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Acephalous Violence is Beheaded again in Kazakhstan

I have been writing this article over the course of a week. Partially because of my phisical move from San Francisco (my last activity at the Java Café on Ocean Avenue) to Oakland (the first effort in a house that keeps getting busier with much needed stuff). But also because the unraveling of the events shows how illusive is the first set of news that pops up from the papers. I guess Gutenberg was not happy of the first sheet that came out of his press. And he didn’t even write the Bible! Nowadays, instead, we read freshly-puked articles from mainstream media as if they were the Bible. Why not getting a new perspective, or just imagine there is another one?

San Francisco and Oakland (on the move), California

(a) The Logo for the Celebrations

Kazakhstan has been independent from the late Soviet Union for 20 years now. It has become the friendliest post-Soviet economy for the West and has actively participated in many international organizations. In the past couple of years, it has diversified its hydrocarbon export routes and has developed a great international reputation in the energy sector (including nuclear). Power is firmly in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbayev and his extended family since 1987 and nobody questions it. There is a caste system that dates back to the pre-Imperial Russia period and only thanks to a presidential push, the Kazakh language is spreading within all sectors of society – although the diplomatic community speaks Russian. From the West, the view of this immense country  is filtered through dollar-shaped lenses and dazed by the smell of oil. Only the facility of filing taxes, just a touch away from your mobile phone [1], and the convenient investment environment for foreign firms have drawn attention.

Welcome to the Nineties

Kazakhstan is the country where Chevron could lead a consortium of firms for the exploitation of the “giant” oilfield in Tengiz (see green pin on the map below), the contract being signed i 1993, just over a year after independence, with negotiations starting already in 1988. Later in the Nineties, TengizChevrOil was the leading force pushing for th first privately-owned pipeline project in the post-Soviet space, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which saw the light in 2001, linking Tengiz with the Russian port of Novorossiisk. The OECD was fast in labeling Kazakhstan among the fastest transitioning countries, allowing presence of western firms and holding seemingly “contested” elections. However, Nazarbayev knew that a full-fledged laissez faire approach would have pleased the West and risen tension among its neighbors, chiefly Russia, headed by Nazarbayev’s personal adversary, Boris Yeltsin.

(b) December 16, 2011 – An Arc de triomphe replica is unveiled in Astana.

When Kozyrev the “Westernizer” left Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make room for Primakov, Nazarbayev understood that the time was ripe for a clear sign of detachment from the giant neighbor. When Moscow unveiled that the presence of many Russian citizens – who were provided passports during the first half of the Nineties – could become an anchor for revanchist programs, [2] Nazarbayev acted decidedly and in 1997 moved the capital city from Almaty (Alma Ata) to Aqmola, in the Aqmolinsk province [3], renamed Astana, “capital”, for the occasion. The northbound move was a clear sign of Kazakhstan’s unwillingness for any attempt of annexation, not just an emulation of Ataturk’s abandonment of Istanbul and its spiritual charge, in favor of the more secular Ankara.

The 1998 crisis that hit the Russian Federation mitigated the revanchist threat on Kazakhstan. Western development programs were at pace and easily shaped the institutional friendliness of a country in much need for customers to buy its immense energy endowment.

2000s: The Party is Over and Mixed Emotions Arise

Around the turn of the century, while Putin was rising to power in Russia, an exploration off the Kazakh Caspian coasts prospected the existence of a relevant oil basin. Kashagan became the new Tengiz and foreign firms jumped on their boats and poured money in for winning the bid to administer the project. The western excitement, however, was to be countered by a novel strong stance by Kazakh authorities in terms of natural resources ownership. In 2002, the various state-owned agencies that were assigned with energy-related tasks fused into a single body, KazMunaiGaz, chaired by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev [for a recent update, see below]. This move created an energy ogre that became the main interlocutor for foreign firms to secure contracts in the Kazakh territory. Moreover, in 2005 Kazakhstan scrapped the Production Sharing Agreement legislation and became more hostile to foreign intervention, especially in the energy realm.

