The deaths of rioters in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, are regrettable -- but the country's march toward democracy moves on.
Last month, in the western Kazakhstani town of Zhanaozen, a group of people violently interrupted a national celebration. As hundreds of other citizens in the town commemorated Kazakhstan's 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, together with millions around the country, these agitators burned government buildings, dozens of private shops, and cars.
Last month, in the western Kazakhstani town of Zhanaozen, a group of people violently interrupted a national celebration. As hundreds of other citizens in the town commemorated Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, together with millions around the country, these agitators burned government buildings, dozens of private shops, and cars.
The disturbance — which I am sad to say resulted in at least 16 deaths and many injuries — was unprecedented for Kazakhstan and is an example of the growing pains that our young nation is going through. For months before that, oil workers in Zhanaozen had been pressing for higher wages and better conditions, and the national oil company had been trying to address their concerns. But the rioters, possibly instigated by provocateurs, chose destruction rather than negotiation. The result, including an effort by the police to restore order, was tragic, but it can also be instructive.
Kazakhstan is a growing democracy. We are building a society that respects the rule of law, and the government’s response to this incident has exemplified the policies of openness and transparency that we have long pursued.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev had no choice but to protect our fellow citizens by imposing a state of emergency in the town. The president has instructed a special commission and representatives of the national oil company to initiate extra efforts to resolve the region’s ongoing labor disputes. The government has been true to its commitment to a full and fair investigation, and it has invited the United Nations and various international experts to visit Zhanaozen and participate in the process.
It was a painful event for my country, but we are not hiding behind an iron curtain. We are open for the world community to understand and help us overcome this incident. Reporters, both local and foreign, are welcome to visit the town and cover the events.
As an aspiring democracy, Kazakhstan is still learning how to balance the wishes of its citizens with its economic realities. We have come a very long way in 20 short years. The lesson of Zhanaozen, though, is that patience is needed in countries as new as ours. There is a difference between labor disagreements and criminality. Workers can ask for more, but they cannot — by their own hand or through others — imperil the public’s well-being if they do not get what they want right away. That is banditry, not democracy.
None of this talk of balance would have even seemed possible a few years ago. In 1991, when Kazakhstan emerged from the wreckage of a disintegrating Soviet Union, experts doubted that the infant republic, with a land mass the size of Western Europe and a wildly diverse population, could even survive. It was beset by hyperinflation, food shortages, and widespread poverty.
Kazakhstan today has a dynamic, robust market economy that is the primary generator of growth in Central Asia. Its commitment to social, political, and economic reform has made it a key ally and trading partner to the United States, Russia, China, and India in a strategically vital part of the world.
We still have a distance to go, as the incident in Zhanaozen makes clear.
From the beginning, Kazakhstan decided to harness its vast natural resources — especially oil — to improve the living standards of everyone. In Kazakhstan, revenue from oil extraction has benefited virtually all of our 16.5 million citizens. Education and social welfare have always been top priorities, and since 1994, average income per capita has increased twelvefold.
The workers of Zhanaozen have benefited from these conditions, too, and will feel the benefits in the future even more.
Kazakhstan’s economy is the largest in Central Asia, and its growth rate, at 7 percent in 2010, is among the highest in the world. Thanks to a commitment to the rule of law and political stability, Kazakhstan has been a magnet for foreign investors, attracting more than $130 billion in foreign direct investment since 1993, which is 80 percent of all foreign investment in Central Asia.
International rating agencies have steadily upgraded Kazakhstan, including the World Bank, which ranks us among the top 50 countries to do business in. Our economy, by careful design, is diversifying away from its early reliance on oil into agriculture, manufacturing, and telecommunications.
We have also made steady strides toward democracy by holding elections, opening the way for a free media, and developing a structure for multiple political parties that serve actively in our national and local legislatures. This month, Kazakhstan held a parliamentary election that will bring two more parties into Parliament, increasing the diversity of debate and, as a result, strengthening our political system. The citizens of Zhanaozen were able to vote as well, an outcome that is testimony to the government’s progress in restoring a peaceful and secure environment in the city.
Kazakhstan has the will and the wherewithal to make places like Zhanaozen into model cities. What we need is a world community that understands that change does not happen overnight.
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