My Talk about Kazakhstan…and Zhanaozen

This morning I will give a talk about Kazakhstan to impressionable university students who probably know next to nothing about Kazakhstan.  Last week I was in a sporting goods store stocking up on “smartwool” wool socks and the sales clerk who checked me out asked where I was going.  I told her Kazakhstan, after I said she probably wouldn’t know where it is.  She surprised me and said that she knew about Kazakhstan because she had lived there as a little girl.  I was in a hurry to finish my shopping so I didn’t pursue this bit of surprising information from her.  Someone else, besides me, had actually been to Kazakhstan maybe 10-15 years ago.

As I prepare for my return trip to Astana, I realize I have not been in Kazakhstan for almost a year and a half.  I left the early spring of 2011.  Much has stayed the same where I live in Minnesota but I’m sure much has changed in Astana.  I’ll be shocked by what has happened as far as more students at the university I taught at.  More buildings will no doubt have been built in my absence.  In Astana, they were going up at a frenetic speed while I lived in Astana for over a year.

I’m wondering how many people were forced into labor on these buildings?  Why do I ask these kinds of questions? Because of the following unsettling report from the Human Rights Watch organization.

On December 16, 2011, a terrible massacre happened in Kazakhstan. State police fired on civilians in the small town of Zhanaozen in the western part of our country. According to official numbers, 16 people were killed and 100 were injured. Independent sources stated that more than 70 were killed and more than 500 to 800 were wounded. This was the bloody end of a seven-month conflict between oil and gas workers—protesting for better working conditions—and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator who has ruled our country with an iron fist since 1991.

The Zhanaozen massacre marked the beginning of a new era in Kazakhstan of unprecedented political oppression. Striking workers have been convicted and sentenced to long-term imprisonment, while trials linger for the civil society activists and politicians who aided the workers. One such leader, Vladimir Kozlov, was convicted last week on trumped up charges and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison and forfeiture of all his assets. State authorities have also targeted the independent media. Journalists who covered the incidents are now facing charges of coup-plotting.

Meanwhile, the security forces who fired on civilians have not been punished. Nazarbayev refuses to consent to an international investigation, because he knows the results would expose the real face of his regime.

As representatives of the civil society of Kazakhstan, we fear for our colleagues. Our attempts to stop Nazarbayev’s tyranny have been futile, since all parts of the justice system, including prosecutors and courts, operate under his orders. His system of oppression has been well documented by international human rights organizations like Freedom House, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The New York-based Human Rights Foundation has also recently announced a new initiative to expose Kazakhstan’s regime and is sponsoring publication of this open letter.

We respectfully ask US legislators to help us. In the past, thanks to the intervention of European politicians, civil society activists like Bolat Atabayev, Zhanbolat Mamay, Natalia Sokolova, and Igor Vinyavskiy have been released. We are confident that the proposed law known as the Magnitsky Act, currently under consideration in the House of Representatives (and held-up by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), or a separate Zhanaozen Act with similar goals, would compel Nazarbayev to allow space for dissent—a vital first step toward democracy. With the imprisonment of Kozlov last week, Kazakh civil society has lost the most vocal critic to the Nazarbayev regime and his unregistered political party, Alga!

On the next page we copy the names of the Kazakh officials, police officers, judges, and security agents involved in the Zhanaozen massacre and the subsequent oppression of civil society and the media. We also ask the U.S. to consider adopting a document threatening a travel and finance ban for these individuals and we alert civil society, financial institutions, and public policy groups.

Nazarbayev has been aided in Washington by public relations machinery including BGR Public Relations, Qorvis Communications, Global Options Group, APCO Worldwide, Policy Impact Communications, as well as Kazakhstan insiders such as billionaire Alex Mashkevich and Bulgarian fixer Alexander Mirtchev. They have all enriched themselves while serving a ruthless tyrant that ordered oil workers killed. They have peddled the lie that Kazakhstan is the story of a “young democracy” with “stability”—rather than a totalitarian police state with a leader who wins elections with 95% of the vote and passed a law allowing him to be elected president indefinitely.

Nazarbayev, like Putin in Russia, and Lukashenko in Belarus is yet another tyrant interested only in looting the treasury and ruling for life.”

Well, this is thought provoking as I consider talking to our American youth about a country they may have never heard of and about the trafficking and human rights violations that continue to go on in Kazakhstan.  But we have some of the same problems here in Minnesota and the rest of the U.S.  Evil is everywhere but unfortunately we live in a bubble here in the U.S. and are unaware of the dangers that are all around us.  Maybe that is why Halloween is a good reminder of the bad. Maybe the ensuing storm beating off the East Coast is also helpful to remind us that we are NOT in control of anything.  God is.

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