On Dec. 16, 2011, the world was roused by news of the shooting of protesters in Zhanaozen, a town in Kazakhstan. Nobody knew where it was, but shooting at a peaceful population always causes serious concern in the West. To be fair, it arouses no less concern in democratically-challenged states: what if protests calling for a fair allocation of resources spread here?
Strikes by the oil platform workers in the Mangistau region had been going on for a while having started back in June 2011. The tragedy happened on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. Disturbances began at Zhanaozen’s central square, and Interior Ministry troops sent in ‘to protect the public order’ began firing on the protesters. At least 16 people were killed, other sources claim as many as 64 deaths.
Two years later on the night of Nov. 30, the Ukrainian dictator, rejecting the axiom that violence breeds violence, either ordered or gave his silent consent for special purpose units to beat back students demanding the signature of the association agreement with the European Union. The level of violence grew thereafter, ending up with 100 people killed.
So why did the shooting of protesters in Ukraine become a point of no return – after which society would not longer tolerate the authorities – while in Kazakhstan it did not? The answer lies in the protests’ geography and social base, says Ihor Savchenko, expert at the Open Dialog Foundation.
Despite the Zhanaozen strike lasting for so long, it enveloped only the extremely remote Mangistau region whereas in Ukraine, people took to the streets in almost every city. People from various cities moved in together in ‘Maidan’ camps. Moreover, the social base of protests differed: in Mangistau, it consisted mainly of workers at the oil production facilities whereas in Ukraine people from all social strata and occupational communities were protesting.
Another difference is the development of civil society. Organizations that acting outside the lines of state policy are pushed out and have very few opportunities to have an impact upon society. This is achieved through a policy of tightly controlling information and oppressing dissidents through staged criminal proceedings. Whereas in Ukraine, the distance between society and authorities has decreased to a historical minimum in recent times”, Ihor says.
Kazakhs are afraid of the state because of the consistent policy pursued by its authorities.
Ihor Savchenko sums up: “When people in Ukraine shout the ‘Berkut are coming’, everyone comes running and gets mobilized. When the special-purpose units are approaching in Kazakhstan, everyone disperses and runs away instead.”
Activist Bakhitzhan Toregozhina agrees that the problem consists of an absence of civil society but adds that an imperfect legal system is another challenge: “The Kazakh president Nazarbayev has intimidated people to such an extent during the past 24 years that they think: it’s better to keep silent than to have more victims, for those political murders were not the first in Kazakhstan. But the president, according to laws, cannot be held liable for anything but high treason…”.
Nevertheless, the current situation in Kazakhstan is becoming restless once again. Sharp devaluation of the local currency, the tenge, provoked street rallies in Almaty in the middle of February 2014. Could it mean that disturbances that did not start after the shooting might be provoked by economic crisis?
Ihor Savchenko believes that society’s indifference will hinder any change: “Rallies gathered a hundred people each on average – and that’s a lot for Kazakhstan. People would express their unhappiness on Facebook but I would frankly be surprised if people went out on the streets to really assert their rights. Kazakh people are less ‘courageous’ than Ukrainians are in political terms: they expect somebody to do everything for them. They are waiting for someone else to take to the streets. At present, the picture of people going to fight an armed special force unit with sticks looks unbelievable for Kazakhstan”. The expert explains that tough control, intimidation of activists, shutdown of free media, and the imprisonment of the opposition are passively tolerated by society.
“Kazakhstanis have few precedents for the implementation of policies based on a participatory culture. Besides, they have a quite different level of interest in politics. In Ukraine, every old woman in a village can speak about the political science topics she hears on TV, but in Kazakhstan people are often reluctant to talk about politics. The country’s information space is effectively controlled by the State while alternative sources of information are few”, the expert explains.
Activist Dina Baydilayeva agrees with this statement: “State-owned media said that the Zhanaozen strikes were arranged by drug addicts and rowdies. People in Kazakhstan know little about the fact that sixteen persons were shot down there”. According to other sources, 64 persons died – nobody has precise information. The only video of the shooting that Kazakhs can see is on the internet, but access to it is so far not very common in the country. Hence, not many people are aware of the Zhanaozen tragedy.
Bakhitzhan Toregozhina is not so pessimistic about Kazakh prospects for protest: “I think that more massive shifts are possible if another devaluation occurs and urban living standards decline”. So far, however, everyone agrees that no organized, structured or prepared protest is currently possible in Kazakhstan. The pain threshold of the Kazakhstani society’s so far seem higher than in Ukraine.
Galyna Gerasym of Lviv is studying for a master’s in media communication at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. A 2013 graduate of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, she specialized in social science and technology with a specialization in political science.
The question of Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and Russia is, of course, most of all a question for the young and for future generations. Therefore, during 2013-14, the media project www.mymedia.org.ua, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and financially supported by the Danish Foreign Ministry (Danida) are running a number of journalism workshops on how to cover these issues. The participants are young journalists from all over Ukraine. On pages 10-15, www.mymedia.org.ua – in partnership with the Kyiv Post – brings five of the best pieces, demonstrating the variety in focus and styles of the country’s young journalists, and, not least, their budding talent for grasping complex issues.