By Brien Southward
Oil workers in the oil-producing Mangistau region of Kazakhstan took to the streets again today to demand information on who ordered police to fire on protestors during a demonstration on December 16 in the oil town of Zhanaozen. On that day, which marked the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the USSR, at least 14 protestors were shot and killed by riot police.
The official casualty toll, given by Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov in a government meeting, counts 17 police officers among the 110 who were wounded in the clashes. Some protestors believe the death toll exceeds the official figure of at least 14, but government spokesman Nurdaulet Suindikov says that “rumors about some mass bloodshed are absolutely unfounded, misleading and provocative.”
The authorities in Kazakhstan claim that the police only opened fire after being attacked by “hooligans” who were threatening civilians. President Nazarbayev says that maintaining stability in the country is his main priority, blaming the clashes on purported criminals who were torching buildings and plundering ATMs.
Protestors say that thousands of workers have been laid off for demanding higher wages, and that some of them had not been paid for their work in several months. Deputy Prime Minster Umirzak Shukeyev says that the sacked oil workers would be offered jobs at mining companies at 80-90% of their previous wages, including relocation grants, he claims.
So far the protests have yet to spread beyond the region, but the daily rallies in Aktau, capital of Mangistau, seem to be a sign of growing political unrest. Political analysts say the protests are an indicator of public pressure on President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 71, a former steelworker who has ruled the nation for more than two decades, to relax the authoritarian government he has built up since the Soviet era.