Meanwhile, the Parliament put forward the proposition to grant Nazarbayev lifetime presidency. Nursultan Abishevich’s NUR-OTAN party was in control of the national assembly, of the polls, of every election, and it had already suggested that the capital were renamed Nursultan, but the president himself called for a de-personalization of Kazakh politics, to counterbalance the Turkmen example. As though it wasn’t plain and clear that there was only a few, related individuals in charge of the fate of the country.

OSCE finally admitted that electoral results with 90% or more of all casted votes in favor of just one party or one person were not to be labeled “free and fair”. However, its retaliation was to defer by two years its gift to Astana: the Vienna-based organization honored Nazarbayev with the first post-Soviet chairmanship in 2010.

Oil Workers: When Were We Socialist?

(c) The Coat-of-Arms of the Kazakh SSR

Socialism was superimposed in the lands of post-Tsarist Russia as a natural consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. However, a few countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia had seized the opportunity of the fall of the Romanov dinasty and created their own independent sovereign states. These were “taken back” by St. Petersburg shortly after and to their administration, the Politburo often assigned native Russian cadres. Without attachment to the population and in direct contact with the central organization of the USSR, the local secretaries were in charge of administering the division of labor within the Union, which became stricter and faster-paced with Stalin’s plans, especially around the period of the Second World War. While Khrushschyov was rising to power, Leonid Brezhnev, the future Party Secretary, was assigned the highest post in Kazakhstan. The Khrushchevian “Virgin Land policy” accompanied by Brezhnev’s corrupt practices initiated a whirlwind mechanism that brought in a strong re-personalization of local politics in Central Asia and a rigid and corruption-ridden economic structure. Dinmukhamed Kunayev became the uncontested leader of the Kazakh Communist Party for decades upon Brezhnev’s departure to Moscow.

The fundamental question here is where to find Socialism, with capital “S”, within the experience of Soviet Kazakhstan. How and when did Kazakh workers emancipate themselves from the alienation typical of industrial economic relations?

To such a question posed by my Socialist imaginary interlocutor, I would respond in historical terms. Kazakhstan has been dominated by “hordes”, nomad dinasties descending from Mongol tribes that were charged, throughout history of different degrees of prestige. Upon annexation to the Russian Empire, tribal politics faded away, given the little of emphasis posed on it by Russian governors. Tribal politics however, managed to survive the neutral “Soviet” and “Kazakhstani” periods when the law did not treat citizens differently according to the horde they belonged to. In fact, today, even without a formal legal framework, a much stronger caste system permeates the Kazakh society.

Kazakh has also been the “storage compartment” for chemical, spatial, and nuclear industries, which constantly called for skilled Soviet labor, – besides Russians, many Ukranians and Germans settled in the northern regions, especially near the Baikonur cosmodrome – and for dissidents from the Caucasus, who, shortsightedly, hailed as liberators the Nazi army during the battle in Stalingrad and were sent to labor camps in the Kazakh steppes. St. Petersburg and Moscow have in turn operated as the deus ex-machina of the fate of the land of the Kazakhs, especially in terms of the working class.

When Marx was writing about his solution of the contradictions of capitalism, he had in mind English factory workers, not nomad peasants and foreign skilled workers installed in a man-made industrial complex. Lenin could not have forseen this either, notwithstanding his comprehensive study of the peasant question, because he came from a very European environment. What is here to be argued about what came to be “the Kazakh working class” is that it has never seen an original institution and the atomization of the country has led to a very stable country united under the flag of the main party NUR-OTAN and the figure of Nazarbayev, who was able to build a widespread cult for his persona and to become the dear leader of Kazakhstan.

(d) NUR-OTAN – Nazarbayev’s Party

The workers have had little chances to organize and to grow an understanding of their condition, especially in the oilfields. There, skilled workers earn from three to four times as much as the national average wage and are often protected by the immense structure of multinational corporations, who act as benevolent giants, as long as they can extract oil without hassle. The difficulties in building a class conscience has brought to a imperceptible movement against the violation of human rights and liberties that this one-man regime carries out every day, not least the very right to protest. One fact is certain: there has never been any hint of Socialism in Kazakhstan.

