Small Wars Journal

Violence and Videos in Kazakhstan: The Information Struggle over Zhanaozen

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From May through December 2011 there were several major incidents of violence in Kazakhstan.  Most of the incidents were attacks on police and security services and some involved people with ties to radical religious groups.  However, the incident in Zhanaozen on December 16 was different.  The violence in Zhanaozen resulted from tension between oil workers, who had been on strike for several months, and their employers, local and national oil companies.  A number of eyewitness videos (made by civilians and policemen) of Zhanaozen became available online in the weeks after the incident and provide a look into what happened that day. 

Only 10 years ago information from Kazakhstan about an incident like Zhanaozen would be inconclusive or simply not available.  One of the first videos posted on You Tube showed government security forces firing on a crowd of people in Zhanaozen’s central square.  It became the main source of criticism of how the government of Kazakhstan (at the national and local level) and security services reacted to the situation.  While there is no question the government of Kazakhstan used force to quell the unrest, the video only shows a portion of what happened.  Despite the posting of additional videos, which give more insight into the events, the first video shaped the narrative of the Zhanaozen incident. 

Other citizen-posted videos also show a heavy-handed government response to the unrest in Zhanaozen, despite the government’s efforts to control access to information.  Conversely, videos taken by police show a situation that spiraled out of control into assaults on police, looting, and arson.  The release of police videos appears to be inadvertent and failed to challenge the narrative of the first video, despite the destruction and violence of some members of the crowd.  Ultimately, this will not be the last time there is an information struggle via social media in Kazakhstan when incidents occur.  A look at the videos and their significance offers an outlook at how this might play out again in the future. 

Background

In May 2011 oil workers in the Mangystau Province of western Kazakhstan went on strike over wages and problems with their union leaders.  Workers from other oil companies, including in Zhanaozen, were ultimately involved in the strike.  These companies are partially or majority owned by the national oil and gas company, KazMunayGaz.  The strike lasted several months, with only a few incidents of violence.  During a concert for Kazakhstan’s Independence Day on December 16, a large crowd clashed with police in the central square of Zhanaozen.  Some of the crowd looted and burned nearby buildings, including the mayor’s office and the headquarters of OzenMunayGaz.  Police eventually used force to restore order.  According to official reports, more than a dozen people were killed and dozens injured, although there are claims that the number of killed and injured are much higher.  The government claimed police fired warning shots and then only shot at the legs of people in the crowd.  On December 17 Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared a state of emergency for Zhanaozen, which included a curfew, restrictions on movement in and around the city, and a ban on any kind of gathering.

The government of Kazakhstan blamed fugitives abroad for trying to destabilize the country.  One newspaper reported that the crowd in Zhanaozen included oil workers and sympathizers of the strike and the possibility of outside instigators.  The government stated that police were forced to use weapons in Zhanaozen to stop the spread of destruction, but noted that police at the square guarding the barrier at the stage were not armed.  This press release also listed all of the buildings destroyed by fire.  The government also reported that a crowd in the village of Shetpe, in the Mangystau region, blocked a passenger train and reportedly burned a locomotive on December 18.  A posted video of the incident at the Shetpe train station shows police speaking to the crowd. 

On December 20 the government stated that the striking oil workers were not involved, and that outside instigators promoted the violence.  It also said that the workers would be given their jobs back, since a number of them lost their jobs during the strike.  Political analysts in Kazakhstan believed that it was possible that an outside party instigated the events.  One analyst suggested that the order to open fire came from a local police commander acting without orders from senior government officials.  An op-ed, critical of the government’s handling of the situation, noted that for several months the striking oil workers did nothing illegal; they simply protested in the square.  Another op-ed blamed local authorities for not anticipating and dealing with the rising tension.

