The Oil and the Glory

In the street and the palace, the Arab Spring strikes the former Soviet Union

In the street and the palace, the Arab Spring strikes the former Soviet Union

At the 20-year mark of the Soviet Union’s collapse, protests have broken out now in two of its oil-soaked constituent states — Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. In the latter, at least 15 oil workers and others died over the weekend. There is debate whether we are witnessing a spread of the Arab Spring, but I do not know why — clearly we are.

The key matter is context — Russians and Kazakhs are in the street of their own accord, but against the backdrop of wholly unpredicted upheaval in some of the world’s most compleat police states. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov probably exaggerates when he tells London’s Sunday Telegraph that he could beat Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a second-round of presidential voting next year, but his general point is accurate: No longer can it be said with certainty that Putin can defeat any opponent in a fair fight. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, others including the Russians have absorbed courage and inspiration from the Arab Street.

Those are pure politics. Kazakhstan is a different story — there we see the Arab Spring not most interestingly in the people in the street, but in the government’s reaction to them. The image is of a Kazakh officialdom palpably terrified of the post-Muhammad Al Bouazizi world, in which no petrocrat seems safe (pictured above, a Tunisian memorial raised to Bouazizi’s legacy two days ago).

As with the Middle East and North Africa over the last 12 months, events are emerging in a surprising fashion. In a piece published only last Friday at, I concluded that Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, along with his neighbors on both sides of the Caspian Sea, seemed to feel insulated from the political turbulence buffeting petro-states in the Middle East. The same day, however, mayhem broke out in Zhanaozen, an oil town of about 90,000 people in the western Kazakhstan region of Mangistau. Friends who have driven through it say Zhanaozen is the last population center before Turkmenistan; one described it as "like New Mexico with Soviet apartments."

A short video that has circulated, plus strong reporting primarily by RFE-RL, reveal the stuff of a tinderbox: In May, hundreds of oil workers in Zhanaozen went on strike over pay and other grievances, and many took up a peaceful vigil in the city’s main square. Last weekend, Kazakhstan prepared to celebrate the 20th anniversary of independence with enormous celebrations across the country, and Zhanaozen officials set up a stage and yurts in the square. But this display in their place of protest did not sit well with the strikers.

On Friday, highly militant elements — perhaps part of the oil strike, perhaps not — went on a spree of violence in which they threw speakers from a stage onto the ground in the main square, set them on fire, and overturned and set a van aflame. They marched through the town, setting buildings aflame, including the mayor’s office, the big local oil company and the local headquarters of Nur Otan, the ruling political party, reports Pete Leonard of the Associated Press. At some point, police opened fire. In all, 14 people died, most or all of them oil workers. Sympathy protests broke out the following day in the nearby port city of Aktau and — far away in eastern Kazakhstan — in the business capital of Almaty. Northwest of Zhanaozen, police again opened fire when a mob numbering about 50 set fire to a locomotive in Shetbe, and broke windows during a demonstration. One person was killed.

The government responded this way: It almost instantly shut down Twitter and Facebook across the country. In Zhanaozen itself, it blocked the Internet and telephones, then surrounded the city with a police cordon, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Hours later, the Twitter and Facebook feeds were unblocked in most of the country. But as of this writing, Zhanaozen itself remains shut off to the world until Jan. 5 by order of Nazarbayev.

Here is the main manifestation of the Arab Spring in Kazakhstan: Not in the uprising, but the government’s first line of attack — social media, the famous channel of the Arab Spring.

One gets the impression that the turbulence is not over in Russia or Kazakhstan. Putin no longer seems inviolable. As for Nazarbayev, his underlings are defending the use of live bullets in such events, while he is attempting to sell the weekend tragedy as the work of "hooligans."

Yet, shooting one’s citizens dead in the street is nowhere a recipe for stability. Kazakhstanis go to the polls to elect a new parliament on Jan. 15. Like Putin, the Kazakh leader no longer appears as buffered from the rest of the world as he did a short time ago.