JRL HOME - RSS - FB - Tw - Support

Shaken Stability
Do the Mass Riots in Kazakhstan Highlight the Country's Growing Instability?
Dan Peleschuk - Russia Profile - russiaprofile.org - 12.19.11 - JRL 2011-228

Mass riots in western Kazakhstan have left at least 14 people dead, sending the region into a state of emergency and shaking the relatively prosperous Central Asian country's long-touted stability. As the Nursultan Nazarbayev regime scrambles to contain the fallout from the riots, which may be spreading, many are wondering what this unprecedented event means for the regime and Kazakhstan's future as a "safe" state in notoriously troubled Central Asia. The event unfolded last Friday in the city of Zhanaozen in the western province of Mangystau, when oil workers' discontent reached a boiling point. Employees of the state oil company, KazMunaiGaz, had been on strike for several months, demanding higher salaries and greater rights. Although earlier they had been allowed to occupy the town square, the regional government moved in last week to prepare for celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence. The workers responded by raiding the square, destroying the stage and setting fire to nearby buildings and vehicles ­ a move that prompted security forces to open fire on the unruly crowds to restore order.

The death toll remains unclear. While official figures list about 13 dead, some independent unions and opposition groups put the figure closer to about 70, with several hundred wounded. President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared a state of emergency in Zhanaozen until January 5, and various media have reported a virtual lockdown on the city, as mobile phones, Internet and local highways have reportedly been blocked, and large swaths of military and security forces have moved in. Meanwhile, another riot broke out in Shetpe, just north of Zhanaozen, on Sunday in response to Friday's events, and left another person dead and several others wounded.

Although the exact sequence of events is still nebulous, opposition leader Zauresh Battalova blamed the government for its heavy-handed action. "Instead of taking care of human rights, [instead of] addressing the people's problems in a legal way, [the authorities] used force, sent in troops, which shows that our authorities are not capable of working in a legal way," Battalova told reporters on December 17, RFE/RL reported. "It shows that our authorities fully ignore the principle of the rule of law and operate using force only. This kind of authority cannot run a country that proclaims itself a secular country based on law."

Interior Minister Kalmukhambet Kasymov, meanwhile, has reportedly relocated to the region to personally oversee security matters there, and told the Associated Press that while security forces had not been intent on shooting to kill, they were left with little choice when confronted by the rioters in Zhanaozen. "Nobody specifically gave the order to open fire in that situation. Every police officer took the decision themselves. When they take a weapon off you, there is no need for an order to be issued," Kasymov told the AP.

What seems clear at this point is that Kazakhstan is heading down a path of increasing instability. Once the hallmark of prosperity and stability in a region long characterized by ethnic cleavages and ravaged economies, oil-rich Kazakhstan has remained largely peaceful until recently. Since May, it has experienced a spate of apparent Islamist attacks, including suicide bombings and shooting rampages, which left scores of civilians and policemen dead. And now, the massacre in Zhanaozen: if nothing else, this dismal series of events has forced Nazarbayev to face the fact that perhaps no authoritarian regime is immune from internal volatility.

Experts said that behind these disturbing incidents are simmering social problems ­ a more deep-seeded issue that oil wealth and a steadily growing middle class cannot mask. As a post-Soviet state in transition, according to Rustam Burnashev, a researcher at the Almaty-based Institute for Political Solutions, Kazakhstan suffers from the "societal factor:" a lingering disparity between social classes, mixed with elements of an unclear identity. "We can have very good economic policy and quite a good economic situation, but it is still quite difficult to resolve the question of societal diversification," said Barnushev.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has attempted ­ and relatively successfully ­ to reconcile its multiethnic nature with its independence as a nation-state. Its generous endowment of natural resources adds to the mix, however, resulting in complicated cleavages that force the regime to balance the interests of ethnic Kazakhs with those of ethnic Russians and other foreign workers, on the one hand, and to establish a secular, free-market-based state on the other. Now, however, some of this is apparently beginning to fray at the seams. As scores of Kazakh oil workers are growing increasingly angry over the way their government's treatments them, Islamic fundamentalism is also seeping through the country's borders ­ perhaps in response to Nazarbayev's recent crackdown on religious freedom, or, as in countless other regions, a result of as-yet underdeveloped social and educational opportunities for many Kazakhs.

