Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/725/14822
Kazakhstan: Resisting state oppression, fighting for survival
Independent trade union leader appeals for international solidarity
Esenbek Ukteshbayev, (centre) president of the independent trade union Zhanartu, during his recent visit to London, photo Dave Carr
Kazakhstan is the scene of mass struggle and state repression. The country's dictator, president Nursultan Nazarbayev, is terrified of explosions from social movements and the working class. There have been waves of repression against well-known activists in a vain attempt to stop the developing movements. The Socialist spoke to one of these activists, Esenbek Ukteshbayev, president of the independent trade union Zhanartu, during his recent visit to London.
After Kazakhstan's independence from the former Soviet Union, the population said it was independence not of the country, but of the regime from its own people!
The regime used its power to take over the wealth of Kazakhstan, illegally privatising everything. It began to destroy industries and resources, energy, raw materials, to get control of them. Tens of billions of dollars were in their hands.
The Nazarbayev regime passed a reasonable constitution when the republic was established, but numerous regulations and amendments have been made to consolidate the regime's power.
Nazarbayev recently appointed himself 'leader of the nation' - a post even higher than the president. With this new position, he and his family circle are above the law. People can try and take them to court, but their wealth cannot be taken off them. Under this law the president could murder people and not be taken to court!
The regime broke up all the big workplaces into little workplaces to divide up workers, in reality to avoid revolution. But the mining, gas and oil industries weren't broken up because they were vital in bringing in a great amount of income for the ruling clique. In these spheres, the workforce represents a real threat to them.
Workers in Kazakhstan are really fed up; they're tired of having wages that don't keep up with the rate of inflation. They don't have enough money for basic necessities. And workers have families dependent on them that they have to feed, clothe and educate, and the cost of utilities is going up all the time.
Pay has been at a standstill for a long time. It is a question of survival. Life's pressures have forced people to take action.
Of course the mass murder of workers that took place in Zhanaozen in December, when up to 100 people were killed by state forces and hundreds injured made people hesitate; there was a generalised fear after that. But necessity overcame that fear. Better to go down fighting than to give up and starve. They found they had a tremendous strength.
At first they tried to conduct talks with the employers but miserly amounts were offered to them. But workers began to organise action and show their determination to get results and were prepared to fight to the end.
In May of this year, miners at the Annensky copper mine near the city of Zhezkazgan, which is run by the London-listed company Kazakhmys, organised a sit-in strike over pay for three days. On the surface there were 1,000 people supporting them. Zhanartu organised solidarity support across the country.
During the sit-in management kept sending them messages: "Look, we can talk about this, how about a little bit now, a little bit later, maybe 20%, maybe 30%?" But the miners said "no, we're not moving until we get our full demands", and in the end they got their rise, a 100% pay rise! This victory is making people think, and everywhere people are beginning to raise their voices.
Only last week some energy workers, again with the help of Zhanartu activists, got a pay increase of 80%! They filmed a video about this strike which has gone around the whole country. In it they say that for many years they've been trying to get somewhere and that it was with the help of Zhanartu that they have been able to get this tremendous victory.
It's very dangerous to identify with our trade union, but knowing of the dangers, knowing of the repression, they still wanted to say it.
The name of our union is now like a red rag to a bull, the bosses and the authorities are scared. Our union's name means 'renaissance' or 'renewal', and this sends the message to the bosses that we're coming for them!
The authority of Zhanartu is growing daily. Even people who used to be working for the secret services, following us, beating us, smashing up our protests, when they retire they're being thrown on the scrap heap. They are also thrown out of their houses which are tied to their jobs, and even they are coming to us to help them with their demands for justice!
We started building links across the country by bringing together various leaders of trade unions and workplace activists. Now new groups are coming to us, being attracted to us.
Representatives and even leaders of the official trade unions who are in the state federation of trade unions - the 'yellow unions' that work with the government - are saying that they want to work with us and want to bring their whole membership into our union. But they are really waiting for us to become a legally registered union.
Because of their fear, the government is putting huge obstacles in our way. We can't get state registration for Zhanartu, so we can't open bank accounts, collect membership dues or have formal membership.
However, we do exist as a trade union, and we are spreading our work among workforces. We are organising an international campaign through contacting international and national trade unions, to put pressure on the Kazakhstan government to allow Zhanartu to register.
Campaign Kazakhstan, with its international solidarity links, has a very important role to play. The very setting up of the campaign upset the employers and the regime in our country.
They very well understand that this campaign - involving socialists like Irish Socialist Party MEP, Paul Murphy, Socialist Party TD (MP), Joe Higgins, in Ireland, human rights activists in different countries including Russia, and famous musicians like the Kazakhstan cellist Alfia Nakipbekova - is exposing the regime's repression and exploitation of the country.
We organised a committee of Russian MPs and human rights activists to visit Kazakhstan. They met the families of people who had been killed in Zhanaozen, people who had been injured; and money that was collected by Campaign Kazakhstan was given to the families to assist with hospital and medical treatment. So it's not just an organisation for informing people but really does practical things.
We are constantly working to get solidarity for our struggle in different parts of the world. And that has an impact on the Kazakhstan government.
I'm really happy to have been on this visit. I was not only in Britain, but also in France and Geneva at the ILO [the United Nations agency, the International Labour organisation] and am now going to Germany and Belgium. Through discussions with trade unionists and activists I am collecting a great amount of information and ideas.
I have been able to meet leaders of the PCS [the main civil service trade union in Britain]. The meeting went well. They are happy to contact the six international organisations that different sections of their union are involved in, including European-wide organisations.
I spoke at the RMT (transport union) conference where there was a tremendous response to what I had to say on Kazakhstan. It seems to be the start of a very friendly relationship.
In France we met representatives of the local organisations of the trade union - the CGT. One local organisation wanted to show the way by donating €100 a month, and to 'twin' with Zhanartu - so that any problem facing Zhanartu would be a problem of that CGT organisation.
I really want to express the gratitude of all our comrades. We're conducting the struggle in very difficult circumstances. Of course, it is not only in Kazakhstan that workers have problems and difficulties but in many countries and we bear that it in mind too.
We hope that you will find time to spread information about the struggles of the working class in Kazakhstan, that you'll support us, and continue to give great strength to our comrades, participating as we do in a vital, common struggle.
Regular updates of workers' struggles in Kazakhstan and solidarity action can be read on Campaign Kazakhstan's website: www.campaignkazakhstan.org
Trade union branches are encouraged to donate and affiliate to Campaign Kazakhstan.
In The Socialist 4 July 2012:
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party LGBT
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party appeal
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party review