At first glance, the nation of Kazakhstan seems like a true Caucasus success story. A former Soviet state, ravaged by nuclear threat and rural poverty now a prosperous, multi-party democracy rich in oil. Various ethnic groups and religions co-exist peacefully and freedom of speech is ingrained within the constitution.

Yet, rapid economic development and positive relations with the West does not ensure democratic values are being implemented within the country. The Kazakh constitution simply acts as a veneer of democracy, concealing what is essentially a one-party dictatorship. President Nazarbayev has been the country’s first and only leader since its independence in 1991. Under his leadership, nepotism has flourished, political activists have been detained and opposition leaders have been forced to flee the country.

2011 saw striking oil workers in the city of Zhanaozen brutally repressed. Striving to improve working conditions and demanding living wages, workers and their families were subjected to horrific violence at the hands of riot police. According to officials, 86 people were injured, with 14 fatalities. Residents, however, insist closer to 70 protesters were slaughtered.

The second anniversary of this massacre was marked on the 16th December with protests worldwide at various Kazakhstani embassies. The London rally I attended demanded the release of jailed oil workers and an end to the suppression of independent unions. A signed petition was handed in to embassy officials, who strangely commented that they ‘had to kill’ on that fateful day. Such a statement is equally chilling and cryptic; further highlighting the appalling disregard for the lives of struggling workers.

Incidents of human rights violations within the state are grossly under-reported. Protesters I spoke to were understandably frustrated with the lack of awareness they confronted regularly. Tselmeg Aitbai, a student protester, stressed that by denying the opposition a voice, media outlets ‘assist’ the ruling regime in ‘twisting the narrative’. Opposition forces can then seem like fragmented voices with little actual support within the country.

Protestors also expressed anger with the UK government, who has effectively given Nazarbayev’s regime a stamp of approval. Last year, David Cameron paid a two-day visit to the country. Coincidentally, it was the first time a serving British prime minister visited the Central Asian region. Failing to address the nation’s appalling human rights record, he focused on securing business deals and strengthening trading links. The inconsistent and, frankly, morally bankrupt message this sends only undermines Britain’s international credibility as a champion of human rights.

Moreover, former Prime Minister Tony Blair currently acts as a consultant to Nazarbayev on ‘judicial reform’ and ‘decentralisation’; support which protesters at the demonstration consider ‘reckless’ and ‘irresponsible’.

If our leaders seek to trigger real change, they could lend their voices to the campaign. Such pressure could trigger an independent inquiry into the massacre, or even lead to the release of jailed workers.

Indeed, the Kazakh court system has recently come under increased scrutiny. Take the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh banker facing a $6 billion fraud case. An outspoken critic of Nazarbayev’s government, Ablyazov claims the charges leveled against him are ‘politically motivated’. Considering the credibility of the fraud charges, his claims, though disputable, raise serious questions. If influential political opponents fear the threat of extradition and torture, what hope do disadvantaged workers have?

Political reform is supposedly backed by our government, who, nevertheless, does little to pressure Kazakhstan’s leaders. The Kazakhstani regime denies its citizens the right to form independent trade union organizations; a violation which must be exposed and addressed.  European leaders have yet to express solidarity with the opposition movement and its aims. Put simply, they are ignoring the plight of Kazakh workers.

Organizations such as CampaignKazakhstan work closely with various trade unions to raise awareness and vigorously campaign for detained activists. Yet, until our respective governments speak out, the workers of Kazakhstan will continue to be victimised.

Visit the CampaignKazakhstan website to learn more about the movement.

BY: Momtaza Warsame

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