In his hospital bed, Ruslan Kenzhebekov writhes in pain. Instead of celebrating Kazakhstan’s independence, the 26-year-old took a bullet in the midriff.
An unemployed resident of Zhanaozen, he is one of 20 young men lying in hospital in the remote and dusty oil town at the centre of Kazakhstan’s deadliest violence in decades. At least 15 people – and some suspect many more – have been killed.
The clashes shattered Kazakhstan’s image of stability on the same day Central Asia’s largest economy was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.
“We are encountering such a situation for the first time. Never before has there been a state of emergency in any Kazakh town,” said Amanzhol Kabylov, the commandant appointed to restore order in Zhanaozen.
About 150 kilometres inland from the Caspian Sea across arid plains where wild horses roam, Zhanaozen has been picketed for seven months by striking oil workers demanding higher hardship pay for the dangerous work that they do.
Frustrations have been building since state-controlled KazMunaiGas Exploration Production, which says the strikes were illegal, sacked nearly 1,000 workers.
On Dec. 16, the town exploded. Protesters, many wearing their overalls from the oil fields, stormed a stage set up for an Independence Day concert before looting and burning down buildings. They clashed with police, with deadly consequences.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has prioritized economic growth and stability over democratic freedoms in two decades in power, declared a state of emergency in Zhanaozen until Jan. 5. Movement in and out of the town is restricted.
Authorities have pinned the blame on “criminal elements” who infiltrated the town and are using the oil workers’ protests for their own interests. About 700 people have been brought in for questioning, mostly to establish their identity.
Armoured personnel carriers, army trucks and 20-strong squads of riot police patrol the town of 90,000 people. With such a heavy security presence, there were no signs of further violence. Reuters travelled with a police escort.
On the enormous central square, the stage for the ill-fated independence celebrations was still standing. A toppled New Year tree lay across its centre.