More blood for oil in Kazakhstan

I spent my first night in Kazakhstan at a punk show in the hills surrounding the capital, Almaty.

There were 22’s of local beer, calf tattoos, bikes, a guy named “Joy” bragging about his small family farm and French Screamo music. It could have been a late summer evening in Seattle – well, minus the presence of heavily bribed park guards and bored-looking horses.

Globalist video on Zhanaozen shooting and interview with survivors. Contains graphic imagery.

In the past 6 weeks of reporting from the Former Soviet Union (FSU to its dorky friends) I’m often in the company of some combination of gamers, vegans, LGBT activists, politicized rappers and occupy protesters. Given all of these familiar millennial hipster touchstones it’s easy to start thinking pretty positive about our generation.

The first aboveground gay bar in Kazakhstan is filled with Millennials testing the boundaries of freedom on a Saturday night. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Ukraine, a country practically synonymous with sex trafficking, is now home to one of the most radical feminist organizations around. In Georgia, birthplace of Stalin, a postmodern 26-year-old historian is dedicated to revolutionizing the way his country relates to its past.  In the capital of Kazakhstan, an LGBT rights group offers commitment ceremonies at the city’s first aboveground gay bar (open since May).

In Moscow, young intellectuals shout about the information revolution in bars serving mango mojitos and prepare for another round of anti-Putin protests.

One night in Almaty, a few beers deep, I leaned over to a my husband-colleague—a person I’ve worked with in some pretty sad and tough places—and asked, “Is it possible that things are just getting better?”

Two days later we were headed for Zhanaozen—an oil town of about 50,000 in western Kazakhstan and site of last year’s police/government killing of striking oil workers.

An oil worker shows the scar where he says he was shot by police during protests in Zhanaozen last December. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The road through the center of Zhanaozen is lined with baby trees.  The massive Soviet-style cinderblock apartment buildings are freshly painted pastel: coral, mint, lavender and robin’s egg.  City workers, their faces eerily wrapped Invisible Man-style in tee-shirt balaclavas and sunglasses to protect against dust storms blowing in from the surrounding desert, listlessly point hoses at newly planted flowerbeds.

I can’t confirm it, but there seems to be a campaign afoot to cheer up Zhanaozen.  There’s certainly no sign of the street battles and riots of December 16th, 2011 when–after months of striking for better conditions and higher wages–workers occupying the town square were fired on by police. At least 12 people were killed and dozens were injured.  It was the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence from the USSR.

Small oil derricks dot the desert landscape around Zhanaozen. Almost every international oil company has interests in Western Kazakhstan and the Caspian Region. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

“There are four enemies of human rights, democracy and rule of law: They are oil, gas, geopolitical consideration and fighting against terrorism, and we have all four in place here in Kazakhstan and Central Asia,” says Yevgeny Zhovtis a prominent Kazakhstani human rights activist who recently spent time in prison after a trial that was condemned by rights groups.

The north Caspian Sea is home to the Kashagan Field, one of the world’s biggest oil discoveries in decades.  Not surprisingly, it is also now home to an international rainbow of oil interests.  There’s Kazakhstan’s state owned KazMunaiGas and then there’s Eni, Shell, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Inpex and the China National Petroleum Corporation (Italian, Dutch, French, American, American again, Japanese and Chinese respectively).

According to the New York Times, a recent report from Human Rights Watch didn’t directly implicate any of these international companies in the events in Zhanaozen (except for a subsidiary of Eni) and focused more on “local operators whose labor practices have drawn more criticism.”

Though the NYT article did interview the report’s author who mentioned how “risky” it is for companies to “partner” with a government that has as sucky (my word now, not hers) a human right’s record as Kazakhstan’s.

[Side note: The “fighting against terrorism” piece of Zhovtis’ unholy quartet is heating up in Kazakhstan.  There was a recent bomb-blast in Atyrau—the closest city to the offshore Kashagan oil field.  Subsequently five suspected terrorists were killed in a security operation turned shoot-out.]

