07/02/2011, 00.00
KAZAKHSTAN
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Kazakh workers’ protests widen

Beatings and arrests fail to stop protesters, who continue the strikes. Protests erupt in other parts of the country and opposition politicians support protesters. Now government reaction expected.
Astana (AsiaNews / Agencies) – Kazakhstan’s workers, who began a series of strikes to demand better wages and the right to form independent trade unions in May, show no signs of giving in. The government has so far "ignored" the protests, but they are becoming more important and are drawing international attention. Human rights groups argue that concessions will be difficult to obtain, since they involve leading companies involved in gas and oil, the country's main source of wealth and essential to international partners.

The protest now involves thousands of workers in the energy sector, some have self-inflicted wounds, others have begun a hunger strike, and set up roadblocks.

It is the first widespread protests for over 10 years, since the country began to enjoy greater economic well-being. But Astana is now struggling with high inflation and workers have seen the wealth of the country (gas, oil, uranium and other minerals as well) benefit the elite around the President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power since 1991, and foreign investors.

The protests began on 11 May with a strike of several hundred workers in the Karazhanbas oilfield near Aktau, among them OzenMunaiGaz transporters. Over 100 workers went out on strike (they soon became 350) of Ersai Caspian Contractors, a joint venture between Italy and Kazakhstan which also operates in the oil sector. The protest soon began to involve workers in the state KazMunaiGas, energy leaders, impeding production. On May 26, about 600 of 9 thousand workers of Ozenmunaigas went on strike, the company has laid off about 200 by saying that the strike was "illegal" and "the demonstrators demands are unfounded."

The police intervened to disperse demonstrators and arrested 37on June 5.

The government for months has "ignored" the protests. "Unknown assailants" beat the workers on strike, there were also beatings of women workers and demonstrators’ wives. The lawyer Natalia Sokolova (pictured), leader of the protests, was first arrested and sentenced to a short jail term for "organizing an unauthorised mass meeting." But then she was kept in prison with far more serious charge of "inciting social tensions," which is punishable by 7 years in prison, for having invited the workers to continue strike action.

Now the workers’ main demand is Sokolova’s release.

The protests have continued, widened and are taking on increasing significance, even as an example. In the northern city of Kokshetau hundreds of citizens demonstrated against a local company they accuse of stealing money through a "pyramid scheme". The police arrived, and unusual violent clashes resulted in country where there is little protection of human rights.

Opposition parties have begun to support the strikers in public, in view of the elections of 2012. In the last vote the party Nur Otan-Nazarbayev won a landslide victory.

Experts say that Nazarbayev is supported, among others, by powerful neighbours Russia and China, highly interested in the energy sourced. The strike affects KazMunaiGas which manages the Kazakh energy production. The protesters accuse it of paying millions of dollars each year in dividends to investors, while the workers are on starvation wages.
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