ALMATY, Kazakhstan – For a country that prides itself on economic and political stability, these are testing times for Kazakhstan. The controversial trial of a prominent opposition politician is the latest episode in an 18-month drama that has cast a shadow over its reputation as a reliable international partner in the troubled Central Asian region.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government appears to be painting this drama – which started with unprecedented strikes by thousands of oil workers – as a dark political conspiracy orchestrated from abroad.
New research by Human Rights Watch shows, however, that repressive laws and abusive practices by the government and some oil companies violated the labor rights of workers in this vital part of the economy.
The government would do well to put an end to these abuses and meet its commitments to protect human rights, to secure long-term economic and social stability and reassure Kazakhstan’s trade and investment partners.
Much is at stake for this vast country of 17 million people. Last year’s strikes cost the state up to $365 million, according to official figures. The government’s international image is managed by Astana, the capital and second largest city, using consultants, including, Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister. Still, the drama surrounding the trial has dealt a blow to the country’s image.
The key defendant in the landmark trial is Vladimir Kozlov, leader of Alga!, an unregistered opposition party. He is accused of colluding with Mukhtar Ablyazov, a millionaire government critic with political asylum in the UK, to incite social discord and overthrow constitutional order. Kozlov, who could face up to 12 years in prison, has denied the charges. An oil worker and another opposition activist are on trial with him.
Prosecutors believe the three helped stir up thousands of oil workers in western Kazakhstan to prolong their strike over low pay. Three-month-long strikes, starting in May 2011, formed the backdrop for the worst social unrest in the country’s recent history. In clashes between police and others in the western town of Zhanaozen last December 16, police shot 12 people dead, and dozens were wounded. Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, called for an independent international investigation into the violence – Kazakhstan refused.
Since the killings, the authorities have targeted leading oil workers and opposition activists who supported the strikers. Kozlov’s case is the latest instalment.
Independent observers monitoring the court case, running since August 16, have raised concerns that international fair trial standards are not being met. Robert Blake, U.S. assistant secretary of state, called for a “fair, impartial and open” trial that does not “undermine” Kazakhstan’s democratic progress. It is indeed vital to uphold these standards to avoid accusations that the case is arbitrary and politically motivated.
On the wider issue, under international human rights law, supporting workers in peaceful strike action is a legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. Equally, Human Rights Watch has strong evidence that the workers, who face harsh, often dangerous working conditions, were blocked in exercising their rights to participate in unions, bargain collectively, and strike, and these violations greatly contributed to the disputes.
The authorities tried to break up the peaceful strikes, in one case using force, and imprisoned union leaders and a union lawyer for legitimate union activity. Kazakhstan has signed international treaties protecting the right to strike and to organize collectively, but its labor legislation includes a blanket ban on strikes at companies across the oil sector and imposes burdensome collective bargaining rules. Over 2,000 strikers were fired, despite international prohibitions against retaliatory action for peaceful strikes.
The companies involved also bear a responsibility. Evidence shows that managers repeatedly disrupted union activities. Two of the companies are owned at least in part by KazMunaiGas Exploration & Production (KMG EP), part of Kazakhstan’s state oil and gas company. China’s state-owned CITIC group has a stake in one of them. The third company is a joint venture between a Kazakh firm and Italy’s Saipem, part of the Eni energy company.
In public at least, there is some recognition that change is a priority. The head of the country’s multi-billion-dollar state sovereign wealth fund – a majority stakeholder of KMG EP – admitted recently the country lacked “adequate mechanisms…for solving labor disputes.”
Workers do have a right to have a union represent their interests without undue company interference and to expect good faith bargaining with management. The authorities have a duty to ensure this can happen. Based on last year’s evidence, these rights are being trampled underfoot in Kazakhstan.
These are vital issues for others too. International businesses operating in Kazakhstan should ensure that their workers enjoy these basic rights. And the country’s partners – including the European Union, where plans for “enhanced” ties with Kazakhstan are being crafted, should insist on high labor and human rights standards. Otherwise, who knows when the country’s ongoing drama will end?
Hugh Williamson is director for Europe & Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. Mihra Rittmann is a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the new report, “ Striking Oil, Striking Workers: Violations of Labor Rights in Kazakhstan’s Oil Sector.”