Kazakh rapper Takezhan says he’s been blacklisted for writing a song speaking out against the shooting in Zhanaozen. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Back in Zhanaozen we head into a housing development just shy of the train tracks and a refinery on the edge of town. Activists and labor leaders involved with last year’s strike are on trial in nearby Aktau (about 95 miles from Zhanaozen) and as a result, a number of international delegates and human rights activists are in the region interviewing victims of the violence.

We’re trying to catch up with one such delegation and get hopelessly lost among blue and red tiled houses situated along dirt roads and under tangles of overhead water pipes.

When we finally show up, the crisp be-suited European delegates are already piling back into their minivan.  Left behind are 5 or 6 men and women sitting in a poured cement courtyard in the rising evening.

I feel queasy at the prospect of interviewing again, imagining a full day spent recounting traumatic events to strangers.  But within moments a Kazakhstani human rights activist, who says she represents the victims of Zhanaozen, charges up and pushes me forward towards the small group.

Without asking a question the stories tumble towards me in broken English and hastily translated Russian and Kazakh.  A middle-aged striker shows a bullet wound in his neck. A younger man next to him points at his leg encased in track pants modified to accommodate a medieval-looking traction device. He unzips the cuff to the inseam to reveal a shrunken shin with an angry, puckered bullet hole in the middle.

New neighborhoods and housing developments seem to have sprung up overnight in Zhanaozen as workers flood in to get oil industry jobs. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Some of them were strikers, trying to organize for better wages and safer conditions; others were bystanders that just showed up at the day’s celebration expecting entertainment, not violence. A few are parents of young people that died that day.

Off to the side of the group a grandfather holds his smallest granddaughter as another girl weaves between his legs. His son, the 27-year-old father of these two, worked machinery at a subsidiary of the state-run gas company.  He was not striking on December 16th; instead he was headed for the festival planned to celebrate the country’s independence.

But there was no celebration that morning.  Instead—either reacting to angry protestors or to orders from higher-ups—police opened fire on the crowd. Tolekhan Turganbayev’s son was dead by 11AM.

“I don’t know what I’ll do now,” says Turganbayev, “The oldest asks me all the time ‘where is my father?’ and I don’t know what to tell her.”

“When she’s older will you tell her what happened?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t know how to explain it.”

His grief is so strong it overwhelms me. I stand silently, unable to think of anything to say except “I’m sorry.”  I noticed my translator trying to push tears back into the corners of her eyes.

Finally I ask, “Do you think the government is on your side or the side of the oil companies?”

“The oil companies of course,” he replies.

A natural gas truck sits on the outskirts of Zhanaozen. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Driving back to our hotel through a pink dusk that takes hours to fade, I wonder how all the progress and enthusiasm I’ve encountered on this trip can exist in the same country – or even the same world – as Zhanaozen. I wonder if any of this pain and fear has touched the hopeful, stylish young people I’ve met.

Then I remember a conversation back in Almaty—a night in a bar that could have been transplanted from the cool neighborhood of any coastal city back home (an ironic standup piano; side parts and skinny jeans).

I sat across from a 22-year-old named Ruslan talking about everything from his time on an exchange program in Portland, OR (loved it) to his decision to become an atheist (as a teenager) and his new job working advertising at a luxury magazine (just acquired that very day).

Ruslan knows about Soviet history and traditional Kazakh culture.  He is smart, sophisticated and loves his country. He found the US to be seductive but lonely and said: “I wouldn’t move to America because there’s nothing there I can’t get here.”

I was headed to Zhanaozen soon after and he seemed savvy and politically-minded so I asked him what he thought about the violence.

“I can’t… I don’t know,” he said, his big smile deflating, “the government here doesn’t want us to talk about things like that.”

The change in tone was so swift I almost laughed – thinking he was joking – until I registered the tone in his voice, the look on his face, and realized how scared he really was.

Generation Putin: stories exploring politics and everyday life for Millennials in the former Soviet Union, is produced by the Common Language Project and comes from the Public Radio Exchange, with financial support from the Open Society Foundation.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at