Kazakhstan is currently enduring its most politically significant labor protests since independence. Fifteen hundred workers at the Achisay Polymetal Plant in Kentau, Southern Kazakhstan, struck on October 1, demanding payment of ten-month wage arrears totaling 100 million tenge ($1.35 million) (Kazakh Commercial TV, October 24) The strikers set off on a 900-kilometer march to the capital, but were blocked by police 32 kilometers from Kentau. The protesting workers, now 2,000-strong, remain there, pitched in a tent camp on the nearby steppe. In mid-October, a quarter of the demonstrators began a hunger strike.
The Kentau protests have gained added significance as workers around the republic have begun work stoppages in sympathy. On October 29, workers in the southern phosphorous industry town of Zhanatas followed a strike by several thousand miners and industrial workers in the Karaganda region who had protested the planned closure of several coal mines. Workers’ representatives from the cities of Tekeli, Pavlodar, and Oskemen traveled to Turkestan in the southern region to demonstrate solidarity with the marchers.
The town of Kentau, as so many in the Soviet era, depended on mining for its livelihood. The relatively rosy official Goskomstat picture of 4 percent unemployment (Reuter, September 18) belies the desperate plight of Southern Kazakhstan. Many have been forced to leave their long-time work in factories for street-barter, and the capital was last month seized by cholera, while gas and electricity are often lacking. The rise in the price of inputs and severed export markets in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse brought Achisay to a standstill.
While this is not a social protest on a national scale, it is the first case of labor unrest entering the political arena. Already at the outset, economic demands were being coupled with political statements. The workers originally issued an ultimatum for a resolution of the wages arrears or the personal visit to Kentau of President Nazarbaev. Representatives of the Kentau branch of the independent trade union movement, the Confederation of Free Kazakh Unions, met with Turkestan’s mayor and agreed to send five delegates to the capital to meet with President Nazarbaev. Simultaneously, the leaders of the political opposition movement, Azamat, have called on all opposition forces to close ranks and put forward a single candidate at the next presidential elections in the year 2000 to counter the government’s policy of "uncontrolled management of the riches as yet unsold in Kazakhstan and of misappropriation of wealth by a small group of people." The normally quiet Parliament has also stepped in, with members of the lower chamber calling on the government to respond to the riots. And, on October 24, albeit symbolically, the government set up an emergency commission to deal with the strike crisis. It is headed by the new power, industry and trade minister, Asygat Zhabagin.
The protests arise in the context of, and are also catalysts for, increased centralization in the republic. Just prior to the beginning of these protests, the chairman of the Workers’ Movement of Kazakhstan, Madel Ismailov, was sentenced to one-year imprisonment for his part in aiding a protest against price increases. Nazarbaev has recently issued public statements denying rumors that he will call presidential elections before his term expires in December 2000. With the president clearly keen to remain popular, and with a severe winter expected, an early resolution of Kentau becomes ever more pressing. It remains to be seen how much of the overall direction of marketization has been put in question.
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