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Kazakhstan: Riots Not Prelude to Arab Spring

Kazakh riot police officers detain demonstrators during an opposition rally in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, December 17, 2011.
Kazakh riot police officers detain demonstrators during an opposition rally in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty, December 17, 2011.

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James Brooke

For years, Kazakhstan has nurtured an image of stability and friendliness to foreign investors. In recent days, a series of riots and protests in western Kazakhstan has marred this image.

Kazakh authorities sought Tuesday to defuse protests in its main oil-producing region, promising to find jobs for thousands of workers who have been on strike since last May.

Last weekend, the seven-month-long strike erupted into violence as police fired on rioters in two towns in western Kazakhstan. Officially 15 people were killed, 110 others wounded and 46 buildings were burned.

Ainur Kurmanov, a Kazakh labor leader visiting Moscow, told says that the human toll was far higher, probably around 70 dead and 700 to 800 wounded.

On Tuesday, communications were restored with Zhanaozen, the oil city that saw the most violence. Rioters there looted bank cash machines and burned the mayor's office, a hotel and the offices of the Kazakh-Chinese joint venture company that had fired the workers last May.

Kazakhstan is the world's 18th largest oil producer and an increasingly important supplier of oil to its eastern neighbor, China. The riots dent Kazakhstan's image as an investor-friendly island of stability in Central Asia.

The oil field dispute should have been resolved six months ago, Kazakh Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told Interfax Tuesday.

He blamed the violence on oil workers from neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Saying Kazakhs are peaceful people, he added that an Arab revolution in Kazakhastan is "impossible in principle." He said he is "deeply convinced" that this will not happen on a national scale.

Scenes of the rioting have been played extensively on Russian television, prompting the Kazakh presidential advisor to charge that the Russian media are using the riots to distract Russians from their own protest movement.

Bulat Abilov, chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, said that the protests were also fueled by regional resentment.

Speaking from Almaty, the commercial capital, Abilov said that the oil wealth from western Kazakhstan pays for the palaces and modernistic buildings of Kazakhstan's showcase capital, Astana. While the oil towns of western Kazakhstan remain in Soviet poverty, he says, corrupt bureaucrats get rich in the nation's two big cities.

But he said local complaints are often kept quiet under the authoritarian rule of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of Kazakhstan since independence 20 years ago.

Today, "oil separatism" is a phrase often used to describe the bitter mood in Kazakh oil towns near the Caspian Sea.

Despite the bitter cold, protesters in Aktau, capital of the oil-producing Mangistau region, taunted riot police again on Tuesday with signs reading, "Don't Shoot People" and "Blood is Cheaper than Oil."

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