To draw a similitude, independent Kazakhstan at 15-20 can be compared to the People’s Republic of China at 50-60. There, dissent with the established power framework is causing riots and protests that are unknown to the media and of which there probably is no record. However, the protest is acephalous: a political direction of the struggle is lacking, and what is hailed as “democratic opposition” in the West is generally driven by wealthy businessmen that only maintain the objective of overthrowing the established power to replace the political figures with more friendly allies. [4] Meanwhile, there are widespread corruption and nepotism tackling workers’ rights with a clear distinction between local manpower and foreign skilled contractors – which has enhanced social unrest within the working class (see below).

In the Press and in Academia

On the day that marked Kazakhstan’s 20 year anniversary of the independence from the Soviet Union, clashes between workers and the police erupted in Zhanaozen, an oil town on the eastern shore of the Caspian sea (see yellow pin on the map below). At least 14 people are reported killed in the incidents, many more were injured and over 70 were arrested. The official source of information in Kazakhstan, KazInform has also pointed out that 46 sites were “looted and burned” during the mass protests, including one house pertaining to the director of the operating company UzhenMunaiGaz.

(e) – An Image from the Protest

One of the President’s Aides told the press that “All citizens of Kazakhstan condemn the events in Zhanaozen”, seizing the role of people’s spokesman. The Federation of Trade Unions, in cahoots with the structure of power, released a declaration condemning the incidents and assuring that none of their affiliates took part in “inconstitutional and illegal actions”. Kazakh authorities labeled protesters with the much worn Russian term хулиган, “hooligan”, often used to address naughty children, and established a three-week long state of emergency in the town. It must be noted that, during the clashes, state authorities acted with with an extraordinary firm fist against the spread of violence. Notably, “Kazakh telecommunications firm Kazakhtelecom turned off social media site Twitter, while phone service in Zhanaozen was reported to be unpredictable.”

(f) The Riot in Tengiz

Protests had arised in 2004 in the Caspian oilfield of Tengiz, and later in 2006, when oil workers from Kazakh origin came to clash with Turkish workers, all employed by the TengizChevroil consortium. This ethno-international confrontation was not a single case in Kazakh-Turkish relations [5]. Hardly just a personal quarrel, it is a sign of the careless approach to labor issues when multinational ventures are assigned energy projects in countries with lax legislation on workers’ rights. It is unsurprising then that in Nazarbayev’s latest condemnation of the Zhanaozen protests, he referenced the oralmany, ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, and asked them to “be grateful to the state.” [6] It is clear that more than an Arab Spring- or terrorist-inspired uprising, the government is trying to play the card of Kazakh authenticity in order to placate the spirits in the country.

Western and the Russian-based media, for different reasons, aim at the same objective. Kazakhstan is a good partner only when it is 100% stable. The first sign of instability triggers very harsh language, acrobatic comparisons, and evergreen allegations. The US Department of State did not hurry, but resolved to condemn the violence three days after, although with much more caution than the OSCE. RIA Novosti titled that the clashes could be a product of the Arab Spring, however fortunately the article itself was a much more clever read. European and American newspapers throw the “terrorism” buzzword in order to make up for their lack of understanding of such a remote region in their readers’ minds.

Thanks to a native scholar, Adil Nurmakov, we learn who financed the organization of the protest from behind the scenes. Mukhtar Ablyazov is a businessman that co-founded an opposition party in 2001, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and was then arrested in 2002 and sat through a very political trial. Authorities released him after three months of prison upon the promise-obligation that Ablyazov would not be involved in politics anymore (the DCK was dissolved in 2005). The newspaper Respublika and the TV station K+ are directly linked to him and were the only source of information for the Zhanaozen events. How impartial this source could be is for the reader to judge. Be it possible to draw a middle line between governmental news agencies and not-so-democratic opposition, we would live in a logical, almost mathematical world. Alas, we cannot and our judgement must remain devoid of any quick resolution.