Zhanaozen square and vicinity (Google Earth, March 16, 2012)

The Videos

The first and most well known video was filmed from the window of an apartment building overlooking the square and posted on December 20.  The video titled “Жана озен 3” (“Zhanaozen the Shooting of Protesters, or Zhana Ozen 3,” note: if the video is no longer available on You Tube, it is available here) shows a number of people in the square and a few people throwing rocks at the 0:10-0:14 mark.  Shots can be heard around the 0:14 mark and then throughout the video.  At the 0:48 mark a few people have been shot in the legs; one was possibly killed or went into shock from his injury.  At the 1:15-1:18 mark a plainclothes policeman in the center of the frame is aiming a pistol.  From 1:18-1:26 a man in the center of the frame is walking with a camera in his right hand.  He is either a government official or a plainclothes policeman.  It is very unlikely a civilian would have been allowed to film that close to the police column.  Footage from this camera appears in another video. 

Other videos, titled “Беспорядки в Жанаозене” (“Disorder in Zhanaozen,” also available here) and “Жанаозен. Как все начиналось” (“Zhanaozen. How It All Started,” also available here) show the clash with police in the square earlier in the day.  Footage taken of the concert on the square shows a group of men arguing with and pushing police as the latter try to maintain control.  Both videos appear to have been filmed by a policeman.  The policeman, grabbed from behind by a man in the crowd at the 2:18 mark (from “Disorder in Zhanaozen”), can be seen in the other video (“Zhanaozen. How It All Started”) at 0:05-0:17.  The man told the policeman “Stop Filming.”  The camera operator for the second video backed away from the crowd as it overwhelmed and pushed past police to the stage.  This suggests it was also made by a policeman. 

A video titled “Без комментариев. Беспорядки Жанаозен 16.12.2011 / kplustv” (“No commentary. Zhanaozen Disorder 16.12.2011 / from kplustv – an independent TV station based in Moscow,” also available here) shows what happened as the crowd forced police to withdraw.  From 2:37-2:47 police try to stay in the square, but are chased off by men carrying sticks.  A woman is shouting, “The square is ours” at 3:15.  From 4:00-4:38 the police completely withdraw from the square (at 4:16 a few people threw rocks at police).  The rest of the video shows some of the subsequent destruction in the square, as well as a couple of failed attempts by police and the fire department to restore order. 

A video titled “Жанаозен документальное видео беспорядков 16.12.2011” (“Zhanaozen documentary video of disorder 16.12.2011,” video was removed from You Tube, but is available here) shows the mayor’s office on fire, north of the square.  How long the disorder lasted is unknown, but the government responded by sending in an armed unit to retake the square and restore order. 

Most of the unit was armed with riot shields and batons, while a few carried Kalashnikov rifles (visible in the following video at about the 0:35 mark) and several plain-clothes policemen carried pistols.  “Police” is written on the riot shields, but it is likely that they were a unit from the Interior Ministry or the provincial government.  A video titled “Жанаозен. Видео расстрела безоружных людей” (“Zhanaozen. Video of the shooting of unarmed people,” also available here) shows the footage from the camera of the man seen in the video Zhana Ozen 3.  Starting from 0:04 and throughout the video, gunfire is heard, although it is not until around the 2:14 mark that police fired on the main crowd in a concerted effort.  Some police possibly shot people before this along the sides of the street.  However, footage from 0:39-2:13 shows that several people remained on the street on both sides of the police column as it moved to the square.  While the main crowd moved away from the column during this time, people do not appear to run away until the 2:14 mark.  From 3:40-3:54 the crowd, emboldened, can be heard shouting while police scramble to reform a defensive line.  A number of shots are heard as the crowd shouts.  A short video of two men wounded in the square, one in the leg and the other in the chest, was also posted on YouTube, titled “Массовый кровавый расстрел нефтяников в Жанаозене” (“The Massive bloody shooting of oil workers in Zhanaozen,” also available here). 

A video titled “Вид на стрельбу в Жанаозене с крыши” (“View of the shooting in Zhanaozen from the roof,” also available here) shows police retaking the square from a different angle.  Shot from the roof of an apartment building, it shows the column marching in from northeast of the square.  At the 0:51 mark there is a muzzle flash from the weapon of the policeman at the front-left side of the column.  Plainclothes police on the left side of the column appear to be waving off bystanders from 1:06 -1:11.  However, they take aim at people from 1:14-1:21, but it is difficult to determine if they fired their weapons or aimed them as a threat. 

