ZHANAOZEN, KAZAKHSTAN — On March 4, for the 34th consecutive day, a group of residents of the windswept oil town of Zhanaozen gathered outside city hall with one simple demand: They want jobs in the extractive sector, as they were promised by the Kazakhstani authorities.
Zhanaozen was the initial theater of large-scale protests in January, when residents rallied in the central square against a sharp increase in fuel prices. The government has essentially phased out subsidies to the companies trading liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the western Mangistau region, which allowed locals to have access to some of the cheapest fuel in the world. The “transition to market” — as the authorities called the end of subsidies — lifted the cap and allowed companies to charge more than double at the pump.
The fuel protest in Zhanaozen quickly spread around the region and across the country, as people demanded better living conditions and a more representative government, things President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had promised since his coming to power in 2019. Clashes between the security forces, various criminal groups, and protesters caused massive urban violence in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, 1,200 miles to the east of Zhanaozen. The official tally of 240 dead and thousands injured across the country could well be an underestimation.
Also underestimated was the body count of the clashes that occurred in Zhanaozen in December 2011, when the authorities violently quashed an oil worker strike that had lasted for eight months. Before this year’s “Bloody January,” mentioning the name Zhanaozen was a reminder of the 2011 national tragedy.
It is within this context that the oil town continues to try and make its voice heard in the capital, Nur-Sultan, renamed thus in March 2019 after former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country for three decades and whose family still is in firm control of the oil industry.
“We are not asking for the impossible, we ask for what’s possible, what’s concrete,” Berik, a former oil worker said at the margins of the protest that the group of unemployed residents staged in front of city hall. “There are enough jobs in the oil industry, we request stable jobs.”
The Rise and Fall of a Monotown
Zhanaozen, formerly known as Novyi Uzen, in a typical Soviet mix of Russian (Novyi, “new”) and Kazakh (Uzen, “river”), became an urban settlement after the discovery of oil in the area in the 1960s. Like many other industrial towns across the former Soviet Union, it was a monotown, essentially thriving on a single vertically-integrated enterprise, now known as Ozenmunaigas. Initially, the town grew exponentially, attracting workers from across Central Asia and the rest of the Soviet Union, but independence in 1991 had a negative effect on the once-planned economy of the region. Much like Kazakhstan itself, Zhanaozen suffered a difficult period of crisis in the 1990s.
In the early 2000s, however, Kazakhstan’s leadership consolidated the oil industry under the Kazmunaigas umbrella, while at the same time spinning off into private hands the companies providing services to the oil fields. Alongside the over 10,000 workers for Ozenmunaigas, at this point a subsidiary of a semi-privatized subsidiary of Kazmunaigas, the town of Zhanaozen hosted thousands of workers whose jobs had become more precarious and featured worse conditions. Sporadic strikes at service companies, however, failed to make as much noise as the eight-month strike of 2011, which resulted in thousands being fired and ultimately ended in a bloody repression. Most of the workers that were fired were later reintegrated into the oil industry in construction and repair enterprises specifically established for them. In practice, the national company and the government acted together to maintain employment levels artificially high in an effort to quell social tensions.
Worker disputes and demands for fair employment policies have continued since 2011. In 2012, the regional government established a hiring freeze in state-owned companies in the oil sector; it essentially put a halt on the hopes of the local youth of becoming oilmen, a point of pride and a symbol of success in this corner of Kazakhstan. Still, at Yessenov University in Aktau, the regional capital on the Caspian Sea shore, around one-fifth of graduates studied oil and gas subjects. There is little indication that the socioeconomic texture of the region could diversify away from its dependence on oil extraction.
Besides the hiring freeze, the government and Kazmunaigas subsidiaries drafted a program to accelerate staff turnover. The so-called “5/50 program” allows workers to voluntarily leave their jobs at certain state-owned companies and receive a compensation equal to 50 percent of their salary for five years. Because salaries at Kazmunaigas-affiliated companies are higher than average in the region, the proposal was considered convenient by many who accepted the compensation and left the company.
The situation in the region, besides the oil sector, however, presented few prospects to these workers, mostly men, who were able to pay off their debts and buy houses, but could not find a satisfactory job outside the extractive market, already clogged by the overstaffing at the national companies and the worsening conditions at the private service enterprises. Not long after its execution, the 5/50 program became deeply unpopular. According to local activist Mukhtar Umbetov, former workers soon realized that the compensation they received would not make up for the high cost of living and the inability to find another satisfactory job.
“In some instances, former workers brought the money back to the company and asked to be reinstated and return to work. The company, naturally, refused — they signed a contract after all,” Umbetov said in an interview in Aktau.
