Kazakhstan's stability is being tested by deadly clashes between police and demonstrators.
A post-Soviet Union success story is being rocked by riots
AKTAU, KAZAKHSTAN // Switch on Kazakhstan state television's evening news and it almost always opens with an item testifying to the nation's stability and economic prowess.
So it was a shock when a recent edition began with the president announcing a state of emergency in a town rocked by deadly clashes between demonstrators and police.
The rare public acknowledgement of trouble indicates the government's belated concern over tensions underneath the former Soviet state's placid facade. But it remains unclear how effectively authorities will address them.
Instability in Kazakhstan could have far-reaching consequences. It is an increasingly important source of oil and gas, as well as uranium, zinc and copper. The Northern Distribution Network that supplies US and coalition forces in Afghanistan goes through the country's seemingly endless stretches of bleak steppe.
In the 20 years since independence, Kazakhstan has been one of the former Soviet Union's success stories - avoiding the civil wars and rebellions that plagued its neighbours, assiduously promoting religious tolerance and ethnic harmony and recording impressive economic growth.
But as the country's fortunes flowered, its political system withered. The party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country since independence in 1991, wields a crushing domination, holding all the seats in parliament. Opposition parties are allowed, but are so repressed and bullied that they are nearly invisible. Corruption is rampant; Kazakhstan is ranked 120th out of 183 countries in Transparency International's annual corruption perception index.
Officials swat aside complaints of democratic shortcomings and the monolithic domination of the political scene by the president's Nur Otan party, arguing that these things will take time to change. But this month's violence in the energy-rich western Mangystau region suggests time may be running out.
In Zhanaozen, a scruffy town of some 90,000 people, hundreds of oil workers in May took to the main square and declared a strike over what they said were unfair salaries.
Union representatives said monthly incomes for oil workers ranged upwards of US$600 (Dh2,200), which is equivalent to the national average, but that employers failed to account for the expense of living in a remote area where all goods are imported from far away.
Labourers complained that while they endure severe conditions in a part of the country that ranges from searingly hot to punishingly cold, much of the riches they generate go elsewhere.
"The problem is that there isn't enough public oversight over the resources sector. If there were transparent information, people would know how much was being extracted and what money is coming in," said Kenzhegali Suyeyov, the chairman of the Aktau independent workers' union in Mangystau.
When workers showed no sign of yielding, their employer, state-controlled Kazmunaigas Exploration Production, fired them en masse. Undeterred, the protesters held their ground. Those representing the oil workers did so at their peril.
After seven months of patient and peaceful demonstrations in Zhanaozen, something snapped. On December 16, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators.
Dozens of buildings were burnt down and at least 14 people were killed by police gunfire. Local people maintain the death toll was higher.
The next day, large crowds occupied a railway line in the village of Shetpe, about 100 kilometres away. According to the official account, at the end of a day of tense negotiations with authorities, a large gang began throwing Molotov cocktails at train carriages and police opened fire, killing one person.
The state-nurtured illusion of universal contentedness had been shattered.
"There is a large number of problems that the authorities don't want to deal with and solve, which is why ever more people are drawn to extremist messages," said the political analyst Dosym Satpayev. "Zhanaozen is not a one-off, and it is fair to expect that such incidents will increase in number in the near future."
* Associated Press