Few headlines generate concern in Kazakhstan like reports of protests in Zhanaozen or elsewhere in Kazakhstan’s western, oil-rich regions. In 2011, the city was the site of a massacre that coincided with the country’s independence day, which itself shares mid-December with memories of Jeltoqsan, a 1986 protest that also ended in a massacre. It was in Zhanaozen where, in January 2022, protests first began over a hike in fuel prices that sparked rallies and unrest across Kazakhstan.
On April 10, around 80 laid-off oil workers from Zhanaozen set up camp outside the Ministry of Energy in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. The workers, as Vlast.kz reported, said they had been laid off on April 1 after the company they worked for, the Berali Mangistau Company, lost a tender. They demanded stable jobs and salaries, and pledged to stay outside the ministry until their issues were addressed.
The Mangystau region, where Zhanaozen is located, is “one of the poorest in the country,” Dr. Diana T. Kudaibergenova told The Diplomat. “In 2015 the poverty rate there was 22 times higher than the country average.”
Given that the oil and gas industries are Kazakhstan’s most important sectors, the economic disparity between those who do the work and those who profit from it is stark. Efforts to create independent labor unions have long been suppressed in Kazakhstan, which has limited the ability of workers to organize and lobby employers and the government for better pay and more job security.
“The oil and gas industry remain the main provider for employment in the region, but the rights of the workers are not fully protected against their employers,” Kudaibergenova explained.
The initial 80 workers who arrived stayed overnight outside the ministry, and by the morning their number had grown to around 150. A representative of KazMunayGas, the state-owned oil and gas company, arrived and offered to talk to 10 representatives of the group, but the workers demanded that government representatives, from the Labor and Energy Ministries, and journalists be allowed to join.
KazMunayGas reportedly offered the fired workers new jobs at other companies that had won service tenders, but the workers refused. As Radio Azattyq reported, the workers replied that “in nine months, another tender will be held and we will be unemployed again, we need a permanent job.”
Eventually, on April 11, after kettling the oil workers and interfering with individuals who were trying to bring them food, the authorities told them to disburse. The oil workers refused to leave and the police detained them. At least one journalist was briefly detained and an activist, Akmaral Dzhakibayeva, was released after five hours of detention.
Activists in Zhanaozen told Radio Azattyq that more than 1,000 people had descended upon the square by 11 p.m, gathering in front of the akimat, or local government, building. Another activist said the crowd had grown to 2,000.
Zhanaozen’s akim, Aibek Kosuakov, urged calm to those gathered in the city square in a vide address. He asked people to not “succumb to emotions.”
“The group of protesting oil workers lost their jobs and came to Astana yesterday to ask the Ministry of Energy of Kazakhstan to employ them because there are no other possibilities for people in Zhanaozen to find work,” Kudaibergenova told The Diplomat. Their “unsanctioned rally” precipitated their detention. “The protests that quickly gathered in Zhanaozen… after the news are in solidarity with those detained,” she explained.
“People are tired of living and working in precarious conditions and until the regime manages to find the solution to these precarities, the protest won’t stop.”
In a video, seemingly recorded in the police station, the leaders of the Astana group said that most of the oil workers who had gathered would be returning home to Mangystau and a small group would remain to negotiate with KazMunayGas. They urged protesters in Zhanaozen to go home.