What is the Kazakh regime learning from citizen protests?

Police crackdown on striking oilworkers in Zhanaozen, December 2012. Source: YouTube / 666crang.

According to Eurasianet, the government’s departure betrayed “anxiety over growing public discontent” as the then-President “appears to have recognised the potential for sentiments to escalate and has sought to staunch the damage by firing the government en masse.” While the government was technically dissolved, it was effectively a reshuffle, a practice common throughout Kazakhstan’s short independent history.

A learning curve?

In 2011-2012, the Kazakh government took several measures in the aftermath of Zhanaozen. These measures included shutting down the internet and mobile services, arresting civil society activists for “inciting social discord,” and holding parliamentary elections seven months before schedule – all while the city of Zhanaozen was still under a state of emergency. Local government officials and oil managers were fired.

The state apparatus tried to defuse tensions by offering rhetorical and material concessions. Workers in the oil town were offered new jobs, and the government invested in local infrastructure. Nazarbayev also vowed to learn from the events of Zhanaozen, stating that “we must draw the appropriate conclusions from this situation, learn from it, and always take it into account.”

Zhanaozen still echoes in the ears of the leadership. “After the conflict, the government pays a lot of attention to Zhanaozen, including investing funds into the Mangystau region to prevent a repetition of the situation,” a government worker told openDemocracy on condition of anonymity. “The government is not so stupid as not to pay attention to social and economic problems in Zhanaozen.”

More recently, in 2016, the Mangystau regional government arbitrated negotiations between Zhanaozen oil workers and drilling company Burgylau, after over 2,000 workers went on strike over conditions and choice of union representative. This suggests that the authorities have continued to address local grievances. As a Freedom House report wrote at the time, “the violence of 2011 has made the authorities more open to dialogue as a means of preventing escalations of industrial unrest.”

In the aftermath of the 2011 clashes, the Kazakh government increased policing in rural areas to monitor anti-government sentiment, according to Erica Marat, professor at the National Defense University in Washington DC and author of a new book on police reform in post-Soviet states. “Post-Zhanaozen massacre, police focus on preempting protests before they can occur, both in rural areas and cities,” Marat told openDemocracy. “This involves a careful study of possible grievances in the population. When protests do occur, police are careful not to use excessive force, but, as often pointed out by analysts, extract the most active members of the public.”