The Significance of the Videos

While the videos only show a few minutes of what took place in Zhanaozen on December 16, they nevertheless help answer some questions.   The Zhanaozen incident was more than just the video shot from the apartment.  Videos taken by police show how they were unable to control the crowd at the concert on the square.  The videos also show that these police were not armed, other than a few who had batons, and that they were overwhelmed and in a few cases assaulted by the crowd before being forced to withdraw.  Additionally, some of the men in the crowd wore coats with the KazMunayGaz logo on the back.  The government asserted that some in the crowd were part of an outside effort, or “third force,” to destabilize Kazakhstan.  It is more likely that they were oil workers frustrated with the concert taking place in the location of their strike and the situation escalated from there. 

While the videos show some of the destruction in Zhanaozen, a photo essay by bloggers in Kazakhstan shows the result in more detail.  Footage of the police column retaking the square is the most significant of all.  It shows that police did fire warning shots in the air as the government claimed, but the plainclothes police could have fired their weapons only seconds after waving the crowd off.  These videos also show that, despite warning shots, the crowd did not leave the square or nearby streets until several people had been shot.  There is no explanation why police did not use tear gas or other non-lethal means before firing their weapons.  It is possible that the order to use weapons could have come from a local government or police authority, as the political analyst noted, and this would give some credibility to the national government’s actions after the violence.  Several police are now under a criminal investigation and a few government officials, including the president’s son-in-law and head of the Mangystau Province, lost their jobs.  It remains to be seen what effect these actions will have, but one explanation is that they certainly could have been an effort to divert attention away from the national government’s handling of the situation. 

Both “Zhana Ozen 3” and “View of the shooting in Zhanaozen from the roof” were probably made using cell phone cameras.  Cell phones with video capabilities are available in Kazakhstan.  The government searched for the woman who filmed “Zhana Ozen 3” almost immediately after the video was released.  As more information about the violence came out, the government toned down some of its rhetoric, as was evident on December 20, when it separated the instigators from the oil workers and offered the latter jobs.  There was also the visit that allowed the bloggers to photograph the city, even if their access was somewhat limited.  The visit from bloggers also came after the government shut down cell phone and internet use in the city. 

It is unknown why the videos made by police were released, since there is no connection between official press briefings and their posting on You Tube.  If their release was a deliberate attempt to challenge the narrative, it had little to no affect.  The police videos are also not any kind of vindication, but at least show their perspective of events.  This view, particularly of police in the square, shows a crowd that turned increasingly violent and destructive.  This is not to suggest that police applied appropriate force in the end, but provides insight into how they react to this kind of unrest. 

Finally, the significance of these videos is that the people of Zhanaozen were able to get information on the incident out into social media despite the government’s control over access.  People using social media to publicize incidents that might not otherwise be noticed is not a new trend, as can be seen from worldwide events in 2011.  However, this is the most noteworthy example from Kazakhstan, much less Central Asia, of this happening.  Due to the effect that the first video (Zhana Ozen 3) had, it will not be the last time that people in Kazakhstan document an incident on video and make it available for a wide audience. 

This could also mean that the government of Kazakhstan operates more carefully during future incidents and takes stronger control over access to social media.  Another possibility is that the government (including police or the security services) develops a better ability to use this tool to its advantage.  Security forces have already proven that they document incidents, as seen from the videos, so this is a strong possibility to happen again.  This would ultimately mean that future incidents in Kazakhstan are covered from multiple perspectives, but it remains to be seen which side will be able to shape the narrative and win the information struggle.

About the Author(s)

 

Matthew Stein is a research analyst for BAE Systems at the Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.  He was a National Security Education Program (NSEP) Boren Fellow in Kazakhstan from 2008-09.

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