But the immediate consequences, at least in regard to the workers' riots, remain to be seen. For now, Barnushev said, it is too early to tell, and much will depend of the long-term reaction of the Nazarbayev regime. "There are a lot of possibilities here. Maybe we will see a violent solution ­ and Kazakhstan has already started to do this ­ but maybe there will also be some economic concessions, or maybe there will be some international intervention over this event, like in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "[But] the final decision, of course, depends only on one person, and we don't know yet what decision he will make."

Keywords: Russia, Government, Politics - Russia News - Russia

After losing a pliable two-thirds majority in the Russian Parliament, the Kremlin will test its mettle in parliamentary democracy early next year, as the newly-emboldened opposition threatens to block Russia's hard-won membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia's new-look Parliament will reconvene on December 21, but is unlikely to take up WTO ratification procedures until after the March presidential elections. However, two of the four main political parties in parliament - the Communist Party and Just Russia ­ say they're bracing for a tough fight to try to stop the ratification.

Pro-Kremlin United Russia has dominated the State Duma for more than a decade, but its share of the official vote slipped to barely 50 percent in the December 4 parliamentary election, from a high of 64 percent in 2007. The results gave United Russia 238 seats, or 52.9 percent of the 450-member legislative body. The communists polled second with 19.2 percent, up from 11.6 percent four years ago, boosting the number of their seats to 92 from 57. With the loss of a two-thirds majority, experts say, United Russia's parliamentary faction will no longer be able to change the Constitution unilaterally. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the main contender in the presidential elections slated for March 4, will also have to rely on support from other parties for the parliamentary majority it requires to approve his legislative agenda, including ratification of key international agreements such as the WTO accords.

In a sign of the changing times, Just Russia ­ which was set up with the Kremlin's support before its leader, Sergei Mironov, fell out of favor ­ said that it will do all in its power to block ratification of the treaty. "We will vote against this," Mironov said Friday, just as the news broke that the WTO ministerial conference in Geneva has adopted Russia´s terms of entry. The Communist Party, too, has vowed to fight to protect the country's food market and domestic agricultural producers, which it said will be imperiled by Russia's membership in the world trade body.

Russia wrapped up 18 years of hard bargaining to secure long-awaited membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Friday. Russia's $1.9 trillion economy was the largest outside the WTO, and accession is expected to help the country pursue a transparent and predictable environment for trade and foreign investment. The country also badly needs to diversify its economy away from its heavy reliance on commodities such as oil and gas, and experts expect WTO membership to accelerate the process. "With the entry of Russia into the WTO, 97 percent of world trade will now be regulated by the organization," Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina told the WTO ministerial conference in Geneva. "The world's economy is going through a difficult period. At such times, the risk of protectionism is always increasing. By joining the WTO, we are demonstrating our preparedness to tackle such risks. Therefore, for us, the conclusion of the negotiations is not the end, but the beginning of a process."

That process promises to be lengthy. Under the accession deal, Russia agrees to undertake a series of important commitments to further open its trade regime, including signing on to 30 bilateral agreements on market access for services and 57 on access for goods. Russia also committed to cut its tariff ceiling from the 2011 average of ten percent for all products to 7.8 percent. The average tariff ceiling for agricultural products is cut to 10.8 percent from 13.2 percent currently, with manufactured goods at 7.3 percent, down from 9.5 percent. Russia also agreed to limit farm subsidies to $9 billion in 2012 and to gradually reduce them to $4.4 billion by 2018.

"These [agreements] will create serious problems for Russian farmers and may, in fact, hasten the collapse of Russia's entire food processing industry," Vladimir Kashin, the deputy leader of the opposition Communist Party, said on Friday. Unlike China, Russia had failed to take precautionary measures to guarantee that its farmers can compete on a more equal basis with farmers throughout the world, he said. "Our government did nothing in this regard and took no steps to protect domestic producers and the whole manufacturing industry," Kashin said. "Crops grown in a cold climate like ours simply cannot survive competition with European products."

The Russian Parliament still has until June 15 next year to ratify the accord and bring it into force. However, the debate is promising to be hot, as some renegade members from United Russia have also said they are against it, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported on Saturday. The Communist Party ­ the most virulent opponent of Russia's entry­ dismissed the WTO accession as part of the Kremlin's economic agenda that could threaten national sovereignty. "Our party is categorically opposed to it [Russia's WTO accession] because lowering trade barriers will hurt the country's large agricultural sector and make it tough for our manufacturers to compete," Kashin said. "We shall encourage the government to adopt amendments to existing legislation aimed at greater government support for domestic producers, as well as adopt a different policy on energy prices."