[UPDATE] To further blur the picture that many consider perfectly clear in the past few days Nazarbayev has decidedly beheaded the giant holding Samruk-Kazyna, which controls KazMunaiGaz and was chaired by his son-in-law Kulibayev. Dinara Nazarbayeva (or Kulibayeva, depending to the occasion), one of the most influential Central Asian women according to RFE-RL, must be very disappointed seeing her husband and future leader of the country being sacked just like two KMG board members after the Zhanaozen riots. The president perhaps thought that by giving a clear signal of holding the bridle, the raged horses rampaging the streets of western Kazakhstan would be hindered from more action.

The Headless Chicken Keeps on Running

Something holds true however. There is increasing unrest in many countries where capitalism has failed to concede enough protections to those that are being exploited. Capitalism has learned the lesson of crisis management and, due to the apt use of Cold War rhetorics, it has survived the most dire crises throughout the XX century. Nonetheless, debates within business, academic, and political circles seem to prove that capitalism has forgotten the lesson. The hurriedly defined “Arab Spring” [7], the “OccupyWallSt” movement, the white collar protests in Moscow illuminated by the LED light of twittering smartphones, and the Zhanaozen clashes are all offsprings of the same uneasy sentiment. An unconscious class is rising up against the financial system, the great protagonist of the post-Berlin wall era. An economy alienated by itself, where money is generated by money, has provoked a mass discontent vis-a-vis political structures that are unable to sustain themselves through election and welfare.

Where will this bring us to? A graphic similitude can be individuated between the protests and chickens that keep scurrying even after having had their heads cut off. This everlasting period of crisis hinders our ability to stop and think, gather together and design a better world. When you are striving for your daily share of bread or rice, it becomes very hard to reason on of the best way to end inequalities and reach a happy life among happy people. And, what’s worse, there is no room for confrontation and discussion in the highest form. It becomes very hard to share ideas on what to do and how to organize in order to transform will into action. Therefore, we witness confused and disconnected protests that the media is trying to tie back together but in fact have each a peculiar root. Should we finally realize that it is not the single issue but the whole system that is rotten and needs a revolution – in the scientific definition of the term – then we could finally understand that the path to follow has always been in front of our, shortsighted eyes.


[1] From a private conversation with a Kazakh diplomatic officer in Washington DC, March 2011.

[2] See  writings by Aleksandr Solzhenitsin (! – yes, the one known and praised in the West for writing “Gulag Archipelago”), Sergei Karaganov, Andranik Migranian, and Igor Ivanov.

[3] Interestingly, Aqmola means “white tombstone” in Kazakh and was renamed Tselinograd during the Soviet occupation. After regaining the original Kazakh name, Nazarbayev thought it would be nicer to change the name of the prospective capital in something more pleasant than marble-for-graves. This is where the name Astana, directly translating into “capital”, was drawn from. Too bad that, as it always happens in such complex, bureaucracy-ridden states, the name of the province could not be changed. Just like today’s St. Petersburg, Russia’s western jewel mounted in the Leningrad region, Astana lies in the Aqmolinsk province. The permanence of old jurisdiction names led to an awkward consequence for the “capital” of Kazakhstan, which sits in the “white tombstone”.

[4] See the cases of Khodorkovsky in Russia and Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

[5] See Saulesh Yessenova, her article on Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst “Worker Riot at the Tengiz Oilfield: Who Is To Blame?”, February 21, 2007 and her chapter “Tengiz Crude: A View from Below” in Boris Najman, Richard Pomfret, and Gael Raballand (Eds.), The Economics and Politics of Oil in the Caspian Basin: The Redistribution of Oil Revenues in Azarbaijan and Central Asia, Routledge, London, 2008.

[6] Source: Twitter account of Nate Schenkkan, @nateschenkkan

[7] Don’t read this article, please. It is a juvenile ethnocentric attempt at individuating an “Arab Spring” offspring in such undefined and incoherent protests in Kazakhstan.

Photo Credits:

(a) (d) KazInform

(b) kjfnjy album on

(c) Wikipedia




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