGaz company. 40 strikers poured petrol over themselves and threatened to set themselves on fire. This only delayed the evacuation till the next day. Then the strikers transferred the tent village to the central square in Zhanaozen, which was now permanently occupied by up to 8000 people. Armed gangs carried out more and more attacks on militant workers and independent trade unionists. Some of them were killed along with family members.

The dead-end demand for independent trade unions

From the beginning the strength of the oil workers was their mass mobilisation and the vitality of their general assemblies, where they could discuss how to take the struggle forward and take collective decisions. But the main weakness of the movement was the fact that it remained limited to one sector and to the oil producing region. The demand for an independent trade union (defended by Trotskyist organisations) was raised by the workers at every stage of the movement, but that too was a weakness.

The Kazakh regime, with its fossilised structures and attitudes directly inherited by Stalinism, unable to tolerate any kind of opposition, is in normal circumstances supported by trade unions which are openly in league with the authorities in maintaining social peace. The official union federation denounced the recent strike as illegal. It is thus completely discredited in front of the working class. The demand for a ‘real’ union representation was, along with the wage demands, a focus for the mass mobilisation of the KazMounaiGaz workers at the beginning of May. But far from taking the struggle forward, it served to hold it back.

To be strong and to build the strongest possible front against the capitalist sate, the struggle needs to extend to the whole working class, going beyond all the divisions imposed by capitalism, including, in the long run, national frontiers, because there is no solution to the situation of the working class within the national framework. In our epoch, the epoch of the decadence of capitalism, there is no possibility of winning lasting reforms and improvements for the working class. The proletariat cannot overcome the profound insecurity of its condition without getting rid of the whole wage labour system, which can only be accomplished on a world scale.

We are certainly not questioning the honesty and decency of the militant workers who are active in the independent unions and who are often subjected to repression and persecuted by the bourgeois courts for “inciting social hatred”, “organising illegal marches, gatherings and demonstrations”, etc. What we do question are the methods of struggle which these organisations propose to the working class. By focusing the workers’ attention on the fact that they belong to a particular branch of the capitalist economy (in this case, the oil industry), the union form imprisons the struggle in sectional demands. It thus disperses the potential force of the proletariat, stands in the way of its unity and fragments it sector by sector. By acting within the national framework, trade unionism cannot see beyond managing the conditions for the exploitation of the working class within the social relations of capital. This is why all forms of trade unionism are doomed to act as an obstacle to the real needs of the class struggle – ultimately, to subordinate the workers to the imperatives of exploitation, to do deals with the ruling class and become an integral part of its apparatus for maintaining the established order.

The workers must not allow their horizons to be limited by demands which imprison them in the sector and in the defence of the national economy. The proletariat is an international class and its struggle can only be based on international solidarity: the struggle of any one of its parts is an example and an encouragement to the struggle of the entire proletariat. To strengthen its overall struggle, the different fractions of the proletariat have to enrich their practice with all the lessons acquired from its long history.  

Svetlana 28/2/12