After the events of 2011 and the ensuing long crisis of oil price instability and consequent macroeconomic difficulties in the capital, the state-owned companies further tightened the belt and tried to slash costs.
“Companies cut back on costs and number of workers, arguing that the privatization of the late ‘90s offered competitive options. But what kind of market relations can there be in a monotown like Zhanaozen, if everything comes from one source?” asked Umbetov.
A Roll Call to Survive
For Aslan, a young man with a large black jacket to fend off the cold wind outside Zhanaozen’s city hall, the arithmetic of the local job market is simple: inflation disproportionately affects the unemployed like him.
“Zhanaozen is known as a city of oil workers. Those hired by the national company sometimes go on strikes and their demands are generally met. When their salaries are increased, however, prices in the city go up and this affects the rest of us. We cannot cope with this situation,” Aslan said.
In February 2019, groups of unemployed residents of Zhanaozen first came to protest outside city hall. At the time, Nazarbayev was still in power, and the oil sector was enjoying a period of growing commodity prices. The authorities responded by organizing a job fair, which left many residents dissatisfied. Local companies would only offer monthly salaries of around 70,000 tenge (around $190 at the time). Sporadic protests continued for weeks, highlighting social inequality in the oil town.
A month later, on March 24, one of the activists who participated in the protests was arrested. Yerzhan Yelshibayev, 31, was accused of starting a fight in the city center in 2017, which allegedly caused injuries to an anonymous victim. Yelshibayev was later sentenced to five years in prison for this crime, which human rights organizations consider a pretext. The local Bureau of Human Rights added him to the list of political prisoners in the country, a registry that grew in the tense months that saw Nazarbayev hand over power to Tokayev.
Yelshibayev’s arrest was a signal from the government that protests would no longer be accepted. On the other hand, the authorities threw a bone to the unemployed, as the local government drafted “the list” — a roll call of local residents for new job openings in the oil sector that would be assigned according to social needs. The group of unemployed protesting outside city hall, however, loathe the list.
“Without our protests, companies would have less pressure to hire and the people on the list would remain idle,” Marat said.
When a video of the March 4 protest appeared on Vlast.kz’s social channels, Zhanabai Aimaganbetov, the vice mayor of Zhanaozen, reached us by phone to clarify the position of the authorities.
“More than 1,500 residents were hired through the list since 2019. Since the beginning of the year alone, 190 were hired. The people that are protesting are still very far down the list. Their turn will come,” Aimaganbetov said during our phone call.
The question, however, is who gets hired. According to those who protest every day outside city hall, oilmen’s relatives, policemen’s children, and people who pay under the table get preferential treatment.
“There are people who are outside the list that get the jobs that we are waiting for. Those jobs were supposed to be for us, who have been waiting for a long time,” Marat said.
“I know of people who were behind me on the list who got a job. They paid a bribe,” Kuanysh added.
While the promise is for a long-term, stable job, some of the positions that are offered, especially at service companies, unexpectedly terminate after a few months. The companies, in most cases, blame financial losses or a drop in commissions from Ozenmunaigas. Once the worker is fired, he could only re-enter the dreaded list from the bottom.
“We are offered vacancies, but some of them are in private enterprises that are either in bad shape or on the brink of bankruptcy. And then they tell us: ‘Well, we offered you work — why are you standing here?’” Aslan said.
While we talk to the group of unemployed outside city hall, they show us a video that Yelshibayev, the imprisoned activist, managed to send from his cell in Kyzylorda, some 500 miles to the east. In the video, he announced he would try to kill himself, as he could not stand the torture any longer.
The following day, the prison director confirmed to the press that Yelshibayev was taken to urgent care. For the past three years, the activist tried to bring attention to his treatment in prison through acts of self mutilation, by sewing his lips or cutting his arms.
He certainly has the attention of the people outside city hall, who accompany their request for stable jobs with demands for Yelshibayev’s release. After all, they say, he was just one of the many voices that called for justice.
Like Yelshibayev, they are asking for stable jobs in order to survive in their own city.
“We deserve stable jobs. We are residents of Zhanaozen, we grew up here,” Marat said.
During a similar protest in February, another resident told the local correspondent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that they want to be part of Zhanaozen’s oil dream as long as it lasts.
“They told us that our oil will soon run out, we then say ‘let’s finish it together,’” Meribek said.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have already had to cope with popular unrest due to socioeconomic inequality in January and protests in Zhanaozen have become ever more frequent since the first picketing of unemployed in 2019.
If a stable solution within the oil sector’s job market is not feasible, the government should embark on a thorough reform of the economic fabric of the region, taking into account popular demands. Otherwise, if left unresolved, the tension will continue to grow.